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Friday 7 March, 2008  

Good morning

And talking about mornings, don't forget that Sunday morning sees the new earlier start to our daylight saving.  'Spring forward, Fall back' reminds us that this is the time to set our clocks forward an hour.  Let's hope for fewer airline problems with the start of daylight saving now than there were with the end of daylight saving last year.

Today has seen another severe failure of the cursed Microsoft Frontpage software I use to write my newsletter with.  The two problems I have with Frontpage are that it occasionally crashes, and it does not auto-save backups, so when it crashes, I've lost all the work since my last manual save.

With every other program I use these days having auto-save features, it is not always easy to remember to be continually saving in Frontpage, and when I get focused on writing, time flies by and all of a sudden - well....  Bottom line; just as I was triumphantly finishing tonight's newsletter, it crashed, and I lost three hours of work.

Usually I can 'hide' these problems from you, but it is a bit hard to find three more hours at the end of a long hard day, so you're getting as best I can pass on to you.  I really must change from Frontpage to some other program, but Frontpage has so many essential-to-me built in extras that I'm really stuck in a terrible 'love/hate' relationship with it and the people at Microsoft who foisted it upon me.  It is a very uncomfortable position to be in.

I've been writing this newsletter and associated feature articles for 6.5 years now, and people sometimes ask me where I get my story ideas from, and do I ever worry about running out.  Everywhere, and not very much are the two answers to these questions; and this week, the impetus for the feature column came from reader Ram, who asked for some thoughts about round the world airfares.

No sooner said than done, and I'm very pleased with the final result which, if I do say so myself, promises to be the most definitive and detailed explanation of these often very complicated and hard to understand fares, anywhere on the internet.  And so, here are the first two articles of what will be in total a five part series :

This Week's Feature Column :  Round the World Airfares : Not just for leisure travelers on lengthy 'trips of a lifetime', in these first two parts of a five part series, I provide the low-down on what these fares are, how they work, and the surprising ways they can sometimes be compellingly useful for business travelers too.

Bargain alertMy favorite luggage is the range of bags made by Briggs & Riley.  I like them because they are very well made and long-lived - so much so that the company offers a lifetime warranty, and, unlike most other luggage manufacturers, doesn't make their warranty useless by excluding airline damage.

For sure, Briggs & Riley luggage is a bit more expensive than no-name generic luggage, but as any of us who have had a bag fail in the middle of a journey will agree, it is definitely worth paying a bit more to get a more reliable bag, and the lifetime warranty gives you a much longer economic life for the bag as well.

Unlike some deluxe brands of luggage (with vastly inferior warranties and product life), B&R luggage doesn't shout 'I belong to a wealthy tourist, steal me'.  My pieces are discreet and subtle, while extremely functional.

I have a wheeled carryon I've been flying with since 2004; for a while I was keeping a log of the flights and miles it has amassed, but gave up because it was clear the bag wasn't going to fail.  I also have a larger suitcase for checked luggage, and a computer bag/briefcase.  All three are my constant and faithful travel companions.

It is rare to see B&R luggage on sale, but for this weekend only, Travel Essentials are offering a 20% discount on their range of Briggs & Riley luggage.  I'm not sure, but I think you might get a further 5% by using the discount code 'Travelinsider' (but without the quotes) at checkout, too.  But, whether 20% or 25%, it is a great deal, so if you're planning some new luggage any time soon, this is something to consider.

Jumping up from fourth place last year, China is predicted to become the world's second most popular tourist destination this year, according to World Travel & Tourism Council figures released this week.  There's a reason China has been steadily leaping further and further ahead of everywhere else in the world as a tourism destination - and that is simply because it is a wonderful country full of fascinating experiences at good value points.

So, if you haven't already been, why not come on our inaugural Travel Insider China Tour & Cruise, this June.  Space still remains, and you'll be joining a small group of your fellow Travel Insiders on a wonderful tour around the best that China has to offer tourists such as ourselves.

Oh - the world's most popular tourist destination?  Well, I'm glad you asked that question, the answer to which is France.  And, would you believe it, we have a marvelous Provence/South of France Travel Insider Cruise in May, complete with optional pre-cruise time in Barcelona and post-cruise time in France.  Plus a 15% discount, just to make it even easier for you to choose to come with us on this lovely cruise.

The third and fourth most popular destinations are Japan and Germany.  We've no tours to Japan, but of course do have our Christmas Markets Cruise in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic this December.

