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Friday 9 May, 2008  

Good morning

And hello from Barcelona, where I'm enjoying several days of pre-cruise touring before heading over to Arles in France tomorrow for the cruise up the Rhone river.

My BA flights from Seattle got off to an unexpectedly good start, several days before I even headed from home to the airport.  I called BA with a silly question - I was traveling on an Alaska frequent flier ticket, and it was so long since I had booked it, I'd forgotten which class I was flying in, but saw I was booked in 'P' class in my notes.  Back in the 'good old days' P meant first class, and I was fairly sure that was not the case, so I called to ask what class I was flying (answer - 'World Traveler Plus' - their Premium Economy class, which I reviewed some years here).

The call got off to a good start - no waiting on hold, and directly connected to a nice res agent.  After having a good laugh at my silly question, and joking about what the 'X' class could possibly mean for my second flight (automatically cancelled class?  mystery random class?) I told the agent I wasn't up to date with BA's seat assignment policies - did they pre-assign seats or not these days?  She said she'd see what she could do, and within a minute or two had got me good seats not only on the trans-Atlantic flights, but on the within Europe flights too, something I didn't think was ever done, with no fuss and no problems.

Now for the positive surprise.  No, BA still doesn't officially pre-assign seats, but this agent told me 'I've been with BA a long time, and I sort of know how to do some things with the computer, and so for people I like, I sometimes help out'.  For reasons that will remain forever unknown, she apparently decided she liked me (she had no idea I write a travel newsletter) and so blessed me with seat assignments.

I'm writing about this in such detail for several reasons.  The flip side of my currently four part series on How to Complain (with more parts still to be added) is how to relate to people in general, and how to ask for favors.  Similar techniques apply, although you probably might want to be slightly less assertive when asking for favors.

I find it very helpful, whenever calling anyone to ask for a favor (or just in general), to start off, after the person I'm calling has answered, by saying 'Hello (their name), my name is David.  Good afternoon (etc) to you.'  The effect this simple personal and positive opening has on people is sometimes astonishing.  You can almost hear the person do a double take, and then they come back to you with much more life in their voice and say 'Well, good afternoon to you, David.  How can I help you today?'  If they do this, you've got them half hooked.  If they proceed in a mechanical voice, and a few seconds later ask you for your name, even though you've already given it to them, then you're out of luck and you may as well hang up the phone and call back, hoping to get a human rather than a robot on the next call.

The next part of a call is to make a self deprecating joke of some sort, and then to explain how I have done something silly and need their help.  At that point, there's a very positive chance the person will leap in to help any way they can.

The other thing this experience highlights is that all service providing companies are defined as much by their 'front line' people as they are by their corporate policies, products, and whatever else.  The difference between the best and worst of such companies can be found in the people they hire, the training they give them, and the motivation and support such people have to be the best they can be.  Companies need to better empower and motivate their staff.

My positive BA experiences continued.  Amazingly, there was no line to check in at Seatac, and the plane was lightly loaded, which always makes for a much nicer travel experience.  I found myself in business class, and had a generally positive flight experience with - believe it or not - marvelous food.  The flight left the gate 17 minutes early, and arrived into Heathrow early, getting to the gate 3 minutes ahead of schedule.  Amazing.  I've updated my review of BA's Business Class to reflect this much more positive experience.

As for transiting through Heathrow, that was a breeze.  The good news about the current situation with Terminal 5 is that BA is now split between more terminals than normal, and all terminals seem currently uncrowded, relaxed and friendly.  There were no lines anywhere and everything worked as it should.  The flight on to Barcelona was similarly uncrowded, left on time and arrived exactly on time, too.  Bravo to BA.

Oh - my bags?  They too seemed to enjoy their journey, and appeared on the luggage carousel in Barcelona within 5 minutes of my getting to the carousel (and I was first off the plane and first to the carousel).

Another couple on the cruise also flew BA, from Phoenix, with similar positive experiences.  Interestingly, they secured an upgrade to Business Class when checking in for a mere $500 extra each.  I find it hard to justify a $10,000+ fare to fly Business Class, but a $500 each way extra charge - ie, about $50/hr of flying time - brings this into the realm of practicality for many of us.

