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Friday 19 September, 2008  

Good morning

I am humbled by the massive response to this year's fund raising drive.  A bit like a performer who is nervous before going on stage, I'm always anxious when announcing each year's fundraiser - 'what if they don't like me anymore?' runs through my mind.  A large part of the value of each year's fundraiser is not just the cash (which is of course terribly essential) but the positive affirmation that the time I invest in this project is appreciated and well received.

The first tranche of usual supporters (and some new helpers too) leapt to my assistance after last week's launch of the 2008 fund raising drive, with contributions ranging all the way from $5 up to a stunning sum that I hesitate to even mention (special thanks to Ken).  The first contribution, from Tim, came in at 2.44am, even before all copies of the newsletter had been mailed out; one reader kindly offered to help still further if the fundraising goals weren't met, and two readers supplemented their ongoing voluntary subscriptions with additional payments.

In total, we have received help from 215 readers thus far.  This is slightly up on last year, when 205 readers responded in the first week of last year's campaign, and 152, 94 and 86 readers in previous years.

With this marvellous support, we're now almost exactly one third of the way towards this year's goal of 650 subscribers.  I need - yes, I truly need - another 435 of the 21,989 people reading this to now please join in the fundraiser and help me and The Travel Insider move forward for another year.

There's always a strange and sad side-effect of the annual campaign, which truly is unnecessary.  There's a lift in the number of people who unsubscribe.  There is no reason for anyone to feel guilty at not contributing, and everyone is welcome to continue to receive the newsletter, whether you choose to help out in return or not.  Please don't feel you should unsubscribe if you can't contribute.

If you missed it last week, here's the background on the fundraising drive and why your help is truly needed, this year more than ever previously.   To briefly explain, this newsletter and matching website - my full time job - is all completely free; and relies on the PBS model with voluntary reader contributions.  Once every year, you are asked to help out, and this year your help is needed even more than in the past.

Last week I asked you to compare the cost of one cup of coffee a week to the value/pleasure you get from the newsletter and feature articles.

This week can I suggest a different paradigm -  in my efforts to ensure the survival of The Travel Insider, I was paying my attorney $5/minute for her time (and in total she billed several hundred hours).  How many minutes do you feel able to help me with? :)

Please go to the support page and help as best you can. No-one should ever feel obliged to help, and neither should anyone ever give more than what they can conveniently spare. But please help to keep us up and going and growing.

I've been so motivated by the generous surge of supporters that I've written and am now releasing this evening not just one but two more sections of the 'How to negotiate the best hotel room rate' series, being now parts three and four.  Has there ever been such a detailed look at the intricacies of hotel booking before?

I doubt it, and find this surprising, because just about everyone who travels stays in hotels at least some of the time, and - as may be becoming more obvious as the series unfolds - hotel room rates vary as much as do air fares, with one significant extra feature :  While you have close to zero chance of trying to negotiate your airfare cost with the person you're booking your ticket with, hotel room rates are often negotiable and if you ask for a better rate or extra inclusions, you might well get them.  And so, here are another 4,386 words to help you with your future hotel bookings :

This Week's Feature ColumnsWhat is included and what is extra (with your hotel booking) and How to resolve hidden extra fees :  It is very hard to compare rates for hotel rooms, even for the same hotel room, because different booking sites have different semi-hidden fees and surcharges, and may have different inclusions too.  Here's what to look out for when comparing rates, and - if you are sandbagged at the hotel with an unexpected extra fee, here are some suggestions for getting that resolved in your favor.

Happy anniversary to the Boeing 707 - it wasn't the first commercial passenger jet, but it was the first successful passenger jet and revolutionized air travel when it entered commercial service 50 years ago.  707s were built for 20 years, with some 1100 sold.

As an interesting aside, even though the very newest 707 would now be 30 years old, as of July this year there are 40 known 707s still on the books of airlines around the world, although 26 of them are in inactive/storage status.