If you're visiting any of our tour pages, you'll notice there are now new real time chat links on each tour page - if you have questions about a tour, in addition to emailing or phoning, you can now chat through the computer with me, if I'm also online at the same time.  Isn't modern technology wonderful.  :)

Dinosaur watching :  So where are the airline mergers we've been threatened with/promised for the last month and more?  Nowhere is the short answer.

Showing an impressive ability to switch spin directions in a heartbeat, Delta's President and CFO, Ed Bastian, said last Friday that the airline was not rushing to merge with Northwest, and said they had a strong stand-alone business plan.

So is that it for the merger madness that filled the news for the last month?  Maybe not.  It is understood that Delta and Northwest's pilots are meeting again to try and resolve their differences as to how they could integrate their respective seniority rankings in a merged carrier; and, for sure, no matter how good a stand-alone business plan Delta might have, if those issues could be resolved, the airlines would be back at the merger table in a heartbeat.

An industry insider shared a fascinating presentation with me that analyzed the impacts of some airline mergers.  One of the most revealing things was that, from a shareholding point of view, some of the airlines are already semi-merged.  Get this - the top 20 institutional investors at Continental Airlines own 75% of that airline's stock.  Okay - no big deal, perhaps.  But, those same investors also own 40% of United's stock.

Or, flip the view the other way, the top 20 United investors own 90% of United's stock and also own 46% of Continental's stock.

If you could get this group of investors to agree on a merger, it would be all over and done, at least from a shareholder ratification point of view.

It would be interesting to see these figures extend across all the major carriers.  Just how diverse a base of shareholders are there?

One of my occasionally expressed fears is that the airline industry is becoming increasingly beholden to environmental lobbies that seek to influence and distort how the airlines run their businesses.  As unlikely as that may seem - the airlines themselves being one of the most effective lobbying groups out there - it is increasingly being seen to be the case.

Most recently, there were howls of outrage this week when it was announced that American Airlines had operated a flight from Chicago to London with only five passengers on board.  This article, in Britain's conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper, describes it as an "'eco-scandal' flight", and refers scathingly to the 22,000 gallons of fuel used by the 777 on its journey.  More rabid commentators had much more to say than this.  For example, not quoted in the article was the nonsense spewed forth by British MP and Transport Spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Party, Norman Baker, who called the flight 'climate change crime' (surely a very new type of crime - I wonder what the penalties are) and said it was an example of 'the ludicrous nature of the aviation industry'.

If AA flies a nearly empty plane, it suffers a financial penalty (in this case estimated at about $60,000) that is a much stronger consequence than any concerns about the environment will ever be, and you can be sure that neither AA nor any other airline likes operating nearly empty flights.

And, even if we accept that AA should be accountable to environmental groups and blowhard politicians for its actions, the truth is far more complex than the headlines suggest.  First, and most obviously, if AA didn't fly the plane to London, what would happen to the passengers, the flight crew, and everyone/everything else that was awaiting its arrival and needing to use the plane for its next movement?

Secondly, even a nearly passengerless plane can sometimes have compelling reasons to operate, and can even do so at a profit.  That is because of the opportunity to transport freight.  Apparently AA had a full load of freight on this flight.

Thirdly, the flight was originally to have been much more full, but it was delayed 14 hours, and AA was able to shift all but five of the passengers to other flights.  So, in theory, the flight wasn't almost empty.  Should AA have refused to shift passengers to earlier flights, just to make itself look good in the myopic eyes of the environmentalists?

Fourthly, are we to hand airlines a new gilt-engraved excuse to use against us, the passengers who book on their flights and trust in their commitment to operate the flights?  Can airlines say back to us 'I'm sorry, but there were insufficient people booked on this flight, so to protect the environment, we cancelled the flight'?

The cruel irony of this situation is that AA could have cancelled the entire roundtrip, and could have inconvenienced the five remaining passengers to London and the planeload (300+) of passengers due to return, and probably spent less money in doing so.  Instead, AA acted responsibly and fairly, putting the interests of its passengers before its own direct financial benefit.  For this - for being a reliable and honorable airline - it now gets roundly castigated by people obsessed with only one small part of the total picture.

Well done, AA.  Thank you.

Talking about AA and problems with 777s, it had to take one of its 777s out of service this week after an engine problem that was eerily reminiscent of the problem that caused the BA 777 to crash just short of Heathrow in January.

