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Friday 5 October, 2007  

Good morning

And happy anniversary, yesterday, to the Space Age, inaugurated on 4 October, 1957, when the Soviets sent their Sputnik satellite into orbit about 150 miles above the earth.  Sputnik's radio transmitter lasted for 22 days, and Sputnik itself fell back to earth on 4 January, 1958.

This marked the start of the 'Space Race' between the US and USSR.  It is interesting to record the main reason for the near panic engendered in the US (at least in certain circles, if not felt by the general public) by Sputnik's launch.  The Sputnik satellite was merely the polite public face of the Soviet space program.  The rocket that launched Sputnik - an R-7 - had as its primary purpose the mission of launching ICBMs, from Russia to the US.  What was, on 4 October 1957, a harmless beeping satellite orbiting over the top of the US, could have as easily been a nuclear warhead, and instead of orbiting, it could have been launched, flown an arc, and then plunged down to unstoppably destroy a US target short minutes later.  At the time, the US ICBM program had yet to achieve a successful launch.

Interestingly, while we in the west were and are very conscious of the Sputnik launch, it was downplayed in the USSR, due to its military application, and even these days, few Russians are aware of the event or its importance (whether militarily or just simply proving to the world that Russia had technology better than anything in the west).  A 2004 poll of Russians, in which they were asked to name the 12 most important events in 20th century Russian history not only failed to have Sputnik appear in the top 12, but the academic journal conducting the poll deemed Sputnik so unimportant it didn't even put it on the long list of possible contenders.

Coming back to earth, suitcases are very much in my mind at present due to my packing for the upcoming Black Sea Discovery Expedition that I'm taking 21 readers on next week.  I've come across a couple of interestingly different carry-on suitcases in the last short while; I'm reviewing one this week and plan to review the other next week.

This Week's Feature Column :  SeatKase combination roll-aboard bag and seat :  If you're stuck in an airport and all the seats are taken, the SeatKase roll-aboard bag might be a good option, combining a regular carry-on sized bag with a heavy duty seat. I try one out.

Dinosaur watching :  Naughty Mesa Air Group.  A federal bankruptcy court in Hawaii ruled this week that Mesa Air Group concealed and destroyed evidence that could have been useful to Hawaiian Airlines in its lawsuit over Mesa's decision to start up interisland airline Go.

Hawaiian is looking for $173 million in damages and a one-year injunction against ticket sales by Go.  Go's entry into the market caused both Hawaiian and Aloha to post losses in the millions of dollars as a result of matching (and posting) very low fares in a battle for market share.

The judge ruled that Mesa misused information it obtained from Hawaiian when it was reviewing Hawaiian's books as a potential investor during Hawaiian's bankruptcy, and that Mesa's misuse was a 'substantial factor' in its decision to enter the Hawaii market.

This week's 'Passengers are an Inconvenience' award goes to Delta.  Faced with a choice between either increasing staffing or inconveniencing pesky passengers, the 'new Delta' showed itself to be - surprise surprise - as bad - or even worse than - the old Delta.

Effective 15 October, passengers will need to check their baggage a minimum of 45 minutes prior to departure on domestic flights out of JFK (up from 30 minutes previously).  Yes, DL thinks that you've nothing better to do with your time than to spend an extra 15 minutes of it enjoying their drab terminals at JFK.

Who remembers back to the good old days of 20 minutes (or less) being needed for checkin?  Isn't 'progress' such a peculiar thing.

Runner up for the 'Passengers are an Inconvenience' award goes to JetBlue.  Effective November 1 JetBlue will only accept debit or credit cards for onboard purchases.

Airlines appear to be headed in the direction of being cashless.  American conducted a three week test of only taking credit or debit cards on flights from San Francisco and Virgin America started out as cashless from day one.

JetBlue offers unlimited free snacks and nonalcoholic beverages but charges for cocktails.

This week's 'Travel Agents are an Inconvenience' award goes to all US airlines.  Not only do the airlines no longer pay regular travel agents commissions for selling their tickets, but now they are seeking to increase the fees they charge travel agents for the privilege of being allowed to sell airline tickets for no money (an almost three-fold increase in the annual registration plus an increase in the per ticket issued fee, too).

Huh?  Does that make sense?  Tell me another business that not only refuses to pay one of its main sales partner organizations any commission, but which turns around and actually charges the selling companies for the privilege of selling their product/service?