In a strange and seeming contradiction, there are 127 of the Douglas DC8 planes - arch rival to the 707, and which came out at almost exactly the same time - on the books of world airlines, with 28 of them in storage.

What makes this strange is that only 556 DC8s were produced, and production ceased 36 years ago.

There's another anniversary to keep in mind as well.  Two days ago saw 100 years since the first ever airplane fatality.

Perhaps it was oversensitivity to this issue that caused passengers to start an on-board petition to successfully demand a replacement plane after the 737 they were to fly on had to turn back to the gate twice just before take-off.

The flight - an Air Berlin flight attempting to depart Nuremberg last Sunday, was a new 737 and while taxiing from the jetway the pilot noticed one of the cockpit display screens was faulty, so he returned to the gate.  The screen was repaired and the plane pushed back a second time, about an hour late.

While taxiing to the runway, one of the flight attendants fainted.

But, rather than ask for a replacement flight attendant, the passengers demanded a replacement plane.  The airline agreed, and the 172 passengers had to wait 15 hours for a replacement plane to be flown in to Nuremberg.  Two of the passengers refused to fly at all, apparently traumatized by the experience.

Excuse me, but this is beyond pathetic.  A flight attendant faints but the passengers ask for a replacement plane?  They're happy to wait 15 hours for it to arrive, all the while presumably looking out the terminal windows at a nearly brand new 737 in perfection condition?

A couple of other anniversaries about now.  It is the 30th anniversary of deregulation, which was signed into law back in October 1978.

It is also the 30th anniversary of the 'invention' of business class This advertisement from British Caledonian (long since defunct) claims they invented business class in 1978, but a careful check of their history suggests that probably they might have announced it first in 1978, but their first planes to feature it didn't fly until some later time in 1979.  Qantas also claims to have founded the concept of business class in 1979, which, if correct, probably means their first business class equipped planes took to the air before British Caledonian, even if British Caledonian was first to announce the idea back in 1978.

And if that isn't already more than you wanted to know about business class, there's lots more in this article.

Dinosaur watching :  It seems I must advise you to be very careful if you have travel plans involving Alitalia.

Attempts to sell the airline appear to be stuck, due to the intransigence of the airline's striking unions who are objecting to staff lay-offs which are almost unavoidably an essential part of any plan to bring Alitalia anywhere close to profitability in the future.  If Alitalia is to be resurrected, it needs to rationalize its route structure and its workplace practices, and currently there appears to be an impasse between the unions and potential investors.

Will the Italian government allow Alitalia to close down completely?  We'll probably see the answer to that question any day now, and if the government does choose to allow Alitalia to cease operations, well - you'll have a problem with any future flights you've booked with them.

So, be very vigilant if you have flights scheduled with Alitalia in the next short while, and if you're considering Alitalia in the future, you need to consider the possibility either that the airline may cease operations entirely or may massively change its schedules, and factor that in to your choice of which airline to fly.

Talking about airlines in trouble, BA CEO Willie Walsh predicts that 'up to' 30 more airlines will go bankrupt between now and Christmas, in addition to what he calls '30 or so' airlines that have gone out of business so far this year.

I asked BA for details on which airlines Mr Walsh believes are at risk, but (and perhaps understandably!) they didn't reply to my note.

One airline Mr Walsh doubtless would love to see go bankrupt - but which announced an improved profit last year so seems unlikely to do so - is arch-rival Virgin Atlantic, with their quirky owner, Sir Richard Branson announcing that he'll spend millions of dollars if necessary to attempt to block the alliance between BA and AA (and Iberia).  This finds Sir Richard back in the underdog role that he loves so much; more details here.

Also about airline mergers, opposition to the DL/NW merger is coming from an unexpected quarter - passengers.  A group of 28 air travelers are suing the two airlines, seeking an injunction to block the merger.  They say it violates antitrust law and will substantially lessen competition.

