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Friday 8 February, 2008  

Good morning

Depending on your point of view, Super Tuesday was either super, not super, or as yet undecided.  I'll wisely say nothing further.

The week has not been without its trials and tribulations.  I've been testing some new software that I'd love to recommend to you; I'd used an earlier version of it some years ago, but its latest incarnation seems to be rather buggy, and its customer support rather lacking.

After failing - after 7 minutes on the phone - to get the support person to comprehend my name, phone number, address and product serial number, it was plain I needed to speak to someone else, but the person told me their phone system did not allow calls to be transferred to other people.  I then asked to speak to a supervisor, and was told that their phone system also did not allow calls to be transferred to a supervisor.  Yeah, sure, right, we all believe that, don't we.

However, by adopting the skills in my series on complaining, I was able to get a flurry of phone calls and prompt helpful support from people who understood me, and that encouraged me to release another part of of my ongoing series on complaining :

This Week's Feature Column :  How to Complain in Person :  Sometimes it is better not to complain in person, but for those times when it is a good strategy, here's what you need to know to do it best.

Travel Insider Travel Opportunities :  May I remind you of our special China cruise and tour, this June.  This is an exciting and close to complete exposure to about as much of China as you can ever reasonably hope to see, and priced from only $2795 per person.

Join like minded Travel Insiders for a comfortable and convenient exposure to the complexity of China's past, present, and future riches.  All details here.

Also available, some special European river cruise values :

March cruise from Amsterdam to Trier - details, including very special pricing, here.

May and June cruises through Spain and Portugal -  Here's a massive 15% off the cruise price on these two cruises.  In addition, you get another $100 discount if you're an AARP member, and yet another $100 discount if you're a past cruiser with Amadeus.  Cruise details here, but you must book through me, not Amadeus, to get the special 15% discount.

August cruise too for Spain and Portugal - If May or June don't work for you, here's another cruise, departing the US on or before 26 August, also with a 15% special discount in addition to regular discounts.  Cruise details here, and book through me to qualify for the discount.

Any time, any Amadeus cruise - A 5% Travel Insider discount if booked through me, plus, if applicable, an AARP preferred supplier discount and a $100 past cruise discount too.  Amadeus cruise information here.

Dinosaur watching :  Merger mania continues unabated.  Latest gossip suggests that a Northwest and Delta merger may be announced within the next weeks.  And, rather as expected, other carriers are not sitting idly on the sidelines watching the likely tie-up between NW and DL.  United - earlier said to be a potential DL partner (but this was never a possibility given much credence by insiders) is now rumored to be in discussions with Continental, the carrier I've always felt to be most anxious about the implications of a NW/DL merger.

And, just to show Delta isn't playing any favorites, not only did it first say it was talking to UA and NW, but this report suggests it has been three-timing by having a bit of a chat with CO on the side, too.

Are we soon to see the 'Big Six' airlines reduced down to the 'Bigger Four'?

Other airlines have bravely piped up, indicating that they're interested in playing the 'Let's Merge' game too.  Even Southwest has indicated that it wouldn't be too proud to gobble up another competitor, but probably the most sensible commentary from their CEO, Gary Kelly, was when he said that if other airlines merge, Southwest will benefit.  With Southwest having an increasingly effective national route system, and continuing to try to develop an appealing service for business travelers, it hopes to be a beneficiary when airlines merge and disaffected customers turn somewhere else.

Many people have an airline they've promised themselves they'll never fly on again.  If that airline merges with their current preferred airline, they may prefer to find another airline to fly, rather than to rejoin the airline they hate with a passion.

And some other travelers will be 'casualties' - a merger may mean their preferred airline no longer participates with other key airline and mileage partners, and so they too will be looking to change.  This is part of the reason why a merger never ends up as large as the two airlines were individually.

It is interesting to contrast how airlines handle mergers - by killing off one brand entirely - with the way cruiselines quietly merge.  Carnival Corporation, for example, operates cruises under a wide range of different brands, and many casual cruisers never even realize they are all owned by the same company.  Cruise with Holland America Line, with Carnival itself, with Cunard, with Princess, with Seabourn, with Costa, or with P&O, and you're with a subsidiary of Carnival.

