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Friday 31 October, 2008  

Good morning

And a Happy Halloween to you all.  May your travels today not be too scary, too spooky, or too haunted with unfortunateness.

As mentioned last week, I was one of the first to get a new T-mobile G1 cell phone; the new phone that is based on Google's new Android cell phone operating system.  The phone - or, more specifically, its operating system - has attracted a measure of excitement, although nothing like that experienced by the launch of the iPhone last year.  We now see two high visibility profile products - the iPhone and the G1 - competing alongside the Blackberry for the high end multi-purpose type phone purchaser/user.

I've reviewed both Blackberry and iPhone models before, so now it seems appropriate to add a G1 review to help you decide which (if any) of these alternate approaches is best for you, which brings us to :

This Week's Feature Column :  T-mobile's G1 Phone :  Is it an iPhone killer, or is it an iPhone victim?  Should you rush out to buy one of these new phones?  Read the three part series to get a full understanding of this new phone, its strengths and its weaknesses (but if you just want the questions answered, the G1 can be considered more a victim than a winner, and you probably shouldn't rush out to buy one).

Competition - don't you love it!  One of the features of T-mobile's G1 phone service is that it provides you with free Wi-fi connectivity at any T-mobile Wi-fi hotspot.  And so, in response, AT&T is now providing free Wi-fi connectivity for users of the iPhone at any of its Wi-fi hotspots, too.  However, AT&T has not dropped its rates to match the lower rates charged by T-mobile for its phone and data services (this is nothing new - T-mobile has, for a long time, been slightly cheaper than AT&T).

And, as a reality check, while gadget lovers such as myself obsess over the latest features on new cell phones, most people still use their phones just for making and receiving phone calls.  There's an interesting table in this article that contrasts the usage patterns of younger and older phone users.

Here is a new section of the newsletter than I'm experimenting with.  Each week I'll select an article from the corresponding week either five, six or seven years ago and remind you about it.  I've no idea if this will be interesting, embarrassing, useful, or a waste or time, but thought it might be a positive way of revisiting some of the earlier content that is on the website.

And - a hint for everyone - the best way to find anything on the website is to go to a Google search box on any of the pages (part way down the left hand side) and type in whatever it is you're looking for.  Usually Google takes you straight to the page you want, which saves you wading through several levels of menu and some trial and error.

And so, here is :

Blast from the Past :  I think this was my second ever Travel Insider article, published on 26 October 2001; a review of British Airways' World Traveler Plus cabin.  I liked it then, and still like it now.

While it's nowhere near as good as the Prem+ cabin offered by BA's subsidiary airline, OpenSkies (and reviewed last week) it is still an appreciable improvement on coach class for not much more money than coach class.  And so the review is offered to you as the first in the 'Blast from the Past' series.

Dinosaur Watching :  Talking about OpenSkies - well, yes, I have been talking about OpenSkies.  In addition to the massive 10,000 word outpouring last week, spread over three different articles, I've some more commentary this week, which starts off with them being featured, alas, in This Week's Security Horror Story and continues on from there.  So look for more on this airline closer to the bottom....

Jetfuel is cheaper today than it was a year ago.  So what about those fuel surcharges?  As this article points out, fuel surcharges have, in many cases, doubled over the last twelve months, and have yet to show any sign of returning back to their October 2007 levels.

This is another reason why airlines should drop the pretense of calling air fare increases 'fuel surcharges'.  An airline can adjust its fares any way it chooses, any time it chooses, and never needs to justify the change or link it to an external factor.  But by referring to something as a fuel surcharge, the airline begs scrutiny to first establish the fairness of the fee and linking the fee to fuel costs, creates an expectation that the fees should drop when the cost of jetfuel similarly drops.

The airlines made a simple thing - a need to increase their fares to reflect increased costs - into a complicated thing by trying to be 'too clever'.  But, as seems invariably the case, they've failed at their attempt to be clever, and instead just expose themselves to more scorn and derision.

Meanwhile, while airlines are enjoying their lowest fuel costs in over a year, not only are they not rolling back their fuel surcharges, but they're adding to some of their other surcharges that were originally introduced and justified as being needed due to the high costs of fuel.

United is doubling the fee it charges for checking a second bag.  From 10 November, you'll pay $50 each way - ie $100 roundtrip if you need to check a second bag.  Think about this - if you check a second bag, and if it is large (ie the sum of its length, width and height is over 62"), and over 50lbs, you could end up paying $600 to take that bag with you on a roundtrip somewhere.  I just looked, and I can fly from Seattle to Los Angeles and back on United for $169 including all fees and taxes.  But, if I take just a single small light bag with me, I have to pay them an extra $30, and if that one bag is oversize and over 50lbs, I pay $560 extra on top of the $169 fare.