This week they sought court approval to depose the CEOs of American, Continental, US Airways and United to get their views on airline consolidation and to question them on public statements they had earlier made on the subject.  Delta and Northwest objected to this, and the judge refused the petitioners permission to question the CEOs.

The case will be heard on 5 November in San Francisco, and is expected to last about ten days, with a ruling possible prior to Thanksgiving.  Unfortunately, an inability to adduce testimony from other airline CEOs would seem to weaken the case for these passengers.

And talking about passengers suing airlines, here's a lovely heart-warming story of a passenger who did exactly that, and won.  Attorney Mitchell Berns and his wife were traveling back home from Vegas to New York, only to have Delta cancel their flight due to weather.  Berns couldn't help noticing that the weather problem DL cited didn't interfere with other flights proceeding normally and asked DL to rebook them on another airline, or at least to refund the balance of his ticket so he could buy fares directly.  Delta refused, pointing out that it had no obligations to assist in the case of weather related problems.

When Berns eventually got home, he checked with the National Weather Service, and discovered that the weather problem DL was using as an excuse was exactly that - an invalid excuse.  The snow DL said was the problem wasn't expected to fall until five hours after his cancelled flight would have landed in New York.

So, Berns sued Delta in small claims court and won a judgment for the $938 he had to spend on buying tickets with JetBlue.  DL didn't even bother to turn up for the hearing, and so Berns won.  Details here.

Bottom line - call the airlines' bluff when they come up with excuses, and take them to small claims court.

As fuel prices continue to drop, and oil is now under $100/barrel, what does United do?  United doubles the fee it charges for a second checked bag, from $25 to $50 each way.  Yes, you'll now pay $100 roundtrip for a second checked bag.

On Friday last week, Continental added a $15 fee for the first checked bag, for travel beginning Oct. 7.  They said they expect the fee to generate more than $100 million in annual 'net benefits'.

Indeed, there's been such a flurry of airlines increasing their bag fees over the last few weeks it is difficult to keep up with all the changes.  I need to rewrite my pages of bag fee policies, but I'm hoping for a slowdown in the changes before doing so.  Meantime, here's a good article about the increases in fees, the extra profits for the airlines, and the extra problems for us as passengers.

Hot on the heels of United and Continental increasing their checked bag fees, Air Canada announced that it would eliminate the fee it has been charging for a second bag, and simplify its other baggage fees.  Now, usually, when an airline 'simplifies' something, that means it will increase the cost or eliminate some lower priced options, but in this case, simplification seems to actually mean savings.

Air Canada also said that it would merge its fuel surcharges into its published base fare to make it easier for passengers to understand what they are paying for their flights.  Doesn't that also sound high minded and praiseworthy?

Well, be careful, whenever an airline starts to sound too decent, they're probably up to something, and reader Hugh thinks he knows what AC's game is.  He says that by hiding/obscuring the fuel surcharge, AC is now insulating itself from calls to reduce its fuel surcharge as jet fuel prices drop.  Could well be that Hugh is onto something there.

One can well understand why some airlines might be embarrassed at the way their fuel surcharges have grown.  KLM recently published a fare for travel from Curacao and Aruba to Amsterdam and back.  The publicized special fare - AWG549 roundtrip.  But the total cost?  AWG1450 - almost three times as much as the quoted airfare.  The largest part of the extra costs was an AWG640 fuel surcharge.

Having a fuel surcharge substantially greater than the fare is like the tail wagging the dog.  It is time for all airlines to bring sanity back to what they call airfare and what they call surcharge.

And, let's not also overlook the third part of the total fare cost.  We had an airfare of AWG549, fuel surcharge of AWG640, and then a slew of taxes and fees totaling AWG261.

How much is fair to pay in taxes and fees when flying?  In this case, they add 22% to the base ticket and fuel surcharge price.  And built into the fuel surcharge and base fare are all the extra taxes that are added to the price of the fuel, and all the other taxes and fees that are absorbed into the airfare rather than separately costed out.  In total, probably well over 30% goes in taxes and fees.

