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Friday 15 August, 2008  

Good morning

Let's open with a really positive item to get your Friday off to a great start.  My good friends and generous supporters at Pro Travel Gear (the guys who make the Plane Quiet noise cancelling headphones) are having a sale - everything in their store (and they've a lot of stuff!) is yours to steal at half their normal low price.

Yes, take a huge 50% discount off anything and everything they sell!  Whether you want some headphones, or travel clothing; a new suitcase or just an extra memory card for your camera, or any of many other travel related items, you'll find great deals galore.

This sale only runs through next Thursday, and is limited to stock on hand.  To get your 50% off you need to use the code  "save50"  when completing your order (without the quote marks).  It's never too soon to start shopping for Christmas - so why not click on over to the Pro Travel Gear site and see what you can find that you'd like to get at 50% off normal price.

Did someone say Christmas?  Here's a great idea - do your Christmas shopping early at Pro Travel Gear, and then treat yourself to an escape from the pre-Christmas misery and madness here and come join us on our lovely Danube River Christmas Markets cruise.

Enjoy a traditional style of pre-Christmas celebration as we visit wonderful craft markets in beautiful towns along the Danube, with highlights including a free side trip to Salzburg, and an optional extension on to Prague at the end of the cruise.  Join a small group of fellow Travel Insiders - and me - for this, the consistent favorite of all the tours I've offered, in early December.

More details here.

It seems I'm not the only one fascinated by the A380 - the world's largest passenger plane.  The first two parts of my series on this amazing new plane, last week, enjoyed a lot of readership, and I hope you'll enjoy the other two parts this week.

It made sense to have the four parts flow as they do, from tracing the origins of the A380 program, through its development, then looking at the reality of the plane as it is and taking a sneak preview of what the future may hold, and ending with a review/report of what it is actually like to fly on an A380, and it made sense last week to point you to the first article in the series to start your reading forward from.

But this week, I'm going to point you to the last part of the series - the actual review/report of my A380 flight.  There's nothing to stop you reading backwards after this part of the series, of course, to the third part also being released this week, and the first two parts as well.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Flying on the Emirates A380 :  It sounds good on paper.  It looks good at the airport.  But, the only relevant issue for most of us is 'what is it like to fly on'?  Read my review to get the answer to that question.  (For those of you too impatient to click over to the review, here's a hint - the A380, and Emirates' cabin layout, exceeded expectations in every respect.)

It was my hope to write this review in a 'photo-journalism' style, supplementing the words with lots of pictures.  I did take a camera, but lazily only snapped a very few pictures, expecting to get a complete portfolio of professional quality imagery from Emirates as part of a typical press kit of data.  Their press agency offered dozens of photos of people enjoying pre-flight drinks in the airport terminal, of various dignitaries giving speeches to the assembled VIPs, and a bunch of the plane landing and taking off, but it was very hard to get pictures of the things of most interest to us as passengers - the seats and other prosaic things like that.  Apparently they never thought anyone would be interested in a closeup of things like a coach class seat back showing the tray table and innovative new gimbled drink holder.

After a mad scramble for photos, and with generous help from Johnny Jet (his review of the A380 can be seen here), I hope you'll find the resulting article interesting and well enough illustrated to give you a good feeling for the A380 experience.

As an aside, Emirates are hoping to have five A380s in service by January 2009.  This first A380 will be joined by a second one in September (Qantas is also getting an A380 in September) and three more by January.  But this article suggests that there may still be some delays in Airbus getting the kinks out of its A380 production line which could lead to further delays in airplane deliveries.

Dinosaur Watching :  Happy birthday this week to an 'un-dinosaur'.  Happy first birthday, Virgin America.

Many of us - myself included - doubted you'd ever take to the skies, but most of us (myself again included) are delighted to have you now operating.  Many happy returns, and may your route network and services continue to grow and hopefully prosper.

It is one thing to write about airline incompetencies and stupidities.  I do it all the time, and perhaps because I do it all the time (and you therefore read about it all the time) we all come to accept and expect that our airlines are less than perfectly managed, and that a certain amount of inefficiency and mistakes must inevitably occur.  Perhaps this is indeed unavoidably so.

