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Friday 12 October, 2007  

Good morning

And greetings from Budapest, where our Black Sea Discovery Expedition is due to start.  We'll visit six countries (Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Turkey) and see parts of the world that most tourists never get to see.  With these travels to remote places, I don't expect to be sending a newsletter next week, and while I get back late on Thursday 25 October, it will be too late to send out a newsletter for 26 October, either.  So plan for the next newsletter being on 2 November.

I flew from Seattle to Amsterdam on Northwest, and on from Schiphol to Budapest on a NW codeshare, operated by Malev.  To my surprise - and delight - the Northwest flight from Seattle to Amsterdam exceeded expectations in all respects.  It was on a nearly new A330 that was spotlessly clean, the coach class seat, while far from spacious, were appreciably wider than in the 737-800 that took me on from AMS to Budapest, and with sufficient leg room to avoid the worst of 'economy class syndrome' from setting in, the food was better than I'd expected, the crew reasonably friendly,  the plane was quieter than the 737, and the entertainment system excellent in all respects.

Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is a great airport to fly through, although it does suffer from one idiosyncrasy - you can't access the boarding gate area until shortly before flight boarding, so if you want to be other than 10+ minutes away from the gate, you've nowhere to sit.  A related annoyance is they have security to enter each gate, so guess what.  Yes - when there's a full flight and the gate opens late, there can be 25 minutes or more of waiting in line to get into the gate area, and - as was the case today - for sure the flight arrives late.

One of the group traveling with me pointed out another issue, common to most transfer cities.  They had purchased some lotions after going through security at their home US airport, but these were detected when changing flights and confiscated (they were 113 mls per bottle rather than the 100 ml maximum).  They'd never even thought that something you buy on the secure side of one airport (and there were bottles of liquids much larger than 113 ml for sale) would be illegal and confiscated when changing flights en route, even though they never left the secure zone.

Good thing it was just skin lotion rather than expensive perfume!

Culture shock hit me shortly after arriving at Schiphol.  I went to a nice cafeteria upstairs for some breakfast, and sat down in the eating area to enjoy the fresh food I'd just purchased.  A couple of tables away were three giggly teenage girls, who after some more giggling in a language I didn't recognize, pulled out packed of cigarettes and started expertly smoking them in the breakfast area.  I then noticed every table had an ashtray on it.  Welcome to Europe.

All in all, when considering strategies to get to a non-hub European city, a Northwest/KLM flight through Amsterdam is vastly preferable to a Delta flight through JFK (yuck!) or a British Airways flight through Heathrow (double yuck!!).

Another innovative carry-on suitcase idea for you this week.  Last week I reviewed the SeatKase - a carry-on with a seat/workstation on the top of it, and I realized, while having lunch at Seatac, that the SeatKase can also act as a dining table (after spilling my meal on my lap!).  This week, another clever idea :

This Week's Feature Column :  SkyRoll Combo Carry-On :  Literally an 'outside the box' concept, with the suit carrier outside rather than inside the bag, this is a novel concept but has compromises inherent in its different design.  Should you get one?  Read the review to find out.

Dinosaur watching :  Airline profits are up, so, guess what.... labor problems are in hot pursuit of those tempting new profits.  The president of the American Airlines pilots union wrote an angry letter to AA's CEO, closing with the comment to 'see you in court, in the newspapers, and on the picket line'.

Apparently the union officer was puzzled by how the airline could generously reward executives with $250 million in stock bonuses over the last two years, while giving nothing to its pilots and other union staff.  The pilots are asking for a minimum 30.5% pay rise - a bit of an aggressive ask, because - according to the airline - AA's staffing costs are already the highest in the industry.

United's pilots are in a similar situation, and have recently elected new leaders who have promised to be more aggressive in their negotiating with management.  United's pilots currently have a contract that doesn't expire until 2010; they want to renegotiate it asap.

Meanwhile, United's CEO, Glenn Tilton, is promising big things in his airline's future.  He sort of disclosed a $4 billion investment plan for the next five years, to be spent supporting 'improvements for customers and employees'.

Sounds impressive.  But, strangely, although offering some vague comments about things in general, Tilton offered no specifics on how he planned to spend the $4 billion.

In more UA news, a Bear Sterns analyst recently pointed out that United has a total capitalization of $5.5 billion, but he estimates their Mileage Plus program alone is worth $7.5 billion.

Is it possible he read my article on this topic, written back on 24 June 2005?  It is nice to be vindicated, even if nearly 2.5 years after the fact.