No matter what you think to be a fair amount to pay for taxes and fees, you'll probably agree that 30% is too much.

Talking about fuel surcharges and the declining cost of oil and jet fuel, there's a claim on the US airlines' lobbying group, the Air Transport Association, that each dollar increase in the cost of oil per barrel represents an extra cost to the US aviation industry of $430 million.

So, does that also mean that a drop in the cost of oil saves the industry $430 million? And with close on a $50 drop from oil's peak of several months ago, does that mean the industry will be making an extra $21.5 billion in profits due to savings in fuel over the next twelve months?


Apparently what goes around doesn't come around, at least in the airline industry.  We are now being asked to believe that each dollar fall in the cost of oil doesn't translate into the same saving as each dollar rise causes an increase.  For example, in this article, John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist for the ATA, explained that despite crude-oil prices declining from recent highs, jet fuel is still expensive, as only a percentage of each barrel is refined for jet fuel.  He added that airlines have been unable to raise fares at rates that could keep pace with rising fuel prices.

'It's a race between fares and fuel, and fuel is winning,' Heimlich said. 'Don't think that seeing the crude price is what airlines have been paying.'

Hmmmm.  The fact remains that the airlines have created a trap for themselves.  Understandably, they never thought oil prices would plunge as far down as they (temporarily) have, and so never thought they'd be called to account for the opposite side of the $1/bbl = $430 million extra cost equation they've been using to justify their ongoing battle against their customers.

The 'Field of Dreams' theory is alive and well in Las Vegas - not only in the form of hoteliers who continue to build new hotel rooms, but in the airport authority there, too.  The city expects a further 32,000 hotel rooms to open up between now and the end of 2011, making for a staggering 165,042 hotel rooms in total.  But, there's a big problem associated with that - airlines are cutting back flights to Las Vegas, and because the city relies on air services to bring 50% of its guests to it, that's a big problem.

Even bigger is that to be able to handle the projected extra flights to serve the extra 32,000 hotel rooms (assuming half the new visitors come by air, I estimate this will require 50 - 75 extra flights a day), McCarran Airport needs to build another terminal.  But tell that to the airlines who are being asked to fund the new terminal development - they're cutting back on flights rather than adding them, making the current terminal facilities more than sufficient.  They don't want a new terminal, and they doubly don't want to spend money at present on building something they neither want nor need.

But the airport authority has chosen to listen to the local hotels, and is pressing on with the development regardless.  Details here.

Talking about airports, would you like to buy an airport?  London's Gatwick Airport is up for sale.

If an airport is a bit too much, how about a train?  A set of luxury train carriages is for sale here in the US.

35% of Blackberry users would choose their Blackberry over their spouse, or at least according to a survey reported in this article.

Now, if it was preferring one's Blackberry over one's ex-spouse, I could certainly understand the statistic.....

Talking about Blackberrys (or should it be Blackberries, I wonder?), get ready for the exciting new cell phone that will be based on a new operating system called Android, and developed by Google.

Could this be the answer to the iPhone (and the Blackberry)?  We'll know more this coming week, when a formal announcement is expected from T-Mobile, which will be the first carrier to start selling the phones.  The first Android phone, made by high end phone manufacturer HTC, will be priced at a moderate $199 (with new 2 yr contract), and is expected to be available some time in mid October.  I hope to be one of the first to get one, and will let you know my impressions as soon afterwards as possible.

And talking about cell phones in general, I received my first ever telemarketing sales call on my cell phone yesterday.  Yuck.

So, if you haven't done this already, go to www.donotcall.gov and register all your phone numbers - home and cell - on the national do not call list.  It is only recently that cell phone numbers have been available for telemarkets to access, and it is also only recently that you've been able to add your cell phone numbers to the national Do Not Call registry.

