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Friday 10 August, 2007  

Good morning

An eventful week has seen the start up of new airline Virgin America, the TSA switching some of its rules around, and the curious conundrum of airlines becoming more and more profitable, while providing worse and worse service.

All of which makes my job as chronicler of such things easy and hard - easy because there's so much to pass on to you, hard because how does one choose what to include and what to leave out?

I really enjoy writing product reviews.  It gives me a chance to bluntly say all the things I wish other reviewers would, and to test all the things I wish other reviewers would also test.  But while this is pleasurable, it can also be extremely boring, and for much of the last week, I've been almost literally sitting and doing nothing except twiddling my thumbs, as part of tonight's review.

What I was doing was pushing the 'next page' button on a Sony eBook reader in an attempt to discover how its actual battery life compared with its claimed battery life.  I ended up doing this close on 15,000 times, and the final result showed a surprising and significant discrepancy between claimed and actual battery life.

You would think, with a portable eBook reader, that its battery life was a prime consideration, but I couldn't find any other review out there that had done anything other than unquestioningly repeat Sony's official statement - a claimed battery life of 7500 pages.  My result was starkly different - about 2400 real book equivalent pages, and less than 2000 if you don't want to fully discharge the battery (at which point bad things happen).  To find out more about this gadget that promises much, see :

This Week's Feature Column :  Sony's eBook Reader :  Should you save trees and now only buy eBooks to read with a Sony eBook reader?  I read my way through a test unit and sadly come up with a thumbs down.

I wrote last week about a survey I described as being self-serving.  The survey claimed that 80% of travelers were willing to pay $100/year to access a fast track lane through security, and only 6% had no interest in such a program.

I found these results hard to believe, and so asked you to send in your own opinions.  And, sure enough, your opinions were very different to those claimed in the survey, with 5.9% of readers sending in their thoughts.  Many thanks to all who answered the survey and helped to make this a meaningful analysis.

The first interesting data point is unrelated to the survey.  Readers described themselves as frequent fliers (ie travelling on five or more roundtrips each year) three times as often as readers who travel four or fewer roundtrips a year.  Truly, Travel Insider readers travel a lot.

The table below shows the percentage of readers in each category (frequent or occasional flier) who answered the survey as noted.

You'll immediately see that unlike the other survey, only 20% of frequent fliers are willing to pay $100 (or $150) a year to go through a fast track security line, and an infinitesimal 2.2% of occasional fliers are similarly willing to pay this sum.  Quite a contradiction to the other survey.

And whereas the other survey said only 6% of fliers had no interest in such programs, a full 42% of frequent fliers and 57% of occasional fliers said they were not interested in such programs.

The other interesting point was a type of 'solution' (assuming there actually is a solvable problem) that the vested interests haven't spoken about at all - offering one time passes through the fast lane.  24% of frequent fliers and 36% of occasional fliers chose this as their preferred approach.

The bottom line?  The main people advocating the Registered Traveler programs are the people who stand to make money from providing these programs to the traveling public, and the people and politicians they've co-opted into supporting them.  This is one situation where the TSA has clearly guessed completely correctly.  Whether for security reasons or public service reasons, the most popular solution is for the TSA to simply improve its service level, across the board, for all travelers.

Suggestion to the TSA :  Implement a $5 fast track lane at your screening stations, and use the profit from these lanes to fund more screeners across the board.  This would be very easily done - the current priority lanes for airline premier frequent fliers and first class passengers could simply now accept anyone else too, as long as they pay $5 for the privilege.

I'm delaying the Pacific Northwest Explorer tour due to insufficient interest.  Perhaps it was too short notice for people to plan a week away in little more than a month?  Would you be interested in this tour next spring instead?  Details of the tour are here, and if you'd be interested in Spring 2008, please let me know and I'll look at rescheduling it for then.

Dinosaur watching :  Is it only me who wonders, as the industry quietly melts down over this summer, at the curious contradiction we face?  The airlines are now mainly profitable, and quite substantially so, but they're not returning any measurable amount of that profit back to customer service.

Although they no longer have the excuse 'we can't afford to do this' they continue to cut back services wherever they possibly can, raise fees, and all the while mercilessly cram more and more people into every flight.

Confirming the impression we all have of service deterioration, latest DoT statistics show that flight delays are at the worst they've ever been since they started tracking this back in 1995.  In June, nearly a third of all flights were late.

In addition, lost, stolen, damaged or delayed baggage incidents rose 25% year on year (expressed as a rate per 1000 passengers, so this isn't explained by increased passenger numbers), flight cancellations are at their highest level since 2000 (2.52%), and written complaints about the airlines have increased 43% over last year's numbers.

The airlines' response?  Airline lobby group, the Air Transport Association, said 'We're not surprised by the numbers.'  They blame the delays on inadequate air traffic control services, which are unable to cope with the increased number of daily flights.