But it is another thing entirely when confronted with an airline that is 100% lying through its teeth to its passengers.  That should never happen, and is never acceptable.  I am writing this fresh from reading a terrible story about a family of eight who had bought tickets to travel on United from Los Angeles to Hawaii.  They attempted to do an electronic checkin from home the day before their flight, and found they couldn't (even though they'd received an automatic email a short while before advising them to do this).  When the family contacted United to find out what was up, they were told that their flight had been cancelled.

Okay, so flight cancellations sometimes happen.  But, in this case, a ninth member of the family, traveling on his own ticket, had just, minutes before, managed to get his boarding pass issued online.  Clearly, the flight was not cancelled.  United had lied outright to them.

When confronted with this information, United changed its story and told a second outright lie.  'The computer had lost your reservation' was the new lie offered to the family.  When the family said 'If the computer lost our reservation, how come it sent us an email inviting us to check-in online?' United finally 'fessed up and stopped telling lies.  The truth was simple - United had bumped them off the flight in favor of some other passengers.

Read the full story - not just of United's lies up front, but of United's ongoing refusal to admit the truth - here.

Which of course leads to an unasked - an unanswerable question - that sometimes readers write to me about - ie, what do you do when your airline treats you so badly?  I've had readers tell me that they're never going to fly XYZ Airline again, and I have to sadly tell them that XYZ Airline could care less, no matter how much money their lost passengers used to spend with them.

Why is that?  Because the dinosaurs are in a happy situation where firstly, they know that most of the people who want to stop flying them have no choice but to continue flying them, whether they want to or not.  This might be because they are locked in to flying XYZ Airline because of their company's corporate travel contracts, or perhaps because XYZ is the dominant airline in the person's home town.  Or maybe just because they know that the person is at least a temporary 'captive' of their frequent flier program.  So, the first part of the equation is that airlines know that very few people will truly stop flying them, no matter how much they abuse their passengers.

The next part of the airlines' thinking is that 'what goes round, comes round'.  In this case, for every passenger that leaves XYZ to go and fly with ABC instead, there's a disenchanted passenger from ABC who goes to DEF, and a disenchanted passenger from DEF who goes to the next airline, and so on until a passenger from UVW moves to XYZ.  The airlines might have a changing mix of largely disloyal passengers who hate them, but they still have the same general number of passengers.

Even more than this, the airlines also know that, sooner or later, most passengers who stop flying with them are probably going to return back to them again.

And, lastly, as bad as any one airline is, the sorry truth is that they're not really much worse than their competitors.  All the dinosaurs are close to equally bad, with only subtle and semi-random shades of difference.  For all the people who abandon one airline, how many of them find any other airline is appreciably better?

This strikes at the heart of the disenfranchisement that we as passengers feel.  And if we're to see Delta and Northwest merge, our choices narrow even further.  If BA and AA (and Iberia) sort of merge their international operations as seems increasingly likely, there's another choice eliminated.

These are all reasons why we need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.  Because the 'free market' doesn't work when it comes to air travel.  The dinosaurs are not really competitors, they are more akin to members of a cartel, with cozy unwritten shared understandings and copy-cat procedures that mirror each other's policies, fares, and general approach to their operations and services.

If you want another example of how the airlines just absolutely don't care, consider one of my readers who is a 1K (top level elite) member of United's frequent flier program, and also a Million miler with them - the sort of passenger you'd think United would do just about anything to look after, and indeed United itself says that it does all it can to look after such passengers.

He can't even get them to reply to his emails - sent to a special 1K member only customer service email address.  I've read his emails - they are polite and proper and to the point, and detail a mistake that United made, and which United admits it made, but which United is not now willing to correct.

This is unacceptable, even for a person making only one ever flight with United, and - in the normal world - would be indicative of a company committing commercial suicide by alienating its most valuable customers.  But the airlines don't live in the normal world.  They live in a special alternate alien world where they set whatever rules they like, and we have few choices but to follow them.

'Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here' should be emblazoned prominently on the entrances to all airports.

One more thing on airline lying.  Corporate lying is bad enough, but how about direct lies from individual airline staff members?

There are enough urban legends going around of how airline employees have abused the trust that the authorities place in them by lying and claiming passengers misbehaved (or, even harder to rebut, 'acted suspiciously'), getting the passengers into serious trouble with the TSA, FBI, and all manner of other law enforcement authorities - all of whom automatically accept and trust everything an airline employee says - causing the authorities to start acting as if a mild mannered middle class American frequent flying businessman is a suicide bomber/terrorist.