One last cell phone comment - long time readers know I'm gravely suspicious of the dangers of cell phone radiation, and believe we're at a state of social awareness of this issue similar to the situation with the cigarettes/lung cancer issue back in the 1950s.  The analogy is even more appropriate because, as witness the Blackberry item above, we're as much addicted to our cell phones today as smokers ever were (or are) to their cigarettes.

Whatever the reality of cell phone radiation dangers, one thing does seem clear.  Younger children are more susceptible to these dangers than mature adults.  Which makes this item about schools allowing wireless companies to put transmitters on their sites all the more regrettable.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The very concept of 'terrorism' has expanded way beyond anything that a normal sensible person would understand to be terrorism.  And draconian laws that usurp our previous rights - laws hurriedly passed in the name of dire need to combat terrorism - are now being re-purposed for more mundane matters.

In drought afflicted Australia, people who steal water are being described as terrorists.  Details here.

In VA, some teenagers who stupidly wrote death threats on playing cards, emulating a concept from a recent Batman movie, but with no apparent plans to do anything about the threats they wrote, have been called terrorists.  Details here.

But, winning first prize and becoming this week's security horror story is the lady in Dundee, Scotland, who walked home from work, taking a short cut along a cycling path.  She was arrested under the UK's Terrorism Act for walking on a pathway that was designated for cyclists only, not pedestrians.  Details of this epic act of lunacy here.

Not called a terrorist, but a similar victim of epic lunacy is the MN high school student who is now facing expulsion.  His crime?  It was noticed that there was a box cutter in his car, parked in the school grounds.  He says the box cutter was needed for his after school job.

But the school has a zero-tolerance (which invariably equates to zero sense) weapons policy.  Details here.

If you are an international terrorist, please stop reading now.  Because I'm about to tell my honest law abiding readers how to smuggle things through airport security and onto a plane.  Hide them inside the hollow tubes of your wheeled carry-on's expandable handles.  Details here.

However, here's a reward for the international terrorists who hopefully didn't read the preceding paragraph.  If you want to get your name off the 'No Fly' list, here's a simple solution.  Change your name.  That's what Mario Labbe did in Canada.

Efforts to get Mario's name off the TSA list never succeeded, so he simply changed his name to Francois Mario Labbe, and now flies with no problems whatsoever.  Presumably his friends all call him by what is now his middle name, but he flies under his first name.  Details here.

Here's an interesting analysis of airport security, and a novel but compellingly convincing reason why seizing harmless things such as liquids doesn't protect us from terrorism at all.  The only problem is the solution advocated by the writer - either abolish the liquid (and other) bans (= good), or treat people with too much liquid as severe risk terrorists (= bad).

What are you doing on your birthday in 2009?  Disney are offering free admission to everyone on their birthday next year - details here.

I wrote a few weeks ago about a bizarre ad featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld.  They're back, and this time, instead of an expensively long 90 seconds, this ad is an extraordinary 4 minutes 30 seconds (nine times longer than a normal television ad).  But I quite liked it, in a strange sort of whimsical way.

Unfortunately, just as I was starting to like the concept, Microsoft announced it will not be releasing any more ads in the series (there might be a third one released, but I haven't managed to find it).  Which makes this sudden spark of creativity all the more peculiar.

I've always been fascinated by and loved dolphins, and my first ever exposure to them was at the Marineland facility in Napier, New Zealand.  And so there is something haunting and evocative about this story of a dolphin funeral, of sorts, off the shore from Marineland.

How did the other dolphins know?  Truly, there are many mysteries in nature that we're not yet privy to.

And talking about nature's mysteries, and ocean dwelling creatures, here's a different sort of story, about polar bears.

In closing, I hope you've enjoyed the 8600 words in this week's newsletter and two feature columns.  Please consider honoring my once a year request for reciprocity, and give some much needed financial support to help this year's fundraising.

I'll share, next week, our continued progress towards the 650 reader contributions goal.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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