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Friday 7 December, 2007  

Good morning

And hello from Munich, where the weather is cool but mainly dry, the taxi ride from the airport involved speeds of up to 100 mph on the wonderful autobahn, the Christmas markets are delightful, the wurst tasty and the Gluhwein very more-ish.

During the long flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, I had a minor epiphany.  There's a reason why many of us feel strongly about air travel.  Air travel is an experience often associated with powerful emotional events in our lives.  We fly to places to meet friends and lovers, and from places to leave them again; we fly to change our lives, or to change our businesses.  We fly to celebrate happy events - marriages, vacations, and to share in unhappy events (such as funerals).  For many of us, flying is seldom a routine commonplace activity that has nothing special attached to it - even if semi-routine, it still marks a move from our normally comfortable and controlled environment.

And so, is it surprising, in this stage of heightened awareness, we are more sensitive to issues and interruptions?  I say this not to excuse the inexcusable (bad and stupid airline service and policies) but rather to explain part of the reason why they seem to rub us the wrong way so strongly.

Fortunately, my Northwest flight to Amsterdam and KLM from there on to Munich were both pleasant and uneventful.  The flight from Amsterdam to Munich was interesting for having four different airline designators - KLM (the airline who actually owned the plane), Northwest, Continental and Czech Airlines.  And the nonsense of the claim that 'codeshares (and alliances) make it more convenient for passengers' was exposed when I asked, while checking in with Northwest in Seattle, if they could change my seat assignment on the AMS-MUC flight.  The lady told me 'we used to be able to access KL seat maps, but a few months ago they removed that from our systems'.

Northwest's nearly new A330-200 planes are quickly becoming one of my favorite planes for coach class travel, due to their excellent inflight entertainment systems, allowing each person to choose from a wide selection of movies, and to start, pause, and stop them on demand rather than having to wait for the next time it is scheduled to start.  Even little touches like overhead lights which fade up and fade down rather than wink on and off make for a slightly more refined flight experience.

That comment makes me think about noise cancelling headphones.  Some interesting news on that front from Outside the Box, makers of the Solitude headphones, my current favorites.  They are now facing the threat of a second lawsuit from Bose about alleged violations of Bose's patents.  I'm surprised Bose decided to play that card a second time - the first time, it forced Outside the Box to undertake a complete redesign of the headphones that made them massively better than their earlier series of Plane Quiet headphones, causing Bose's tactic to become somewhat of an 'own goal'.

This time I understand Bose has tracked down the manufacturer in China and scared them into stopping contract manufacture of the headphones.  Anyway, bottom line is that there's now a limited remaining inventory of these headphones, so if you've been thinking 'Maybe I will, maybe I won't', perhaps now you should.  Here's my review, together with links to the two sites that sell them at a discount to Travel Insider readers.

If nothing else, Bose's actions would seem to validate my opinion that the Solitude headphones are indeed strong competitors to (and better priced than) Bose's very expensive alternatives.

Perhaps I should add these to this year's Christmas Gift Giving Guide.  Which brings up the subject of the guide.  Apologies for a bad link in the newsletter to the guide last week.  The link in this paragraph should be correct.

There was also a problem with the html on the page which caused it to display incorrectly in some browsers.  That too has now been fixed.

Still on the subject of Christmas gifts, here's an interesting survey that reports, among other findings, that 34% of people can't remember a single gift they received from their spouse or significant other last year.  And 41% can't recall what their favorite gift was from last year.

Christmas truly has become a consumerist monstrosity, and I notice this every time I venture inside a store between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Take a look next time you do the same - no-one is enjoying themselves.  Shoppers are grim and harried, and shop assistants are overworked and stressed.

And if the net result of all this is that few people even appreciate the gifts they receive, isn't it time for us to break free of the shopping shackles we've imposed on ourselves, and consider Christmas more as a Thanksgiving type event - a time for family celebration and feasting, as well as, of course, the religious underlying meaning that may or may not be individually accepted or respected, while limiting our gift giving activities to perhaps cards sent to friends and family.

