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Friday 29 June, 2007  

Good morning

This will mark the final mention of our 2007 Annual Fundraising Drive.  We have had 533 of our 22,700 readers kindly choose to support The Travel Insider so far, which is within range of - but not yet at - our 680 person target.

If you have already responded, then thank you again, and special mention this week must be made of an anonymous New England reader for his extraordinary generosity.

If you are one of the 97% of readers who haven't yet responded, please take a minute to reflect on the wealth of information, advice, ideas, reviews, commentary, and even jokes and light hearted asides that you've received this last year (and longer) and continue to receive each week.  Does this have a value to you?  If so, please consider responding with any level contribution.

Like PBS, I rely on reader support to allow the site and its content to remain unbiased and at times fearlessly contentious.  I rely on you.  Perhaps equate your weekly Travel Insider newsletter and feature article to a cup of coffee - a fancy Starbucks something, or  just a simple cup of 7-11 coffee; or maybe compare it to buying a copy of a newspaper or a magazine.  And then consider clicking over to our support page and sending in a fair amount - it need not be large, and should not be any more than you can conveniently manage.

Your support will keep The Travel Insider alive, vibrant, and strong.  It will help us to continue to acquire the latest gadgets to review, and will cover the ongoing operational costs and, of course, my 'salary' - for this is very much a fuller than full time job for me; I have no other income sources than that received from this site.

Please help us reach this year's target of 680 readers who choose to support us for the next twelve months.  Thank you.

And talking about your support enabling us to review the latest and greatest gadgets, we've a triple treat in store for you this week.  Our feature article comprises two reviews and an explanatory third page about the latest trend in GPS units - adding 'location based services' to the GPS.

This Week's Feature Column(s) :  Here are reviews of two of GPS industry leader Garmin's most recent top of the line GPS units - the Nuvi 660 and Nuvi 680.  Both feature the ability to add information about local traffic conditions, and the Nuvi 680 also has other features too.  These are discussed in the two reviews and in a separate page on GPS Location Based Services.

The quick executive summary, for those who don't want to read all the information on these three pages (and on the other six pages in our growing GPS series) is that new Location Based Services (LBS) promise a great deal, but are perhaps not yet fully reliable and fully developed.  The Nuvi 680's LBS is however vastly better than the Nuvi 660, and with some really wonderful extras such as advising you about the price of gas at nearby gas stations, can even help you save some money.  Expect to see integrated LBS become more prevalent in GPS units - and in cell phones, too.

I'll be writing more on LBS in the future; it is clearly an important trend that can make us much more efficient travelers.

I should also tell you that part of the reason for three feature articles all released today is to compensate for the next three weeks when there will be no newsletters or feature articles.  I'm taking 36 Travel Insider readers with me on our Russian River Cruise, and will be essentially offline for much of that time, limited only to Blackberry rather than full internet connectivity.

Not so for this year's Christmas Markets Cruise, however, where we'll have internet connectivity on board the ship all the way, and if you'd like to join us for this cruise, please visit the two pages of information about this perennial reader favorite cruise.

A journalist for a 'national newspaper' is seeking help from any reader who formerly owned a travel agency and sold it due to changes in the travel industry making it difficult to continue profitably trading.  If this is you and you'd like to potentially be interviewed for an article appearing in this paper's business section, please let me know and I'll pass your contact details on to the writer.

Dinosaur watchingThere's no finer dinosaur watcher than Joe Brancatelli, and I'd like to mention his subscription based site for your consideration.

Joe publishes weekly material every week designed for the frequent and business traveler, and he occasionally supplements it with urgent breaking news.  The last few weeks have seen Joe beating even his own very high standards, with vital news for travelers about flight cancellations and other problems.  It is difficult for all of us to sometimes put a value on industry commentary, but Joe's news-breaking stories - for example, this last week, about Northwest cancelling flights, a scoop that he broke a couple of days before major newspapers (who probably lifted the story from his newsletter) on flight disruptions, and his advice about what to do at certain times of the next several months could potentially save you massively if you were booked on the airline at the time of its problem.