Not so fortunate was that of other group members joining us from Los Angeles.  Their UA flight was first delayed and then rescheduled for the next day, with the ostensible reason for the delay and then overnight hold being due to maintenance issues.  However, I couldn't help noticing the surprising coincidence that the first maintenance related delay coincided also with the flight's late arrival into LAX from Europe, making one wonder exactly how, when, and where the maintenance delay occurred.

Surprisingly, although the flight didn't leave at all on 6 May as scheduled, checking both with Flightstats.com and Worldmate on my Blackberry suggested that the flight departed on time.

Although the people arrived into Barcelona a day later, their bags are still completely lost two days later with nothing known of their whereabouts.  It is hard to understand how this is possible in this era of scanning bag tags as they move through the airports and airlines, and with greater security consciousness encouraging a better attempt at matching bags to passengers.

While changing flights at Heathrow, I came across a particularly aggressive example of stores charging one's credit card in US dollars rather than in local currency.  Never accept this option, no matter how hard they try to persuade you that it is a good option.

In this case, the exchange rate was 2.034 for the pre-converted charge, which compares to a current actual rate of 1.95.  My credit card company adds a 1% fee for international transactions, so my alternatives were 1.97 if converted by the credit card company or 2.03 if accepting the store's rate.  When I complained and insisted they charge me in pounds, they pointed to a grubby printout sheet affixed to the side of the cash register and said 'We've negotiated a special rate for you - if you paid in cash, you'd be using a rate of 2.14'.  The fact that they'd be even more rapacious upon sighting good old fashioned cash is no reason to accept their lesser rip-off of their 'special' exchange rate.

The two store staff were so insistent on this point that clearly they've either been brainwashed or get to personally share in the extra 3.25% the store makes from this 'service'.

And talking about shopping, I went shopping for some books to read, variously on the plane and on the tour while waiting for my flight at Seatac.  I went to the bookstore and picked out books I liked, but then I did something different to the other people in the store.  I wrote the book names down and left the store.  I sat down in the gate area and pulled out my Amazon Kindle e-book reader and ordered/downloaded them from Amazon instead.  With books taking less than a minute to download wirelessly from Amazon, and costing less than in a store, there are some clear advantages to the Kindle, especially for travelers not wanting to be burdened with a bag full of bulky and heavy books for a long flight/vacation.

I reviewed the Kindle when it first came out, giving it a mixed review.  It was (is) good, but not as good as it could be.

Unfortunately, while the Kindle now boasts 115,000 titles available to choose from, my top two choices were both unavailable.  I then decided to order a title from one of my own readers, but that too was not available for the Kindle.  However, I found five titles that I did like, so within a few minutes of leaving the bookstore, had electronically ordered them and wirelessly downloaded them to the Kindle - all prepared for the long flights ahead.

One worrying thing.  When the Kindle was first released, the Amazon promise was that books would be available for $9.99 or less.  That's still the case, but now not always.  One title that caught my eye was being sold for $15.42.  And there's nothing special about the title - it was released last year, is a regular fiction title of not unusual length (The Sanctuary by Raymond Khoury) and has no reason to be $15.42 rather than $9.99 or less.

As I discuss at length in my two part series on the Kindle and in my article about Sony's competing eBook reader too, the economics of eBooks are enormously favorable to publishers, even at 'only' $10/title.  How can they now justify $15.42?  Is Amazon, or the publisher, getting greedy and now risking killing of this latest attempt at getting eBooks more broadly accepted by the reading public?

I'm very pleased with the material I'm releasing to you on the website this week.  The number of different options when it comes to choosing Britrail passes, and the number of different discounts that you might qualify for, continues to multiple and potentially bewilder.  I've attempted to put this all together in a hopefully helpful format, and so here is a two part article :

This Week's Feature Column :  All You Ever Wanted to Know about Britrail Passes :  Should you buy a Britrail pass or not if you're traveling around Britain by train?  If you should, which pass is the best choice for you, and can you qualify for any discounts off the pass?  For answers to these and many more questions, read the two part article now on the site.

