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Friday 31 August, 2007  

Good morning

This long weekend traditionally marks the end of the 'high' summer season, with possible reductions in air passenger travel subsequently.  Let's hope that an easing of the strain on our overloaded and failing air transportation system will make for slightly more pleasant travel for the balance of the year - but let's also not hold our breath while waiting for improvements to become apparent.

Nearly 16 million people are expected to fly on US airlines over this weekend, 2.6% more than last year.

Talking about pleasant travel (a rare topic, I grant you!) it's still not too late to join this year's Christmas Markets cruise, traveling along the Danube and visiting the lovely towns and their delightful Christmas market craft stalls en route, between Nuremberg and Budapest (with pre and post tour options to make for an even more complete experience).

This will be our third Christmas Markets cruise, and each one is better than the last.  For sure, it will solve all your 'what do I buy for so-and-so' Christmas gift dilemmas, and will give you a lovely travel experience at a surprisingly lovely time of year.  Highly recommended - please do visit the page with more information and consider joining us.

One of the never boring things about the equipment I review is not knowing whether any given piece of equipment will be good, bad, or indifferent.  I've encountered some colossally disappointing name-brand products (for example the Motorola H3 Bluetooth headset reviewed a couple of weeks ago) and I've also uncovered some sleeper excellent products from less well known manufacturers, and at amazingly great value prices.

One such example of these hidden treasures coming to light is the GPS review offered to you this week.  An outer box that had its key heading ignominiously featuring a stupid spelling mistake promised little, but the unit inside exceeded expectations in all respects, while being available for an amazing bargain price.  I just love the delight inherent in uncovering such product pearls that would almost surely be otherwise overlooked by us all.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  GlobalSat GV-370 GPS Receiver Review :  Available at an amazing bargain price of $170, I skeptically test this unit but find it to be good in all respects and an outstanding value.  Recommended.

Dinosaur watching :  Here's an excellent article by Joe Brancatelli, with eye opening and horrifying statistics about how unreliable US Airways' flights to Europe have been this summer.  Some flights have been averaging delays of 102 minutes, with maximum delays of course well in excess of that.

There's something wrong with the system when airlines are allowed to print a timetable that has flights which - on average - have one hour plus delays.  Which of course brings me back to the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Petition - if you haven't signed it yet, why not do so now?

The petition got a major boost in signatures this week after being featured on a Fox News story, but your support is still needed.

US Airways CEO Doug Parker wrote a response to Joe Brancatelli's column which he sent to his staff (you can see it here).  But his response basically seems to concede all of Joe's points, simply saying in weak reply that other airlines are bad, too, it wasn't their fault, and that sometime real soon now, US hopes to get better.

Perhaps a sliver of good news about the future with US Airways can be found in the latest DoT airline staffing statistics.  Although Parker doesn't say a shortage of staff was a contributor to their problems (he's not likely to say that, because that is something that is under his control) it is interesting to see that his airline increased their employees in June by 6%.  Airlines, on average, added 2.3% more staff, with Delta adding a massive 8.3% (maybe they really are trying to improve things now they're the other side of bankruptcy) and US Airways coming second with 6%.

But the overall industry average of 2.3% extra staffing barely matches the increase in passengers flying.  This is not improving things, it is struggling to keep up with passenger growth.

Some enthusiasts view Southwest Airlines as the 'good' airline out there.  They might be dismayed to note Southwest's response to new airline Virgin America and its new services between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Southwest, which until now has not operated flights between these two cities, has - and I'm sure this is pure coincidence - proudly announced it is about to start service between the two cities, with one way fares as low as $39.  Southwest is also starting service to Las Vegas (which, by another amazing coincidence, is also to get service from Virgin America) as well as to Chicago and San Diego (both of which are almost sure to get Virgin America service in the months to come).

It doesn't seem intuitively sensible for an airline to choose to start new service on a route that has suddenly become more competitive.  Unless, of course, the airline feels threatened, strategically, by the new competitor and is trying to kill them off as quickly as possible.  But surely nice Southwest wouldn't play the same hardball tactics as the dinosaurs do when it comes to trying to kill off new market entrants?