If you're a frequent traveler, and especially if you can expense it, you might want to consider subscribing to his newsletter.

And talking about expensing things, here's an interesting article suggesting that one in five people cheat on their expense reports.  One wonders how the survey managed to get people to honestly confess to expense report cheating, and one wonders if perhaps the real number isn't higher than that.  I was tempted to ask you to tell the truth about your own expense account management, but you're hardly making anonymous responses by sending in an email to me.

So, instead of asking about your own personal practices, how about answering this question instead :  What do you think the probable percentage of people is who cheat on their expenses - and I'm not thinking about 'good/fair' cheating (ie when you've lost a receipt for something and so pad something else to balance out) but rather about 'bad' cheating (ie when a person ends up submitting a claim for more than they spent and gets some personal enrichment out of the cheating).

Please choose the answer below that reflects your perception of how typical frequent business travelers ranging up to middle management behave.  Your answers will be confidential and of course don't reflect your own activities.  Clicking on the link below will create an empty email with your answer in the subject line :

I think very very few people truly cheat on their expense reports

I think 1% - 10% of people sometimes cheat on their expense reports

I think 11% - 20% of people sometimes cheat on their expense reports

I think 21% - 30% of people sometimes cheat on their expense reports

I think 31% - 40% of people sometimes cheat on their expense reports

I think 41% - 50% of people sometimes cheat on their expense reports

I think 51% - 60% of people sometimes cheat on their expense reports

I think 61% - 70% of people sometimes cheat on their expense reports

I think 71% - 80% of people sometimes cheat on their expense reports

I think 81% - 90% of people sometimes cheat on their expense reports

I think nearly everyone sometimes cheat on their expense reports

I'll present the results to you with the next newsletter, when I get back from Russia.

Good news for the airlines.  Notwithstanding their current lament about weak domestic demand, airline traffic increased again in March for the sixth straight month in a row.

If six consecutive months of increased demand is considered 'weak', what does it take to qualify as strong demand?

Strong, not weak demand was echoed in a SEC filing by American Airlines.  Although this article headlines on the negatives in the filing, look at the item buried at the bottom - AA is expecting revenue to increase by between 2.2% and 4% in its second quarter.

Most companies would accept this sort of increase gratefully.

In an unusually spirited bit of enforcement action, the Department of Transportation fined Northwest $40,000 because the airline's gate and ticket agents at BWI and DCA failed to provide written explanations of their denied boarding policies when requested to do so by DoT Enforcement staff.  DoT rules require airline gate and ticket agents to provide a written policy on this topic, both to passengers who are denied boarding, and to any other passenger who requests the information.

The DoT said it believed the Northwest employee failures during the compliance inspection were 'indicative of a general pattern of noncompliance by Northwest that must be remedied,' and said it hopes its fine 'will provide a strong incentive to all air carriers to comply with the department's denied boarding policy disclosure requirements.'

Talking about Northwest, they said they expect to earn $102 million in non-ticket revenue this year.  This is income from items such as one day airport club passes, seat upgrades, food sales, etc.

Is that a lot or not much?  By comparison, in 2004 the airline earned a mere $13 million from such items.

Reader Harvey writes of a bizarre and frustrating experience he had while checking in for a US Airways flight at Philadelphia.

Me: May I have a window seat?
USAIR: Uhh, we'd like to oblige, but your disability prohibits it.
Me: Hmm. I'm unaware of any disability.
USAIR: Says here on your profile that you're blind.
Me: This is an error; please correct it.

[ Approx. ten minutes of friendly banter, keystrokes, and small talk]

USAIR: OK. We've altered your passenger profile. You're not blind.
Me: Fine; how about that exit-row seat?
USAIR: Sorry. We changed your profile, but your reservation data remains. For the purposes of this flight, you are blind.
Me: How about the return?.
USAIR: You'll be blind for the duration of this itinerary. Sorry.

And talking about US Airways, could it be that the more things change, the more they stay the same?  Do you remember the protracted merger talks between United and US Airways back in the 1990s?  Well, guess what.  At least some industry sources are speculating these discussions may be on again - and this time, of course, with US Airways being itself the recent merger of the earlier US plus also America West, the merger would be larger than it was back then.