Back in August I wrote an editorial on the topic of the craziness of the global warming 'religion' and the implications of carbon rationing.  I wondered where would it all stop, because everything we do in life involves energy consumption and therefore carbon emissions and global warming.

So, to round out this aside on Christmas issues, here's an example of how global warming devotees have found a new target for their ire.  Light one less candle on your Menorah, they are advocating, because each candle releases about one half ounce of CO2 (from memory, a person flying between New York and London releases about 64,000 times more CO2).

In similar spirit, perhaps those of us without Menorahs should undertake to festoon our Christmas trees with one less string of lights?

There's no feature article this week due to my being out of town; and I expect there to be no newsletter at all next week.

Dinosaur watching :  The dinosaurs get smaller, at least domestically :  The six major airlines (American, Delta, Continental, United, Northwest and US Airways) have scheduled 4.4% fewer seats for January 2008 than in January of 2007, including their regional jet services.

This equates to some 72,000 fewer seats a day so don't look for any relief from crowded planes or higher fares.  It also means problems getting flights when the weather turns bad and passengers are stranded overnight somewhere, because there are fewer empty seats on other flights to absorb people from cancelled flights.

United is shrinking the most, with 8.4% fewer seats in January, while Delta is shrinking the least, with 0.6% fewer seats.

But while the airlines are shrinking domestically, they continue to look off-shore for what they perceive as easier markets.  For example United, with the largest domestic reduction, says it plans to expand its international traffic by 15% over the next three years - an impressive figure when first looked at, but remember that is over three years, compared to an 8.4% reduction in domestic capacity in a single year, and in reality, a 15% increase is probably less than maintaining market share because total international travel is expected to grow by more than this amount over the next three years anyway.  So United's bold future comprises getting smaller domestically, and losing market share internationally.

A business plan like this is what the senior executives at United use as justification for their six and seven figure annual pay packets?

Will international travel really be as easy for the airlines as they think it is/will be?  I've consistently suggested this will prove to not be the case.

Here's an interesting article that concurs.  The article is worth clicking on if for no other reason than to look at its chart of airline profitability (drawn from official airline organization IATA data), showing a projected increase in profit for 2008 to make it the most profitable year in the last decade; apparently those high oil prices, which airlines publicly worry about, aren't actually expected to harm their profits at all (another statement I've been supporting for some time).

And talking about oil prices, here's a 'Let's feel sorry for Southwest Airlines' article that includes the tear jerking line 'We are concerned about growing evidence of slowing economic growth that would inevitably affect passenger demand, coupled with a surge in energy prices,' Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said.

But, wait.  As I wrote last week, Southwest is a major winner if oil prices go up, due to it being almost the only airline with fuel hedging in place.  Southwest has 70% of its fuel purchases hedged in 2008, 55% in 2009, and even 25% already hedged for far out 2010.  The more that oil prices go up, the greater Southwest's competitive advantage over its competitors becomes.  Southwest should be (and almost certainly secretly is) hoping for massive increases in fuel costs.

The Department of Transportation said it has conducted an investigation into chronically delayed flights and is threatening to fine carriers if they don't fix the problems.

The DoT said carriers took action in response, including changing flight routes, adding flight crews and making additional aircraft available.  The DoT identified some 183 flights operated by 15 airlines that consistently arrived at least 15 minutes late and warned airlines they would face fines of up to $25,000 per violation unless they cleaned up their act.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has issued a proposal to require airlines to create legally binding contingency plans for extended tarmac delays, respond to all consumer complaints within 30 days, publish complaints information online and provide ontime performance information for their international flights in addition to their domestic flights.

Which, if implemented, will mean the US is slowly catching up with other nations such as even Brazil.  Brazil's government has announced that airlines operating there will have to compensate passengers for delays of longer than 30 minutes, and as delays increase, the compensation grows higher.