For now, you should choose to fly Virgin America any time you can.  If even Southwest feels threatened by them, clearly this new airline promises to be the very best thing to happen to our country's air system since, oh, well, perhaps since JetBlue.

As for me, I continue to hope for any 'red tailed' plane (ie Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic or even V Australia) to start offering service to/from Seattle.  Who knows, maybe one of these days....

Last week's survey on the worst US airport saw JFK clearly being chosen as the worst airport.  And so it is pleasing to see American Airlines officially opening their newly revamped terminal at JFK this week.

The new terminal will be able to handle up to 13 million passengers a year, a 60% increase on previous capacity, has 12 more gates, extra security gates and an 82,000 square foot immigration section.  American spent $1.3 billion on improvements, and plans to increase international service to and from European destinations as well as adding to its trans-continental flights to/from the west coast service.

Here's an interesting (?) article about an internet driven storm in a tea cup this week.  Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza accidentally hit 'reply all' rather than forwarding his email comments about a customer complaint letter, with the result his comments went back to the customer, who then passed them on to as many media as would care to run the story.

As for me, I was entirely unsurprised at Baldanza's response (so the airlines don't really care about their passengers - this is news?), and also much more sympathetic to his position than most other commentators were.  His comments sum up the way most complaints are viewed in most companies - a person with no loyalty to the product/service supplier deserves little loyalty or consideration in return.  You may or may not agree with this mindset, but it is the hard hearted and real-world lens through which most complaints are viewed.

Perhaps I should  write an article on how to complain, because the customer's original letter almost completely guaranteed they'd get nothing from the airline.  Why?  Because when evaluating a complaint letter, the person who can choose to either respond generously or ignore the complaint wants to feel that if they respond positively to the issue, they will be successful in winning back a customer they'd like to keep - a person who'd otherwise like them, and who they'd in turn also like.  They don't want to feel bullied or pressured, either.

When anyone reads a complaint letter that opens up 'As first time Spirit Airline customers, we would like to inform you that we found the entire experience to be completely and utterly dissatisfying. Our biggest complaint...' the automatic response most customer service personnel will have is 'These are not regular loyal customers, they hate us and nothing I can do will change that, so why waste my goodwill budget on these people.'

Much better to start off a letter

As frequent fliers, we understand that air travel sometimes comes with problems and challenges, and we appreciate your airlines' general best efforts to look after their passengers.  But on a recent trip, several things went unusually wrong, and we feel it helpful to draw these to your attention, and to ask for fair consideration in return...

The letter writer also commits another major blunder.  They refuse to accept airline vouchers for future travel, and demand cash, instead.  Airlines much prefer to give out vouchers, which cost them nothing, and bring the passengers back for a hopefully better experience; indeed, they'll probably profit on the deal, because if the vouchers don't cover the complete cost of future travel, they still end up getting some extra cash from the people.

A much better strategy for the letter writer would have been to say (and omitting the breakdown of trivial cost items, but instead focusing on the big picture)

In total, we incurred costs not just for the tickets we purchased ($73.60) but also for the concert tickets ($204.95), overnight accommodation, travel, and all the other associated costs of travel (details and receipts available if needed).  We appreciate your representative's initial offer of a $100 travel voucher to each of us, but as you surely understand, our out of pocket costs and our disappointment are all significantly greater than this amount.  We're happy to accept a travel voucher rather than simple cash - indeed, we'd like to try your airline again and hope for a better experience so we can travel confidently on it in the future - but we respectfully ask you consider a $250 per person voucher as a fairer compensation to us (and non-cash cost to you).

One important thing in complaint letters.  Never make it look like you're trying to profit from the problem.  Show that you did everything you could, as quickly and positively as possible, to minimize the problem/cost/whatever for everyone concerned.

