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Friday 3 October, 2008  

Good morning

It has been a very positive week for our 2008 Fundraising, with the total count of supporters now swelling to 528, an increase of 154 over last week's count, and surely within reach of our target of 650.  We need a mere 122 more readers to generously choose to join this year's fundraising effort.

Well, actually, we need more than that, but our target stands at 650.  There are a couple of scary reasons (scary for me, and for you too if you're one of the many people who care about this site and newsletter) why this is so.  In setting a target number of supporters, rather than a target dollar figure, I'm attempting to be discreet and not fixate on the ultimate measure of things as demanded by my bank - the money received.

While this year has seen some readers generously increasing their contribution by substantial amounts, other readers have been affected by the chill winds of financial change that are blowing across many of us, and while still very kindly responding, have not felt it as easy to contribute as generously this year.  And, to those people, please never feel embarrassed - I very much appreciate any contribution given at a time when you're not as flush with funds and which perhaps represents as more of an impact than a larger contribution may have done in happier times.

The average value of contribution is slightly down on last year, and with a slightly reduced target (650 instead of the 680 supporters last year) that's a double financial whammy.

Bad things come in threes, and the third thing for me is reduced visitation to the website as a whole - I'm not sure why, there are more pages every week being added to the site, but visitor numbers are starkly down.  The last six months have seen a decline of almost 20% in numbers of daily visitors, and with the on-page advertising being of course directly linked to the number of people who view each page, you can probably work the math out on that yourself.

So I've not only had perhaps the most expensive - and unpleasant - year in my life these last twelve months, but I'm seeing my income sources shrivel.  All of this at a time when I need extra income rather than less income to pay off my divorce settlement - in large part cashing my ex-wife out of her notional share of The Travel Insider (which she valued as of 31 Dec 2007, which was probably the single minute when the business was at its all time highest value, a valuation she went all the way to the Court of Appeal to uphold before I capitulated).

Anyway, all of that is now behind me, and the simple reality is my request for one last tranche of readers to please respond to what will be the last request of this year's fundraising drive.  Please would you help me to continue helping you, by lending your financial support to those of the 528 kind souls who have already answered the call.  $5 is appreciated, $50 is amazing, and $500 is probably foolhardy (not that I mean to insult the two readers who did so generously break through the $500 point - their generosity defies definition).

So, please help us reach a successful conclusion to this year's fundraising and to keep the site whole and healthy for another year - you're welcome to contribute by credit card or check.  Details here.

As promised last week, I'm releasing a review of a high end GPS unit this week - TomTom's top of the line Go 930 unit.  I spent $400 plus tax plus shipping - about $450 in total - to buy one of these units to test and review.  I don't now actually recommend the unit, so I've spent $450 in order to save you wasting a similar sum if you were considering buying one of these units.  On a happier note, stay tuned for next week's article, which is of another high end (but, mercifully for me and for you too if you choose to buy it, much less expensive) GPS unit which, while not 100% perfect, is a great deal better than the TomTom unit.

Sure, I could save money by only reviewing the cheapest $150 GPS units, but who really cares about a $150 unit?  It is the top end units which we are most demanding of in terms of what they do and how well they do it.  The same with phones.  I've spent $450 to review an iPhone, and will be spending I'm not sure how much to get a new Google phone in October (with the contract cost associated with it, that will be a $450 or much more item too) and so on.  My 'free' flight to review the new airline between New York and Amsterdam in a couple of weeks is costing me way more than $450, to cover the cost of flying from Seattle to New York, overnighting in Amsterdam, etc.  Giving you the best information on the most important topics is costly.

For a reader supported site, these are large investments in return for which I get one single page feature column to offer you; with some 60 pages of information published so far this year, and let's say perhaps 90 for the total year; if each page had an underlying cost of $450, that would require a $40,500 budget just for product review costs alone.

Of course, some products are provided free, and happily not all pages of material have a $450 cost associated with them.  But, and whatever the cost, I can only continue to review the most interesting products with your help.

Please don't cause this site to sink into mediocrity - please help preserve the excellence of the material it covers.  If you haven't yet done so, please now choose to help support The Travel Insider.