$169 gets me a seat on the plane, a couple of drinks, and 1800 frequent flier miles for the return journey.  But to stow a bag weighing little more than a quarter of my weight and perhaps half my size, in a cold unlit hold, jammed up against other bags in a container, will cost three times as much!

The tail is wagging the dog.  The fee for the bag is shamefully and ridiculously greater than the fee for the passenger.

And if I take two bags, I'm paying $169 for me, and $1160 for the bags.  A year or so back, you could have taken these two bags for free.  Now you're facing an $1160 fee for the same service.

This strikes to the heart of why so many of us hate the airlines.  Not just dislike, but actively hate.

There is no way that this type of fee structure for bags can be described as fair or necessary.  It is a brutal attack on our pocketbooks by cynical airlines who think that by hiding these fees in terms of a series of innocent seeming one-way separate charges, and by pleading piteously how they need to charge these fees to recover the costs of providing the services, we won't do the math and realize the extraordinary rapacity of their fee charging.

And, to underscore the outrageousness of their charging, United is now joining with Federal Express to offer a door to door overnight suitcase pickup and delivery service.  The fee isn't cheap - $149 one way for a suitcase weighing under 50lbs on a less than 1000 mile journey, with delivery by 4.30pm the next day.  But it is in line with United's own underlying extra baggage fees, and it can be cheaper to use the Fedex service if your bag is oversized.

Instead of paying $175 for a second and oversized bag on United, where you have to take the bag to the airport and collect it at the other end, you pay $149 and have Fedex collect it from home and deliver it to your hotel.

How can a door to door service with Fedex be cheaper than an airport to airport service with United?

This is even a better deal than using USPS, particularly because it includes up to $3000 of insurance - subject to a bunch of exclusions that basically over anything valuable or fragile - so good luck if you ever manage to build a claim up to $3000!

Note that you can't arrange for suitcases to be picked up or dropped off on Sundays.

On Wednesday the Justice Department gave approval for the merger of Delta and Northwest, with this bland press release that is full of comfort phrases but completely lacking in substantive detail.

Indeed, there's only one way that the alleged cost savings from the merger would benefit consumers, and that is if the airlines dropped their fares to rates lower than those offered by competing carriers (that don't have the benefit of the same cost savings).  Do you think that's going to happen?  No, of course it isn't!

This is a total betrayal of the travelling public by the Justice Department.  They trot out empty statements that have no sense and no meaning, and you can be sure they're not making their approval contingent on the reality of promised consumer benefits actually appearing in the near future.

What is the Justice Dept going to do when their promises to us fail to materialize?  Are they going to say 'Gosh, you naughty airlines.  You tricked us, and now that we see your trickery and your broken promses, you must split up again.'?  No, of course they're not going to do that.  Neither the Justice Department nor the two airlines are accountable for this finding.

To my surprise, I find myself agreeing with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn) who reacted angrily to this decision.  'Creeping consolidation in the airline industry will likely mean fewer choices, higher fares, and diminished levels of service for the traveling public'.

But then he went off on predictable tangents like the good Democrat he is, seeing the need for strengthening subsidies to small airports, and foreseeing the need to re-regulate the airline industry.  And in a statement that is as empty of meaning as the Justice Department finding he criticizes, he said the merger raises the question of consumer protection and passenger rights. Oberstar pledged that, when Congress reconvenes, 'we will certainly revisit these issues'.

Being as how his previous 'visits' to 'those issues' have resulted in absolutely nothing, let's not be too optimistic that a revisit next year will be any more productive than in the past.

There's an interesting bit of merging going on in Europe too, with Lufthansa sweeping up airlines left, right and center.  The Open Skies treaty between the EU and the US now makes it much easier for EU airlines to buy other EU airlines in other countries and still provide service to the US.

Unexpectedly, this aspect of an agreement that was designed to encourage and open up competition might result in a reduction in the total number of airlines providing service between Europe and the US.

On Wednesday Lufthansa announced it was buying an extra 50% of British airline BMI, raising its stake to 80% (with the other 20% owned by SAS).

BMI is a not particularly interesting second-tier airline in any respect expect one.  Its one point of exceptional interest is owning the second largest allocation of takeoff/landing 'slots' at Heathrow.  BA has over 40% of all slots, then BMI has the second largest number (with some 12% of slots).

