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Friday 17 October, 2008  

Good morning

This is a very international newsletter today.  I started it in Seattle, continued it in New York, did a little more work on it in Amsterdam, and completed it in London.  Phew.  And, yes, that is an exhausting schedule - I've spent over 24 hours traveling to get to London, and after barely 18 hours on the ground, am now returning the same roundabout route, getting home about 28 hours after starting the return journey.

This is a brief and somewhat disjoint newsletter, due to jetlag fogging my brain and time limiting my ability to write anything at all.  I hope you'll agree to see your newsletter glass as half full for having some newsletter rather than half empty for having less than normal.

The purpose of my epic journey was to participate on the inaugural flight of new airline OpenSkies service between New York (JFK) and Amsterdam.  They are using a two class 757 with 24 lie-flat business class seats and 40 'Prem+' seats - these are akin to older style wide comfortable business class seats that recline a long way but don't go all the way flat.  I flew over in their Business class section and will fly back today in their Prem+ section, and will provide reviews of both cabins next week.

OpenSkies is a subsidiary of British Airways, and I got to meet with their Managing Director on Thursday; I'll write about his comments about the airline and what it does and doesn't do next week also.  Their affiliation with BA gives them some appealing features such as being able to offer passengers miles in the BA frequent flier program and having access to BA lounges.  But one of the disappointing parts of the journey was the BA Terraces Lounge at JFK.  The good news - they provide free Wi-Fi in the lounge.  The bad news - they censor the websites you can visit, including such innocent seeming sites as one of the companies that serves ads onto my website.

The lounge was also quite noisy in the form of public address announcements being loudly broadcast throughout the lounge all the time - primarily announcing flight departures and the inevitable chasing up of passengers late to the gate, but each time an announcement happened, it broke my train of thought and so made the time spent in the lounge less productive than it could have been.  There was also a noisy group of people seated close to me while I was working.  They were laughing and joking in a distracting manner, but it would be churlish of me to complain about them for they were the people I was traveling with (Joe Brancatelli and several other travel writers).  :)

A disappointing range of beer (no London Pride, alas) and 'champagne available on request' rather than sitting invitingly in a bottle further reduced the pleasure quotient (but get a group of travel writers together and invariably the champagne will start flowing, as it did on this occasion too), and their Pre-Flight supper dining room was guarded by a couple of ladies who, after suspiciously asking what flight I was on and me telling them I was on the OpenSkies flight to Amsterdam, looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language blankly, then at each other, with one saying to the other 'that's the flight to London, right?' and the other nodding tentative agreement.  As it was, the pre-flight supper tempted me not, so I left it untouched, and the ladies un-corrected.

On the positive side, and doubtless copying Virgin, BA now have a free spa/salon in their lounge with various short treatments on offer, all free.

Extra thanks to the extra contributors who saw us safely speed past our 650 target for this year's annual fundraising drive, and as I write this at present, the count has now reached 685 and there are a few as yet unacknowledged Paypal contributions and some freshly arrived letters awaiting me back in Seattle that may get us perilously close to 700.

Oh - and, yes, please feel free to help us smash victoriously through the 700 contributor mark if you're not one of the illustrious 685 already.

My flights on Wednesday/Thursday saw me with four different sets of noise cancelling headphones that I was testing, plus the OpenSkies flight had a fifth type of headphone provided there, too, so I was able to test them alongside the others, too.  I've only had a chance to write up one of the headphones, but it is one which several readers have written in asking about, and so here now is :

This Week's Feature Column :  Plane Quiet Platinum Noise Cancelling Headphones : For five years, I have been praising the seven previous models of the Plane Quiet noise cancelling headphones, and the Solitude brand of headphones also made by the same company. But do I also like these, the eighth model released, too? Read my surprising conclusions in the column this week.

Dinosaur watching :  With the very mixed signals in the financial markets at present, it is very hard to speculate on the future profitability of almost any business, but this article quotes airline analyst Jamie Baker of J.P. Morgan Chase, who said he sees a profit next year for every jet airline he follows, even if airlines encounter one of the weakest periods for demand in the industry's history.  'Simply put, we are having a tough time modeling losses,' he told investors.

But while it may be difficult to project losses into the future, some airlines are well able to report losses in the past.  On Wednesday, Delta reported a net loss of $26 million for the quarter, while American lost $360 million.  Continental said Thursday that it posted a third-quarter net loss of $145 million.

And the big surprise was the airline that had to join the list of airlines reporting losses due to having hedged fuel at prices currently higher than market prices.

Southwest - the airline that seemed able to do no wrong with its fuel hedging strategy, was forced to record a $247 million dollar one time cost for the third quarter, changing what would have been another profitable quarter into its first quarterly loss in 17 years.  Details here.

