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Friday 28 September, 2007  

Good morning

It is official (at least, here in the US - other countries use different timings) - we're into the fall season, after last week's fall equinox (or spring equinox for our antipodean readers).  Our days are now shorter than our nights and will stay that way until next year's spring equinox.

If you're a sun seeker, you should start flying south rather than north, so as to get more hours of sun (and increasingly more warmth too).

It has been a gadgety sort of week for me - in other words, a fun week.  I've an interesting new Bluetooth headset I'm evaluating, and a lovely new Blackberry 8800; look for reviews on both these items in the weeks to come.  Plus some variations on traditional luggage, too.

If you have a Blackberry 8800, I'd be interested to know what customizations and extra software you've loaded onto it - please let me know so I can offer as complete a review as possible.

In response to several reader requests, I've prepared a page analyzing the new range of iPods announced this month by Apple.

Today marks the official release of the one truly new product in the iPod range - the 'iPod Touch' (although it has been occasionally available for some time already).  Should you get one of these, or any of the other new iPods?  You might be surprised at my answer, which you'll find by reading :

This Week's Feature Column :  The new iPods - Major Improvements or Cosmetic Makeovers :  Should you rush out and buy a new iPod?  Are they substantially better than the models they replace?  Read my analysis and surprising conclusion.

I've had a couple of people express interest in the discounted cabin on the Christmas Markets cruise, but no-one has actually fronted up with payment yet, so it remains available.  There's now one C category cabin also available, so you can apply the $200 per person saving to your choice of an A, B or C category cabin, making a good deal even better.

Dinosaur watching :  Northwest wishes to shake itself of its nickname, Northworst.  CEO Doug Steenland told a group this week that it is about to launch 'the largest training initiative in over a decade with a focus on customer experience'.

The training program will involve presenting the customer perspective, primarily to flight attendants and reservation agents.  The airline will also hire up to 5000 extra staff this year - potentially a huge number, considering that it currently has about 31,000 employees.

Delta announced plans to add 14 new international routes from JFK, nine of which it will be the only US carrier.  Sequentially the airline will add flights to Tel Aviv, Edinburgh, Dakar, Nairobi, Cairo, Amman, Lagos, Cape Town, Panama City, Guatemala City, Port of Spain, San Jose, Costa Rica, and Liberia.  By next summer 40% of the airline's flights will be international, compared with only 20% some three years earlier.

Delta says it will also reduce its planned departures at JFK during congested peak hours by 6%, and will replace smaller turbo-prop flights with fewer and larger jet flights.

Talking about Northwest and Delta - two airlines often considered as potential merger partners, they are already closely joined via the Skyteam Alliance they both belong to.

Skyteam members Air France, Alitalia, Czech Airlines, Delta, KLM and Northwest have applied for anti-trust immunity from the DoT, to allow the sort of six airlines (remember that AF and KLM have merged, and NW and KLM interchangeably operate international flights, so the six airlines boil down to AF-KL-NW already closely joined, plus DL, and the two irrelevances that are AZ and OK) to more closely work together.

Readers will know I view all code share and alliance practices as anti-competitive and beneficial only to the airlines - after all, if an action doesn't benefit the airline, why would it countenance any such action?  But, if the six airlines are to be believed, I've got it all wrong.  In seeking approval, they claimed such an action would offer 'significant advantages to consumers, including more choice in flight schedules, travel times, services and fares'.

This is absolute nonsense.  There's no evidence I'm aware of to suggest that close alliances result in more flights.  In actual fact, they usually result in either the same number of flights, but with many more flight numbers associated with them (I've been on flights with at least four different airline flight numbers attached to them), or fewer flights, and if you have fewer flights, the law of supply and demand inevitably dictates that fares will rise.

But regulatory bodies around the world have almost universally accepted such promises in the past, sometimes buttressed by impressive sounding 'guarantees', so there's little reason to expect the Skyteam application will be rejected.

