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Friday 24 October, 2008  

Good morning

And a special Happy Birthday to The Travel Insider, which turned 7 last week.

Thank you everyone for making this the now long lived success that it is.  Thank you to the readers who amplify the 'voice' of The Travel Insider, thank you to the people who send in story ideas and news tips, thank you to those of you who travel with me, and of course, special thanks to the nearly 700 of you who responded to this year's fundraising drive.

Please join me (after work) in a toast to ourselves, and to the next seven years.  May we all enjoy them in good heart and good health.

My short but extensive international travels continued and completed on Friday last week, but, alas, my bag only made it back on Tuesday this week, and required a trip to the airport to collect, because the airline(s) all refused to deliver it to me.  Actually, I should be grateful to have got my bag at all.

The bag didn't make my first flight from London to Amsterdam on regional carrier VLM.  I had to collect my bag in AMS and recheck it onto my OpenSkies flight from there to New York, and then, in theory, collect it and recheck it once more from JFK to Seattle (OpenSkies chooses not to interline bags with any other airlines so as to save itself some money, albeit at the cost of convenience to its passengers, but when has any airline ever considered passenger convenience as part of its business plan).

I had three separate tickets, each issued independent of each other, for the three airlines, and so when I found, in Amsterdam, that my bag had been left behind in London, I had a bit of a worry as to how it would get from London City Airport to me in Seattle.  VLM offered to put it on the next flight to Amsterdam, but that would be too late for my flight on to New York.  Eventually they agreed to get it all the way to Seattle for me, and although a Delta baggage service representative said she put a comment in the record saying I was a nice person (!) and authorizing the Seattle people to send the bag on out to me, when my bag never appeared and I called back, no-one would admit to that authority being in the record.

Never mind, all's well that end's well.  :)

Before returning to the subject of my travels last week, a quick request/opportunity.  I need to get some programming done to the 'back end' of my website; specifically to add some enhancements to the database that manages my email list.

Does anyone know of a good programmer who is also affordable (are these two requirements mutually exclusive?) who can help me with the project?  I'm hoping to find a student or someone like that rather than a $100+/hr professional; the project isn't very complicated and doesn't require a huge degree of sophistication.

Currently the data is contained in a MS SQL 2000 database, and is accessed/managed via some webpages through a series of .NET routines.  I'm happy either to have someone build on what is already there or tear it down and start afresh, perhaps in MySQL or something else.

Please email me if you know of someone who might be interested in this mini-project.

Last call for people wishing to join this year's Christmas Markets cruise.  Although it is very hard to think of future travel plans with the massive layers of economic uncertainty around us at present, I can excitedly tell you that we still have one each E and C cabin available for the Christmas Markets Cruise, as well as some A's, B's and D's.

The C cabin is notable for being, in some people's mind, the best value of the five cabin categories, and the E cabin is notable for being the lowest priced.

About the only good things that have come of the current economic crisis is a massive leap in the value of the dollar, a drop in the price of oil, and a return of much more affordable international airfares, all of which makes international travel more affordable that it has been for some time.  Combined with the special $500 per person discounts offered on the cruise, this truly is the most affordable Christmas Markets cruise I've ever seen in the five years I've been doing them.

Do try and come if you can - you'll be delighted you did.

As you may remember from last week and the opening of this newsletter, I had the good fortune to travel on a new airline, OpenSkies, and on their inaugural flight between JFK and Amsterdam last week, returning home a day later.

OpenSkies is an interesting airline, a wholly owned subsidiary of British Airways, and it operates 757s with two classes of service - business and premium economy.  Although a BA subsidiary, the airline is not intended to be a BA clone - quite the opposite, in fact (although you'll get a feeling of déjà vu when you step on board to be greeted by recycled BA business class seats in their distinctive frontwards/backwards pattern).  Its business class is very much a 'me too' product (and generally at a 'me too' price) but its premium economy class represents the current high-water mark for good service at a good price - it is a great value, with fare that are not outrageously much more than coach class and very much less than business class, while offering a comfortable traveling experience that is nearly as good as business class and in some respects, perhaps even better.

The preceding paragraph has 152 words in it and probably tells you most of what you need to and wish to know about OpenSkies.  But there's a longer version online as this week's feature column, indeed, it is 10,000+ words long, and split over three different pages :

This Week's Feature Column(s) :  Here are three articles that first discuss and analyze the new airline OpenSkies, and then review their premium economy cabin service (known as Prem+) and their business class cabin service (known as Biz).  Read one, two, or all three of the articles as you may wish.

My trip was coordinated by Joe Brancatelli, who arranged for a group of us to travel on the same flight over, in return for which we promised not to talk to each other about the flight and what we thought about it, but instead to write 'untainted' individual reviews for him to collate and publish, side by side.