And with that as lengthy preamble, here's the review you don't really need to read, except to find out the gory details of why I don't like the unit :

This Week's Feature Column : The TomTom Go 930 GPS : I review TomTom's $400 top of the line GPS unit. Is it as good as its hefty price tag implies? No, definitely not.  Read my article to find out what it does poorly and which of its special new features aren't worth paying extra money for.

Interestingly (perhaps), the market for GPS units as a whole is massively evolving at present.  Sales of GPS units more than doubled in 2007 compared to 2006 (up 124%) but will 'only' increase 43% this year and 24% in 2009.  There has been massive reductions in the cost of GPS units in the last 18 months or so, and these cost reductions will start to taper off - after all, there's a limit to how low prices can go.  A couple of years ago, a top of the line GPS cost about $1500, today the top of the line TomTom unit is a mere $400, and units with the same feature set as the two year old $1500 unit can now be found for $150.

The part of the market growing the most now is the inclusion of GPS capabilities into cell phones.    By 2011, more GPS units will be cell phone based than free standing units, while more and more cars will have GPS units available as lower priced options than they are at present.

Maybe the market for free standing GPS units is a finite and short term market accordingly.  If most cars start to offer GPS units, and if most phones have built in GPS too, who will need to buy an extra free-standing GPS?

But, that is still a way in the future.  For now, if your car doesn't have a GPS unit built in, the increasing capabilities of the latest GPS units and their dropping price make them more and more a 'must have' accessory.  But there's little need to have four in your car, as I have at present!

A quick reminder - the lowest prices ever on Christmas Markets cruises remain largely available on most of the 13 cruises featured, including our own wonderful Travel Insider Group Tour.

We had another reader join this week, and if you too are a single person considering coming and if you'd enjoy the fellowship of joining our group, do let me see how I can massage the numbers to take best advantage of the special pricing available.  It would be lovely to welcome a few more people onto what has become an extraordinary value cruise/tour, and with the Euro now wonderfully below $1.40, the remaining (minimal) costs ashore are becoming better and better value too.

Dinosaur watchingThe incredible shrinking airline :  Continental reported that its September domestic passenger numbers were down 16.2% compared to a year ago.  International traffic was down 5.1%.

In both cases, the reductions in passenger numbers closed matched the reductions in flights offered, which makes one wonder - which is coming first?  Fewer flights, or fewer passengers?  The answer is probably that we are first seeing fewer flights, and with load factors close to the maximum practical levels, cutting flights means fewer passengers.

Is this good sense?  The airlines say it is necessary, because they hope to create an artificial shortage that will push up the prices they can charge for their remaining seats on their remaining flights.  I'm not so sure, because none of this happens in a vacuum.  If/when an airline pushes up the average yield it is getting on any particular city pair routing, won't that encourage other airlines to compete on that route?

You'd think the answer would be yes, but the dinosaurs have an answer to that 'danger'.  Merging.  They figure that if they can reduce the number of competitors out there, then they can safely push up fares without having to worry about that annoying thing - free open competition.  This last week has seen the DL/NW merger win shareholder approval, which is no surprise because clearly the shareholders stand to benefit if the two airlines stop competing against each other.  There's one form of collusion that is always legal (not that any of the other forms of collusion seem to have aroused the ire of US authorities) and that is the internal 'collusion' when two airlines become one.

Oh, wait - did I say no other forms of collusion have roused the authorities from their slumber?  I'd be wrong if I said that, because earlier this week a British citizen and BA executive was sentenced to eight months in a US jail and levied a $20,000 fine for price-fixing activities in the airline's air cargo division, becoming the third person to cop a jail sentence as part of the Department of Justice's investigation into price fixing in international air cargo shipments.

In addition to the individuals being sent off to jail, Air France, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Korean Air Lines, Martinair, KLM, Qantas and SAS have pleaded guilty and agreed to pay fines of $US1.2 billion collectively.

We can ponder the DoJ's more assiduous pursuit of the rights of air cargo to travel at the lowest freely fixed fares than the rights of ourselves as passengers.

