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Friday 29 August, 2008  

Good morning

Summer fast approaches its traditional end with the Labor Day holiday this weekend.  For sure, the days are already appreciably shorter, and - at least here in the Seattle area - appreciably cooler too.

And with the end of summer, what better time to plan for a winter break.  Please do consider joining our small group of fellow Travel Insiders and come on this year's Christmas Markets cruise along the Danube, and optionally on to beautiful Prague.

As regular readers know, I am a gadget enthusiast, and it is always very pleasing to find a new gadget and to hopefully be the first to introduce it to you.  This week offers one such opportunity :

This Week's Feature Column :  ETA's Luggage Locator :  Here's a simple and inexpensive device to help you find your luggage in a crowded airport or shipping terminal baggage hall.

Thanks to the readers who answered last week's survey about if pilots should be armed or not.  Overall, an overwhelming 79% of you support arming pilots.

  • 35% said :  Yes, I trust him to fly the plane so I trust him with a gun too

  • 35% said :  Yes, but only after rigorous testing and training

  • 9% said :  Yes, on the same basis as Air Marshals

  • 2% said :  said I'm not sure

  • 19% said :  said No

Women were more supportive than men of arming pilots. 13% of women opposed arming pilots, whereas 21% of men were against arming pilots.

Younger readers were more negative than older readers - 33% of readers under 40 opposed.

Readers with advanced/post graduate degrees opposed more strongly (at 24%) than college graduates (19%) and there was even lower opposition from non-college graduates.

In terms of income - and perhaps shadowing the educational skew to an extent - there was the most noticeable split in opinion, more so than in any of the other demographic groupings.  People earning $200k+/yr were the most opposed (but even in this case, there was still only 40% who opposed arming pilots). There was no significant variation of opinion among all the other earning groups.

Lastly, matching opinion against number of flights taken each year, the more flights a person took, the less they wanted their pilot armed, culminating in people taking 21 or more flights a year, with 30% of those opposed to armed pilots.  But lets not forget that a 30% opposition means 70% support.

Overall, there was no demographic element of any type in which the responses came close to a 50% opposition level, let alone anything showing more clearly against arming pilots.  The key statistic is the overall total - four out of every five people responding support arming pilots.

In our varied and pluralistic society, it is very rare indeed that any issue has such an enormous preponderance of opinion supporting one side of an issue that - based on media reporting and what elite opinion leaders would have us believe - is either a very contentious issue or one which the larger number of people actually oppose arming pilots.

Dinosaur watching :  Days after United Airlines announced its plans to charge business-class passengers for food on domestic and even most international flights, United backed down and said it will launch a "trial" program to bring free food back into the biz-class cabin.

However, the trial program - set to begin later this year - probably won't last forever, and it won't mean luxurious dining either. "As part of the trial, on domestic flights with three cabins of service, United will be offering United Business customers complimentary fresh sandwiches, salads, snack boxes or snacks, depending on the length of flight," the airline said. "The products will be the same as the Buy on Board sandwiches and salads offered in United Economy."

At least so far, the high-fare paying business-class customers will continue to enjoy complimentary beverages, including wine and cocktails.

Up in Canada Jazz Airlines has come up with an even more novel way to save weight.  Stop carrying life jackets.  For flights that don't go more than 50 miles away from land, it will instead offer seat cushion flotation devices 'in the event of a water landing'.  While there's considerable debate as to what might happen if a modern jet had to land in the water (see my article 'What happens if an airplane's engines fail' for a partial discussion on this topic) what is plain is that a seat cushion is massively less effective than a proper life jacket if you end up in the water.

In theory, a plane that is no more than 50 miles away from land could glide at least the 50 miles so as to be able to then land somewhere on land rather than over water, but that assumes that the plane is at cruising altitude to start with, and also assumes that there is some decent land, and at close to sea level, suitable for putting the plane down onto immediately the plane comes onshore once more.  Those are big assumptions.

More details of the Jazz cost-saving measure here.

Bad news if you'd been planning on flying on discount UK carrier Zoom Airlines (which flies to Canada and the US).  They've had two of their planes seized in Canada for non-payment of bills, and the airline says it is seeking 'creditor protection'.  Details here.