He thought, and we all agreed, that it would be fascinating to compare different travel writers' reviews of the same identical flight.  You'll be relieved to know that the other writers weren't quite as wordy as me, and if you'd like to compare their reports with mine, you can click to :

Joe Brancatelli's Seat 2B column :
Joe's Brancatelli File : 
Will Allen : 
Charlene Baumbich : 
Karen Fawcett : 

Dinosaur watching :  I'm so shocked and outraged that I'm not quite sure where to start or how to adequately convey this story to you.

The last three months have seen a delightful collapse in the price of oil, and the associated cost of jet fuel, so much so that even BA has been moved to reduce its fuel surcharges ever so slightly.

But, if you're seeking to get a frequent flier award through your Alaska Airlines frequent flier account, to fly on BA to Europe, get ready for a surprise.  Not only do you generally need to redeem more miles in Alaska's program than you would in BA's own program or AA's program to claim a BA award, but, effective 1 December, you'll have to pay a fuel surcharge fee too (this fuel surcharge fee is not payable if you're redeeming AA or BA miles through their respective programs, only via the AS program).

Okay, so big deal.  Who really cares about a little fuel surcharge, even if it is strange to introduce it at a time when fuel costs are dropping?  Well, perhaps no-one cares about a little surcharge, but we're not talking small here.  The fuel surcharge ranges between approximately $460 to $532!  This is in addition to about $125 or so in taxes, fees and whatever else you also have to pay on your 'free' ticket.

You can actually fly roundtrip to London in coach class from some US cities - including fare, all surcharges, and all taxes - for less than the fuel surcharge alone on a 'free' coach class ticket.  Yes, what I'm saying is that the 'free' ticket costs you more than a regular ticket; and one way you spend 65,000+ miles in addition to the cash; whereas the other way you earn thousands of miles and spend less cash.

It is also interesting to note that the fuel surcharge on a free ticket is higher than the fuel surcharge on a regular ticket.

No other airlines are levying this surcharge, and, incidentally, the number of miles to travel on a BA ticket is higher than that required by other carriers participating in the Alaska Airlines program (ie AF, KL, CO, DL, and NW).

Fuel costs have halved in the last three months, and show no signs of quickly bouncing back up again, exposing BA's incredibly unfair move as even greedier and more inappropriate than it would be at times of high fuel prices.

We all know that frequent flier programs are not as generous as they used to be, but I believe this to be the first time ever that frequent flier award tickets - free tickets - actually cost more cash (as well as beaucoup miles) than regular normally purchased tickets.

Congratulations (not!) to BA for achieving this notable industry first.  I'd desperately love to hear their explanation of any part of this outrageous rip-off :

  • Why the fuel surcharge was introduced at a time when fuel costs are dropping?

  • Why the surcharge is higher on a free ticket than on a regular revenue ticket?

  • Why the surcharge only applies to 'free' tickets via the AS frequent flier program, but not on its own program or via the AA program?

  • Why it is that a regular ticket can now sometimes be cheaper (and earn miles rather than cost miles) than a 'free' ticket that both costs more cash and 65,000 or more miles?

United announced a third quarter loss of $779 million for its third quarter.  Without special items (most notably losses on poor fuel hedging in light of dropping oil prices) it would have lost 'only' $252 million.  But United is confident that the fourth quarter will be better, in part because it projects a reduction in domestic capacity of about 15%.

Southwest's problems with its fuel hedging contracts continue too.  This article reports how Southwest suffered a paper loss of $2 billion in the first half of October, and with fuel prices lower still now, one imagines that loss may have grown some more.

Here's a way to make boarding and getting a flight ready to push back from the gate even more complex and rushed than it already is, and to increase the chances of seats being assigned twice to different people.  Allow passengers to buy first class upgrades on board.  That's a new service being offered AirTran.

Here's an interesting article about a possible new supersonic plane.  It is projected to have its first flight in 2012, to be in service in 2015, and with a massively reduced sonic boom, to be able to fly more places than the Concorde, which was basically restricted to over-water supersonic flight only.

I got a self congratulatory press release from the 'Professional Travel Guide' - a self appointed hotel rating service, proudly proclaiming they were switching from a five star rating system to a six star hotel rating system.

What absolute nonsense this is.  With five stars, and some half star steps as well - say a range that typically goes 0 stars, 1, 2, 3, 3½, 4, 4½, 5, and perhaps '5 star plus' there are already eight or nine gradations on the rating scale.  That's more than enough to differentiate between different hotels.  If one formalizes a sixth star, which implies also a 5½ star level, there would then be ten gradations - even more if one also includes half stars between 0-1, 1-2 and 2-3 stars.

Does the industry really need such a profusion of rating levels - particularly when reviews are so subjective and vary enormously from one publication to the next?

Talking about hotels, there's a mildly interesting, but somewhat inconclusive article that contrasts the approaches taken by airlines and hotels to the tougher travel climate they both confront.  Airlines are cutting back on extras while hotels are piling more on.