Oh - my analysis above, pointing out that three of the six airlines were already very closely allied?  That might soon become four of the six.  The head of AF/KL - the world's largest airline in terms of revenue - has been quoted as saying he expects talks on an alliance with Alitalia to start in October, and didn't rule out the possibility of actually buying in to AZ.

This will doubtless delight Alitalia.  Maurizio Prato, the third chairman of Alitalia in just six months, told an Italian parliamentary committee this week 'Alitalia's condition is comatose, it's on life support', and added that any attempt by Alitalia to survive as an independent would be 'absurd.'  He explained 'Just becoming a little bigger wouldn't be enough for Alitalia to compete with the big players.'

Coincidence?  Possibly.  I'd noted, the last week or so, a surprising upswing of people visiting the article I wrote a couple of years ago about United Airlines' hidden asset - its frequent flier program, which I appraised as being worth $15 billion at a time when the bankrupt airline's total market capitalization was a mere $176 million.

And now I read about how the FL Group, one of American Airlines' largest shareholders, wants the airline to immediately consider strategic alternatives to increase shareholder value, one of which is divesting AAdvantage, the world's oldest and largest frequent flyer program.

American Airlines has a current market capitalization of $5.5 billion, down from a high of about $10 billion in January.  And, for sure, their AAdvantage program can be considered to be at least as valuable as United's Mileage Plus.

The unresolved mystery of the sudden upswing in visits to the webpage article?  Many of them were coming from a different US airline.....  Maybe we haven't heard the end of airlines selling off their frequent flier programs.

Oh, don't be mislead by the name.  The FL Group is nothing to do with Florida.  It is headquartered in Reykjavik and as well as its AA holding, has an investment in Sterling Airlines, Scandinavia's largest low-cost airline, plus a 23% stake in Fiinnair.  It was the former owner of Icelandair and also held a 16.9% stake in easyJet.

How free is free?  Yes, 'free' is my favorite four letter word beginning with 'f', but in the airline industry, nothing is as it seems, especially so called free items, as we all know when traveling on a 'free' frequent flier award that costs us money for taxes, redemption, and various other imaginative things created by the airlines.

And so you'll laugh to read about Continental's new plan to offer free helicopter transfers from Newark to Manhattan for its international business class passengers.  The 'free' transfer actually costs the passenger $18, being the cost of the taxes applicable to the transfer.

Not much money, but that is also all the more reason for CO to absorb the taxes along with the rest of the cost of the transfer.  Instead, telling its passengers who pay the most to fly with them that it is giving a free transfer with an $18 fee attached to it just insults their clients' intelligence and sense of fairness.

More flights to China have been approved, with six of the seven airlines who applied for new rights to fly to China being awarded routes.  Delta and US Airways, the only major US carriers currently without service to China, were given routes (ATL to Shanghai and PHL to Beijing), as were CO (EWR to Shangai), NW (DTW to Shanghai), AA (ORD to Beijing) and UA (SFO to Guangzhou).

The seventh airline was Maxjet, the fairly recently started airline that currently operates discounted all-business-class flights across the Atlantic to London.  This particularly disappointed me, because they'd asked for rights to fly from Seattle to Shanghai.

When the new routes take effect in the next few years, United will lead with 42 flights to China a week, followed by NW with 28, AA and CO with 14 each, and DL and US with 7 each.

Saving trees.  Air Canada has introduced paperless boarding passes for passengers with a cell phone or other type of PDA.  The customer has the option of receiving an e-boarding pass in the form of an SMS text message that can be shown to airport security and gate agents in lieu of a paper boarding pass.  The service is available for those boarding Canadian domestic flights and international flights - except those to the US.

According to the OAG, low cost carriers have doubled their share of the world's airline capacity, and now account for 20% of the market, up from 10% some four years earlier.  At present they provide 20% of all seats and 16% of all flights.

Other interesting statistics include the world's busiest route, which is between Barcelona and Madrid (971 flights a week), followed by Sao Paulo/Rio de Janeiro (894), Jeju/Seoul ((858) and Melbourne/Sydney (851).