Perhaps part of the reason for the projected seemingly unstoppable return to airline profitability is their fuel surcharges which remain largely in place, even though the price of oil is now down to only half its peak in July.

But don't despair - some airlines are reducing their fuel charges - but only on cargo, not for passengers, as this article indicates.  And if you're flying internationally, you're likely to find the fuel charge dropping.

BA and Virgin Atlantic are both lowering their fuel surcharges, but are applying 'innovative logic' to how they apply these reductions.  Coach class passengers get a 13 reduction (each way), but Premium Economy passengers only get a 10 reduction.  And if you are traveling in business or first class, you don't get any reduction at all.

Why?  A spokesman for Virgin said: 'Upper Class [their business class] passengers pay more as their space and baggage allowances onboard are much greater.'

So, let me get this right.  It costs Virgin more fuel to fly the empty space that business class passengers have more of, than to fly full space in coach class?  And the many thousands (as much as $10,000 or more) of extra dollars that a business or first class ticket costs is not enough, by itself, to cover the gallon or two of extra gas consumed on an international flight by another piece of luggage and maybe another 50lbs of weight?

What ridiculous nonsense.  Not only do the airlines lie every which way when introducing their fuel surcharges, but they compound their lies when coming up with reasons not to then remove them.

Here's a test to see if you are clever enough to manage a large online travel company.

1.  When clients have purchased hotel bookings through you and return from their trips, you send them out a feedback survey asking them if they were pleased with the arrangements you made for them.  If a regular customer advises you that no, he is very dissatisfied, and if he gives details of his problems and asks for a response, do you :

(a)  Answer his feedback and address his concerns, ensuring he is reassured and will continue to book with you in the future; or

(b)  Ignore his feedback entirely

2.   When a regular repeat client makes a new hotel booking with you in a city he has often booked in before (London), and when he has the hotel costs charged to the same credit card number he has on file that he always uses, after logging in to his password protected account, and which you've always charged with no problems, with the hotel stay being in his own name, do you :

(a)  Process the charge, confirm his booking, and thank him for his repeat business

(b)  Process the charge, get an approval from the credit card card company, but then refuse to confirm the booking due to concerns that maybe it is a fraudulent charge, and instead send the customer a ridiculous email requiring him to answer all manner of offensive questions such as 'what is the purpose of your visit to London?' before you'll confirm the booking?

3.  When your client writes to you complaining about this process do you :

(a)  Apologize for the issue, and perhaps blame it on the computer

(b)  Ignore his complaint entirely

Most of us would answer (a) for all three questions.  And that's why we merely read and write about the travel business, rather than run a large online hotel booking company.  Because, apparently, the right answers in all three cases are (b) not (a).  I've just described three recent experiences of mine with Lastminute.com - a subsidiary of Travelocity.

Lastminute.com's asinine approach to customer service, and their misleading information on their website (I'm currently staying at a Holiday Inn in London where Lastminute.com indicated their internet access was free but it is actually costing me 15/day (about $27) should put them and parent company Travelocity at the bottom of your list of booking sites to visit and use.

Good news for Amtrak.  Their ridership continues to strongly increase.

I've regularly written about using GPS units in cars.  These units can tell you your speed to within 0.1 mph, your direction of heading to less than 1 degree, your height to within about 50 ft, and your location to within about 15 ft.

So, how about using GPS units in airplanes too?  Here's an interesting article raising that question.

Here's an example of an out of control spam filter that would be almost funny, if such things were ever funny.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Here's an excellent article, full of terribly disappointing facts and information about the inefficiency of our current security measures and system.

There's a new shoe scanner being touted that would save us the hassle of removing our shoes when going through security.  Details here.

Or - would it?  Note the article says that while the scanner tests for metal, it doesn't test for explosives!  Surely this makes it useless - because the threat we're protecting against is exploding shoes.

Don't you just hate watching people take ridiculous amounts of carry-on onto the plane, leaving insufficient room for you, while flight attendants either passively do nothing, or actively help the perpetrators?  I experienced that myself flying from Seattle to JFK on American Airlines on Wednesday - a person sharing the exit row with me not only managed to carry a full size guitar in a carry case onto the plane, but because it wouldn't fit in the overhead locker, he ended up filling the emergency exit row aisle with it, where it sat for maybe then minutes until a flight attendant finally noticed it and spirited it away.

So it is with a wry expression I read this phrase 'She somehow got four bags past the AirTran gate agent and onto the Boeing 737 plane, which was full with nearly 140 passengers' in this article.  She somehow managed this because gate agents could care less.

Here's a new gadget for our cars that I look forward to reviewing and reporting back to you on real soon now.  Maybe.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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