Talking about BA, it has been hinted to me that there might be more than meets the eye to BA's decision to cancel its services to Pakistan.  Maybe they are more prudent than cowardly in their actions.

Another comment on the matter, and not directed at BA - doesn't this underscore the fragility of air security when what might conjecturally be some sort of non-attributable threat against an airline results in the airline needing to completely cancel its flights to the city/country in question?

It is, of course, a lose/lose situation for an airline.  If it continues to operate after being warned of a possible threat, and if it then loses a plane and passengers, imagine the liability issues and criticism it would face.  On the other hand, and notwithstanding Continental's shrinking, airlines only make money when they fly their planes, and if airlines stopped services at every whisper of a possible threat, not only would they have criticism from people such as me (!) but they'd massively impact on their commercial viability.

As I said, it truly is a lose/lose situation, and probably airlines are best advised to concentrate on developing their route structures where the threats are lowest.  And noting the dearth of western airlines with any service to Pakistan, clearly Pakistan is not one such place.

Penny wise and pound foolish?  There've been lots of self-congratulatory articles over the last month or so with airlines adding up the extra revenue they are earning from things such as fees to check bags - revenues sometimes totaling several hundreds of millions of dollars of extra profit.

But maybe these numbers aren't the full picture.  As I've often said, some of the minor cost savings (or extra fees) can result in major changes in passenger habits - either causing passengers to book lower fares or to book on a different carrier.  And this may again be the case here, with a suggestion by Southwest that its competitors may perhaps generate an extra $300 million in fees, but at the same time, they could stand to lose $600 million in fares as a result of some passengers switching away from the fee-burdened airline and instead booking with an airline that doesn't charge fees - an airline such as, ahem, Southwest.

Southwest bases this on a survey that shows in 2007 its passengers were flying more often on its flights and less often on competing AA flights compared to in 2006.  And that was before the full extent of the current fees were rolled out.  Have the dinosaurs scored another 'own goal'?

Here again is a link to the table of comparative airline fees.

Talking about Southwest, the airline is subtly, slowly, but surely positioning itself to get an increasing share of the business travel marketplace by making itself more attractive to frequent fliers and offering some of the amenities and perks such people both expect and will pay for.

The latest example is that Southwest will add priority security lane access for its top level frequent fliers and passengers on its most expensive 'Business Select' fares later this month at seven airports - Baltimore/Washington, Dallas Love, Denver, Los Angeles, Orange County, Phoenix and San Francisco.  If your hometown isn't listed here, don't worry - Southwest says it plans to add this to more airports, one by one, throughout its system, in the months that follow.

Southwest isn't the only airline doing this, of course.  The real losers in all of this are the companies such as Clear set up to offer special expresslane access to 'registered travelers' - the added value they can offer passengers gets increasingly more and more constrained.

Alitalia death watch :  The Italian 'flag carrier' has won another reprieve.  All unions have now agreed to work with the Italian consortium that wants to buy the airline, and the airline has been granted a temporary license to continue operations through until 1 March, subject to monthly reviews of its finances.  As I pointed out last week, it is almost out of cash, so this may prove a stumbling block if its new possible owners (or the Italian government) don't quickly give the airline some more cash.  But I think we can view the last month or so as having been a near death experience, but with the airline no longer on the critical list.

We talk a lot about how bad airlines are, but how about the question of which airlines are least bad, or possibly even good?  Forbes has an interesting article that ranks airlines based on five years' worth of data relating to on-time arrival, cancellations, complaints and mishandled baggage from the Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the Department of Transportation. Delays and cancellations, the factors most likely to ruin a flier's day, were given double weight.  Forbes also included J.D. Power and Associates' consumer satisfaction rankings from 2005 to 2008 and each airline's asset-to-liability ratio for the latest quarter.

The best airline was Southwest, followed by Continental and then JetBlue.  United and US Airways came bottom of the list.  Details here.

Well done, JetBlue, for coming third.  Which hopefully indicates that problems such as this are uncommon rather than frequent on its flightts.  And hopefully their pilots are not all like this pair.

