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Friday 1 August, 2008  

Good morning

It has been a harrowing day and week, and I've been distracted by other matters, so here's a short newsletter for a change.

I mentioned last week in my review of the excellent Sugarsynch software that I use Roboform to manage my passwords for all the different websites I visit.  Several readers asked me about Roboform, so it seemed appropriate to answer that question for everyone.

Roboform is an excellent way of solving the problem 'How do I remember all the different passwords for all my different websites?'  And note that the answer to this question is NOT 'Use the same password on all the websites you visit!'  A better answer is 'Enlist Roboform's help'.  And, to tell you more about it, here is :

This Week's Feature Column :  Roboform Password Management Software :  Here's a safe and convenient way to remember all your passwords for all the sites you visit.  Easy to use, and tremendously helpful, and with a 30 day free trial, this can make your online password use very much more convenient and secure.

I was interrupted in writing the preceding and had to go to a new website to check something.  It required me to sign in and register, and I was just about to do that when I noticed Roboform advising me that I had visited and registered before.  I'd forgotten my earlier visit, but apparently I had indeed been there and the site accepted Roboform's inputting of my user information.  Thanks again, Roboform!

Dinosaur watching :  Just three weeks ago I proudly offered an updated tabulation of airline bag policies, and expressed the hope that the various changes in bag charging policies had completed their ripple through the system and the new structures would not change much more for the foreseeable future.

Well, so much for that hope.  This week one of the airlines doubled their fee for passengers checking a second bag, raising it from $25 to $50.  In making the announcement, the airline predictably offered the now standard lines about how, 'as fuel costs remain high, it believes revising its fee structure for excess bags and specialty items is essential to generate the necessary revenues to offset its higher costs.'

Well, that sounds all very noble, but let's keep several things in mind.  Firstly, this announcement was offered at the same time that oil prices have dropped from $147/barrel on 11 July down to (today) $124 a barrel.  Apparently the airline doesn't read the paper - the news of the steady decline in oil prices has been near front page headlines most days for the last couple of weeks.

And let's also remember that this airline made a $135 million profit in the last quarter (before special items).  It is currently profitable - it doesn't need an extra $25 per second checked bag.

Let's also not forget this airline is predicting a further $2 billion in savings when it merges with Northwest - yes, the greedy airline in question is Delta.  Delta - a profitable airline, outlooking a rosy future, and with oil prices dropping, says it is essential to charge more for second bags?

Lastly, while most of us are probably willing to accept fair fees for fair services, is $50 a fair price to ask to check a second bag?   Perhaps we'll grudgingly accept reimbursing the airline its costs, and maybe even allowing it a fair profit margin as well.  But does it cost anywhere near $50 to transport a second bag one way domestically?  No, of course it doesn't!  Rather than simply trying to pass its costs on, Delta is rapaciously trying to gouge their customers/passengers for all they can get away with.  Delta is trying to profit from its alleged misfortune of high oil prices.

That's not the only change, and none of the other changes are positive, either.  For example, Delta's new industry best friend, Northwest, is about to start charging for the first bag you check.  And other changes are ongoing, too, so I guess I'll have to keep modifying these pages on my site regularly.

For the ultimate in baggage disservice, you can't beat Ryanair.  The UK discount airline has announced it will try out 'zero baggage' flights this winter, limiting passengers to carry-on bags only.  Yes, on these flights you can't check a bag at all, no matter how much your offer to pay.

The flights will be on a trial basis and are flights where most of the passengers are business people.  Apparently business travelers don't need to check baggage?

If Delta really wants to save money, perhaps their CEO and other highly paid executives might like to consider following the lead of JetBlue CEO, David Barger.  He has voluntarily cut his pay in half for the second half of this year (From $500,000/year to $250,000/year).

And if Delta is continuing to up the fees it charges, it needs to get more on the ball with providing a decent standard of service in return.  A Delta flight from JFK to Las Vegas on Sunday spent seven hours on the tarmac at JFK, waiting for thunderstorms to clear, only to then give up entirely and return to the gate, with the flight being cancelled.

A Delta spokesperson couldn't explain why the plane didn't return to the gate sooner to allow passengers to deplane while waiting for flight clearance.

If you're flying on Lufthansa any time soon, be aware that their current labor problems are now resulting in flight cancellations.  LH cancelled 128 flights on Thursday (50 more than Wednesday), including 28 to North American destinations, and the situation may be worse on Friday.

Lufthansa partner carrier United is also suffering labor problems.  United has asked for a preliminary injunction in US District Court in Chicago, to stop what it called "organized and unlawful job actions" that partly include a "public campaign of intimidation."  The airline said it was forced to cancel 329 flights between July 19-27 which cost it millions in potential profit and disrupted travel plans for some 36,000 passengers.

United said the Air Line Pilots Association has encouraged members to 'work to rule' and refuse voluntary assignments as a way of pressuring management to open contract talks early.  United also claims that pilots are abusing sick leave, saying first officer sick leave is up 103% this summer.

Who'd invest in an airline at present, especially a smaller airline (ie more vulnerable to other airline pressures)?  And even more especially an airline based in Denver, which is a major United hub, and with an increasing Southwest presence?

However, Frontier Airlines - currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy - managed to answer that question positively, and announced this week it had raised $75 million in financing from an investment firm, Perseus that has an option to buy 79.9% of the reorganized airline for $100 million.

Good luck to them.  Details here.

And now for some good airline news.  The Airbus A380 is finally starting service to/from the US, with the first carrier to fly A380s being Emirates.  They took delivery of their first A380 on Monday this week, and its first flight will be arriving into JFK from Dubai at 5pm today (Friday).  The long flight exposes another rarely mentioned advantage of the A380 - it flies faster than the 777 plane it is replacing on this service, reducing the journey time down from 14 hours to between 12.5 and 13 hours.