And airlines are making their frequent flier programs less generous, hotels claim to be making theirs more generous.

Why the contrast?  The article's somewhat imperfect conclusion - there is more competition in the hotel industry.  You can read it here if you wish.

Wednesday saw me rushing to the local T-Mobile store early in the morning to be one of the first to buy a new Google Android based G-1 cell phone.  I plan to have a review published next week, but I wanted to give you a quick heads-up now.

Don't buy one.

It is full of imperfections and limitations, particularly if you want to make use of its email abilities (as I do).  More to come in a full review next week.

And if you don't buy the first of the Google based phones, this article tells us about a Motorola phone that will use the Google operating system, probably to be released in the second quarter of next year.  There are also rumors of a Kyocera made phone that will work on CDMA networks (ie Sprint and Verizon) in the works.

Meanwhile, the iPhone continues to be a runaway success for Apple, and in the last quarter managed to sell more units than the entire range of Blackberry phones combined.  Details here.

My guess is that when the hype surrounding the launch of the G-1 Google based phone evaporates, the reality of its shortcomings compared to the iPhone will convince people who've been holding off buying an iPhone (or Blackberry) to move forward and commit to one or the other of these two devices.

And here's the latest twist on the 'cell phones are bad for your health' theme, this time recording a totally different type of health hazard.

More drunk pilots.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  One of the terrible challenges faced by those charged with protecting us and our country is that they have to be right 100% of the time.  For example, a 95% success rate - a brilliantly high standard for most situations - in detecting/preventing terrorists and their would-be attacks on us means that one in every 20 terrorists will succeed.  No matter how many terrorists we detect and defeat, if we let just one single terrorist intent on doing harm to us slip through our detection procedures, we have a potential massive tragedy on our hands.

The terrorists, on the other hand, need to succeed only very rarely.  Assuming they have a large pool of willing participants (and judging by the huge numbers of people of the various 'Watch' and 'No Fly' lists, that certainly seems to be the case), they only need to have one person slip through our defenses to create havoc.

Hence the need for infallible 100% security.

But the TSA seem to now be stepping back from this goal.  Last week's security horror story gave a dismayingly long laundry list of TSA failures.  Now, this week, the TSA's head, Kip Hawley, writes a response, in which he says 'The standard for TSA is not perfection, but material reduction of risk.'

What does this actually mean?  How much is a 'material reduction in risk'? 50%?  90%?  95%?  99%?  How about the 'five nines' that some services and processes aim for - 99.999%?  What actually is the TSA's service standard?  And if it is no longer an attempt to reach 100%, can we start to see some relaxation of some of the less sensible and more obtrusive procedures at airports?

It seems to me that his comment marks a massive move back from earlier objectives, and is a major concession/confession that the TSA is ineffectual against a determined terrorist assault on our nation's security.

And, yet again, I ponder the question - to what do we owe our seven safe years subsequent to 9/11/01?

Meanwhile, in apparent pursuit of whatever its standard is, the TSA continues to terrorize passengers and then go easy on itself when the passenger complains This article tells how the TSA caused a woman's sprained ankle to fracture when they made her stand on it.  The TSA's response - they say they take the allegation very seriously and are reviewing video footage of the incident.

That's not really good enough.  It probably takes no more than an hour to retrieve the video footage, and no more than five minutes to view it.  Telling us they are taking the allegation very seriously and reviewing video footage means they are bureaucratically attempting to obfuscate and obscure the incident in the hope we'll all forget about it.

And now, here's something offered as good news - if you're a gullible reader.  According to this article, the TSA tells us that a new requirement for flight bookings to contain our full name will 'dramatically reduce' the number of people hassled at airports because their name resembles a terrorist name on a watch list.

Why don't I believe this?  Because, if there is such a confusion currently, it only takes 30 seconds or less for someone to look at our official ID with our full name on it and say 'oh yes, you're John P Public, the terrorist is John Q Public, so you're free to go.'  But this never happens, because the terrorist name is more likely to be in the form of 'a person with a name something like Jon or John, middle name unknown, Public or Pubelick or something like that'.  The largest part of the problem at present is with partial name matches, and giving our full name will not help solve that problem at all.

In these tough times, it sometimes seems no-one's job is totally safe.  But if your job is on the line, perhaps you should copy the successful strategy of 1900 workers at India's Jet Airways, who succeeded in getting their jobs restored.

Genetically modified what?  Lastly this week, I did truly appreciate the disproportionately generous response from Australian readers to the annual fundraising appeal.  Thanks again, cobbers.

I even promised to not offer any sheep jokes for the next year, but a careful reading of my promise seems to suggest I can offer you this Youtube video of a speech being read by Jason Wood, a less than stellar member of the Australian parliament, and apparently to an almost empty parliament, without breaking the promise.

Perhaps New Zealand should ship some of its soon to be unemployed pollies across the Tassie to help raise the standards in Canberra?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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