Ryanair takes perverse pride in what it would probably consider 'straight talk' but which some would call downright rudeness.  Here's an example of a recent press release of theirs, which is worth including in full :

Ryanair today (Thursday, 25th September 2008) rejected the statement from the incompetent CAA regulator Harry Bush, who has spent the last 10 years protecting the BAA monopoly and allowing it to ride rough-shod over the reasonable requirements of airlines and passengers at the BAA monopoly airports.

Ryanair has been a long standing critic of Harry Bush, who has:

1. Rubber stamped every over-specified over-costed marble palace proposed by the BAA monopoly including the T5 at Heathrow and the Stg£4 billion T2 at Stansted.

2. Rubber stamped every unjustified inflation busting price increase proposed by the BAA monopoly despite the damage done by these price increases to airlines and passengers at the London airports.

3. Stood idly by while the BAA monopoly mismanaged the security queues at the BAA airports in 2007, and subsequently rewarded the BAA with security cost increases to put in place the 'efficient' security, which was been provided at other UK airports without any such cost increase.

4. Stood idly by and did nothing while the BAA monopoly refused to consult effectively with users and repeatedly failed to design the low cost or efficient facilities, which airline users have repeatedly called for.

5. This hapless regulator called last year for Stansted to be de-designated thereby setting the BAA free to gouge airlines and passengers with whatever price increases it choose, yet now two months after the Competition Commissions' report, is proposing that 'competition' would reduce prices and improve the passenger experience.

Speaking today, Ryanair's Michael O'Leary [the airline's opinionated CEO] said:

"Harry Bush and the rest of the failed regulators in the CAA should resign in shame. They have for 20 years allowed the BAA to charge extortionate prices, develop inefficient marble palaces which users don't want or need, and provide appalling third world services to passengers stuck in their third rate, inefficient terminals, which are designed not to help passengers, but to force them through high priced shops, restaurants and duty-free outlets.

"Six months ago Harry Bush after 20 years of failed regulation was calling for Stansted to be de-designated thereby setting the BAA monopoly free to charge airlines and passengers whatever it decided as they were stuck in never-ending security and passport queues. Now that the Competition Commission has exposed this regulatory failure, he is now calling for competition and lower prices.

"He has no credibility. The Competition Commission has proven that he has failed to protect consumer interests and he should go - the sooner the better! If we are going to have competing airports in London, we will need effective regulation to protect passenger interests, and bring an end to the failed regulatory regime of the CAA which always protected the BAA profits.

"The CAA is a failed regulator. They failed to protect users from the BAA monopoly, they failed to protect passengers from the failure of airlines like Silverjet, Zoom and XL, which the CAA licensed as being financially fit to fly, but which went bankrupt stranding thousands of British passengers and visitors. We should pay NO attention to the CAA until it gets rid of the incompetent regulators like Harry Bush and replaces them with people who are committed to and capable of protecting passengers rather than the profits of the BAA monopoly".

But one wonders what Mr O'Leary would say if asked to comment on his own airline's service standards, or does he judge his own airline by a different standard to that he would hold poor Harry Bush to?

In particular, here's a story of a lady who missed Ryanair flights two days in a row, arguably because of a Ryanair problem, but who is now having problems trying to get a refund.

Which makes me think again about airline passenger rights.  Here's a good article in USA Today.

It is amusing to see how the pendulum is swinging back.  Five years ago, all the 'smart money' was advocating that travelers should do all their own travel arrangements on the internet.  Travel agents were finished, or so these commentators were disdainfully announcing.  But many of these same people have now rediscovered the value and worth of travel agents and are advocating that people should use them once more (an opinion I've always held).

Here are two recent articles that point out some of the reasons why travel agents are as valuable and useful now as they ever have been, if not more so.  Long time industry commentator Ed Perkins points out several reasons why here, and someone calling themselves the Travel Examiner points out that agents can save you a lot of time, plus might be able to combine fares (particularly for international travel) that online booking sites wouldn't know how to do.

Is it a man?  Is it a bird?  Here's an interesting article about a man flying across the English Channel with a pair of wings and jet engine strapped to his back.