A 777 from Miami to Los Angeles experienced a 'slow response' to its autothrottle, 2,000 ft prior to landing.  Apparently the left engine took 10 - 15 seconds from receiving a request to increase power until it responded.  Although both the AA and BA planes had the same Rolls-Royce engines, Rolls-Royce says that a preliminary analysis suggests it was a very different event to that on the BA plane (even though there is not yet any finding as to what caused the BA 777 to lose power in both engines).

And that is supposed to reassure us?  Is Rolls-Royce telling us there are now two mysterious problems with its 777 engines?

Here's a stupid idea.  Delta is now issuing special red tags to be placed on your carry-on luggage when flying with them internationally (and, in time, for domestic flights too).  Somehow these tags are supposed to control who brings what onboard with them; but what is the point, when the gate staff mutely stand there and allow people to wheel any number of monstrous bags on board with them, in clear contravention of their own carry-on policies, no matter if they are tagged or not?

Two things that frustrate me about any airplane boarding process are the people who board before it is their turn, and the people who bring too many carry-on items with them (often the same people are committing both sins).  But the thing that frustrates me the most?  The airline's own employees, who just idly do nothing and allow people to board out of sequence, and to take ridiculous amounts of luggage with them.

Suggestion to Delta - save yourself the cost of the red tags.  Just educate your gate staff.  It isn't rocket science.

Here's an interesting guarantee from Delta - but I bet you can't cash in on it.  They guarantee that their website fares are the lowest there are.  If you find a lower price on another travel website, on the same day you bought a ticket on Delta's site, they will refund the ticket cost or offer the fare difference plus a $100 travel voucher.

Now for the impossible part.  The lower fare must be for the exact same Delta flight, date, cabin, booking class and flight time as the original ticket and the difference in total fare must be equal to or greater than $10.  Most websites don't show the booking class (a single letter like H or B or Q or V or B or whatever), making this a very difficult guarantee to cash in on.

Well done, US Airways.  The airline lead the on-time stakes among the major carriers for January, and so is giving a $50 bonus to every employee.  With 36,000 employees, that's a $1.8 million total payment.

US Airways had a 79.5% ontime arrival rate.  The worst carrier was United, with a 62.1% rate.

More reasons to visit Paris at the end of our lovely cruise/tour in May.  The Louvre was the most popular museum in the world last year, with 8.3 million visitors.  Second most popular was the garishly designed Pompidou Center, with 5.5 million visitors.  The Tate Modern in London had 5.2 million, then the British Museum with 4.8 million, and the fifth spot went to the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art with 4.5 million.

By way of contrast, Disneyworld in FL had about 45 million visitors last year.

The papers have been full of politicians and labor leaders bellowing their ill informed outrage about the Air Force decision to award its replacement tanker contract to a consortium of companies comprising Northrop, Grumman and Airbus.  Their proposed tanker, which will be assembled in in Mobile Alabama, is based on the A-330 plane, and Airbus will move assembly work for its passenger A-330 to Mobile, too.  Northrop claims this contract will create 25,000 additional jobs for American workers.

The losing plane was a Boeing 767 derivative.  By all accounts, the Air Force decision was simple, straightforward, and correct.  The Northrop tanker can carry 20% more fuel, 20% more passengers, and 30% more cargo, and follows a series of other wins for this plane as tankers with other air forces, most notably in Britain, Australia, UAE and Saudi Arabia.  The Boeing plane is an almost 30 year old design, while the Airbus alternative is barely ten years old.

Most interesting and relevant is understanding just how American both planes are.  As you might know from looking at the stickers on new cars, 'American' cars have surprisingly high imported content in them, while 'Japanese' cars often have surprisingly high US content.  Apparently the same is true of planes, too.

A source close to Airbus suggests that their plane will have about 60% American content.  I don't know what the Boeing number is, but with its fuselage coming entirely from Japan and its tail entirely from Italy, it clearly has a substantial amount of foreign content, making the claims of apparent automatic entitlement for Boeing to get the contract, even if its plane isn't as good as the Northrop consortium's plane, all the more specious.

Well done, the Air Force, for choosing the best plane for the job.  Let's hope the politicians don't force a rethink of this good decision.

More bad news for Boeing, and this time bad news for Airbus too.  China has announced plans to start development of its own large passenger jet, with the government allocating an initial $10 billion in development funds for the project.