Is there any reason to suspect an actual merger to come this time when it failed last time?  Although the Department of Justice refused approval for the earlier merger, some optimists suggest that this time around, approval might be granted.  Color me unpersuaded on that topic, as well as unpersuaded as to what benefits a merger would actually offer.  Can two airlines that are individually struggling hope to succeed if merged?  There's no strong reason to think so.

Southwest continues to worry about its future in publicIs Southwest an airline that has lost its sense of direction and its 'unique selling point' in the market, or is it a far sighted airline that isn't content to rest on its laurels and instead seeks to re-invent itself?

While it's hard to view changes such as a likely move to pre-assigned seating in the fourth quarter this year as a negative step back, it does seem all the likely changes to their business model move them away from their distinctive past and move them closer to the dinosaurs.  Is this the direction they really wish to be moving?

The European Union has announced it will ban all 51 Indonesian Airlines from flying to EU countries, due to concerns over their safety standards.  This impressive sounding action is - like so much EU activity - not quite as impressive in reality, due to no Indonesian carriers actually flying to any EU countries.  The EU also bans 74 African airlines and about 20 other airlines from flying to Europe.

In other EU 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help you' news, reports are suggesting the EU's European Aviation Safety Agency might introduce regulations to specify minimum seat pitch values.

While some people earnestly believe there should be laws against the uncomfortable and small seats that many airlines currently provide, those same people almost certainly do not currently selectively fly only on carriers with more generous seat pitch, nor do they pay premiums for better seating.  There's a reason why airlines give us terrible seating - because most fliers will cheerfully accept such indignities, just so long as it keeps their air fare down.  And for sure, if new legislation limits the number of seats that can be crammed into an airplane, fares will go up so airlines can continue to earn close to the same revenue per flight.

The Paris Air Show has now finished, and as expected, Airbus was true to form and announced order after order during the week of the show.  Prior to the show, Airbus had taken 201 new firm orders for planes this year, while Boeing had 417 new orders on its books.

During the show, Boeing added almost 100 new orders, bringing its total up to 510 orders so far this year.  But Airbus added an extraordinary 400 new orders, rushing past Boeing and ending the show with at least 600 orders, and booking still more last week.  A veritable marketing (or timing) tour de force, with Airbus finally getting some good support for its new A350 (it now has 154 'firm orders' and 78 'commitments' for the A350) and even a token sprinkling of extra orders for its A380 (13 more ordered by Qatar, Emirates and Air France for a new total of 173 on order), although the rate of new orders for the A380 is terribly low and must be worrying to Airbus.

These total order quantities contrast poorly with Boeing's runaway best seller, the new 787.  According to this source, Boeing currently has a whopping 634 firm and 45 pending orders for the 787.

Disclaimer - always keep in mind that new plane orders can be as much illusionary as real, with much ambiguity surrounding when an order becomes a firm order that should be counted.  For example, the order totals above were from a USA Today article, but another article gives totals of 519 rather than 600 orders for Airbus year to date.  About all we can conclude is that Airbus was formerly clearly lagging behind Boeing in new plan orders this year, and has now caught up with and possibly overtaken Boeing.

Here in the Seattle area, our traffic is generally ranked as among the worst in the nation, in terms of metro areas, and the 'good' news this week was a proud announcement by the state's officials that they plan to improve one of the worst bottlenecks - by 2018.  11 years to add some more lanes to a freeway?  For sure, by the time the improved freeway, designed to 2007 requirements, is finally opened it too will be seriously congested.  This is leadership?  Taking 11 years to solve a problem that is already many years in the making?

Here's a fascinating article that gives information about traffic conditions and road spending, state by state.  Note the extraordinary differences between good and bad states, efficient and inefficient states.

Studies consistently confirm that women appreciate the concept of all-women floors in hotels, and will pay a premium to stay on such a floor.  Hotels that have introduced such a service have been well patronized.  But a new Marriott hotel in Grand Rapids, MI, is attracting controversy to its plans to offer such a floor, with people denouncing it as discrimination, and threatening equal rights based lawsuits.