Don't be like the people who rent a car for two weeks, and bring it back at the end of two weeks complaining about a harmless rattle that had been present since day one, demanding a full refund and more compensation besides.  These people (and sadly, they are way too common) are quickly seen for the opportunists they are by all who deal with customer complaints, and hopefully, most of the time, get very short shrift as a result.

Try also to stick to the positives and upbeat issues - don't make little of your problem, but make yourself seem like a very fair minded person who is seeking only  reasonable compensation and who is likely to become a good, trouble free, and positive repeat customer in the future.

What's the latest thing that airlines might start charging for?  We've seen most aspects of air travel either taken away or now made chargeable, and perhaps the best glimpse of the possible future for US airlines can be seen by looking at European discount carrier Ryanair.

As from 20 September, Ryanair will charge its passengers £2 ($4) each to checkin for a flight - adding another $8 to a roundtrip fare for people checking in the 'old fashioned way' by using a real person at the checkin desk.  If you have luggage to check in, you'll not only be paying £10 to check a single bag, but potentially another £2 to hand it to the desk agent!

Another interesting charge by Ryanair is a £1 charge to call the airline's help line, and if you have children with you wishing to get early boarding, that will be £4 each.

Get this :  Ryanair says they do not plan to make money on the charges.  Oh no.  They just want to encourage more people to use their web check in, and to check fewer bags.  A spokesman said passengers have the choice between paying the fee or not.

And here's another way for airlines to make more money, although on this occasion - advertising on planes - it mercifully doesn't attack our pocketbooks, merely our delicate sensibilities.

Have you ever thought 'even a young child could do a better job of managing XYZ Airline than the current management'?  Well, BA may have read your mind, because they have just held their inaugural meeting of the British Airways Kids' Council.

Ten children from across the world were flown to BA headquarters to discuss the BA brand and product offering. The children came from Hong Kong, Uganda, Mexico, Kenya and South Africa, and flew to London to join other council members from the UK for the first meeting on Aug. 8, 2007 at BA headquarters.

I can only guess why countries such as Uganda and Kenya were represented while BA's major markets such as US, Canada and Australia were conspicuous by their absence - a cynic might wonder if the whole thing was merely a politically correct public relations stunt.

When asked what the children would like to see more of onboard, technology was top of the agenda.  Suggestions included an interactive webcam in the cockpit and connections for MP3 players to download music and live broadcast of football matches.  Other suggestions included clowns and magic shows in the check-in queues; soft play areas on board and free chocolate for all children flying.

Well, at least it makes a change from paying overpriced consultants tens of millions of dollars to utter the same old platitudes time after time, most of which are then ignored or misunderstood.  I'll look forward to meeting Bozo the Clown next time I check in for a BA flight; actually, I think I've spoken to him already when calling in to BA's call center to reserve seats on future flights....

Travel alert - Windjammer Cruises appear to be in grave financial trouble, with reports of cancelled sailings and other problems.  Be very careful before booking a Windjammer cruise at present, and if you have a cruise already booked, well, I'm not sure what to suggest.  Hopefully you have travel insurance that includes supplier bankruptcy.  Some details here.

Save energy.  Fly in your Cessna, rather than drive in your car.  That might be a new slogan when the 2008 model year Cessna 172 takes to the air.  An optional diesel engine powered four seater Cessna would fly at 30 mpg, and when you consider than an air route is more direct than most roads, the savings could be considerable.  And with a cruising speed of almost 150 mph, you'd get where you're going much faster, too.

Have you ever wandered through some sort of antique or collectibles shop and marveled at items that were once commonplace and valueless, but which are now rare and valuable?  Wouldn't it be lovely to have the knack to see into the future and know what to set aside and keep for some decades, and then sell at massive profits.

So, with this in mind, here's a possible new item, currently valueless and still somewhat common, to start collecting.  Airline tickets.  There has of course been a trend in recent years towards electronic ticketing, and now all major carriers are poised to go 100% paper ticketless.  The global airlines body IATA said on Monday it had placed its last order for paper tickets (16.5 million of them), clearing the way for air travel to be based entirely on electronic ticketing from June 1 next year.

