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Friday 22 February, 2008  

Good morning

I spoke about rumors of an incipient Delta and Northwest merger this time last week.  Since then, the rumors have become about as solid as possible, and there were even special board meetings at both airlines to approve the merger earlier in the week, but still no official announcement.

What is holding things up?  Deliberate leaks and comments from 'sources close to the negotiations' are blaming the pilots.  We're to believe that in this multi-billion dollar tie-up between two carriers, a merger that will create the largest airline in the world, and one which will be touted as offering billions of dollars a year of savings and efficiencies, there's an insuperable problem between the new mega-carrier and the pilots they'll continue to employ.

An insuperable problem?  Surely worst case scenario is that the pilots simply continue to get paid as they are at present, or that all pilots now get the better terms and conditions from whichever airline is currently more generous than the other.

Perhaps the 'problem' is all sides being greedy, and trying to ruthlessly profit as much as they possibly can from the merger?

Here's an interesting table of pilot salaries that accompanied this NY Times article.  It clearly shows how pilots at most of the dinosaur airlines have seen massive reductions in pay, although American Airlines (one of only two airlines on the list that didn't go through Chapter 11 in the early 2000's, the other one being Continental) has actually increased its pilot pay, switching from being the lowest paying airline in 2002 to being the highest paying airline in 2006.

Biggest losers are the pilots at United, which explains why the UA pilots are becoming increasingly fractious, after having given back a third of their income between 2002 and 2006.  And perhaps one can understand why pilots at both DL (26.5% drop in pay) and NW (20.5% drop in pay) are also keen to share in the benefits of a new super-airline and the extra profitability it promises.

This week sees a triple bonus.  Rather than stretch an article over three weeks, I'm releasing all three parts of it this week, and you won't have to wait so long to reach the bottom line answer to the question 'Should I buy one?'.  Apple iPhone, that is.

This Week's Feature Column :  The Apple iPhone : With over 3 million already sold, the iPhone's popularity is unquestioned.  But does it deserve the hype that surrounds it?  I review and report to help you decide if you too should spend $400-500 on one of these gadgets.

Travel Insider Touring :  Rather than take up too much newsletter space, I've summarized the different tours and the savings they offer on a special web page.  But can I please draw to your particular attention the China tour this June.  There's plenty of space for another couple or two (or three) and if you'd like to participate in this inaugural Travel Insider China Tour and Cruise, now would be a good time to indicate your interest.

I've also added a new page from which you can request any Amadeus cruise and qualify for our special Travel Insider 5% discount.

Dinosaur watching :  Now the NW/DL merger is close to being officially announced (which of course is nowhere near the same as being  a done deal) other airlines are scrambling to join in the mating frenzy; a frenzy made all the more urgent due to perceptions that there may be a change of administration this November, with a new administration thought to be less likely to passively approve airline mergers.

American Airlines is now being mentioned as a possible merger candidate, and the situation seems to be more or less that all airlines are exploring all possible combinations and permutations to see what might work.

Apparently the only possible outcome that's being largely ignored is the concept of not merging, and instead, to organically grow the strengths of an existing standalone airline the 'old fashioned' way (ie by offering a superior product that customers want, at a sustainable value point).

My comments on United's new bag policies last week and the week before due some interesting reader responses.

John cuts right to the chase about the excuse of increased bag fees being due to the increased cost of jet fuel when he rhetorically asks 'aren't we already paying extra on our tickets due to fuel increases?'.

Alan writes

Initially my own take was the following :

A 400 lb. passenger checks a 50 lb. bag and carries aboard another 50 lbs. in a roll aboard, another 30 lbs. in his hand-held bag.  He pays no surcharge for a total weight of 530lbs.

A 120 lb. passenger checks two bags each weighing 25 lbs. apiece, and pays a surcharge for a total weight of 170lbs.

Where's the equity?

What this will ultimately lead to is passengers carrying aboard bigger and heavier bags.  If they do get stopped at the boarding gate because it is oversized or the overhead bins are full, and the bag must be stowed in the baggage section, will they then be charged for the second bag?

United would have to arm flight attendants with hand-held devices to charge the passenger on the spot. What if that same passenger did not check a bag?  And so on.

It is a ridiculous policy.  If they really want to charge for excess weight, have the passenger stand on a scale with all of his belongings at the counter, and determine a fee to charge.  Let's see how that would fly!

Alan is of course absolutely right, and this is a point that both United and its public apologists are totally silent about.

While proclaiming that we, the traveling public, should be restricting ourselves to taking the bare essentials only with us, why are they silent on the biggest weight discrepancy out there - the difference in weight between, at one extreme, a 25 lb 2 year old child (who is charged a full adult fare) and at the other extreme, an overweight man weighing whatever number of pounds you choose to guess at?

Why not make us all stand on scales and charge us by the 'pound mile' (ie distance times weight) for our transportation accordingly to whatever fair formula the airline determines.