Dinosaur watchingAnother week, another airfare increase.  Wednesday evening saw Delta initiate a $20 increase in its fuel surcharge across most of its network.  Not all airlines have yet matched, but it seems likely they will, making this the 15th increase in fares so far this year.

There is no apparent logic or sense to when the airlines label an increase in cost as a fuel surcharge and when they call it a fare increase, and with fuel surcharges now running up to $130 per roundtrip ticket, there are occasions where the total cost of the 'fuel surcharge' plus other taxes and fees and surcharges now exceeds the underlying base fare.

Are we getting to a point where travelers are starting to cut back on travel due to the steady pace of fare increases?  The airlines clearly hope not, and continue with their weekly fare increases, but the actual passenger data gives one pause for thought.  In April, many airlines saw strong drops in passenger numbers.  United saw a drop of 6.3% in its domestic traffic.  Delta saw a 3.7% decrease.  American had a 6.6% decrease.

On the other hand, some airlines won extra business.  JetBlue squeezed out a 0.8% increase, Northwest had a 1% increase, Alaska had a 3.4% increase, and Southwest enjoyed a massive 5.7% increase.

April in 2007 featured Easter travel, while in 2008 Easter was in March, so some decrease in passenger numbers could be explained by the loss of the Easter travel peak.  But what a clear difference between decreases of up to 6.6% by loser airlines, and increases of up to 5.7% by winner airlines.

Overall, the sense is that, even after allowing for the Easter impact, there were fewer people traveling this year than last.  More details here, including a ridiculous statement reported without comment by one industry analyst who claims '...no amount of yield [ie level of fare] is enough to cover $120-per-barrel oil'.

It is impossible to fly profitably when oil costs $120/barrel?  What an absolute nonsense statement that is, and is even contradicted within the article, in a quote from Delta's President who says the airline may be approaching a break point on fuel, which presumably means break even, particularly when viewed alongside the comment by his CEO a month or so back that a 15% - 20% rise in fare prices was needed to adjust for the increased costs of fuel.  Since that time, fares have risen close to the 15% - 20% he said was needed.

Struggling JetBlue announced earlier this week it was shelving the startup of its Los Angeles service for an indefinite period.  The airline had intended to launch three daily flights to JFK and one daily flight to Boston on May 21.  Other new flights scheduled for May 21 will remain.  They are Burbank to Las Vegas and Washington Dulles, Long Beach to San Jose and Seattle, San Diego to Seattle and two seasonal flights from Long Beach to JFK and Boston.

JetBlue is now paying much greater attention to the routes it adds, and is growing more slowly than it previously had projected.

While JetBlue grows more carefully, their founder, former Chairman and CEO, David Neeleman, is back in startup mode again.  He has started a new airline in Brazil called Azul, a name was chosen from a public vote. The losing name was Samba.  The airline is expected to start service next January.

While some airlines struggle to stay profitable, other airlines seem to effortlessly make massive amounts of profit every quarter and year.  While some airlines are cutting back on flights, other airlines are opening new routes galore.  While some airlines are allowing their fleets to age more and more, other airlines are filling the order books of both Boeing and Airbus with new plane orders.

And the one airline that most vividly exemplifies all three of these positive attributes is Emirates, which has just announced a record $1.45 billion profit for its last fiscal year, up 62% from last year.  Revenue increased 54% from $8.5 billion to $11.2 billion, and the net profit margin increased from 11.4% to 13.2% - incredible figures by US standards.

During its last year Emirates added service to eleven new destinations.  Oh - one more thing.  Emirates pays the same amount for jet fuel as does any other airline.

One of the most noticeable distinguishing features of Emirates is its smiling friendly staff.  And chances are that some of their staff will have even wider smiles at present; I hear unofficially that there is a 14 week pay bonus being distributed as a profit share.

Bad news for travel websites.  Orbitz reported a $15 million loss for its first quarter, up from a $10 million loss in 1Q07.  Gross bookings were flat, year on year, with an increase in international bookings (caused in part by higher US dollar costs for international travel products) being matched by a decrease in domestic bookings.