IATA pointed out that by switching to electronic tickets, they'd not only be reducing administrative costs by about $9 per passenger, but by no longer consuming paper for tickets, they'd be saving 50,000 mature trees a year.  Oh yes, the airlines could care less about the $3 billion in overhead they're saving, it is all about the trees.  And carbon emissions.

They omitted to indicate how much of the $9 per passenger saving would be passed on to the passengers...

So - you saw it here, first.  Start saving those old tickets.

One hopes that, as the airlines transition to totally electronic reservations and ticketing, they'll ensure their computer systems are reliable and crash-proof.  The chaos otherwise would be unimaginable.  Just this last weekend Amtrak had a crash of their entire computer reservation system from Saturday morning through Sunday afternoon, forcing employees to hand write paper tickets.

Talking about changes in the travel industry, here's a fascinating list of the top 25 changes in the travel industry over the last 25 years.

And did someone say 'carbon emissions'?......

I was commenting two weeks ago in my editorial on carbon emission constraints that there is no limit to where this lunacy might not lead, and similarly there is no limit on how other opportunists will endeavor to exploit this concept to further their own agendas.

Here's a sad example and in the US not Europe.  Under the guise of climate change reform, influential congressman John Dingell (D-MI) is introducing legislation that will eliminate the deduction for mortgage interest on homes larger than 3000 sq ft (some 15% of all US houses are larger than this).

If Dingell really wanted to promote energy and carbon savings, he'd simply add more taxes to electricity, gas, and other energy sources, or perhaps offer tax credits for energy saving.  The reduction of each single kilowatt hour of electricity gives the world the same benefit whether it is saved in a big house or a small apartment.  But that's nothing like his agenda at all, is it.  He's simply and cynically trying to take from people who've carefully built up their assets and invested in their house, by using the latest popular catchphrase.  Shame on him.

Remember the double nickel?  The 55 mph speed limit, introduced to save oil?  The current sensitivity to carbon emissions must make its reintroduction a real threat, even though, as this Wikipedia article shows, the limit itself only saved about 1% of gas consumption, and its repeal brought about a net economic benefit of about $2 - $3 billion.

One version of this is already being debated in Europe, where a proposal is being considered in the European Parliament to ban high powered sports cars.  A 'high powered sports car' is variously defined as one capable of traveling faster than either 80 mph or perhaps 100 mph, which I guess makes most of our vehicles in our garages today high powered sports cars!

Reader Fred writes from London with two insightful responses to my editorial on carbon emissions :

You say: “The concept plays well to the unthinking classes by portraying air travelers as 'fat cats' who are selfishly destroying the planet, bringing about global warming and certain destruction to us all as a result of their international indulgences.”  Sure, the greens are trying to do that.

But in fact, the far more politically damaging attitude is among the influential and equally unthinking affluent classes, who resent the hoi polloi running amock around the world “ruining” once-“exclusive” idylls such as the Med, or Spain (!) or whatever.  The greens may be storming the general aviation airports around London at the moment, but the larger force of NIMBYs is at Heathrow, where the real agenda is to block more discount airline flights and price ordinary folks out of aviation.

You ask why the airlines are being so passive?  Because any future “carbon surcharges” will be as profitable to them as fuel surcharges have been.  I think the non-discount airlines want this.

So the airlines feel that appeasing the carbon emission lobby will allow them to make super profits on carbon surcharges?  Quite possibly so.  But do they not realize that they're simply empowering a group of people who could care less about getting carbon taxes or charges from the airlines?  They want to close the airlines down.  All of them.  All the time.

But - maybe the airlines are cleverer than we think.  If the airlines are told they have to halve their number of flights, this might delight some of them.  With fewer flights, the average fare per ticket will skyrocket (the law of supply and demand) and the airlines will be in the happy position of having too many people needing to travel at any price.  It will make the US airline industry, prior to deregulation (when fares were high and flights were few) look like a free market by comparison.