It isn't only urban legend that passes these stories on.  I've had airline executives express concern to me at how overly aggressive some of their staff are, and how quick their staff are to start tossing around ridiculous accusations.  But it is easier for them to look the other way rather than confront their staff (and the unions) on matters that are hard to prove the right and wrongs of.

But sometimes right does triumph, as in a recent case where a flight attendant ran amok with her accusations.  The flight attendant's fabricated fictions were supported by a second flight attendant - because, usually when this happens, other members of the aircrew join forces and orchestrate supporting stories; either that or look the other way and pretend they saw nothing either which way

But other passengers on the plane rebutted the flight attendant's story, causing the flight attendant's suit against the accused woman (for almost half a million dollars!) to fail.  Details here.

Two remaining questions - what about the $3000 fine the FAA levied against the woman, based solely on the flight attendant's story?  Will that now be refunded to her?  And who pays her court costs for defending herself against such an egregious lawsuit?

Oh - one more question.  Does the flight attendant, who works for Continental, and who has tried this same trick before, still have a job?

Another thing about United - it has just advised the SEC that it is 'highly unlikely' it will take delivery of some 42 Airbus planes it currently has on order, and by not accepting these planes, United will forfeit its $91 million deposit.  Ouch.

If I were a United shareholder, I'd be rather unhappy at the inept management that ended up losing almost $100 million.  Why couldn't United have negotiated a later delivery schedule or in some other way done a deal with Airbus to avoid losing the deposit?  It isn't as though United will never need new planes again in the future, is it?  Or is it!

There are a lot of things the airlines have done to make our travels less pleasant and more expensive that I think to be inappropriate and unfair.  But here's a move by Air Canada that I don't feel quite so bad about - they are attempting to stop giving out free headsets on flights.  Passengers can use their own headsets for free, or else will be encouraged to buy a set of headphones for $3.

Note the careful wording here.  Because, strangely, AC will still give you a set of 'throwaway' junk headphones for free if you refuse to pay $3 for a slightly better set.  Various other airlines (including AC's competitor, Westjet) already charge for headphones.  Speaking as one who hasn't used an airline supplied set of headphones in ten years or more, I think it is fair enough the airlines should charge for them.

Your best strategy?  Go to Pro Travel Gear and either buy a set of their noise cancelling headphones or regular earphones and enjoy the 50% discount you'll get on them (see opening article at top of page for details on how to get the discount).

A particularly good value, if you're happy with an 'in the ear' style of headset, is their Solitude brand earplug type headphones that give great passive noise reduction and excellent sound quality.  The list price has recently dropped massively (I guess they are selling them so fast they now have some quantity of scale production savings they are passing on) and with the 50% discount, you can get a set for the laughably low price of $10.  With other high-end in-the-ear headphones selling for $100 - $300, these are outstanding value.

Here's an interesting metric.  Although there have been tons of airfare increases in the last twelve months, it is always hard to know exactly what it means, because people can strategically change their travel patterns and plans to optimize their airfare costs.  This means that most airfare increases don't actually bring in as much increased revenue as they could in theory if people just continued to book their travel without considering cost issues.

But the airline clearing house ARC - the organization that processes all travel agency tickets - reports that for July 2008 compared to July 2007, sales were up 3.4% while the number of tickets issued were down 6.78%.  This translates to the average ticket now costing 11% more than last year (and loosely to a 6.78% reduction in people traveling).

The world's best airline?  We probably all have an opinion on that, but the official determination of UK based Skytrax, after its annual survey of some 15 million people around the world, is that Singapore Airlines is the world's best airline (same as for 2007), followed by Cathay Pacific and Qantas.  My friends at Emirates came in at number 9 and also won the award for best inflight entertainment, and nearby airlines Qatar and Etihad were numbers 7 and 10 respectively.  No US or European airlines appeared on the top ten list, although in sub-categories, EasyJet was chosen as best low-cost airline, British Airways as best transatlantic airline, and Air New Zealand as best transpacific airline.

The only award to a US airline was, unsurprisingly, the award for 'Best Airline in North America' and that was won by Continental.  Full award details here.

