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Friday 20 June, 2008  

Good morning

And greetings from Beijing, where the weather is somewhat hot and humid, but our intrepid group of 'Beta Testers' of this, our first ever China tour, are undaunted and doing a good job of enjoying themselves and our China experience.

We've had some marvelous meals and enjoyed some wonderful sights, including some 'off the beaten track' places that most western tourists don't visit, and, as I commented in January, China remains a wonderfully low-cost destination to enjoy, with food and drink prices being very moderate rather than outrageous as is the case in so much of Europe.  The low cost of staff also means that stores and restaurants are full of service staff ready and keen to help.

If you'd like to join a Travel Insider tour, there's only one more chance this year - our Christmas Markets cruise, which is highly recommended (of course!).

I went to look up something on my website yesterday, and discovered to my surprise that some sections of my website now enjoy the dubious honor of being censored by the Chinese government, including such apparently 'good' pages as the ones describing the China tour currently underway.

So perhaps I can offer one negative comment about the current Chinese experience - the smog is as bad as I remembered it in January, and is even worse when one considers that the Beijing authorities (as well as the national authorities) are already well into their program of cleaning the air (briefly) for the Olympics in mid August.

As soon as the Olympics are over, the temporary smog restrictions will lift (but the smog won't) and the already bad smog is likely to continue to get worse and worse.  And, for sure, the local Chinese have little encouragement to save gas - the current price is just under 50c per gallon.  Whereas in the US the government taxes gas to make money, in China, the government massively subsidizes the cost of petrol (and diesel too).  Where's the sense in that?  The net result is too many more cars on their congested roads, reduced use of public transport, and more and more smog.

My flights on Northwest from Seattle, through Tokyo, then on to Beijing were very good indeed, as has been the case on their Asian services before, with lovely nearly new A330 planes and wonderful in flight electronics which helped the time pass quickly.  Even the food was somewhere between satisfactory and good, but nowadays they don't offer any free alcohol - all drinks are $5.

The crew were very attentive - but I guess I'm a bit biased, because for some strange reason one of the flight attendants took a liking to me, and not only brought me back champagne from their Business/First Class but also gave me a $10 meal voucher as well!  And while NW has proudly spoken of how it believes it might be saving money by flying its planes slightly slower to Europe (my full cost calculation suggests quite the opposite) it seems no-one had told that to the captain of our flight, who left on time and got us into Tokyo 30 minutes early.

The new airport in Beijing was impressively huge, clean, and big, and the only thing that marred an otherwise perfect travel experience was the 45 minutes it took to get through security at Seatac.  45 minutes, for a midweek flight in the middle of the day - that is atrocious.  As was the fact that much of the delay seemed to be due to way too few security lanes open - there were probably only half the lanes manned.

My comments about Emirates last week generated a further round of emails from readers pointing out still more reasons why Emirates is 'unfairly advantaged'.  Claims ranged from paying less interest on their loans because they were government owned to paying less money to staff - either because they had staff from low wage earning countries or because staff in Dubai don't pay tax, to paying lower landing fees than other airlines using the Dubai airport, to paying less tax on plane purchases.

Happily the emails were generally much better written than the one I featured last week, and my new attitude is 'prove your claim and I'll publish it' rather than 'make empty allegations and I'll refute them'.  I hope to have some interesting material on that topic for the next newsletter.

But, for now, I'll leave the last word on the topic to reader Steve, who concludes

Anyway you cut it (whether Emirates is subsidized or not), if EK is giving better service for the money, then why not fly with them?  Wasn't British Airways owned by the UK government in the 1970s and 1980s?  I never heard anyone complaining about that.

There's no feature article this week, and less newsletter in general, due to being 'on the road' in China.  Next week Joe Brancatelli is kindly filling in for me, so he'll send a newsletter out instead of me.  The July 4 weekend will probably be newsletter-less, and the week after that will see normal full service once more.

Dinosaur watching :  When is a merger not a merger?  When it is simply an 'alliance' or a 'code share' operation, of course (nudge, nudge; wink, wink - definitions that seem to fool the regulators every time they are used).  Continental has announced plans to switch from the Skyteam alliance it currently belongs to (as has widely been expected) and will now join the Star alliance, plus Continental has announced plans to cooperate very closely with United on joint marketing, selling each other's tickets, and various other ways to work together.

None of this will happen overnight - it could take up to a year for Continental to sever its links with Skyteam and join the Star grouping, but seems almost inevitably going to occur.