Why should a 120lb lady with a 60lb suitcase be charged more than a 300lb man with a 50lb suitcase?

Warren looks at another side of the picture and writes :

About the United employee talking about the price of shipping bags instead of having the airline carrying them -  we would not need our bags shipped in the first place if we werenít going there on an airplane! We would keep the bags at home, unpacked, and with our stuff sitting on shelves and hangers.

We travel on airplanes to get to a destination.  We have bags because we have to change clothes and carry stuff, since we donít go on airplanes just to go on airplanes!  If you canít carry our bags, as it seems to be something you donít really want to be involved with, then why would you want to have an airplane company?  Get into another business.

And reader Theodore points out that there's an often overlooked low cost solution for overnight door to door baggage service that is much lower than  either Fedex or UPS.

The US Postal Service will come and collect your suitcase (you can enter an online request the previous day), overnight it to where you want to send it, and deliver it at the other end - even on a Saturday (and often Sunday too) with no extra charge for weekend service.

A typical 50lb bag, sent Express Mail, costs $131.25, and a 70lb bag costs $174.25.  These rates are about half what Fedex charge, and not much more - for door to door service - than what United now charges for extra and heavy bags.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Ryanair's approach to defending itself against criticism of an advertisement that some people felt distasteful - instead of apologising to the ASA (the British Advertising Standards Authority) it launched into a veritable tirade and renamed the ASA the 'Absurd Silly Asses'.

And so can you guess how the airline reacted this week when the AUC (the UK Air transport User Council) issued a report on baggage delays that omitted to mention that Ryanair had the best results for not losing bags?

Instead of issuing a positive press release pointing that it scored appreciably better than the rated airlines, it renames the AUC as 'Aimless Useless Clueless' and says, amongst other bon mots,

If the AUC was not so absolutely useless and clueless, it would include the UKís largest airlines in its so called report... The AUC has proved once again that it has no relevance for British airline users.

Here's an interesting table that Ryanair provided, showing European airline performance.  The RTP notes alongside Aer Lingus and Easyjet stand for 'refused to participate' (in the survey).


Airline - 2007


Mislaid bags per 1,000 pax

% Completions







Air France










Aer Lingus*















British Airways









If you've been keen to follow the detail of what happened to the 777 that landed with engine failure at Heathrow, here's a PDF progress report on findings by the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

You've probably heard stories of how Venice is sinking.  Well, rewrite those stories.  Venice's latest problem is it doesn't have enough water, with record low tides going down 29" below normal sea level and causing some canals to dry down to their mud bottoms, stranding gondolas, and causing problems for the water buses.

However, you can relax.  The city is predicting that next year it will be back to 'normal' with even higher water next year than ever before.  Venice has been sinking at a rate of almost an inch a decade, and dropped 9" in the last century.

Amtrak, eat your heart out :  Spain has just inaugurated new high speed train service between Madrid and Barcelona, a 324 mile journey that has been one of the world's busiest air routes until now.

High speed trains will travel the distance from city center to city center in just under 2 ĺ hours, with 17 trains traveling at speeds of up to 186mph in each direction each day.  The rail service is so confident that it is offering full refunds on tickets if any train is ever more than 30 minutes late, and the first train came in 8 minutes early.

An upgrade to track signaling is expected, possibly even later this year, which will cut the journey time still further, with the trains being able to run at up to 220 mph instead of the current 186 mph.

Further to my lead article this week about the iPhone, here's an amusing story about how iPhones, originally manufactured in China, are being smuggled back to China again to be sold on the grey market there.

Which generates an idea - come on the China tour/cruise this June, pack your suitcases full of iPhones, and pay for your trip with the profit from your iPhone sales!  And (slightly seriously here) if you'd like to do that, we'll even unlock your iPhones for free so you can resell them.

This week's issue of cell phones are bad for your health suggests that they may cause cancer of the salivary gland.

I hesitate to mention this next item, because it might be thought it encourages us all to use our cell phones more.  But if you're already a very high user of your cell phone, you need to know this :  Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have all announced unlimited usage plans for only $99/month, including no roaming or long distance fees.

That's a great deal if you're a high volume user of your phone.

And the winner is.... Blu-ray.  The battle between two competing high definition DVD formats, pitting Sony backed Blu-ray against Toshiba backed HD DVD, and with the various movie studios siding one way or the other, or straddling the fence, or doing nothing, has now come to an end, with Toshiba ceasing production of its HD DVD players and conceding defeat.

This must be a lovely victory for Sony; for it was Sony's Beta format VCR that lost out to the (technically inferior but better marketed) VHS format, some 25 years earlier.  This time around, Sony made it clear it was not going to back down and was prepared to do whatever it took to prevail.

Which is (was) the better format?  Blu-ray or HD DVD?  The answer is unclear, and also unimportant.  Both are so marvelous that whether one is slightly more or less marvelous than the other really doesn't matter at all; unlike the earlier VHS/Beta battle where both were so poor and even a slight improvement should have mattered.