I wrote about the California filing a $25 million lawsuit against the YTB travel organization last week.  This week YTB faces the threat of a second similar lawsuit from the Illinois attorney general, and the reality of a class action lawsuit for $100 million, with lead plaintiffs being two former YTB members, appearing on behalf of a class of over 1,000 similar members.  The suit alleges YTB engaged in an illegal pyramid sales scheme and an illegal chain referral sales technique.

The Singapore Flyer, currently the world's biggest observation wheel, has had its direction changed because feng shui masters said it was taking good fortune away from the city.  The wheel, which opened earlier this year, had originally revolved so that it rose to face the business district and went down overlooking the sea. The Flyer was going against the sun and taking fortune away from Singapore, said the feng shui masters, and so the wheel was reversed.  The Singapore Flyer is 545 ft high, 33 ft higher than the London Eye.

Tickets to Disney have gone up in price again. It now costs children 10 and older (and adults too, of course) $75 a day to visit Walt Disney World; children 3 to 9 are now $63.  Tickets for the Anaheim park go to $69 for 10 and older and $59 a day for ages 3-9.

And, as anyone who has every been to a Disney park knows, the admission is only a small part of the total cost of your day.  Starting from the extra fee for parking before you get into the park, continuing on through all the food and drink you buy, and ending as you finally leave the last souvenir store with still one more piece of expensive junk on your way out of the park, you can as much as double the $75 per person admission to get the true full cost per person of a day at Disney.

If you are going to Disney World in Florida, I've a useful series of articles with some tips on what to do and how best to see the massive complex of parks.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA is now keeping records of people with no ID who attempt to fly, adding them to yet another database of potential terrorists.  But - get this - if a TSA screener can identify them somehow, they won't be added to the database, but if they can't be identified, they will be added.  See this article.

This TSA policy begs the question - how can you create a record in a database of a person with an unknown identity?

Paranoia stalks the streets of Britain.  A middle-aged, male British Caucasian, with a clearly English accent - a dentist and amateur photographer - was staying at a hotel in Birmingham while attending a photographic exhibition.  The hotel was in a distinctive building, and so he took a picture of it from outside.

Two security officers from the building accosted him, questioned him aggressively, told him he may be a terrorist attempting to surveil the building, and refused to allow him back into the building and to his hotel.  Details here.

And Britain - the country which once welcomed and even encouraged eccentricity - now shuns and stares suspiciously at anyone not acting like everyone else.  Read this sad story of a 'bus spotter' and the various terrible things he has been accused of, due to his interest in taking pictures of buses.

The TSA continues to empire build - correction - to enhance the services it offers the US traveling public.  As this article gloomily tells, the TSA is seeking to expand its operations to now oversee some 15,000 private planes that operate from 4,700 smaller airports - ten times as many airports as the commercial airports that the TSA currently is active in.

Is this sensible?  Is this necessary?  How much danger do small private planes pose?  While we all know what happens when large passenger planes, full of thousands of gallons of jet fuel, fly into tall buildings, we are not talking about such things.  We are talking about much smaller planes, usually much slower planes, and definitely with much less fuel on board.

By way of contrast, a B-25 bomber flew into the Empire State Building (accidentally) in 1945.  The damage to the building?  It cost $1 million to repair and took 3 months.  14 people in the building were killed.  The plane weighed about 21,500 lbs and was traveling at about 200mph.

More recently, in 2006 a light plane flew into an apartment building in New York, killing the two people in the plane and injuring 21 building residents, but killing no-one else.

This page has interesting details of these two and yet another NY airplane crashing into a building event as well.

So is this really a security concern that requires massive government resource (and expense)?  The TSA think yes.  I'm not so sure.

It pays to speak clearly when telling a taxi driver where to take you, as this couple found out in Norway.  Their poor pronunciation of the Norwegian town Olden took them instead to Halden, and cost them $5800 in taxi costs.

Lastly this week, do you remember a few months back when Southwest repeatedly had problems with girl passengers in somewhat revealing clothing.  The problem has resurfaced, but this time in a suburban shopping mall where a 20 year old student bought a dress on Saturday, then returned to the mall wearing it on Sunday, only to be escorted out of the mall due to several women complaining to a security guard that their husbands were 'checking her out'.  Click here for the article and, yes, a picture of the girl in the offending (but not really offensive) dress.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider


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