Congratulations to American Airlines, named the Best North American Airline - for the fifteenth year in a row - at the 2007 Business Traveler Awards.

And brickbats to - yes, American Airlines.  London's Stansted Airport used to be a little airport north of London that no-one in the US had ever heard of.  Everyone wanted to go to Heathrow (for reasons I've never understood) and would grudgingly accept Gatwick as second best.  But other London area airports such as Stansted or Luton were deemed unacceptable for American flights and passengers.

But then two new startup airlines successfully challenged conventional wisdom.  They started offering flights between the US and Stansted (STN) rather than to LHR or LGW - Maxjet with all business class seating and Eos with all first class seating.  They offered excellent service at massively discounted rates compared to what major airlines were charging for first and business class.

So - guess what.  American Airlines, clearly hurting from the lost revenue caused by passengers switching from their overpriced premium cabins to Maxjet and Eos have suddenly discovered STN and decided they too will offer service to STN.  And, amazingly, AA's fare to STN is massively less expensive than its fare to LHR.  $2730 will get you to Stansted and back, but you could be up for $10,000 and more to get to LHR.

Oh - and you can get up to 12,000 bonus Aadvantage miles too.

What an amazing thing this is, isn't it.  We are expected to believe that American is fairly charging $2,730 to fly to one airport, but is also fairly charging $10,000 + (four times as much) to fly to another airport that is almost the same identical flight distance from New York.

Don't reward bad behavior.  Make a point of booking Maxjet and Eos rather than American, because without them, there's almost no chance that AA's flights to STN will continue, and even if they do continue, what do you think the chances are that fares will remain at a quarter the price of fares to LHR?

The most amazing part of this?  That such behavior on a dinosaur's part is not considered to be unfair by any of the various watchdog organizations (in both the US and UK).

And talking about government departments, lack of scrutiny, and premium class travel, a report released by the GAO this week suggests that federal employees wasted at least $146 million in a single year by flying on business and first class tickets even though it was contrary to their department's travel policies.

The report found that 67% of premium cabin travel was unauthorized or otherwise unjustified, often leading to airfare costs 5 - 10 times higher than what the permitted coach class fare would have been.  Some senior level employees obtained 'approvals' from junior members of their staff (who were of course not authorized to give such approvals).

A political appointee at the Pentagon took 15 premium-class flights and cited a medical condition as justification for the $105,000 in expenses.  However, the only evidence of a medical condition was a note signed by a fellow Pentagon employee, not a physician, attesting to surgery from several years earlier.  The Pentagon did not have a doctor's certification from the employee as required by agency policy.

And so on, through $146 million of wasted funds.  Perhaps these self-indulgent govt employees would at least have the decency to fly on Maxjet or Eos for their next flight to Britain.

Talking about decency and too high airfares, reader Ryan writes

My grandfather passed away last night, and I called Northworst for a price on a bereavement fare.  They quoted me $880 per person to fly the redeye Monday Oct 8th- Wed Oct 10th LAX to MSP.

I laughed at the agent, went online and booked the same flights - on Northworst's very own website - for $258.

Southwest - looking more like a dinosaur airline every day (note to Southwest - this is not a good thing) - is getting closer to doing something else the dinosaurs seem preoccupied with doing to the exclusion of building their business in the US, and that is adding international flights to its roster.

Southwest executives were seen at an international airline conference in Stockholm, meeting with apparently 20 - 25 airport representatives from around the world, and their Schedule Planning Director said these meetings were to begin establishing contacts and building relationships prior to having 'a more thorough dialogue down the road'.

In preparation for international services, Southwest has also been upgrading its reservations system technology to handle international bookings and updating its revenue accounting system to handle foreign currency transactions.

It expects to start international operations in 2009 with codeshare flights on ATA, a concept that would have Southwest's founder, Lamar Muse, spinning in his grave.  Codesharing with ATA?  The airline says it would consider codesharing with other airlines to further away destinations (eg Europe and Asia), possibly from 2010.

The biggest obstacle to Southwest operating its own international services, especially to longhaul destinations?  Its one-airplane policy, which means it has a full stable of largely short range 737s, and no planes capable of operating on longer international routes.

The good news?  Flying is getting safer and safer.  Airline crash fatalities have dropped 65% between 1997 and now, as this article details.  The bad news?  Not if you're a piece of checked baggage.  Mishandled luggage rates have doubled in the last five years, as this article details.