China is one of the largest and most rapidly growing markets for passenger jets, and with close government control on aircraft purchasing by the Chinese airlines, it is likely that locally built planes will be purchased in preference to foreign planes.

The Chinese government has already announced the building of a smaller passenger jet.

Maybe the pandering to the Chinese by both Boeing and Airbus (especially in the form of giving new plane models as many '8's in their numbering as possible - that's why we have a 787-8 and an A380) will all be for naught.

In other airplane news, Emirates will start operating A380 super jumbos between JFK and Dubai on 1 October.  It will add A380 service between Dubai and London on 1 December, and to Sydney and Auckland on 1 February 2009.  The planes will have a mere 14 first class seats, 76 in business class, and 399 in coach class (489 seats in total).  Emirates has a massive 58 A380s on order.

It is interesting to see that all the extra seats in these A380s are going in the 'back' of the plane - many 747s are also configured with 14 first and 76 business seats, but in such cases, they would typically have about 265 coach seats.  So we're seeing a 50% increase in coach class seating and no increase in first or business class seating.

Thanks to Bob Cowen of InternetTravelTips.com for this story :  There's a technique that is apparently becoming reasonably well accepted in Vegas and spreading to other parts of the country known as the 'Twenty Dollar Trick' (although apparently the $50 trick works even better) as a way to get an upgrade when checking in to your hotel.

And, for a $0 trick, Bob writes 'Have you ever called a Las Vegas hotel and been asked "what brings you to Las Vegas?"  This is the time to mention your anniversary, birthday or other special celebration.  When you check in, the agent will look at the notes taken during your earlier phone call and may offer a no-cost upgrade.'

I'm off to Vegas shortly, and will report back to you on the success of the trick.

The delicate souls at Denver International Airport were worried that parents would complain to them if their children were surfing the internet on the airport's free Wi-Fi service and came across 'objectionable' sites.  And so, using the same blocking/censoring technology as used by such open minded free thinking regimes as the Sudanese and Kuwaiti governments, DIA is censoring the websites you can visit through their Wi-Fi service.

Way to go, DIA - for a minute there, I was worried you'd tell parents it was their responsibility, not yours, to control what their children do.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  To commemorate the civil minded public spiritedness of the DIA officials, I'd like to show you a page from one of the sites that DIA now refuses to allow its passengers to access.  Along with such other blatantly objectionable sites as, for example, the Vanity Fair magazine, it also censors the blog site BoingBoing.

And when you look at this article on BoingBoing, perhaps you can better understand why DIA doesn't wish you to read it, especially if you've just checked your luggage.

Naughty TSA employees.

A $1.2 billion project will see radiation detectors installed at the nation's ports and borders.  The DHS is keen to push forward with this project as quickly as possible, so as to be able to detect the smuggling into the country of dangerous radioactive materials, nuclear weapons, and dirty bombs.

What's not to like about such a good concept?  Oh, just one thing - it seems the detectors may not work.

Here's a flight you can be glad you weren't on.  A Lufthansa flight from Munich encountered very strong and gusty crosswinds when landing in Hamburg, with the crosswinds catching the upwind wing and blowing it up, causing the downwind wing to drop and scrape the runway.  Yikes.

As you can see in this video, it was a difficult approach and the crew sensibly aborted the landing and did a 'go round' maneuver, successfully and safely landing on a different runway a few minutes later.

Switching now from landing to taking off, here's a wonderful video of an IL-76 freighter, apparently very fully loaded, taking off from a small airport in Australia, probably on a hot day earlier this year (one source says Feb, another says Jan).  That's a difficult combination for any plane, anywhere, and see just how much of the runway the plane takes before it gets airborne.

I think I enjoy the commentary of the videographer and his mates in the Control Tower as much as I do the video itself.  And, with that thought in mind, it is well worth watching all the way to the end.  There's something very refreshing about the cheery total lack of political correctness among these air traffic controllers.

Have you ever been troubled by your toilet seat catching fire?  Probably not, but if you have one of these seats, you probably should heed the factory recall that is underway.

And, if you're now worried about the prospect of an unexpected fire in the smallest room in your house, perhaps you should consider fitting some sort of fire control system. But if you do, please remember to include an off-switch somewhere.

Unlike what happened in a test in an airplane hanger, as can be seen in this powerpoint presentation.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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