To be fair, an overloaded ATC system is part of the problem.  But the airlines need to generously accept their own share of the blame.  It is their decision to operate more flights with smaller planes, rather than fewer flights with larger planes that has accelerated the overload of the ATC, and their refusal to now switch to fewer flights with larger planes that perpetuates part of this problem.

And their own overstressed infrastructures, lack of extra staff, and lack of extra planes, means that as soon as something goes wrong, their whole operational pack of cards collapses on itself.  The airlines have allowed themselves no slack or allowance for things going wrong in a system that, for whatever and whichever reasons, frequently does have many things going wrong.

The airlines' inability to respond to what are random but statistically foreseeable operational challenges is the major cause of the mess we're now all suffering through.

But, as terrible as travel is at present, we're all doing more of it than ever before.  American, Continental, Delta, US Airways, AirTran and Alaska Airlines announced their highest load factors of any month, ever, in July, Southwest announced its highest ever load factor for July, and Northwest was slightly up on its July 2006 figure too.

Most carriers are now experiencing load factors in the 85% - 90% range.

Part of the service problems we're all encountering are, of course, delays on the ground while stuck on board a plane.  In an interesting move, New York state has passed legislation obliging airlines to provide passengers with food, water, fresh air, power and working restrooms on any flight that has left the gate and been on the tarmac for more than three hours.

The new law also requires air carriers to post complaint contact information at all service desks and establishes the role of a New York-based consumer advocate who can coordinate communication between airline industry officials, federal agencies and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the event of serious delays.

Failure to comply would result in fines of up to $1000 per passenger.

The legislation may perhaps be well intentioned, but it is of dubious validity and is possibly nothing other than public grandstanding by state officials who should know better.  Federal law protects airlines against state level legislation or sanction, and it seems probable that the federal protection would apply in this case.

Ooops.  Last week in my piece about Northwest and its pilot problems, I referred to pilots getting a bonus if working more than 80 hours a week.

In reality, they get this bonus if working more than 80 hours a month.  Would that we were all so lucky.

Talking about Northwest, it isn't only their pilots who want more money.  So too do the attorneys who handled the airline's bankruptcy proceedings.  NW's attorneys are now asking the airline for a $3.5 million bonus, which is about 10% extra on top of their regular billings.

In a court filing this week, their attorneys referred to the bonus as a 'fee enhancement' and said they deserve the bonus because unsecured creditors are getting back 74% of their claims, more than was the case in other recent airline bankruptcies.

Unlike the pilots, who clearly did give back a lot of salary to Northwest, it isn't as though the attorneys had been visibly discounting their fees to date.  Indeed, one single attorney in the firm charged almost 4100 billable hours, at hourly rates of between $800 - $850, creating just over $3.3 million in fees all by himself.

Southwest continues to cast around, in apparently increasingly desperate fashion, trying to find new innovations to maintain what remains of its competitive edge.  The latest experiment is another tweak on its distinctive boarding system.

Through the end of this month, Southwest is testing a new boarding system in San Antonio - when a traveler checks in, the usual A, B or C boarding pass is issued – but with a number in addition to the letter. Then when Group A is called, passengers line up in order (not sure how they are making this happen) and board in number order; then the same for Groups B and C.

It is hoped that this will let passengers feel they do not need to go stand in line for 30 minutes or more in front of the A, B, or C sign in order to be first in that group, as the number will control their boarding order within their group.

What happens if a low numbered A group person arrives late and tries to push his way into line while other people are already boarding?  And if a person is even one or two numbers out of sequence, are they sent to the back of the line, or made to stand, blocking other people, until their number comes up?

The kindest thing that can be said of this concept is that you have to admire Southwest for thinking outside the box.

Last week I wrote about British Airways being fined $550 million by both UK and US regulators after being found guilty of price-fixing fuel surcharges, in collusion with Virgin Atlantic and other airlines.  I'd wondered if this would lead any passengers to seek recovery of amounts deemed to be illegally charged.

Well, the answer to my question is apparently no, at least according to both BA and Virgin Atlantic (VS).  Although their settlements with the US Department of Justice required them to make restitution to 'injured parties' affected by their illegal fuel surcharge price fixing, both airlines issued statements saying they don't intend to reimburse passengers.

More details - including the sad details of how even an apparent airline loss on this point is likely to, in reality, be an airline gain here.  In reality, the only winners will be the airlines themselves; oh yes, and the attorneys too.

I quoted BA CEO Willie Walsh last week saying 'I want to reassure our passengers that they were not overcharged.  Fuel surcharges are a legitimate way of recovering costs'  and went on to say that not everyone would agree with him.