And who are these people, protesting so vociferously?  Some sort of fringe male-rights group?  Nope.  None other than noted feminist attorney, Gloria Allred.  Details - should you care to read them - here.

And talking about women, here's an interesting survey about the role cell phones play in women's lives today.  I'm now beset by fears of inadequacy - will women consider my Blackberry 8700 'big and bulky' and be less likely to date me?

Do you send text messages on your phone?  If you do, you probably realize that there's a small cost for each text message you send, and you've probably ignored it as trivial in nature.

But, expressed in terms of dollars per megabyte of data you're sending, this article reveals that text messages from cell phone to cell phone are more expensive than what it costs NASA to download data from the Hubble Space Telescope.  In Britain, text messaging costs equate to about $1500 per MB, whereas Hubble pictures cost NASA only $123 per MB.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  After receiving a bomb threat, a United Airlines flight crew was told it was safe to operate the flight because the plane had been cleared by bomb-sniffing dogs.  In reality, the 'bomb sniffing dogs' was a regular ground cleaning crew.

This is just one of the horror stories emerging at Chicago O'Hare, where there are also 3,807 employee access badges missing.

More details of 'security' at one of the nation's largest airports here.

I wrote last week about the difficult story of an apparently very credible passenger who complained of being maltreated by the TSA, and the TSA's surprising but praiseworthy decision to release security video that appeared to rebut what would otherwise have seemed to be all too believable stories by the woman in question.

So it is perhaps with an element of 'once bitten, twice shy' I offer up a more problematic story of an airplane passenger and bicyclist who ran afoul of Minneapolis' finest.  On the one hand, even the passenger's own inevitably self-serving version of what happened indicates that he failed the 'attitude test' - never argue with a policeman, whether you're in the right or wrong; but on the other hand, just because a citizen has a bit of an attitude problem, that shouldn't allow for the police to tackle him to the ground, taser him, stomp his glasses, generally act like two-bit hoodlums, then go slow on his booking and jail processing so as to cause the passenger to spend a weekend in jail.

A stupid citizen confronting stupid policemen - a bad combination indeed.

Talking about confrontations, when told of flight delays and cancellations, angry passengers shouted, waved their fists, and attempted to storm the checkin counters.  Nope, this wasn't the scene at a Northwest terminal earlier this week, but was instead in Brazil.  Details here.

An unruly passenger on a Delta commuter flight, upset over not being served the drink they had ordered quickly enough, caused the pilot to have to make an emergency landing.  So what else is new, you might ask?

Well, the story becomes a bit more notable when it is appreciated that the drink in question was apple juice, and the passenger in question was a four year old.  Details here.

So a four year old, crying for an apple juice, is enough now to force a pilot to make an emergency landing of his plane, causing the passengers to then endure a forced overnight stop rather than get to their destination?  Let's give that pilot the 'wimp of the week' award.

Sometimes being a journalist offers a very small bit of job satisfaction when it comes to writing headlines for one's story.  Here's a headline that many of us wish we could have thought up and written (and got past our editors).

And that headline makes me somehow think of this joke, sent in by Tom, which he says may have been overhead at a TSA airport security screening station :

"I have good news and bad news for you."

"What's the good news?"

"You're going to be allowed to get on your flight."

"Great. What's the bad news?"

"You have an enlarged prostate."

Which in turn brings me to one of the topics of unending interest to Travel Insider readers.  Have you ever wondered how special event organizers manage the 'facilities'?  Here's an illustrated story that tells you more than you ever wanted to know about such things at the recently held Glastonbury Festival in Britain.

You're probably familiar with migrating birds that cover long distances.  But here's a fascinating story of some ducks that have been on a multi-year and many thousands of miles migration.

And so, at now past 4am, another weekly newsletter and feature article are completed.  Hopefully you've found something to interest you, something perhaps useful, and maybe something amusing.  If so, please consider supporting our 2007 Annual Fundraising Drive - your help is sincerely needed.

And, please remember, there'll be no newsletter until after my return from Russia on 20 July.

Until then, please enjoy safe travels and have a great 4 July

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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