Air travel numbers continue to grow, across the board, across the world.  IATA reports that the year on year growth rate for August 07 compared to August 06 was an incredible 8.6% (if this rate continues, passenger numbers will double in 8.4 years).  And it isn't just in the US that flights are full.  The average load factor was 80.3% for the month, the first time ever that a load factor has exceeded 80% for a month other than July.

Air travel might be up, but for sure, travel by foreigners to the US is not.  As this article reports, notwithstanding the bargain priced US dollar, international visitors are reluctant to come here, and by a 2:1 ratio, in worldwide surveys, international travelers consistently cite the United States as the world’s single most unfriendly destination.  The suggested response - to spend millions of dollars promoting the US as a destination around the world.

A better response costing almost nothing - train our 'border security' people - those who we used to know as Customs and Immigration officers - on how to be a tad friendlier, and relax the draconian and pointless visa application requirements foisted on most potential visitors (including in person interviews at US Consulates, even if they are thousands of miles from where the people live).  It is harder, for many people in the world, to visit the 'land of the free' than to visit the most repressive of dictatorships.

You've probably noticed that the maximum weight per suitcase on most airlines these days is 50lbs, down from the previous 70lb standard limit.  As the airlines get more sensitive to cutting costs and focus in on weight issues (which directly flow through to the amount of fuel the plane burns - as a rule of thumb, a plane burns 3% of the weight of each thing it carries per hour of flight) how long can it be before the airlines start setting weight limits on passengers and charging excess for overweight passengers?

The average weight of an American adult increased ten pounds in just ten years (the 1990s), and the FAA has now required airlines to revise their average weight estimates for passengers which means the airlines can now carry less freight and are required to carry more fuel for the same number of passengers as before.

It has always seemed slightly inconsistent that airlines will charge no more for a 250+ lb passenger as they would for a 125lb (or less) passenger, while leaping at a chance to charge another $50 for a suitcase that is only 10-20 lbs overweight.  Shouldn't we be given a total weight allowance for both us and our baggage?

That reminds me of a strategy I've used on Aeroflot flights in Europe.  They assess a 44lb per person weight restriction and charge exhorbitant amounts for excess baggage, and they include the weight of carry-on items as part of the 44lb limit.  So I wear a bulky jacket or coat with lots of big pockets and stuff everything I have that is heavy into my jacket/coat.  After passing the weight test, I then simply empty out my pockets and put everything into my carry-on.

As of Monday, Oct 1, we again need a valid passport when traveling by air to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda, and from probably some time next year (date not yet set) we'll need passports when traveling by road or sea as well.  The passport office says it is back to normal with processing passports (and several readers have delightedly confirmed this) so an extension to the temporarily waived passport requirements is no longer necessary.

The State Department said that for its fiscal year 2007 (ended 30 Sept) it issued an estimated 18 million passports, up from 12.1 million in fy 2006.

If you anticipate road travel to these countries in the future, maybe you should apply for a passport in the next few months during the slow season, rather than wait for what is sure to be another chaotic season full of delays next spring and summer.

I've written a couple of times recently about delays to the Boeing 787 program, and to my surprise was even interviewed on the topic for a research assignment by a market analysis company this week.

However, there's now no need to rely on 'experts' (or on experts) to get an allegedly accurate analysis of when the 787 will fly.  Using a fascinating and statistically validated concept of 'the wisdom of crowds' a company is allowing people to bet on the 'futures' related to when this event will happen, with the expectation being that the date indicated by the trading values will be an accurate date.

More details here.

I wrote last week about the new model iPods, and added a caustic comment at the end about the massive non-event that is Microsoft's Zune, now well overdue for an update.  This week Microsoft announced a new range of Zune players, to be available later in the year.  First reaction?  Another non-starter from Microsoft.  I'll let you know more when I get a chance to try them out.

Here's a very helpful article about the costs of international currency exchange.  Occasionally readers suggest I should write an article - this article saves me from needing to do so, too!

Cell phones are dangerous to your health, continued :  Your risk of acoustic neuromas and gliomas is more than twice as high if you've been using a cell phone for ten years.  More details, including explaining what an acoustic neuroma and a glioma is, here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Here are two stories so similar that I can't choose between them for which is the better.

1.  Police closed three roads and evacuated homes in central London amidst fears of a terrorist gas attack.  After three hours, and assisted by firefighters wearing breathing apparatus, the source of the gas attack was discovered.  A local restaurant was cooking up a batch of hot chili dip.  Details here.