Stop Press :  Thanks to reader Mark for sending this update on Zoom at 00.30am Friday morning, just in time for the newsletter.  They've now suspended all flights.

It seems that Alitalia is about to go through some changes, too.  Alitalia is expected to file for bankruptcy today (Friday), with a view to a subsequent breakup, with some of the airline being bought out by a private group of Italian investors and merged with another Italian airline, Air One, and the balance presumably being closed down for good.  As of the time of writing this, no-one seems exactly sure what impacts there'll be on the immediate future schedule of Alitalia.  It is probably not a good time to be booking travel on Alitalia.

And showing that travel difficulties aren't uniquely the airlines alone, American rail tour operator Grand Luxe Rail - formerly American Orient Express - is ceasing operations on Friday too.

Fortunately, not all airlines are closing down - some are making improved profits instead.  Virgin Atlantic reported a 38% lift in their annual profit, going up to £61 million this year ($119 million) compared to £44 million last year.

The airline attributes its improved result to a move by premium fare paying passengers away from BA and to itself, in large part due to the negative publicity as a result of the problems BA suffered with the opening of its new Terminal 5 at Heathrow earlier this year (problems which weren't exclusively of its own making).

And while the loser airlines are trying to make money by cutting services and quality at every turn, Virgin's CEO, Steve Ridgway offers a different view.  He says

...the winners will be those airlines that focus on offering the best customer service. We have ... focused on providing the best product in Upper Class, Premium Economy and Economy...

First Emirates, now Virgin Atlantic - two airlines reporting increased profits and attributing their profit in part to their successful pursuit of excellence.  Meanwhile, money losing United is cutting back on any and all reasons why higher fare paying passengers would ever wish to fly with them.

This seems so simple - there's no need even to be innovative, but rather just to do what the airlines like to do so much.  Play copycat.  But choose the 'high road' as exemplified by Emirates and Virgin Atlantic, rather than the low road, as exemplified by most US carriers.

Talking about choosing the low road, it is an oft cited truism that the Asian carriers are so much better than the US ones, and Cathay Pacific is often cited as one such high quality carrier.

But that hasn't been the experience of reader David.  He had a simple objective - he wanted to get taken off Cathay's e-mailing list.  But - how to do this?  An attempt to unsubscribe via the link at the bottom of an email required him to provide his username and password; neither of which he had any memory of at all, it being some long time ago that he had signed up to get their weekly specials.  There was no provision on the website for people who couldn't remember their username and password - and, indeed, better designed newsletter list programs don't require users to memorize such things anyway - they are either managed by hand (such as with mine) or else all the user information is encoded into the unsubscribe link.

So David tried calling their regular (800) number to ask for help.  It took 20 minutes of repeated dialing just to get past their busy signals and to be put in queue waiting for an agent.  When he finally got through to an agent, that person couldn't help and told David that there would be no supervisor available for two hours!

This was almost certainly a lie.  Airline call centers can't function without supervisors being available all the time.

In desperation, David faxed an unsubscribe request to their US headquarters in Los Angeles.  Except - the published fax number didn't work.

The same (800) number is used by Cathay for lost baggage, flight arrival/departure information, and just about every sort of regular query; David wonders how anyone would or could do business with Cathay if it takes 20 minutes on a normal seeming day (ie no red hot airfare specials or service disruptions causing their phone lines to be extra busy) just to get past the busy signal, and where any request even slightly out of the normal is rebuffed with a requirement to try calling back in two hours time.

Interestingly, way back, 12 or more years ago, Cathay was considered one of the world leaders in terms of embracing internet technologies.  Based on David's current experience, Cathay seems to have totally lost that former excellence.

In other Cathay news, they reported a loss for the first six months of this year of $85 million.  Last year they made a $331 million profit for the same six months.  Needless to say, Cathay blame this on high oil prices, but reader David might have a different opinion as to why it is their profitability is plunging.

The 'Southwest effect' is described as the two things that happen when Southwest starts flying into a new city.  Airfares drop across the board as established carriers match Southwest's typically lower fares, and air travel increases in response.