A single slot (the right for one daily landing and take-off) can sell for tens of millions of dollars (depending on the time of day), and with the new Open Skies agreement between the US and Europe removing the restrictions on airlines using Heathrow, slots have skyrocketed in value.  US carriers, previously not allowed to fly to/from Heathrow are now buying slots, and European carriers who weren't previously allowed to fly from anywhere in the UK to the US are also chasing after Heathrow slots.

What is the magic of Heathrow?  London has five major airports - why are airlines so keen to operate from Heathrow?  Does it really matter to us as passengers which airport we fly in and out of - and, if it does matter, is Heathrow indeed our best choice?

These are all good questions and - wouldn't you know it - I plan to answer them in a couple of weeks time with an article series that discusses and analyses London's five different airport alternatives.

Back to Lufthansa's acquisitions.  LH has managed to buy the extra 50% of BMI for a mere $510 million, a great value when measured in terms of the slot values, quite apart from the airline operations.

What of the SAS 20% share?  SAS has put its 20% share up for sale, and - not to be outdone - has offered itself for sale, too.

If LH only wanted the slots, what would happen to BMI's operations?  Turn to Virgin Atlantic (VS), who tried to buy BMI earlier in the year (although, back then, it seemed that Virgin too was lusting after the slots as much as the airline operations).  They are now suggesting they'd be pleased to, in some vague way, integrate their operations with BMI - and possibly with Lufthansa too - creating a mega European carrier.  VS currently has about 3% of the LHR slots.

So far, LH is showing little interest in an association with VS, and one has to think that a mix of the corporate cultures of LH and VS would be no more successful than the mix of VS and SQ (Singapore Airlines has a 49% shareholding in VS) cultures has been to date.

Lufthansa has made a bid for Austrian Airlines but the sale has been delayed to allow S7, a Russian airline, to make a rival offer.  In September, Lufthansa bought a 45 per cent stake in Brussels Airlines, and both it and Air France-KLM are exploring a partnership with Italyís Alitalia, although that is a rocky on-again/off-again process.

BMI itself had bought a BA franchise, BMED, last year.  And, in a very circular process, BA is understood to have also been interested in buying BMI, which of course would have then returned BMED to it.  BA is also looking to buy into the Spanish airline, Iberia.

Phew.  Is your head spinning after all of that?  Mine certainly is!

Talking about London airports, my favorite London airport had to be closed on Friday afternoon for a couple of hours due to, ahem, 'fumes' coming from a restroom.  A couple of good solid flushes later and apparently all was back to normal.  Details here.

Still talking about airports, say goodbye to 'the mother of all airports'.  Named that by British architect Norman Foster, Berlin's Tempelhof closed on Thursday night (ie yesterday) after a history filled 80 years of service.

The airport opened in 1926 and a monumental terminal built by the Nazis a decade later as a majestic portal to the capital of the Third Reich still ranks as the largest building in western Europe and an architectural masterpiece.

In the 1948-49 Airlift, the Americans and their Allies ferried tons of supplies in an unprecedented mobilization to save free West Berlin as Stalin blockaded the population of 2.5 million and tried to starve it into submission.  After the Berlin Wall was built and West Berlin became an isolated island suspended in communist East Germany, flights from Tempelhof were a ticket out.

But since the fall of the Wall in 1989 and national unification a year later, Tempelhof has become outdated and its central location raised concerns about the safety of planes flying above densely-populated districts.  Last year some 350,000 passengers flew out of Tempelhof, versus 19 million from Berlin's other two major airports, Tegel on the northern fringe and Schoenefeld.  A last-ditch referendum to save Tempelhof failed in April.

The future of the airport buildings and grounds is currently uncertain.

Here's news of a plane that might cause many cities to rethink where they locate their airports.  A nuclear powered airplane might have its reactors located far out on the wings (to protect passengers from any stray radiation) and would have the reactors jettisonable with parachutes attached so they'd float gently to the ground in the case of any airborne mishap.

We're reassured that a worst case scenario would see a risk of contamination over only 'a few square miles'.  Of course, if those few square miles happen to be mid-town Manhattan or downtown London, that's probably 10 million people affected.

Amazingly, the Professor heading up this UK government funded study seems to think nuclear powered planes are a good idea, although he does acknowledge that it might take about 30 years to persuade the public to fly on them.  Full details of what seems to be a serious story rather than an unseasonal April Fool's Day joke here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Allow me to extend a sincere apology to the much abused TSA on behalf of Dutch airport workers and OpenSkies employees.  I am extending this apology on their behalf because it seems they won't apologize directly; these people and their employers seem content to make the TSA the whipping boy for their own lunacies and stupidities.