Strong disagreement came from reader 'Hillrider' who points out that BA's fuel surcharges apply fully to infant tickets as well as to adult tickets.  Clearly a 15 lb infant requires much less fuel than a 200 lb adult.  But BA is now charging the same adult $142 fuel surcharge, even on a base infant fare of $26 for roundtrip travel JFK-LHR-JFK.

Think about that for a moment.  Before fuel surcharges, BA was happy to accept $26 as sufficient payment for an infant to travel to Britain and back, but now it says the extra cost of fuel, over and above that formerly included in the $26 fare, is $142 - more than five times the original total fare!

I challenge Mr Walsh to justify that as not being an overcharge, and being a legitimate way of recovering costs.

With such surcharges, is it any wonder that BA posted a $546.5 million profit for its first quarter this year, up a massive 75% from the same quarter last year.

Interestingly, during the quarter, BA's expenditure on fuel dropped 5.2%.  Do you think it might be able to afford a small discount on the fuel surcharge for infants now?

Meanwhile, BA's struggles with lost luggage continue, and have become so grave it has been having to fly extra 747 freighters full of luggage only on flights from Heathrow to the US in an attempt to get so many bags back to their owners.  Details here.

But perhaps better that BA lose your luggage than lose your 83 year old father....  Details here.

Wednesday saw the first flights of new airline Virgin America (airline code VX).  Perhaps as a bad omen, its inaugural flight from JFK to SFO was late, as was the return flight back again.  But it was just as well the flight departed JFK late (due to weather related delays), because otherwise airline founder Sir Richard Branson and CEO Fred Reid might have missed it; both being apparently held up in traffic on the way to the airport.

And while a VX spokesman said that the weather related delays were unusual and the result of a 'once in ten years storm', he should know better than that, having previously worked for JFK based JetBlue, and presumably being aware of the latest DoT airport delay statistics, showing that one in every five JFK flights were 'excessively late' (ie more than 45 minutes late) in July.  More details here, and a rather adulatory piece in the local SFO paper here.

Overall though, the sentiment about VX now commencing flights should be positive.  It is refreshing to see a new airline that seeks to compete on quality and service parameters while also offering good value fares, something profoundly different to the other recent startup, Skybus, which seems to be aggressively promoting a very low service standard as its way to stand out from other airlines.

Amazingly, other airlines and industry commentators have dismissively said that the impact of VX on their operations and fare levels and profitability will be negligible.  This sounds so much like what the dinosaurs said years ago about Southwest and other discount carriers, claiming that most members of the public would prefer to pay 30% and 40% price premiums to fly with their 'full service' airlines rather than fly Southwest.

They were colossally wrong then, and while they are briefly correct, today (due to the very limited operations currently being flown by VX) they will quickly be wrong again as VX adds more flights and more routes to its network.

Perhaps unfortunately, the first airline to feel the impacts of VX is another high quality lower cost recent startup - JetBlue.  They are more realistic than the dinosaurs, and have said they project that VX will impact on about 9% of their revenue.  With hair's breadth thin profit margins, an impact on 9% of their revenue could spell great hardship for JetBlue; let's hope the marketplace is such as to allow room for both these fine airlines.

Talking about fine airlines, if you like to travel in affordable luxury on your way to London, and if your travel originates from somewhere other than New York, and/or if your travel takes you on from London to somewhere else in UK or Europe, ask your travel agent about a special deal with all first class airline Eos that is available exclusively through travel agents.

It has become conventional wisdom to attack Heathrow Airport and its semi-monopolistic operator, BAA, for the poor service and long lines passengers suffer when flying through LHR.  The airlines themselves are enthusiastically blaming BAA for the delays and problems.

But, here's an interesting set of statistics in this article.  Look at the table half way down.  Although the total delay going through Heathrow is 1 hr 28 minutes, two thirds of this delay (1 hr 2 mins) is due to slow checkin; only 26 minutes relates to delays getting through security.

In all cases shown in the table, the delay to check in for the flight was longer than the delay to get through security.

Who is responsible for how long it takes to check in for your flight?  The airline.  And the chances are that you too, like me, have stood in a long line waiting too long to check in for a flight while looking at masses of empty unmanned checkin desks.  If the airlines really want to improve our experience going through LHR, the solution is simple and completely in their own hands.  Add more customer service staff, and stop blaming the airports.

Here's a lesson the airlines could benefit from.  In its continuing effort to lower operating costs, the Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group announced plans to eliminate 25% of its management positions, with other executives taking over those responsibilities.

Dollar Thrifty eliminated 10% of its management staff last year, and earlier this year it outsourced its IT services.

Refreshing to see a company prepared to require its management to work harder, isn't it.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Are we hopelessly and helplessly doomed, and at the mercy of terrorists, powerless to protect against their hijacking our planes and flying them into buildings, with nothing the TSA can do to stop them?  Apparently so, if you are to accept a line of reasoning being put forward by the airlines as a defense against liability in the 9/11 hijackings.