Here's an interesting example of the other side of the Southwest effect.  For reasons best known to itself and to no-one else, Southwest only publishes its schedules (and therefore fares) a little way into the future, unlike most airlines that will accept reservations up to 11 months in advance (and even further in advance for group type bookings).

So guess what happens on the particular day when Southwest's future bookings stop being available?  Yes - airfares typically rise on other carriers.  Here's a wonderful example of this in chart form, courtesy of farecompare.com - at present, you can book with Southwest through until 6 March 2009.

Look at the leap in fares on United that occurs on 7 March - from an average of about $385 up to an average of about $440.

If you're flying anywhere in the US, plainly it is best not to book further in advance than Southwest has its schedules published for.

The death of traditional travel agencies has been widely predicted, due to the zeroing out of airline commissions and the growth of internet booking services.  For sure, there was a difficult period of consolidation when many weaker travel agencies did close down, but these days the trend is reversing back and more people are booking through travel agencies again.

Certainly, one of the big problems that the major online agencies have (ie Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz) is that there's little brand loyalty.  In my case, I used to use Travelocity but gave up in disgust a year or two back, and after some lengthy evaluation and comparisons, decided either Expedia or Orbitz is better than the other, but I subsequently forgot which I preferred, and find it very hard to detect much of a difference at all between using the one or the other of them.

And when did you last hear someone saying 'I found this really helpful knowledgeable website who knew exactly what I wanted, and who suggested some great extra things for me to do on my vacation, and who also recommended this tiny little boutique hotel (etc etc)'.  While such comments may often be made about good travel agents, they are almost not possible to be offered about websites that are inanimate and add little extra value.  A good travel agent remains as invaluable now as they've ever been.

This article discusses the trend some more.

If you're encouraged to consider becoming a travel agent yourself, here's a must read article that helps you to understand the difference between working for a bona fide travel agency as a bona fide travel agent, and being ripped off by a 'card mill' - a company that charges you a fee to become a 'travel agent', that promises you lots of travel agent type perks (almost none exist these days other than those earned by being a loyal productive agent for a particular supplier), and a company that actually does little or nothing to help you sell travel profitably.

It isn't the World's Tallest Building (here's a fascinating article on tall buildings, in case you're interested) but it is now the world's highest observation platform open to the public - the Shanghai World Financial Centre, with the observation level being on the 100th floor, 474 meters (ie 1555 ft) above the ground.  Previously the highest observation level was Toronto's CN Tower, at 447 meters (1467 ft).

Apple's new iPhone 3G is proving problematic.  First of all it had reported problems actually working with high speed 3G services, and while Apple provided a software fix, some people suggest the software fix has not solved the problem, believing it may actually be a hardware problem that might even need a product recall.  And now it seems the latest round of software fixes - version 2.0.2 of the firmware - has within it a serious security flaw (details here).

The flaw relates to the ability of an unauthorized person to break the password protection on the phone and access your personal data stored on the phone.  Back a few generations of phones ago, few of us ever bothered to lock our cell phones.  But these days, phones carry an increasing amount of sensitive personal data.

If you too have an iPhone or Blackberry or other type of 'smartphone' you really should password protect it to protect you against the potential of identity theft if the phone is lost or stolen.

When American Airlines introduced its broadband internet service on selected flights a week ago, it blocked the ability to make VoIP type phone calls through its service - apparently out of sensitivity for people on their flights that don't want to be surrounded by people talking on phones, but more probably in a desire to keep the bandwidth demands on their service down.

But, in less than a week, some clever people have worked out how to get around the block on using AA's internet service for voice calling while flying across the US.  Details here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It is bad enough that the police arrested an ABC News producer while he and a camera crew were filming on a public street in Denver this week.  But after arresting him, they refused to tell ABC's lawyers what the charges were that allowed for the arrest.

And how about the words recorded by one of the arresting officers.  During the arrest, one of the officers can be heard saying to the producer 'You're lucky I didn't knock the f..k out of you.'