The government said it is part of a package to end the air traffic chaos that has plagued Brazil for months.  Airlines will pay their customers 5% of the ticket price for delays of between 30 minutes and one hour and up to 50% of the ticket for delays of more than five hours.  And landing fees are being raised at the two airports in Sao Paulo, two of the country's busiest airports, to encourage airlines to use other airports as hubs.

Here's something else the DoT might like to consider :  The European Union has agreed to make airline ticket costs more transparent by requiring companies who sell air tickets to include all taxes and charges in the headline price first shown to customers.  The EU's 27 member states agreed that the first price the traveler sees should be the real cost of the ticket.

This is of course a sweepingly revolutionary concept that has yet to be embraced in the home of free market economics, the US :  The price you see is the price you pay.

Five states (CA CT NJ NM and PA) plus DC and New York City filed a formal petition with the US Environmental Protection Agency earlier this week, seeking new rules to regulate emissions from commercial aircraft.

The filing states that aircraft engines burn massive quantities of fossil fuels and inject greenhouse gas pollution at high altitudes where emissions have a heightened negative impact.  The petition asks the EPA to 'make an explicit finding that greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft contribute to air pollution that may endanger public health and welfare' and to 'adopt regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft'.

The EPA has to make a formal finding as to whether the airline sector contributes to harmful pollution before it can issue new rules to regulate the industry.  The petition asks the EPA to respond to the request within 180 days.  Predictably, the airlines' lobbying grou, the Air Transport Association, said in response to the petition that 'commercial airlines already are driven to be as fuel efficient and environmentally conscious as possible' and that new regulations are unnecessary.

Actually, the airlines might want to see taxes or other costs imposed on them for carbon emissions - it would give them an excuse to add another surcharge to their ticket prices, and to profit from the surcharge, the same as they unconscionably do with their fuel surcharges at present.  Here's an article predicting that the airlines could make billions in extra profits from carbon emission charges in Europe.

One of the interesting claims in the article above is that airlines account for 13% of carbon emissions in the UK, with a 50% increase by 2020.

Compare that figure with this article, which reveals yet another target for the global warming devotees - computers.  In this article, we are told that computers create almost as much carbon emission as does aviation, with that with rapid growth, computers will soon account for more than aviation.

So, by 2020, planes will account for 13% + 6.5% = 19.5%, and computers will account for more than this. In total, these two sectors alone will account for over 40% of carbon emissions.

Now, we know that other unlikely sources such as cement production and ocean shipping are also major contributors of carbon emissions.  And let's not overlook road transportation, coal (and oil) fired power stations, candles on Menorahs, and so on and so on, as far as you care to drill down.

Am I the only one who can add all these up and come to more than 100%?

Even allowing for overlaps, errors and variations, something's fishy with the ongoing demonization of more and more industries and activities, each being decried as as major contributor to something which may or may not impact on global warming, which may or may not be happening in anything other than the statistically random variations and cyclical changes the planet goes through anyway.

Well done, Amtrak.  Ridership has increased for its fifth straight year of gains and set a record for the most passengers using Amtrak trains since it was founded in 1971.

The increase in passengers is credited to both highway and airport congestion, high fuel prices, increasing environmental awareness and a need for transportation links between growing communities.  Not quite sure what the last reason actually means, but that's what they say.

Amtrak still has a long way to go before getting anywhere near as functional, frequent and fast as continental train services.  Fresh from the success of the new even faster train link between downtown London and Paris, a proposal has been made for a train link between Heathrow and Paris.  This would cut the need for flights and free up capacity at Heathrow for long-haul services and possibly obviate the need for another runway there.

Here's an interesting update on the status of several airline internet services, currently in development or being trialed.

One of the times I most love using my GPS unit is while driving in Britain.  In London, it makes me feel like a black cab taxi driver, directing me down side roads and lanes and getting me reliably where I want to go with no wrong turnings or getting lost, such as was formerly always the case.  And when driving out of London, it can work miracles by finding shortcuts to get me to where I want to go.