The airlines are hyperventilating with outrage and worry about the impact of fuel prices on their bottom lines.  'We can't pass these costs on to the public' is their cry - a claim made rather suspect by their weekly fare increases at present.

And, for sure, when it comes to things impacting on the total cost of a ticket, there's a lot more than just the fuel cost to consider.  Governments have gone crazy on adding taxes and fees to air fares, and there was an interesting (albeit close to 'worst case') example offered in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper on 14 June.  They looked at what happens to a fare that is advertised as $129 for travel from Toronto to New York.

Advertised base fare: $129
Fuel surcharge: $50
Nav Canada fee: $7.50
Toronto airport fee: $20
Canada security fee: $7.94
GST: $10.72
U.S. transport tax: $15.69
U.S. agriculture fee: $5.09
U.S. immigration fee: $7.13

ONE-WAY TOTAL: $253.07

So the $129 fare almost doubles, and if the fare is a roundtrip, the $129x2 becomes $471.72 in total.

Now, yes, there is a $50 fuel surcharge buried in there, but governments have to stop treating airfares as an inexhaustible source of revenue.

Still on the topic of fees, we know the airlines are keen to charge for whatever they possibly can.  Here's a joke dialog that has been going around the internet recently :


Flight Attendant: Welcome aboard Ala Carte Air, sir. May I see your ticket?

Passenger: Sure.

Attendant: You're in seat 12B. That will be $5, please!

Passenger: What for?

Attendant: For telling you where to sit.

Passenger: But I already knew where to sit.

Attendant: Nevertheless, we are now charging a seat locator fee of $5.  It's the airline's new policy.

Passenger: That's the craziest thing I ever heard. I won't pay it.

Attendant: Sir, do you want a seat on this flight, or not?

Passenger: Yes, yes. All right, I'll pay. But the airline is going to hear about this.

Attendant: Thank you. My goodness, your carry-on bag looks heavy.  Would you like me to stow it in the overhead compartment for you?

Passenger: That would be swell, thanks.

Attendant: No problem. Up we go, and done! That will be $10, please.

Passenger: What?

Attendant: The airline now charges a $10 carry-on assistance fee.

Passenger: This is extortion. I won't stand for it.

Attendant: Actually, you're right, you can't stand. You need to sit and fasten your seat belt. We're about to push back from the gate. But, first I need that $10.

Passenger: No way!

Attendant: Sir, if you don't comply, I will be forced to call the air marshal.  And you really don't want me to do that.

Passenger: Why not? Is he going to shoot me?

Attendant: No, but there's a $50 air-marshal hailing fee.

Passenger: Oh, all right, here, take the $10. I can't believe this.

Attendant: Thank you for your cooperation, sir. Is there anything else I can do for you?

Passenger: Yes. It's stuffy in here, and my overhead fan doesn't seem to work. Can you fix it?

Attendant: Your overhead fan is not broken, sir. Just insert two quarters into the overhead coin slot for the first five minutes.

Passenger: The airline is charging me for cabin air?

Attendant: Of course not, sir. Stagnant cabin air is provided free of charge.  It's the circulating air that costs 50 cents.

Passenger: I don't have any quarters. Can you make change for a dollar?

Attendant: Certainly, sir! Here you go!

Passenger: But you've given me only three quarters for my dollar.

Attendant: Yes, there's a change making fee of 25 cents.

Passenger: For cryin' out loud. All I have left is a lousy quarter?  What the heck can I do with this?

Attendant: Hang onto it. You'll need it later for the lavatory.

and, continuing the theme, here's an imaginary schedule of new airline fees :

As a Courtesy to Our Passengers:

 Speaking to live airline booking agent helpfulness fee: $.25 per minute (including hold time)
 Online reservation convenience fee: $5
 Courtesy luggage-cuddling fee: $15
 No-snooping-through-your-stuff guarantee: $3
 Courtesy fee for booking a window seat, middle seat, and exit-row seat, respectively: $10 $5 $15
 Seat-sharing waiver: $25
 Use of "courtesy seat" at terminal gate while waiting for plane: $.10 per minute
 Courtesy passage through enclosed ramp to plane door: $.02 per inch
 Courtesy smile from boarding-pass checker or flight attendant: $1.50 each
 Reassuring head nod from pilot or co-pilot: $2.50 each
 Seat-back pocket rental fee: $2.00
 Motion-discomfort bag restocking fee: $5.00
 Courtesy test of flaps, rudder and landing gear: $4.75
 Courtesy air circulation fee: $1.50
 No-snakes-on-plane guarantee: $3
 Rental of light from overhead reading lamp: $0.50 per minute
 Water, coffee, tea and juice: $2.00 each
 Courtesy lavatory flush: $3 each
 Courtesy fee for not performing a courtesy lavatory flush: $100
 Ask flight attendant a question: $1 each
 Cone-of-silence rental (mandatory for babies and loud talkers over 80db): $20
 Seat cushion that sinks: $2
 Seat cushion that floats: $8
 Mid-flight fuel check: $4.50
 Landing-at-the-right-airport guarantee: $2.50
 Courtesy disembarking fee: $25
 Airline CEO country club membership courtesy contribution: $6