2.  An Alaska Airlines flight called an in-flight emergency and after landing at Seattle was parked in a remote location, the passengers evacuated, and bomb squad personnel called in to investigate a suspicious device that had been found on board during the flight.  The device, described as 'looking like a cellphone' turned out to be - yes, exactly that.  A cell phone.  Details here.

Here's an interesting article about delays getting through security at Heathrow.  The point I found fascinating was that if you are delayed more than ten minutes to get through security, the airport has to pay financial compensation.  But that compensation is not given to you, the inconvenienced passenger.  Instead, the money goes to the airline transporting you.

No wonder the airlines don't seem too worried about delays at Heathrow.

Pilot error is often hinted at in plane crashes, but seldom established.  But what do you think the explanation for a bmi Airbus plane that narrowly escaped disaster when landing at Leeds Airport and having all four main tires blow out would be?

Here are the facts, reported in their glorious entirety.

The bmi Airbus A319, carrying 50 passengers, blew all four tyres as it touched down because the wheels were locked.  Astonishingly, the captain had put the handbrake on in midair, when he meant to set the wing flaps for landing.  Fortunately, no one was hurt as the twin engine plane skidded to a halt at Leeds-Bradford airport.

Investigators discovered the pilot had made a frightening series of blunders as he :

  • Operated the brake lever although it looks and feels different from the flap control.

  • Failed to check indications that the flaps had lowered - which would have shown up his error.

  • Missed an amber warning light on the cockpit computer screen.

  • Neglected to carry out routine drills that would have highlighted the blunder.

The captain of the Airbus A319 from Heathrow was concentrating on air traffic control reports of wind conditions when his first officer called for the flaps to be set.

The aircraft came to a skidding halt on the runway, slightly left of the centre line.  After coming to a halt the captain requested the first officer to apply the parking brake - who found it was already set.


Serious news from Scotland about a 'potential crisis' in the highlands.

I wrote about a very expensive dessert last week.  Here's a comparatively cheap meal - a mere $1,250 per person.  On top of the cruise cost, of course.

My comments in last week's newsletter about the South Lake Union Trolley generated a couple of reader follow-ups.  Art pointed out this not very serious story about Virgin and an apparent new competitor, and bex wrote in about another acronymed public transport service, the Senior Citizen's Affordable Taxi.

This week's winner of the 'Stupid Airport Joke' award is a Washington taxi driver.

Lastly this week, reader Sarah thought this would be of interest to Travel Insider readers, and I'm so much in agreement I'm copying the entire press release here.

WAVRE, BELGIUM - October 3, 2007 - You need to strap yourself in.  This is no ordinary flight. This flight will soar above and beyond the limits of known musical genres. Our pilot for this trip is none other than Belgium's remarkable composer, Bruno Misonne. Bruno is the creator of an entirely new genre of music based on Aviation.  Misonne transcends the limitations of Orchestra and composition with the release of his new CD, Aviation Music. There is no “ceiling” in this flight.

It’s no irony that Bruno Misonne calls the city of Wavre home.  It's only ten miles from a large airport where he “parks” his instruments.  You See, Bruno Misonne has made the airplane a new instrument in Aviation Music.  The vocals are sound bites of air traffic control communications, blended seamlessly with synthesizers and computer sound banks, to take the listener on a journey.

Indeed, just listening to any of the tracks on his first release will take you soaring into the air, just close your eyes, Bruno will be at the controls, and he is masterful at it. He composes at night when everything is quiet, except his mind.  Misonne’s mind is always at work composing, or preparing to compose.  The true gift is that his best work is produced while working on other tasks. “… I can walk around the garden while I'm building a full imaginary orchestra in my head,” Says Bruno.  In fact, one of the tracks on his latest release, “Early Morning Landing at Heathrow” was created while he was working in his garden.

Bruno has chosen the perfect instrument for his new genre because the airplane is the best way to go global after all.  This new genre is now boarding at a gate near you, and it's time for some “frequent flier” miles, so check out with Aviation Music, the compilation is available at iTunes and his web site: www.brunomisonne.com

I'm traveling to Budapest next Thursday to join the 21 readers traveling with me on this year's Black Sea Discovery Expedition, and won't return until Thursday 25 October.  I plan to send out a newsletter next Friday, but it will be a bit later than normal, depending on (ugh!) flight delays and whatever other random events may arise between here and Budapest.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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