Sometimes these shortcuts have been slightly dubious, involving some of the narrow country lanes that are barely one car width across, and sometimes I've decided I'd rather take the major road that might be a few miles longer, but is probably quicker overall and definitely easier to drive.

Here's an interesting and amusing article that tells how it isn't only motorcar drivers who are directed down narrow lanes and through tiny villages that the major roads detour around.  18 wheeler semi trucks and trailers are also using the same GPS units, and oftentimes these GPS units don't give the driver the option to specify 'only send me where I can easily drive my big truck'.  The results can be awkward.

The US Tour Operators Association reports that tour operators are experiencing a drop of some 20% in bookings to Europe and the UK for 2008, due to the unfavorable exchange rate for the dollar.

Thirty members were polled during the informal survey and more than half said their Europe and UK bookings have dropped for 2008, and 60% were outlooking strong price increases as a result of the weak dollar.

This does make river cruising more appealing, because so much is included in the US dollar price - accommodation, transportation, meals, and sightseeing.  As an interesting indicator, I looked at the prices for our Christmas Markets cruise in 2006, 2007, and 2008.  The lead price on an entry level cabin has changed from $1499 to $1599 to $1699, with the increase from this year's $1599 lead price to next year's $1699 price being way under the depreciation in the dollar, and making it an even better value for next year.

JD Power and Associates have issued their annual report on consumer satisfaction with travel sites.  The report ranks Hotwire.com the highest in customer service for a second consecutive year, although customer satisfaction has declined 8 points in the past year on a scale from 810 on a 1,000 point scale in 2006 to 802 in 2007.

The study measures the satisfaction of travelers who book airline, hotel, or rental car reservations through one of eight major independent travel web sites.  The six factors examined are competitiveness of price; ease of booking; usefulness of the information on the site, availability of booking options/travel packages; appearance/design; ease of navigation.  The top three web sites were Hotwire, Travelocity, and Expedia.

Naughty rental car companies :  A California consumer interest group affiliated with the University of San Diego law school has filed a suit in federal court alleging price fixing by seven major car rental companies.  The suit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California by the Center for Public Interest Law, claims that a last-minute change in CA state law last January allowed car rental providers to up prices for consumers in a coordinated way.

The companies - Hertz, Thrifty, Avis-Budget Group, Vanguard, Enterprise, Fox Rent A Car and Coast Leasing - were named as defendants, along with the California Travel and Tourism Commission.  According to the complaint, horizontal price fixing resulted from legislative activities that led to changes in how car rental prices were advertised, and in fees imposed by the state to raise tourism dollars.

The complaint alleges that the California legislature passed on its final day of the 2006-2007 session a bill pushed by the car rental companies that allowed them to drop an 11% airport surcharge from the base auto rental rate they advertise, showing the charge instead as an add-on to a consumer's total bill.  The plaintiffs alleged that the action resulted in a coordinated price increase for the base rental rate by the seven companies, which they contend violated anti-trust laws and constituted illegal activity.

Shortly after the law was passed, average car rental rates rose from $60 a day, to $79, the complaint contends.  A 2.5% increase in rates for tourism funding was characterized by each of the companies as a consumer fee, the complaint also contends, even though the law imposed the charge directly against the car rental companies themselves.

Talking about bad pricing decisions, USA Today announced that it is increasing its cover price to $1.00, but only at airport locations.  The street price will remain at 75.  Shame on USA Today for seeking to exploit one of its core audiences.

Here's an interesting travel tip from ARTA :  If you are travelling to New York you might want to consider taking a tour of the Atlantic Avenue tunnel in Brooklyn.