When returning back from London via Amsterdam last week, I bought a bottle of whisky in London and took it with me as carry-on.  This was seized in Amsterdam when I attempted to go through security for my OpenSkies (EC) flight on to New York, even though it was packed in an official tamper-evident clear bag with its store receipt clearly visible inside.  The staff at the Duty Free store in London assured me this was approved, and the security screener at Amsterdam agreed with me, but the X-ray machine operator and a faceless supervisor, backed up by the EC Duty Manager, disagreed with the rest of us.

I asked why it was being taken from me, and was told it was due to the US TSA's regulations.  Improbably, I was told (if you can believe this - I certainly don't) that only Singapore Airlines flights have a special dispensation to allow their passengers to take such duty free spirits on board.  So I sadly waved goodbye to my nice bottle of single malt, and upon my return to the US, swapped several emails with the TSA, who responded quickly and courteously to my enquiries.

Surprise, surprise.  The TSA advised, and then confirmed when I asked them differently a second time, that they do not set and did not set a policy forbidding passengers from taking duty free alcohol that they'd purchased in other cities onto flights leaving Amsterdam.

When I confronted OpenSkies with the written record of the TSA correspondence, they 'fessed up that indeed it was probably a Dutch government regulation, and definitely not a US TSA one.  And when I asked why it was that their staff and the airport security screeners all chose to blame the TSA, their response was

....I know you understand human behaviour very well.  Isnít it easier in today's environment for everyone outside the USA to claim that the TSA is responsible for all of this?  In reality, while the TSA does not have direct responsibility, they are certainly the key influencer in this area.

We Americans get enough of a bad rap around the world as it is; sometimes deservedly, and sometimes not.  We definitely don't want other countries hiding behind us and blaming their own stupid policies and actions on us too.

In passively accepting the easy way rather than pro-actively choosing the right way, OpenSkies and its management demonstrate the minimal extent of their commitment to customer service.  If OpenSkies seeks the support of American fliers, surely we can expect their honesty and integrity in return, with no institutional bias against the US.  We should fairly expect them to not mindlessly blame the US and our TSA for things that are not our fault.

Shame on OpenSkies.  And, for once, thumbs up to the TSA.  Give the next security screener you meet a big hug.  Or, perhaps liven their day by telling them a side-splittingly funny joke - you know, the one about smuggling a bomb onto a plane......   Hmmm, perhaps not.

Talking about supporting OpenSkies, it seems that most of us aren't.

A leaked internal BA memo reports that passenger numbers are not meeting projections, and, making this a double whammy, the passengers who are flying with them are not paying as much for their tickets as hoped for.  Bottom line - OpenSkies is putting their future growth plans on hold and will not now be getting a fifth airplane early next year, and will not be adding any new routes in the foreseeable future.

The strategic value to BA of its EC subsidiary remains, however.  It is a great bargaining lever to use against its UK unions, and a great testbed to try out new products and services.  Will EC be closed down any time soon?  I rate this as unlikely - but, of course, not impossible, and clearly the BA staffer who leaked the memo would be keen to see it happen.

While talking about stupid security at Amsterdam airport, try and understand this, if you can :  I was waiting to take a VLM (yes, VLM, not KLM) flight from Amsterdam to London, and was at the gate early, before the security people had arrived to man the metal detector and X-ray machine.  A couple of customer service agents were also there early, behind the counter on the secure side of the gate area, doing the inscrutable things that such people do to their computers.

And then the security people arrived, and fired up their equipment.  The two customer service staffers delicately stepped out from behind the desk into the concourse/insecure area, walked through the metal detector, and returned back to their desk to continue work.

If they were really a security threat needing to be screened, what was to stop them from putting guns, knives, bombs, or whatever else in a drawer at the desk counter before going through security, returning to the desk and retrieving the offending objects?

And in an item that sums up all the preceding thoughts, how about the OpenSkies 'non-boarding pass' that you can print yourself.  Many airlines allow you to print your own boarding pass at home so as to save you (well, in truth, to save them) time and hassle when you get to the airport.  This is particularly useful if you're not checking baggage - you can simply go through security, to the gate, and wait to board your flight.

Unless you're flying with OpenSkies.  I'll let one of their senior executives, apparently in charge of their Department of Redundancy Department, explain the logic of their system :

While OpenSkies offers self check in capability, we still require passengers to stop at our check in desk for a final passport check. This is to ensure that the passport they gave us at check in is the same one they are travelling with.