The airlines are attempting to obtain FBI and CIA documents which they contend will show there was no way to protect against the terrorists, because they were sophisticated, ideologically driven and well financed and would have succeeded regardless of any action by the aviation entities.  Details here.

Would the airlines have us believe, then, that none of the measures put in place after 9/11 would have protected us and them prior to 9/11?  If that is the case, why have these ineffective measures been put in place?

Perhaps it might be a worthwhile strategy for the airlines to also seek to blame Al Gore for the security failures evidenced on 9/11.  Here's a series of three articles (part one two three) that does just that, built on the theory that the TWA jet explosion was not an accident.

Although the publisher of these articles is viewed with suspicion by many, the facts quoted in them are what they are, and have a certain resonance.  Few if any people I speak to who are in a position to have an informed opinion on what happened to the TWA flight believe for an instant that it was a fuel tank explosion that caused the loss of the 747 and all the people on board.

There's an alarming new development in our government's paranoia about people traveling to the US perfectly legally (and their myopia about people streaming illegally over our southern border).  It seems possible that passengers might have to provide personal details 48 hours prior to the commencement of their travels to the US - something that seems okay until a person wishes to change their travels at the last minute, or wishes to book a ticket at the last minute, only to discover they are subject to a 48 hour minimum delay.

The part of this that may most directly impact on us in the US is that the EU is threatening that if we (ie the US) start imposing this restriction on their citizens traveling here, they will have to consider imposing a similar restriction on US citizens traveling there.  Amazingly and depressingly, a US DHS spokesman said they were comfortable with this concept - apparently hoping that irrational inconveniences foisted on us will justify their similar inconveniences foisted onto foreign visitors and businesspeople.  Details here.

Can someone explain to me how, in this era of networked computer databases and instant data transfers, it takes more than 48 seconds to run a passenger name list against the various federal security databases?  Why do we need 48 hours?

I'm going to adapt, and without attribution, some comments made by another person in another forum (so as to preserve anonymity).  They bear repeating, and put the recent MN bridge collapse into an interesting concept.

We spend billions speculating terrorists might blow up our bridges during a rush hour, but not a penny to keep the bridges from falling down by themselves.

This will be big news for a couple of weeks; lots of politicians will be pontificating on the need for improved infrastructure.  But in a month we’ll forget the name of the place, its victims and heroes.  We won't develop a series of colors for the dangers of our failing infrastructure.  The Head of Homeland Security won’t announce a gut feeling that another bridge will fall.  And the President won’t go to congress asking for billions to provide our maintenance crews with the right equipment and resources.

We’ll simply keep funding the war in Iraq so the terrorists don’t blow up our bridges.

On a slightly similar note, Freakonomics author Steven Levitt now has a blog on the NY Times website and posits in a recent entry that terrorists are unlikely to attack airplanes next time they attempt to wreak havoc on the US.  Rather daringly, he encourages readers to suggest alternate vulnerabilities in the US, with a clear consensus among readers so far suggesting 'soft' targets such as schools and malls may be vulnerable.

Proponents of non-lethal weapons for law enforcement organizations say that they save the police from having to use lethal force, thereby saving lives.  The Taser is one such weapon.  Opponents might worry that Tasers has been implicated in a number of deaths, and that the presence of this supposedly non-lethal weapon actually empowers the police to use more force (rather than less force) more readily, particularly in situations that don't necessarily warrant it.

And so it is with mixed feelings I read about a possible new non-lethal weapon being proposed for law enforcement bodies, including air marshals.  Noting the propensity of airline staff to trigger security alerts any time they have a difficult passenger (or even a normal passenger who is simply asserting the rights he has and refusing to be bullied and poorly treated), let's hope such new weapons remain tightly controlled, and restricted only to air marshals, and not other air crew.

Such as, ahem, drunken flight attendants.

The last time I referred you to an unusual plane landing video, I managed to make two errors in one short sentence.  And so, with some degree of trepidation, I carefully mention another fascinating video of a jet landing - this time being an F-15 that lost one wing in a mid-air collision.

Cynics among us have often suggested that at least some professional beggars make a good living.  An extension of that theory suggests that bellmen in hotels and sky caps at airports make outstandingly good money from their tips.

Possible confirmation of this theory comes from an unlikely source.  The Indonesian city of Medan carried out a survey which showed the city's 11,000 beggars were averaging $6 a day in begging income.  This might not sound like much to you, but it is three times the income that half of Indonesia receives, and more than the average daily wage in Medan.

As a result, the city will fine tourists (and locals) who pay money to beggars, with fines of up to $650 being levied.

Lastly this week, what to make of the man who smuggled a monkey through security in both Lima and Fort Lauderdale, hiding it under his hat.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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