The tunnel was built in 1844 and is the oldest subway tunnel in the world.  It was part of a rail network that carried passengers to Boston, and was sealed in 1861 and remained that way until Bob Diamond found it in 1980 after an eight month search.  He now gives monthly tours of the tunnel which start by descending through a manhole.  Definitely a different thing to do on your next New York visit.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  An honor guard of soldiers, in their dress uniforms, was formed to escort the body of a fallen soldier from the Seattle area back to Virginia.  Airport police escorted the soldiers through the security screening at the airport so they could then go out onto the tarmac to give honors to the casket as it was loaded onto the plane.

Except that the TSA screener, after carefully checking everyone's IDs, alertly noticed that as the soldiers went through the metal detector, their medals caused it to alarm.  And so he required the soldiers to remove every piece of metal from their uniform (ie take their shirts completely off) and refused to let them pass until they could go through the metal detector with no alarm sounding.

Our nation's military, in full formal dress, unarmed and with an Airport Police escort, are a security threat?  More details here.

The security implications of American Airlines announcement that it will start codesharing with El Al are interesting and as yet unanswered.  American plans to place its AA code on El Al flights to Tel Aviv from JFK, Los Angeles, Miami and Newark and on flights to Tel Aviv from European gateways in Heathrow, Paris, Madrid, Zurich and Rome.  El Al will place its designator on American domestic flights out of El Al's US gateway cities plus Toronto and will codeshare on American's flights between the US and Heathrow, Paris, Madrid, Zurich and Rome.

Will El Al type security now be in place for American flights?  And will AA passengers flying on El Al operated planes be exempted from El Al's security screening?  Has AA just made itself a more tempting and softer target for middle east terrorists than El Al?

The Department of Homeland Security will replace the current two-fingerprint scanners with new 10-fingerprint scanners at all US ports of entry over the next year.  The first of the new scanners was installed last Thursday at Washington Dulles and nine airports will receive the scanners in early 2008.

The DHS says that collecting ten fingerprints from international visitors is one of the department's top priorities because it furthers the department's ability to keep dangerous people out of the US, while making legitimate travel more efficient.

How does giving ten fingerprints instead of two make anything more efficient?

There's an interesting new technology now being trialed at Houston whereby boarding passes can be electronically sent to mobile phones and instead of being printed out, displayed on the phone screen.

It is an interesting idea that saves trees and hassle.  But the TSA displays hubris when it says it is confident the technology can't be cracked.  In the past, security commentators have detailed several flaws in traditional printed boarding passes, and one person even had a website up that would print boarding passes for any named person on any flight you wished, as a way of illustrating how vulnerable the concept of boarding passes is to exploitation.

But to suggest that boarding passes displayed on phone screens can't be cracked is ridiculous, and shows the TSA lack even a simple understanding of computer technology and the vulnerabilities inherent in it.

Situation :  A foreign national, living quietly and legally in their home country, is suddenly abducted by security forces of another country, smuggled out of his own country, and taken to the other country where he is tried on charges that would never stick in his home country, convicted, and sentenced, possibly even to death.

Normally when one country wishes to try a foreign national situated outside of the country that wishes to prosecute the foreign national, they have to go through a formal extradition proceedings.  But one nation, apparently alone in the world, insists it has the lawful right to abduct anyone, from anywhere in the world.

Can you guess the identity of this rogue nation?  Hint - not Russia, Iran, Syria, or anywhere like that.  Answer here.

Here's an excellent article on security and the nonsenses and abuses that are increasingly offered 'for our protection'.

Lastly this week, I hope the 40 people traveling with me on this year's Christmas Markets cruise don't read this item until after their return home.  A group of Chinese tourists clashed with their tour guides in Macau earlier this week.  The nearly 100 tourists were very unhappy with their guides because they had taken them to too many shops when they wanted to see historical sites.  The tourists assaulted three police officers who intervened and surrounded the police vehicle until more than 40 anti-riot officers were called in with batons and shields.  At least four police officers were injured and five tourists were charged with creating a public disturbance.

Please remember, there will probably not be a newsletter next week.

Until the week after next, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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