Southwest continues its seemingly unstoppable slide towards becoming a humorless grim dinosaur airline.  But at least it is now becoming an equal opportunity killjoy.  After admonishing two female passengers for wearing clothing that its flight attendants felt to be slightly too risque, they have now let loose on a male passenger, wearing a t-shirt with a saying on it that offended at least one Southwest flight attendant.

In more bad news about Southwest, they've finally managed to successfully vanquish a company that was offering a service to get your boarding passes for you.  As regular Southwest fliers know, it is possible to get boarding passes printed starting from midnight the day of your flight, and the earlier you get them the more likely you are to get a high priority A category pass.  Most of us don't wish to be up at midnight to do this, so a clever lady started a business doing it for you, charging a nominal sum for the service.

Bizarrely, Southwest objected to this.  Anyone with half a brain would see that this was actually making one of the weakest elements of the Southwest product - their boarding/seating system - not so user unfriendly, and helping Southwest be better accepted by potential travelers.

Reader Scott has an excellent analysis of Southwest's short-sightedness

I enjoyed the service, and, although I'm not really surprised by Southwest's response, I would categorize this in your Southwest dinosaur watch.

I work in the technology field, so it's interesting to see the airline vs. startup from that point of view.  As an example of another approach, Facebook recently opened up their platform so that any developer could create an application to run on the service - provided they follow some simple rules.  As a result, Facebook's valuation has quickly ballooned to a rumored $10-15 billion, which is at least in the neighborhood, and likely higher, than the LUV valuation as of this morning.

Would it be so crazy to think that Southwest could view their airline as a "platform" and allow some innovation to go on outside of its walls? Certainly crazy for a dinosaur....

Or maybe not so crazy of Southwest?  This article speculates that possibly Southwest might start charging to provide the same service themselves.  Whatever the reasoning, some people would think it shows Southwest to be an insensitive bully - a far cry from how they used to portray themselves.

Talking about Southwest, the 'Southwest effect' can be seen at work in the Hawaiian Islands currently.  This effect refers to how the entry of a new lower priced airline causes the number of people flying to massively increase - there's a lesson in that which the dinosaurs seem unable to comprehend.  Dinosaurs like to pretend that air travel is largely 'inelastic' - that is, the number of people flying doesn't really change much as fares go up.  But whenever fares go down, the number of people traveling seems to greatly increase - some people would think that the opposite of this may also be true - ie, that increases in fares reduce passenger numbers.  The dinosaurs cross their fingers and hope this is not the case.

Anyway, the entry of new airline Go has made for major fare discounting, and as a result, Hawaiian Airlines' latest data shows a 22% increase in revenue passenger miles flown.  After allowing for the market now being split three ways instead of two, this is a remarkable result.

The Canadian Transportation Agency has wisely ruled against a Northwest/KLM scheme to charge consumers a US$100 fee to refund taxes on unused, non refundable tickets.  The NW/KL 'refund fee' tariff proposal was filed by the carriers with the CTA, stating that their refund departments had recently been inundated with requests for refunds of the tax portion of the non-refundable fares, and that the process was time consuming.

Anytime you're not traveling on a non-refundable ticket with substantial taxes, it is probably worth it to pressure the airline into refunding the taxes.  If they refuse to, it sounds like a good case to take to your local Small Claims Court.

In other Canadian air travel and tax issues, here's a valuable tip from ARTA - the Association of Retail Travel Agencies.  If you live in a border Canadian city going to the US (or if you're traveling to one from the US), be aware that the cost of air travel can often be much less if you depart and arrive in the US.

As an example, a family of four traveling to Fort Lauderdale would pay C$2774,20 (including $530.20 in taxes!) to fly from Montreal on Air Canada.  Just across the border in Burlington, VT, the cost on JetBlue would be US$1038.40 including $227.24 in taxes.  That's a lot of savings for a 60 plus mile drive.  Allegiant Air recently announced a new routs from Plattsburg, NY to Fort Lauderdale and plans to target Canadians.  It has already been successful with targeting its flights to Canadians from Bellingham in Northern Washington state to Las Vegas.

Talking about travel agents, there's a new attack on retail travel agents, being advanced as a 'for your protection' measure in Massachusetts.  The state is proposing that its travel agents have to post a quarter million dollar surety bond (or, if they can't get a bond, to put the cash in trust) in order to be permitted to sell travel.

Just like gun laws don't deter criminals and just inconvenience honest people, these sorts of laws make it much more expensive and difficult for many travel agencies to remain open (and of course the costs necessarily get passed on to you, their customers) while doing nothing to deter scammers.