But what's the betting that if NW and DL merge (or any other two airlines) you'll end up with one brand disappearing and the other taking over.  Of course, there are exceptions, but the only one that comes to mind is Air France and KLM, and the preservation of these two brands might be due to the national sensitivities of merging two flag carriers of two different countries.

United is courageously (not) plowing its own furrow when it comes to upping the costs of traveling with luggage.  Ordinary passengers can now only check one bag, weighing no more than 50lbs, included with the price of the ticket they buy.  A second bag, also of no more than 50lbs, formerly free - and, as of the time of writing, still free with all other airlines - will now cost $25 to check.  And if you've a third bag, the fee for that will now be $100 (up from $85).  More than four extra bags are now $200 a piece.  If your bag weighs over 50lbs, be prepared for a shock there, too - you're up for a $100 fee per overweight bag (formerly $50).  So if you're checking a third piece that is also overweight, be ready to hand over $200 for the privilege.

Think about this - here you are, a 240lb adult, and you're traveling somewhere on a $200 roundtrip ticket.  To take a third bag, weighing 60 lbs with you, roundtrip, you would be paying $400 extra for that third bag (as well as probably extra weight fees on the first two bags and an extra piece charge on the second bag, too).  Yes, a passenger gets to pay $200 roundtrip, but a piece of luggage that is much smaller and only one quarter the weight might cost twice as much.  Or, to put it another way, if you travel with three bags that each weigh a massively heavy 80 lbs (I've never had a suitcase that heavy), you'll pay $425 each way - $850 roundtrip - to take the bags that weigh as much as you do, while you're traveling on a $200 ticket.

Do you think that maybe United has become a bit too greedy?

I was tempted to update my pages on airline baggage policies, but decided to hold off on a general re-release of these pages, pending the likely decision by other carriers to copy United's new fees.

Meanwhile, although United is focusing on gouging passengers who wish to travel with a fair amount of luggage, it seems to have taken its eye of the broader picture.  Earlier this week it released its January passenger data, showing a massive contraction in passenger volumes year over year.

Within North America, capacity decreased by 10.7%, and RPMs (revenue passenger miles) by 12.4%.  Fortunately, growth in numbers across the Atlantic and stable numbers elsewhere helped reduce the overall effect of its collapsing North American business, with an overall systemwide reduction of 5.3% in RPMs and a 3.4% reduction in capacity.

It will take a lot of extra bag charges to make up for flying 674 million fewer RPMs in a single month.

Here's an announcement that has been a very long time in the making, and one can only guess at what has held JetBlue back, for so many years, from doing this type of thing.  At last, JetBlue has announced a tie-in with an international airline, so that it benefits both from feeding its customers onto international flights and receiving incoming customers from the international airline.

You might be guessing that the airline tie-up is with new shareholder Lufthansa, but in actual fact it is with Aer Lingus.  This will help both these small airlines.  One hopes that JetBlue will announce additional similar partnerships in the future.

It is very rare that something truly new appears in the industry.  But it seems that British Airways is about to try something truly new, and quite daringly innovative for an airline that many of us have perceived as stodgy.  This week they announced plans to start new double daily all business class service between London and New York.  Okay, so you might be forgiven as thinking that this has become an already well worn path, with failed Maxjet and other competitors such as Silverjet still active.

Now for the innovative part.  Instead of flying from one of the 'normal' London airports such as Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted or even Luton, these flights will operate from close in to the center of London City airport, called, appropriately enough, London City Airport.  This will collapse the travel time to get to the airport (although, to be fair, the Heathrow Express is very quick to Heathrow once you get to its Paddington terminal).  And, speeding up the travel experience still further will be a 15 minute checkin requirement.  Yes, that's not a mistake.  As long as you're checking in 15 minutes prior to your flight's departure, you're sufficiently on time.

But wait, there's more.  The 15 minute checkin will also apply for your travel from New York as well (BA is silent on which of the NY area airports the service will operate from).  And the planes will be the very small Airbus A318, fitted with a mere 32 lie-flat business class seats.