Emirates was the first airline to order the A380, and is the second to receive one.  The airline currently has orders for 57 more A380s to join the one it has now received.

The planes are equipped with 489 seats - 14 first, 76 business and 399 coach seats; slightly more than Singapore Airlines and their 12/60/399 configuration.  But that's not to say the plane will be cramped or crowded - it will have first class showers, and two lounges on board as well.

I'll tell you more about the A380 in great detail next week.  It is my good fortune to be flying a short flight on one this coming Monday.

Not be outdone by a mere A380, Sir Richard Branson unveiled the mothership that will fly the space ships being used by his new Virgin Galactic enterprise, that plans to offer short space flights in perhaps as soon as 18 months.

And talking about Emirates, here's a chilling story of what happened to the British VP of Sales for Qatar Airways.

Here's an inconclusive article about the potential for credit card fraud if you swipe a credit card to establish your ID when checking in for a flight at an airport electronic check-in terminal.

Here's the bad news that we already sort of know.  Frequent flier awards are getting harder to get, and more expensive in terms of mile costs per award.

Wow - do you think this couple have read my series on 'How to Complain'?  After being initially offered a paltry 10,000 frequent flier miles for a booking messup by Alaska Airlines, they persevered and ended up getting free roundtrip business class tickets to Zurich from Seattle, 240,000 frequent flier miles, all not otherwise reimbursed expenses now reimbursed, and direct access to a senior booking agent for their future award bookings.

An incredible turnaround, and a very fair offer by AS too.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA is so proud of this incident that they've created a special web page to heap praise on themselves for having successfully detected and impounded a device in a passenger's carry-on.

The reason for impounding the device (a battery pack)?  It looked like a bomb - to be precise, 'the item could be seen by other passengers as a threat'.  And in a piece of doublespeak that doesn't seem to actually mean anything at all, Federal Security Director David Wynn said 'We must treat every suspicious item the same and utilize the tools we have available to make a final determination.  Procedures are in place for a reason and this is a clear indication our workforce is doing a great job.'

Does this mean now that anything that my some stretch of the imagination might look vaguely like someone's idea of what a bomb could like will not now be allowed on planes, even if it is completely harmless?

Well, this was as far as the story went earlier this week, but there's been a new postscript added to the story which makes my last question even harder to answer.  The TSA might have seen some reason on this point - they've added a new commentary above the original article on their web page.

So who is now speaking for the TSA and setting their policy?  TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe, or their Federal Security Director, David Wynn?

Does Wynn really believe that every suspicious item must be treated the same, whether it be a huge big bomb that is ticking with the digits counting down to 00:00 on the one hand, or a slightly larger than 3oz bottle of lotion on the other hand?  Perhaps it is no surprise the agency that is blind to the difference in security threat as between a 22 year old Muslim male and an 88 year old US war veteran will also think it essential to treat everything that comes out of the scanner ambiguously the same.

It's not our fault, claims the TSA?  We all know the terrible stories of people who have a name similar to that of a possible terrorist on a no-fly list and who suffer no end of difficulty every time they try and fly.  Getting one's name off such a list is a very difficult challenge.

The TSA has now said that it is prepared to fine airlines up to $25,000 when they mistakenly tell a passenger they are on one of these terrorist watch lists.  Rather than doing something to quality control the lists, or fining the various other three letter government security agencies who put the names on the list, the TSA has decided to chase after the easy target - the airlines, who are nothing other than the meat in the sandwich.

The TSA says the airlines should keep a separate list of 'passengers with names like terrorists, who have problems with the terrorist watch lists, but who we know aren't actually terrorists'.

And that is stupid on so many different levels - operationally, and in terms of national security - that it makes impounding things that look like bombs but which aren't comparatively sensible.

Are we going to have to start going through metal detectors to get on buses?  This incident provides a most startling reason why this might soon be so.

Have you ever bizarrely wondered, while waiting impatiently outside an airplane toilet that has been occupied seemingly for ever, just exactly what the person inside is doing?  'I do hope they're alright' is a semi-humorous line of banter exchanged between people waiting for their turn.  And if there is a bank of multiple toilets next to each other, it isn't always obvious when one toilet is occupied for a much greater time by one single person than the others.

So perhaps this story isn't as altogether startling as it otherwise might be.

I wrote about the sand castle hotel last week.  Here's a more traditional hotel, of interest to people like me who have a special place in their heart for the movie, Sound of Music.

Political correctness is a debilitating affliction, and all to commonly the people so afflicted have no comprehension as to how stupid they are.

That is certainly the case here, where an advertisement for air traffic controllers, who, we are told in the ad, are required to have perfect 20/20 vision.  So where is the political correctness?  The ad offered itself in alternate versions - in both audio format for the hard of hearing and - yes, get this - Braille for the vision impaired.

When this was pointed out to the airport operators, they saw nothing wrong with it.

Talking about political correctness, something I hate with a passion is this nation's obsession with asking for ID before serving people alcohol, even when they're so clearly much older than 21.  Signs about in stores 'we ask for ID if you're under 39'.

The religious fervor with which some servers demand ID is sad to behold.  My own state of Washington seems one of the worst, and this item recounts how our governor, a 61 year old woman, was recently refused alcohol due to not have an acceptable ID on her.

Lastly this week, a refreshingly totally un-politically correct alternate view on travel to that generally offered to us.  And much as I enjoy travel, there are occasions when I completely sympathize with the writer.

Until next week, please try to enjoy your safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider


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