The busiest North American route is Honolulu/Kahului with 639 flights a week, followed by LAS/LAX (553) and SAN/LAX with 514 flights.

The busiest international route is between London Heathrow and Amsterdam, with 350 flights a week.

British Airways announced massive expansion in its services to the US, to take effect from April next year and the start of the new Open Skies agreement between the US and EU.  For the first time, BA will start operating nonstop flights from other European cities, with a plan to add 287 extra flights each week to the US.

BA will not release details until closer to launch - so as to keep competitor airlines guessing - but has indicated that the first stage of this expansion will involve 55 flights a week to New York from two or three European cities, and that they plan to - by summer - have new flights from Europe into 18 US cities (presumably, but not definitely, the same cities it currently operates service to Britain from).

The airline said it plans to use 757s for many of these new routes, which, due to their range limits, would presumably be for service to east coast cities only.

Although I consider this announcement by BA to be exciting and likely to have an appreciable impact on traffic (and fares) across the Atlantic, their CEO disagrees with me.  Willie Walsh said he does not expect the first stage of implementation of the EU-US open skies agreement, set to take effect at the end of March, to have a major impact.

'I expect nothing radical,' he said. He foresees a move of some capacity from Gatwick to Heathrow, but nothing far-reaching and nothing that will cause BA to lose significant transatlantic market share.

In other news, BA announced their long awaited order for new planes.  In an unsurprising compromise, they ended up ordering from both Airbus and Boeing, and no doubt to Airbus' immense relief, agreed to purchase 12 of their massive A380 super-jumbos.

British Airways has been the most notable non-purchaser of the A380 to date, with the plane being, on the face of it, ideally suited for routes between Heathrow (which is operating at capacity and unable to accept more take-offs and landings) and some US cities into which BA currently operates multiple flights each day.  At last, BA has accepted the logic of the A380 concept, with its order for 12 and options on another seven.

In addition, BA also ordered 24 787s with options on a further 18.  While part of BA's decision to buy the 787 (instead of the new Airbus A350) might be considered a political decision as much as a simple decision on the merits of both planes, the delight Airbus must be feeling at receiving the A380 order is doubtless tempered by disappointment at again seeing its A350 lose out to Boeing's almost invincible 787.

The 36 new planes don't actually represent much fleet expansion - they will be replacing 34 older planes, giving a net increase of only two planes.

Two different approaches, and two different statistics :  The EU wants to force airlines to cap their CO2 emissions, and seeks to fine airlines that exceed their allocations, saying that air travel counts for 9% of worldwide CO2 emissions.  The US objects, saying it would be better to streamline the air traffic control system which forces planes to fly fuel-consuming indirect routes, and to target buses, trucks and cars rather that airlines, because these other methods of transportation release more CO2 than planes.  The US estimates airlines account for no more than 2% of global CO2 emissions.

I've no idea which percentage is the more correct, but for once I find myself strongly supporting the US government approach towards aviation, and again feel puzzled why airlines are being selectively picked on by the EU, while other forms of transportation are being overlooked and ignored.

In other EU travel news, the EU hopes to open up more land borders ahead of schedule so travelers can enjoy more borderless intra-EU travel for Christmas.  Nine of the ten mainly former communist states that joined the EU in 2004 took a first big step toward joining the Schengen border-free zone at the start of September when they were connected to its massive police database.

The EU says the nine countries - the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia - have also made good progress on external border security.  The tenth country is Cyprus.

Current border controls are not very rigorous, and are quite unlike the slow motion nonsense one encounters crossing between the US and Canada.  When last year's Christmas Markets group crossed from Austria to the Czech Republic, our coach pulled up to an otherwise empty border crossing, and the guard in the 'toll booth' took one look at a busload of people, spoke a couple of sentences to the driver, didn't ask for any paperwork or passports, and waved us all on through.

If some twenty countries as diverse as Slovenia and Estonia, and France and Germany, can all open their borders and allow borderless (and passportless) travel to everyone already within the larger collective border, why is it impossible for the US and Canadian governments to do the same thing?   Why is our trend for more rather than less 'security', more rather than less hassle, more rather than less delay, and for passports where none were previously required across what was once 'the world's longest undefended border'?