Sounds like a winner, right?  Well, there's unfortunately one more bit of innovation.  London City Airport (LCY) has a very short runway, and that means the A318 (a short range plane at the best of time) will not be able to depart with sufficient fuel to make the journey to New York nonstop.  Nope, the solution isn't mid-air refueling from a Boeing Frankentanker.  Instead, BA will break the journey to the US (but not the journey from the US) with a 40 minute 'gas and go' stop somewhere en route (probably somewhere in the west of England or Ireland).

The brief stop, during which passengers won't deplane, does slightly interrupt the otherwise peaceful routine of the flight, but BA says that, even after factoring in this extra time, the combination of close in location and short checkin still makes it the fastest way across the Atlantic.  A successor to the Concorde, it truly isn't, but an appealing product for business class travelers?  It possibly may be.  Service is scheduled to start sometime in 2009.

Something that might be a successor to the Concorde was discussed this week - a Mach 5 hypersonic jet with a nonstop range of halfway round the world, carrying 300 passengers in a windowless plane that burns hydrogen for fuel, at prices similar to regular first class fares currently.  This would allow a nonstop London-Sydney flight, which would currently take 22+ hours if possible (and it isn't) to be covered in little over four hours.

But don't go booking tickets for this plane just yet.  The developers talk vaguely about this plane, which they call the A2, maybe being in service in 25 years time.  Maybe.

I mentioned Ryanair being lightly chastised last week for what the UK Advertising Standards Authority felt to be a slightly naughty advertisement, and Ryanair's aggressively rude response.  I speculated that with the probable enormous amount of free publicity the antic generated for the airline, possibly it had even complained about itself so as to start the publicity machine turning.

This week, Ryanair is the beneficiary of more free publicity - so much so that it even voluntarily contributed cash to a charity to celebrate its windfall of free publicity.

The airline had earlier advertised in France, featuring a picture of President Sarkozy and his then girlfriend (now wife) Carla Bruni, gazing skyward, and with a think bubble above her head saying 'With Ryanair, my whole family will be able to attend my wedding'.

President and now Mrs Sarkozy sued Ryanair for unauthorized commercial use of their images.  The President asked for 1 as symbolic damages, she asked for 500,000.  A court awarded President Sarkozy his 1 and Mrs Sarkozy was given some 60,000 ($89,000).

After Mrs Sarkozy announced she was donating the money to a charity, Ryanair said it would match it with a second equal donation because of the publicity they'd received.

It is interesting to contrast how Britain's authorities reacted to the allegedly offensive Ryanair ad with how police in Virginia Beach responded to an allegedly offensive Abercrombie & Fitch ad at an A&K store in the local mall.  The complete absence of verifiable complaints about the ad are particularly surprising.  Is it fair to threaten a lowly mall chain store manager with up to a year in jail for following his company's mandated advertising campaign?

Talking about retail stores in the US, here's an interesting piece of non-news.  New York retailers have finally discovered the rest of the world, and are learning that it is very profitable, too.  Translation :  Stores are now starting to accept Euros as well as dollars, with measurable increases in sales as a result.  Details here.

American train lovers will again go green with envy upon learning of the latest high speed train being released by the French company, Alstom.  The AGV - a successor to their TGV trains - is rated at speeds of up to 224 mph, and will cover 600 mile journeys in no more than three hours, increasing still further the distance for which it makes more sense to take a train rather than plane.

And this week's 'Why can't our government do this to Amtrak' story comes from the humble country of Argentina.  The Argentinean government is upgrading 420 miles of railroad to allow for high speed trains to operate on it, and the journey time on the route (from Buenos Aires to Cordoba) will reduce from 14 hours to 3 hours.  The upgraded line will be operational in 3 years.

We've plenty of 420 mile corridors in the US that would benefit from upgrading to allow fast train service.  If nothing else, it should appeal to the eco/carbon advocates, with train travel requiring less energy than plane or car travel (assuming good passenger numbers on the trains).

I've asked the rhetorical question before about where the current obsession with carbon emissions will end.  The end is nowhere yet in sight, according to this article, and some of the things I'd suggested as foolish flights of fancy are now becoming seriously advocated.