Perhaps the most ridiculous fuel surcharge so far is actually nothing to do with an airline, but rather a fuel surcharge to be added to speeding tickets issued in Holly Springs, GA, enabling the local police to recover the extra cost of fuel used to catch speeders.  Details here.

I don't suppose they could be persuaded to simply suspend their speeding enforcement programs?

One last thing about costs and savings - while the airlines are obsessing over every possible cost saving, no matter how small, and no matter how negative the impact on their passengers' flying experience, there's one huge saving - an estimated $700 million a year - that would also, believe it or not, improve the flying experience.

I'm referring to adding RFID tags to bags.  According to the 4th annual SITA Baggage Report, the airline industry handles about 2.25 billion pieces of luggage a year, and an estimated 42.4 million bags go missing or get delayed, at a cost of $3.8 billion to the airlines.

Adding RFID enabled tags to checked bags would increase the cost per checked bag, but the ability to more readily track and find missing bags, and to reduce baggage mishandling to start with, would end up creating a net saving of $700 million across the entire industry.

This is nothing new.  The ability to save money by implementing an RFID type bag tag is something that airlines have known about for ten years and more.  But it seems they'd rather save money by taking away towels and blankets, making you pay for food and drink that was normally free, and charging you fees to check your bags.  They know best, I guess.

Talking about charging fees to check bags, reader Candice writes :

Everyone keeps talking about AA's $15.00 first bag fee.  It's not a $15.00 fee, it's a $30.00 fee, unless people intend to only fly one way, or to come home without luggage

AA wants us all to call it a $15.00 fee because it doesn't sound so bad..... kind of like those tempting deals to fly somewhere for $99. when in actuality, it's "based on a round trip fare" of $98.+ taxes and therefore closer to $300.

Yes, I know, I know, unlike a round trip ticket, flyers don't HAVE to pay $30.00 upfront. If one can come home with only a carry-on bag, then indeed, it's a $15 fee, but I'm certain that 99% of flyers who pay on the outbound, will have to pay it again on the return.

And, lastly on this general subject, thanks to everyone who responded to the survey asking your opinion on passengers being charged to travel based in part on their weight.  I'll collate and advise the results in the next newsletter.

Meanwhile, here's a different set of survey results for you this week, this time courtesy of JD Power & Assocs, and reporting on a continued drop in customer satisfaction with airlines.  Hardly a surprise.

Here's an interesting article about high speed rail, and in particular, note the reference to Southwest's role in killing of any hope of high speed rail in Texas.  Shame on them.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Apparently TSA officers have had difficulty getting the 'proper respect' from members of the traveling public.  So - how to solve that problem?  Give them better training, and teach them how to be more respectful and positive to travelers?  Oh no.  Instead, give them more intimidating uniforms, and now badges too, to make them look more like police officers in the hope their uniform will give them the respect that their personal attributes do not.

Will their new uniforms and shiny badges actually help improve their dismal detection rates for finding weapons?  Probably not.  But it will encourage them to bully us even more mercilessly than they sometimes do already, and I guess that's a good enough secondary objective for them.  Details here.

In case you needed convincing, here's an interesting article that explains how vacations are good for your health.  People who fail to take annual vacations had a 21 percent higher risk of death from all causes and were 32 percent more likely to die of a heart attack.

So, for the sake of your health and longevity, why not consider coming with us on this year's Christmas Markets Cruise?

But be careful who you choose as a traveling companion.  Here's an interesting article reporting on a British study that suggests one in five vacationers have fallen out with a formerly good friend when traveling together.

Please remember that next week the newsletter will come from Joe Brancatelli, rather than me, and then there'll be no newsletter on July 4.

Meantime, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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