The Queen is dead; long live the Queen.  Cunard Line has announced it has ordered a new 92,000 ton ocean liner, to be named Queen Elizabeth.  It is expected to enter service in Fall of 2010, two years after the QE2 leaves Cunard and becomes a floating luxury hotel in Dubai.  This will mean Cunard will have three 'Queens' in service simultaneously - the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Victoria, and the Queen Elizabeth (apparently to be named just Queen Elizabeth rather than QE3).

What a difference a day (or two) makes :  On Monday, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Vice President Randy Tinseth was promising that Boeing's impossibly tight schedule to get the 787 - a plane which still hasn't flown (as of today) - into commercial service in less than six months was achievable.

Two days later, the company announced a six month delay, with first deliveries of the 787 now slated for Nov or Dec of 2008.

How can a senior Boeing official be confidently asserting something on Monday that by Wednesday was shown to be - as people have been speculating for several weeks - completely untrue and impossible?

Oooops.  But probably this is not as damaging to Boeing as the terribly mis-handled development of Airbus' 787 competitor has been to Airbus.  The A350 is not currently expected to enter commercial service until sometime in 2013, some five years after the 787 has started service.  About the only happy thing in Airbus' favor is that what with the huge number of orders Boeing has secured for its 787 and the six month delay in deliveries, it must almost be at the point where a new order for planes could be fulfilled as speedily by Airbus with the A350 as by Boeing with the 787.

There's been little comment about how much Boeing might be up for in contract penalty charges for these delays.  Airbus was massively stung with its several delays to its A380 program.

Conde Nast readers have voted Sydney the world's top city in the magazine's annual readers choice awards.  The city received a total of 87.7 points, followed by Florence at 86.6, San Francisco at 85.9 and Bangkok at 85.8.

Taking rankings by regions, Sydney was of course top in the Pacific Rim cities followed by Melbourne, Florence in Europe was followed by Rome, San Francisco in the US was followed by Santa Fe, Cape Town in Africa/Middle East was followed by Marrakech, Bangkok in Asia was followed by Hong Kong, and Vancouver in the Americas was followed by Buenos Aires.

And another ranking shows the most expensive cities in Europe in terms of hotel rates.

Hotels in Paris are the most expensive, followed London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Moscow, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Munich and Hamburg.

Paris hotels cost an average of 210.29 Euros a night.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Canadian airlines are unhappy because the US government wants them to hand over personal information about passengers who take flights that pass over the US, but do not stop in the US.

The Department of Homeland Security is proposing that Canadian carriers send passenger manifests up to 72 hours in advance of departure to popular winter destinations such as the Caribbean and Mexico.  The same requirements would apply to all northbound flights returning from these destinations.

This really would open a can of worms if other countries started requiring airlines that overfly their territory to submit passenger lists.  You try traveling anywhere internationally without flying over a number of different countries.

And if it is hard to get off the no-fly lists as an American living in the US, can you even start to imagine how difficult it would be for foreigners not living in the US?

And if this is accepted, what will be next?  Let me guess?  A demand for passenger details on any US carrier operated flight (or codeshared flight), even if it takes off and lands in far away foreign countries.

Pretty soon, Uncle Sam will know all about everyone's movements, everywhere in the world (assuming they don't already know this - why not just get the NSA to tap into airline computers around the world and save the bother of asking!).

One of the few reasons to get one of the expensive VIP fast pass cards has been the promise of less hassle getting through airport security.  To date, all the companies have been able to offer is slightly shorter lines to wait for screening, but the same treatment through screening.  They'd been hoping that they could persuade the TSA to use special shoe scanners that would prevent their members from having to take off their shoes.  An earlier model shoe scanner was deemed by the TSA to be unreliable, and now the latest model scanner has also been found unsatisfactory.  Details here.

Here's a 'must read' article - Bill McGee writes, in USA Today, that based on his analysis, the greatest long-term threat to U.S. airline passengers stems not from terrorism, but the outsourcing of critical maintenance work to third-party vendors both here and abroad.

The more things change, the more they remain the same, alas.  Here's a story on the latest alleged case of TSA screeners being tipped off when they were going to be tested.

And this week's really silly response to a non-threatening object has to be the airport evacuation caused by an urn carrying a passenger's deceased father's ashes.

In a more light hearted manner, here's a tutorial on how to talk your way into a country.

And lastly this week, the latest twist on the Blackberry, referred to by some as a 'crackberry'.

Remember, there will probably be no newsletter for the next two weeks.  And so, until November, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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