Has the US way of life now become one where we must consider ourselves lucky that we don't have a policeman 'knock the f..k out of us' while he is in the process of wrongfully arresting us - not only for no good reason, but also for no reason he is prepared to give us at all?

Details here.

I can often get a sense about how important news items are by the number of people who forward items on to me.

This week's most forwarded story was about a woman who got in an argument after her underwire bra set off the metal detector at Oakland airport while going through security.

But, for a change, I find myself sympathizing with the TSA rather than with the woman.  While it might be argued that they had their metal detector set too sensitively, and it is annoying to all of us to have metal detectors inconsistently sometimes alarm and sometimes not alarm (in my case, a belt I often wear sometimes sets off detectors and sometimes doesn't), but if an alarm sounds, who among us would be happy if the TSA staff said 'Oh, don't worry about it, I'm sure there's nothing suspicious'?

Indeed, the salient facts of this encounter (see here) not only strongly suggest that the woman was being argumentative and confrontational (if you fail the 'attitude test' with any law enforcement officer, things will only get worse not better) but also indicate that the woman was 'a lady of size', which means there was ample opportunity for her to be concealing who knows what in and around her apparently substantial décolletage.

And, much as I strongly support them in general, the ACLU needs to avoid knee jerk supporting every anti-authority situation.  Their comment 'They can't find bombs in checked luggage, and they're essentially doing a pat-down of private parts.  This is a security apparatus that is out of control.' is misguided and a cheap shot that does nothing to advance the very real issues we all have with the TSA.

My comments about why anyone would go to Dubai last week drew some responses.  Bill said

They've got the world's largest indoor man-made ski slope.  They've got camel races where robots are the jockeys and the spectators watch by driving SUVs next to camels and screaming at them.  You get Middle East atmosphere with Western freedoms.

Dubai is the Vegas of the Middle East!

Larry added

I used some miles to get 2 tickets for my girlfriend and I to fly in the suites on Emirates to Dubai and spent and week between there and Al Ain.

We loved the week there. With an Israeli passport stamp I can't get into too many Arab countries but was welcome in the Emirates. The river tour, markets, camel market, indoor skiing, and shopping were good. The traffic and heat and all the construction not.

And reader Nigel, who, ahem, has a somewhat vested interest in the matter (due to working for Emirates Airlines) strongly recommends Dubai as a wonderful place for tourists.  He lived there for many years himself before being posted to New York a few years back, and says there is actually a wide variety of things for tourists to enjoy, including good value shopping, beaches, great hotels and six PGA golf courses.

His personal favorite and strongest recommendation goes to taking a 'driving in the desert' type tour in a 4WD vehicle.  He says that the desert is actually a beautiful and varied environment that has to be seen in person to be understood and appreciated.

I guess I'll have to go see for myself one of these days (do I see the makings of a future Travel Insider tour?), and with Emirates adding new daily nonstop flights from both San Francisco and Los Angeles (to supplement their existing flights from New York, Houston and Toronto) it is becoming increasingly easy to get there.

Nigel also got sidetracked during our conversation and we started having one of those 'I remember when' type sessions, reminiscing about the 'golden age of aviation'.

For those of you who also find the history of aviation and the way things used to be done before the terrible impersonal approach to travel we all suffer these days an interesting topic, he recommends this website - www.BetterOnACamel.com.

Some of you might recognize (or even remember!) the phrase 'Better On A Camel' as being an acronym for BOAC, the predecessor to modern day BA.  The website has many fascinating stories of working for BOAC post WW2 with lingering shades of the British Empire still influencing the airline and its perception worldwide.

Talking about the glory days of air travel, one of the most famous planes of all time is the Douglas DC3.  It was one of the pivotal planes in the evolution of aviation (along with the 707 and 747) because it brought new standards of reliability and even affordability to air travel.  Although it is probably 60 years since the last DC3 rolled off the production lines, they can still be found flying in a few parts of the world, including, last I heard, in my home country of New Zealand.

But the phrase 'going for a ride on a DC3' takes on a whole new meaning when justaposed with this picture (taken in Australia).

Here's a slightly silly but amusing song and video about airline fees.

I hope you have a safe and enjoyable Labor Day weekend.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider


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