And aviation enthusiasts will find this article about the Ekranoplane - a ground effect type plane that is a close relative to a hovercraft - fascinating.

On a more mundane aviation note, did you know that Boeing has been suffering a strike for the last month?  One casualty of the production stoppage is new airline V Australia, which had been scheduled to receive the planes for its new service between the US and Australia in November, with a start of services in mid December.  These deliveries can not now occur, and so the airline is pushing back the start of its services until 28 February.

That will be unfortunate for people booked to fly with them over the peak Christmas period, and doubly unfortunate for the airline.  Instead of starting at the absolute height of the peak travel season to the South Pacific, when fares are highest and flights are fullest, it will now be starting at the end of the peak season, when loads and fares drop down.

This is likely to give Boeing an excuse to delay its new 787 plane as well.  The key thing to watch for there will be whether the 787 schedule slips by a greater or lesser amount compared to the strike duration.  Cynics are anticipating that Boeing will extend the 787 delivery schedule by more than the strike delay.

A couple of happy birthdays this week.  Happy birthday to the mass produced motor car - the first Model T rolled off the production line on 1 October 1908.  The Model T enjoyed a 19 year production life, although it did undergo some changes during that time.  In total, 15 million were produced.

And happy birthday to another 100 year old - this time Union Station in Washington DC, which is marking its centennial with a special celebration this weekend.

Talking about old things, old is not always bad, and indeed, it is interesting to note a resurgence of interest in vinyl lp records at a time when CD sales are declining.

Here's a moderately useful list of tips - ten great uses for your camera phone.

My favorites are probably numbers 3 (I had to do this one time and definitely saved money when another driver was about to claim the presence of non-existent damage in a fender bender), 4 & 6, but perhaps the key point from this article is to extend your thinking and open your mind to new ways to use the camera capabilities of your phone.

Talking about cell phones, here's an interesting listing of many current models of cell phone and the amount of energy they radiate (and which you absorb).  There's quite a range of different energy levels, so if all other things are equal, why not choose a lower energy radiating phone, 'just in case' the energy is as bad for you as I believe it is.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  There's a new type of freight container that airlines could use to transport freight.  The container is designed to contain, within it, an explosion if there's a small to medium sized bomb hidden in a suitcase.  In such a case, the bomb could safely explode with its force all being trapped inside the container and the plane and passengers would not be harmed.

Sounds like a great idea?  Well, yes.  But these containers are heavier than current containers, and have thicker walls, and cost more money to purchase up front.  So - you can guess.  What do you think the chances are of these freight containers being adopted by any airline, any time soon?

More details here.  With all the extra money airlines are getting from luggage fees, you'd think they could afford these.

On a related topic, maybe we'll soon see an end to the current lunacy about limits on the liquids we can take with us onto planes.  Details here.

So your flight lands, but something goes wrong and it breaks down just a short distance from the terminal and jetway.  What happens next?

Apparently, if you're in China, the passengers are asked to get out of the plane and push.  As can be seen in the picture with this article, it took a group of passengers two hours to push the plane the rest of the way to the terminal.

Two things to close out this week.  First, many of us are fast to criticize the government in general, and government employees in particular.  Maybe some of the time (or perhaps even most of the time!) some criticism is warranted, but there are some government departments that provide excellent service and value.  One of these is the Postal Service, and while we've all occasionally suffered delayed or even lost mail, on average we get tremendous service for the remaining times we use the mail rather than electronic forms of communication.

It now turns out that your local postal delivery person is not just a friendly helpful person who gets your mail to you, but also a potential selfless hero as well This article details how the Postal Service has volunteered to help out should we ever have an anthrax attack; they will be the people who deliver the antibiotics to people in infected areas, and - get this - they will do this without receiving any extra pay.  That's a service ethic rarely found anywhere these days.

Suggestion - print out the article, and write a big 'Thank You!' on it, fold it over and mark it 'For the Postal Delivery Person' (if you don't know their name) and leave it in your mail box for them.

And now, this will be my last request as part of this year's fundraiser for your support and assistance.  We still need 122 readers to join the 528 who have already helped out.  Please make that 121 readers, by becoming a supporter, too.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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