Something's very wrong with our approach to border security.

As readers know, I'm a great believer in river cruising.  But maybe there are other forms of marine cruising also to be considered.  How about traveling on a nuclear powered ice breaker up to the North Pole, for example?  This company offers a variety of fascinating expeditions, but with per person costs sometimes exceeding $30,000, it will be a while before I organize a Travel Insider group.

Okay, so $30,000 is a bit rich for most of us.  Perhaps, for the budget conscious, a bus tour would be a better choice, with this twelve week bus tour from Sydney to London being probably the most extreme example of a bus tour.  The cost?  $7750, including accommodation (usually in tents) and food.  Less than $100 a day.

And if all that makes you desire a more relaxed approach to a vacation, how about the Poseidon Undersea Resort, to be built in Fiji, 40 ft below the surface.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Security closed down a concourse at Indianapolis on Wednesday morning and some 500 travelers were evacuated just after 5am, because of a suspicious package detected going through security.  The package - a vest - was found to contain inert explosives.

A thwarted terrorist attack?  Ummm, no.  A TSA mess-up.  It turned out the inert explosives were a TSA training device.  Officials are not commenting because the incident is 'under investigation'.

Here's a sometimes interesting interview with TSA head, Kip Hawley.  If you don't read it all, note his comment about how the Scottish bombers earlier this year were all doctors - people that Hawley rightly says would have no difficulty getting Registered Traveler fast-track credentials.  As long as that is the case (ie for ever), the so-called security fast-track services will never be able to offer their members reduced security screening, only less waiting time in line.

And note Hawley's proposal to reduce waiting time in line to be screened.  He suggests people should get a 'fast pass' type ticket to go through security at a specified time (rather like rides at Disneyland).  But is this a sensible idea?  Would you go to the airport 30 minutes earlier so as to spend less time in the security line (and then even more time in the gate area doing nothing?  Hawley thinks yes.  I think no, and suggest a better solution is to improve the flows through security, reducing waiting times down to acceptable levels.

One more point.  Try not to laugh when you read him proudly talking about the TSA's 'Viper Teams' - groups of TSA staff who 'move around unpredictably in the airport and transit systems, Amtrak, ferries, cruise ships—anything in transportation'.  An impressive name, but that's probably the only part that is impressive about them.

Do you wonder if the TSA has stored any information about you in their growing databases?  Now you can request a copy of their file on you - forms and instructions here.

This week's innocent until proven guilty - oooops, guilty until proven innocent story :  A state trooper stopped a Canadian man who was driving 71 on a 60mph speed limited section of I-5 in Washington.  Deeming the driver to be acting suspiciously, he searched the car and found $276,640 in cash inside a suitcase in the trunk.  And so, because the driver couldn't provide official paperwork to explain the presence of the cash, the money was confiscated.

You might think this fair enough, but remember the underlying principle.  Apparently we need to be able to explain and prove why and how it is we have large sums of cash on us.  And while a quarter million dollars is a lot, how soon before we have to explain $25,000, or even $2,500?

What happened to 'guilty until proven innocent' - in this case, the man will only get the money returned to him if the State Patrol determine he had the money legally (whatever that means).  They don't have to determine he got the money illegally to keep it; rather, the owner of the cash has to prove his legal right to the money to get it returned to him.

Winner of this week's 'lucky to be alive' award is this stupid girl who seemed to be determined to commit 'suicide by cop' at Boston's Logan Airport.

There used to be a local specialty restaurant called something like 'Desserts Only' with the memorable byline 'Life's Uncertain; Eat Dessert First'.  They've gone out of business, but perhaps if they'd developed this dessert, they'd still be around.

Lastly this week, my home town is in the process of developing a new trolley service in inner Seattle.  It was originally to be named the South Lake Union Trolley, but this apparently allows for an unfortunate acronym.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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