The big problem that Orbitz and other web travel sites have is that their competition is no more than a click or two away, and there's very little to distinguish or add value to the major names such as Orbitz compared to discounter sites or the travel suppliers directly.

Maybe it is just me, but I can never remember whether I prefer Orbitz or Expedia, and use the two of them semi-randomly and interchangeably.  I used to prefer Travelocity, but it now scores a distant third in my affections.

And most of the time I don't use either Orbitz or Expedia these days, preferring sites such as kayak.com to research fares, and then booking direct with the relevant airline to save the booking fee added by Orbitz or Expedia to the fare.  I can understand why one would pay a booking fee to a travel agent, but completely can not understand why you'd pay a fee to book an airline ticket with one website when you can book it directly with a different website for no fee at all.

Meanwhile, an investigation of travel web sites in Europe found that one in three consumers is being ripped-off due to misleading ads.  The Investigation by the EU's consumer protection commissioner focused on how web sites offered discounts, under what conditions, and at what prices, and it revealed there were serious and persistent consumer problems with online ticket sales in Europe.

The commissioner is threatening legal action if airlines and tour operators do not take action to clean up their sites and adhere to the EU's rules.

I experienced something like that myself when booking a London hotel last week.  I used Lastminute.com, a sister company to Travelocity, and found a hotel I liked with a total cost for my stay of £300.  After researching the hotel, I decided to book it and clicked on the 'book' button, only to get an excuse from Lastminute.com telling me that between when I'd first requested the rate and when I went to book the hotel, there'd been an increase in rate, and the £300 rate was no longer available.  The lowest rate was now £357.  I winced and wished I'd been quicker to book the hotel.

But then, I thought suspiciously to myself - is this really true?  So I re-requested the hotel availability and rate, and guess what?  The rate now showed as £300 again.  I instantly booked it, but there was the apology and the £357 rate once more.

Even at £357 it was an okay deal, so I shrugged and proceeded to book it.  And then, out of curiosity, did another availability request, and there it was again - back at £300.

A second booking for another group member, and different dates of stay, brought about the same result of a low offered rate and a higher charged rate.

So what is this?  Bait and switch?  Outright dishonesty?  A programming glitch?  I don't know, but it sure doesn't smell right to me.  I hope Lastminute.com is on the EU list of bad sites.

Talking about bad things, the Dept of Justice is getting very serious with its investigation into price fixing for international air cargo rates, and in a plea agreement, a former Qantas cargo executive will accept eight months in jail and pay a $20,000 criminal fine for his part in a conspiracy to fix rates.

He is the first individual to be charged in the DoJís investigation into airline price-fixing.  Since August 2007, Japan Air Lines, Qantas, British Airways and Korean Air Lines have separately pleaded guilty to price-fixing conspiracies, and each had been sentenced to pay fines.

You might say its tip for tat (ouch).  American Airlines says it will no longer allow skycaps to accept tips from passengers checking in bags at curbside at Logan International.

This comes after the skycaps won a lawsuit against AA for lost tips. The airline has asked the court to throw out the jury's verdict. AA said it banned the tipping because of the jury's verdict, and said it is now increasing the skycaps wages to $12 - 15/hr to compensate for the lost tips.

The truth is that skycaps, who formerly were paid $5.15, made a great deal more than $15/hr, even with the diminished level of tips received after the airlines added $2/bag curbside checkin fees.  But the skycaps got too greedy, and now they're getting their come-uppance.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  For a change, let's look at some non-horror stories from elsewhere in the world and then reflect on why the opposite seems to apply in the US.

When I arrived into Barcelona and went to the Immigration booth, the man behind the counter took my passport, flipped through it to find an empty page, stamped it, and handed it back to me.  I had not needed to fill out any arrival form, he did not even look at my picture, he didn't run the passport through a reader or scanner, I didn't need to get my picture taken, and neither did I need to give my fingerprints.  Indeed, I didn't say a word to him and he didn't say a word to me, so I didn't have to answer a bunch of questions about why I was visiting Spain, how long I'd stay, etc.  His stamp in my passport gave me entrance to most of the EU without any further scrutiny.