Let's hurry over the logic of 'stopping at the check in desk to ensure that the passport is the same as they gave at check in' - I think he means 'the same as they told us about when checking in on their computer at home' and instead focus on the 'final passport check' bit.

Here's what happens when you take a flight from Amsterdam to the US on OpenSkies.

1. You go to an OpenSkies check in counter for a 'final' passport check.  If you're unlucky like I was, you wait in line 27 minutes before it is your turn to speak to an agent.
2. You show it again and perhaps even get it stamped as you go through Emigration.
3. You show it again to the security screener at the gate; he studies it closely and asks you a series of 'trick questions' to try and get you to confess to being a terrorist.
4. You show it again when presenting your boarding pass to be scanned by the boarding pass reader.
5. You keep it in hand in response to the request to 'Please keep your passport out' when actually boarding the plane and possibly show it a fifth time.

Is it only me, or is the OpenSkies 'final passport check' actually the first of potentially five passport checks?  And perhaps, in view of all the checks that follow, completely unnecessary?

Oh - one more thing.  Because OpenSkies doesn't have a Customer Service Desk inside the international zone of the airport, if you're flying in to Amsterdam from another country to connects on to an EC flight, you have to first go through Immigration and Customs (and of course, show your passport) and officially enter The Netherlands before going to the OpenSkies check in counters, before going back through Emigration again.

I know innocent people have nothing to fear, but I don't like being placed on record as having been in a country for only 30 minutes.  It strikes me as something that drug couriers and international money launderers do, not the sort of thing that normal ordinary passengers do, and I'd rather not have to spend several hours explaining this to suspicious officials in small windowless rooms and enduring internal cavity searches.

Something else from the omnipresent Department of Redundancy Department - have you ever wondered why airplanes still have ash trays?  FAA regulations ban smoking on airplanes.  But they also mandate removable ashtrays to be 'located conspicuously on or near the entry side of each lavatory door'.

Apparently, if someone should start smoking, the airplane needs (and otherwise lacks?) a safe place to extinguish the offending cigarette.  Don't you feel safer now for knowing that?

I spoke before about the 'mother of all airports'.  Britain is home to the mother of all parliaments, and is the modern birthplace of some of the finest principles of democracy, freedom, and personal rights.  But increasingly Britain is also home to the most pervasive and potentially repressive surveillance of any country, and here's a sad and sobering article in The Times that sums up some of the present issues.

This is a brilliantly written and reasoned article and reminds one of the glory days of The Times, long before it was bought out by Rupert Murdoch; back when it was known, and with good reason, as 'The Thunderer'.

Another country with a proud history of freedom and a once almost legendary irreverence for authority is Australia.  Their government is now proposing to emulate a restriction formerly found only in the most repressive of routines - a national internet firewall/censorship that will allow the Australian government to restrict what websites Australian citizens can access.

In classic Orwellian doublespeak, this censorship project is called the 'Global Network Initiative' and is couched in terms of 'bringing together leading companies, human rights organizations, academics and investors', and committing internet companies such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft to 'protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users'.

'Protecting the freedom of expression and privacy rights' apparently means, these days, to censor and restrict their ability to visit the websites of their choice.

Only tyrants have cause to fear freedom of speech.  Australians and their government should not be doing this to themselves.

Talking about tyrants and freedom of speech, I've resisted the temptation to share my own views about the disaster this nation risks if it should choose to elect one of the two candidates as President this coming week, while nervously and anxiously hoping that the opinion polls are wrong and the country makes the right choice.

If you are one of the few remaining undecided voters, here's a fascinating tool to help you choose which candidate best matches your own views and opinions.  it seems moderately fair and unbiased.

That is, of course, assuming we can trust what the candidates tell us.  I'm certain that in one case we can - a man with a proven record of decades of unswerving integrity and loyal support and love for his country.  I fear the other candidate's vision of change (because, for sure, he has no record to run on at all, except that of shadowy associations with people who hate America and wish us harm) may be a dark and scary thing quite different to that which many of his starry eyed supporters wish it to be.  'Nuff said.  :)

And, no matter who you vote for, please do participate in this democratic process.  A strong turnout helps affirm the outcome in everyone's mind, whether they support it or not.

I'll be writing to you next week from England, where I'm researching airports, visiting Yorkshire, and attending the 'World Travel Market' trade show, so the newsletter might appear an hour or two earlier or later than normal.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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