For us as consumers, we can now 'safely' choose to buy a Blu-ray player and Blu-ray DVDs without fear of ending up owning an orphan technology.  The industry hopes the end of this format war will encourage consumers to start buying players and discs.

Which means, if you're a long time movie collector like me, you'll be able to add yet another version of your favorite movie to your collection which probably so far includes a VHS tape, a Laser Disc, and a DVD, all in various different editions and aspect ratios, etc.

When will it end, and when will we stop seeing ever newer, ever better ways of recording and playing video?  Probably (hopefully) fairly soon - the latest digital formats are so good that we're well into the realm of vanishing returns, where newer better technologies will give increasingly subtle improvements insufficient to persuade most of us to yet again upgrade our hardware and our movie libraries.

Here's a very thoughtful and balanced article that provides more material on the concept of hacking into a 787's onboard flight computer network.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It is an open secret, among insiders, that TSA staff can sometimes tip off regular law enforcement or customs officials when they come across something that can safely be transported on a plane, but which is otherwise illegal.  Indeed, before the TSA took over screening, many airport contracting companies would get $50 or thereabouts cash bonuses for tipping off the Customs people when they found contraband in suitcases.

With that as background, here's an interesting article on some travelers who have had the bad misfortune to travel to Dubai and be caught with microscopic amounts of drugs on their shoes or elsewhere, for example, one person was caught with a piece of cannabis leaf that was so small it couldn't be seen by the naked eye on the outside sole of his shoe.  This particular gentleman, an Englishman by the name of Keith Brown, was arrested and sent to jail back in September last year, where he still languishes, awaiting trial and sentencing.

It transcends belief that the Dubai authorities would press charges in this situation.  If the microscopic speck of leaf was on the sole of the man's shoe, who's to say where it came from and when.  But apparently this is exactly what they're doing, and as the article recounts, this is far from a single isolated incident.

In fairness, one does have to observe, however, that upon seeing a picture of Mr Brown in the article, it doesn't completely transcend belief to suspect he may indeed be an advocate of NORML.....  Are these people really innocent middle class citizens after all?

Here's the latest set of sad statistics showing how our attitude to visitors is hurting our tourism industry enormously.

You really need to read this; because most Americans are completely unaware of how badly we're hurting ourselves and how much we're losing the respect and friendship of other nations and their peoples.

Here's a puzzling story.  As reported here and elsewhere, a Go flight from Honolulu to Hilo, at about 9am in the morning, apparently lost radio contact with air traffic control.  The plane continued flying, straight and level, on past Hilo Airport and ATC couldn't raise the pilots, even though they had been trying for 25 minutes.

Eventually, some 15 miles out to sea and well past the airport, the plane turned around, descended, and landed safely at Hilo.

Some unkind people are suggesting the problem was simply that both pilots were asleep in the cockpit, even though it was a short 45 minute flight at 9 o'clock in the morning.  But surely that couldn't be the case, could it?

Apparently not, we are assured, by a fellow pilot, who told a local tv station that if the pilots lost radio contact they'd simply stay on course until radio communications were restored.

If we are to believe this explanation, one can only guess at the consternation between the two pilots, flying their plane in a steady west south westerly direction where the next runway wouldn't be encountered until reaching the South American coast, thousands of miles away and well after the plane had run out of fuel.  How far would they go before turning around and going back to the airport?  Why wouldn't they just descend (it was apparently a clear day) and simply use a cell phone to call to the ground?  Or do any one of countless other things in a no-radio scenario.

This other pilot's excuse shows commendable (and typical) solidarity among members of the piloting community, but what he says is nonsense.  FAA flight regulations are very clear and specific about what to do if radio contact is lost; and expressed in their simplest form, they require a pilot to land his plane as quickly and safely as possible (if VFR) or in keeping with his original flight plan (if IFR), rather than keep it in the air, incommunicado, and they absolutely say nothing about just continuing to fly ad infinitum in the same direction until running out of fuel.

Fortunately (for those of us with enquiring minds, if not for the pilots) we'll find out the real story in the fullness of time.  The FAA are going to listen to the cockpit voice recorder, to see if they can hear the sounds of the two pilots talking between themselves.  Some people suspect the only sound they'll hear will be relaxed rhythmic snores with increasingly anxious radio messages playing in the background, unheard.

Are you an intermediate or an expert traveler?  Depending on how you rate yourself, you can now choose to go through either an intermediate or expert security line at Denver Airport.

Perhaps to help train you to become an expert traveler, here's what has to be the strangest children's toy released this year.

To my delight (and almost certainly to that of my 3.5 year old daughter, too) they are sending me a review copy, and while I can't promise a three part 8000+ word review, same as for the iPhone this week, I'll be pleased to report back to you after receiving it.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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