If Spain (and most other European countries) are so completely relaxed at allowing us into their countries, why are we so nervous at allowing them into the US?

And while the US is tightening up its visa and entry procedures, a country that was once one of the most unfriendly and hardest to visit in the world is going to the opposite extreme.  Soccer fans who wish to attend a championship soccer match in Moscow have been told they do not need to get any sort of visa at all - they simply need to show their soccer match ticket when arriving in Russia.

If Russia can now allow soccer fans (one of the most unruly groups of people there are) to visit free of scrutiny and without any visa, why do we insist that Russians should wait weeks for a visa interview appointment, be personally interviewed, pay a massive fee for the interview and even more if a visa is granted, etc etc, prior to visiting the US?

The US is massively out of step with the rest of the world, and the rest of the world knows this and resents being aggressively and rudely treated with open hostility and suspicion by our immigration officials.

United Airlines won't let you report your missing baggage for security reasons?  So says the headline of this horror story.  This is a classic example of airline staff passing the buck, and knowing they're not going to be accountable to anyone for their misdeeds.

It is eerily reminiscent of what happened to my group members with the missing luggage in Barcelona at present - their insistence that they physically retrieve their luggage off the cancelled United flight and then recheck it onto the alternate flight with a different airline was greeted first with the information that it wasn't possible because the luggage office was currently closed, and then the next morning they were assured by both UA and the alternate airline that there was no need to worry about anything, there were 'comments in the record' and everything would go smoothly.

Two days later and the luggage has apparently vanished off the face of the earth, with no information about its whereabouts whatsoever.

Something we seldom think about, when taking off and landing, is the quality of the runway beneath us.  Perhaps this needs more attention, as this article exposes.

Cheese is allowed on planes, but only if it has no holes?  So reader Carol was told.  She writes

I was flagged for having a piece of cheese in my carryon.  The screener asked if it was Swiss, I said it was Jarlsberg.  He then looked into the bag.  He said anything with holes in it is a concern for them.  Now I take cheddar or Muenster when traveling.

Here's another article about how you actually don't need ID when traveling.  Note the TSA's strange comment that it can require you to produce ID, but is choosing not to.  What a strange situation that is.

'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you' is a particularly worrying thought for women in Malaysia.

Here's an interesting idea for those of us who occasionally find ourselves driving slightly faster than the posted speed limit.

I probably won't visit Stonehenge during my brief time in England later this month, but here's an interesting video about a man who believes he knows how Stonehenge was built.  Not only does he believe he knows how it was built, but he's proceeding to recreate a Stonehenge himself, single-handedly.  Fascinating.

My comments last week about Microsoft drew the inevitable flurry of replies from Mac users, who, alas, missed the point in suggesting I switch to a Mac.  Will a Windows program have a better interface on a Mac?  No.  Will a bug in a Windows program disappear when layered on top of a Mac?  Again, no.

But, in a lighter vein, here's an old and doubtless apocryphal story about Microsoft.

At a recent computer expo (COMDEX), Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated, 'If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.'

In response to Bill's comments, General Motors issued a press release stating:

If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics :

1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash.......twice a day.

2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car.

3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason.  You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue.  For some reason you would simply accept this.

4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.

5. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable, five times as fast and twice as easy to drive - but would run on only five percent of the roads.

6. The oil, water temperature, and alternator warning lights would all be replaced by a single 'This Car Has Performed An Illegal Operation' warning light.

7. The airbag system would ask 'Are you sure?' before deploying.

8. Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key and grabbed hold of the radio antenna.

9. Every time a new car was introduced car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.

10. You'd have to press the 'Start' button to turn the engine off.

There'll be no newsletter next week - I'll be on the river cruise boat somewhere on the Rhone river.  There may be a newsletter the following week, when I'll be returning back from London on the Thursday - the chances aren't very good this will occur, and if it doesn't, for sure there'll be one the next week.

Until the next newsletter, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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