Oh, for what it is worth, January temperatures were 0.3F cooler than the 20th century average, a statistic all the more reassuring because the average temperature last century is more heavily weighted to the preponderance of years before there was an apparent increase in global temperatures.

Meanwhile, as more and more people and companies (notably Virgin Atlantic) climb on the biofuel bandwagon, its ugly secret is harder and harder to keep hidden.  Biofuel releases more greehouse gases than does oil (to say nothing of causing the price of a huge range of food items to increase enormously).

Cell phones are dangerous for your health, continued :  Here's a potential danger for men.

Have you ever appreciated the incredible rise and fall and rise and fall of Motorola's cell phone business?  The company created the first practical portable 'brick phone', then innovated the first ever flip phone - at the time of their release, each phone seemed impossibly small and futuristic.  And then, after languishing in the doldrums and with some truly ugly and underfeatured phones, its RAZR phone came out in 2004 and shook the market up just as much as its earlier designs did.

But - since that time, what has Motorola done?  Almost nothing, and now the company that had such massive impacts on developing the cell phone handset marketplace is talking about maybe moving out of cell phones entirely.  No doubt they too, like Siemens before them (or, for that matter, like IBM with its laptop computer line) will find a willing buyer in China to take over their product line.

At least there's still one American company capable of innovation and of leading the cell phone field, and that is Apple.  This week they announced the latest tweak to their paradigm changing iPhone, offering it in a new expanded 16GB memory version as well as the current 8GB version.  When the iPhone first came out, it was also briefly available in a 4GB version, but that was quickly discontinued.  Apple also released a new iTouch iPod with 32GB of memory (previously the largest one was 16GB).  Both the 16GB iPhone and 32GB iTouch sell for $499.

Amazon continues to expand the variety of ways it offers book content.  Last year it added its Kindle e-book reader (reviewed here), a product so seemingly (and arguably undeservedly) popular that even now, three months after its release, the unit remains back ordered.  It just goes to show what is possible when a marketing giant gets solidly behind the concept.

Now it has bought out Audible, the publisher of 'talking books' (reviewed here).

This Week's Security Horror Story :  This is well worth watching - a video that shows how easy it is to smuggle a bomb past airport security.

It isn't just US security that has its public embarrassments.  A Dutch current affairs program had one of its journalists sneak a fake bomb into the freight area at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.  The airport said it will tighten security as a result.

Meanwhile, while the TSA mightn't be able to reliably find hidden explosives, it continues to impose its usual unpredictable and peculiarly random standards on what you must do while going through security checkpoints.  Here's a story about how the TSA required one passenger to remove a thin cotton sweater before going through the metal detector, and at another airport, a passenger had to not just remove his laptop from his carry-on bag, but also all wires and other related things too.

Here's a thoughtful piece on the unclear question of whether or not customs agents should be able to search the contents of your laptop.  Worse still, not only do they sometimes search your laptop, but sometimes they impound it and don't return it for weeks while checking the contents of the computer.

And here's a related item about a man that few of us will feel very unsympathetic towards.  But the issue is interesting - should he be compelled to provide the password to open up the encrypted files on his laptop?

Those of us who carry our entire business and personal life on our laptop when we travel may feel a little awkward at having all of it exposed to the harsh glare of official enquiry, and without a doubt will feel terrified at the thought of losing the unit and its data potentially for weeks.

Sure, countries and their border guards have some rights to inspect the materials being taken in to their country, but travelers must have some rights too.  The more intrusive the search, and the more inconvenient the actions of Customs agents, the more clear and certain should be the reasonable grounds for (and of) suspicion that is driving their actions.  They shouldn't be allowed to go on speculative fishing expeditions, just because they have spare time on their shift and nothing better to do.  To allow random inspections at the border is essentially the same as allowing random searches on the street - citizens of the country in question, in particular, surely have the right to expect to be allowed to return to their home country with a minimum of intrusive inconvenience.

Here's a very interesting website that shows you on a world map the locations of recent terrorist incidents, and here's a related map that shows illegal alien (sorry - undocumented immigrant) activity in the US.

Here's an interesting bit of miscellania for Kennedy conspiracy theorists.

And, lastly this week, strange goings on at Grand Central Station.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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