Surely the airlines can't be wanting this?  Can they?

Jumping on the eco-guilt bandwagon is this priest who now offers people a chance to specifically confess their eco-sins.  Appropriately enough, his confessional booth is green in color and partially made of recycled materials.

Possibly the most perplexing thing about the global warming 'debate' is the way people who are lobbying for draconian solutions to the problem tend to act as if global warming is a universally accepted incontrovertible fact that only really stupid people don't accept.  People who seeks to question their underlying assumptions are more likely to be greeted with abuse and ad hominem attacks rather than with reasoned debate.

And so, it is interesting to see this article which analyses scholarly papers on the topic in 'refereed' scientific journals during the four years 2003 - 2007.  A refereed journal is one in which all papers published have to be first reviewed by a scientific board who determine if the paper meets standards of objectivity and good scientific reasoning and procedure.

The study shows that from 528 papers that discussed climate change, only 7% gave an explicit endorsement of the theory, almost the same number as explicitly rejected it.  The largest category of papers - 48% - were neutral on the topic.  And only one of the 528 papers suggested that global warming might lead to catastrophic results.

Why is it so many people are so quick to think the worst of themselves and others, and then seek to impose draconian controls on everyone's lives as a result?

Cell phones are bad for your health, continued :  Longer time readers know that I view the debate about cell phone radiation danger as analogous to the debate about cigarettes and lung cancer 50 years ago.  This latest article suggests that as much as ten minutes of phone use a day may lead to brain cancer.

Your best strategy for now - use landlines whenever possible, and headsets when you must use your cell phone.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Anyone who travels internationally knows that the rest of the world is laughing at us and our so-called security antics.  I can't help but hear it being discussed by travelers prior to traveling here, in any international airport, anywhere else in the world.

And is it any wonder, when you read stories like this one about how the TSA confiscated a traveler's pudding, but missed his knife, or this one about people being charged with felony breach of the peace for laying down a set of flour trail markers, or this one about the ultimate uselessness of our terrorist watchlists, which inconvenienced 20,000 people last year, while apparently not catching any terrorists.

Meanwhile, the TSA and the Administration are refusing to carry out a new law requiring screening of all airline cargo.  This has been a security loophole well past due for closing - what terrorist would try and smuggle a bomb in a suitcase when he can simply and safely ship one as air cargo instead?

Their reason why this is not necessary (warning to foreign readers - you're going to really split your sides laughing at this one....)?  Because most air cargo is 'inherently screened' by the shipper.

I'd sure like to be 'inherently screened' next time I go through airport security.

Not so inherently screened are Sikh turbans.  No matter whether the metal detector goes off or not, all people wearing any sort of headgear must now remove their headgear or be given secondary screening when passing through airport security.

How old to you have to be before you can become a terrorist?  And at what age do terrorists retire and cease to be a threat?  Canada apparently believes that children 15 and under are safe, and now is advocating that we agree with them that seniors also are no threat.  How old is a senior, by the way?  AARP tell me I'm already a senior - anyone over 50 earning that dubious distinction.

Canada is advocating this in the context of worrying about the other shoe dropping with our (and their) current passport crisis.  It is bad enough with everyone who flies between the two countries now needing passports, but next year when people walking or driving across the border will also need passports, things can be expected to get even worse.  Canada's solution is to exempt people under 15 and 'seniors' from the need for passports.

How bad will it be?  85% of all border crossings by Canadians are by land, and fewer than 60% of those people have passports.  Of the 15% who fly, 90% of those people already have passports.  We can probably guess at similar numbers applying to Americans as well.

'Not for sale' was the response given to the Russian who offered to pay $500 million for this plane at the biennial Moscow Air Show.  Seems like a fair price for a 50+ year old plane.

Perhaps the thwarted buyer would like to sponsor the Golden Gate Bridge instead?  With no naming or signage rights, only a fool would be interested in this deal.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and have a great Labor Day weekend

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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