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Friday 7 November, 2008  

Good morning

And greetings from London, where I'm writing this at 6am.  Even though the outside temperature is 51 degrees, and even though I've had my hotel room window wide open all night without even drawing the curtains, and the in-room fan on high; the temperature in the room is something over 80 degrees and I'm sweating, naked at the desk, while wrestling with a too slow internet connection to complete this week's newsletter.

Not quite what I'd expected from what was described as a four star hotel with air conditioning.  Another bum steer from lastminute.com.

So this will be a short newsletter today.  I'm desperate to leave the room - and hotel.

There's an amusing story behind today's feature column.  I'd half written it a while ago but had not yet finished and 'published' it (ie linked it in to the rest of my site), but somehow Google found and indexed it.  One day I noticed people coming to the site and reading the article, which was an unfinished mess of notes and unformatted commentary, and thought I better urgently finish it so as not to disappoint people who were trusting Google's recommendation.

This Week's Feature Column :  Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort :  Nestled in the mountains of Washington State's Olympic National Park is a stunningly beautiful resort with natural hot springs.  The drive there is another highlight.  Well worth including in your next visit to the Pacific Northwest.

Blast from the Past :  In 2001, I published an interview with Jim King, who at the time was Senior VP of Planning and Business Development at Aloha Airlines, an airline that is no more.  In 2002, I had an article about 'Your Rights with Bankrupt Airlines'.  Unfortunately, although airlines have been going bankrupt at a higher than normal rate this year, the legislation providing us with some protection if the airline we've bought tickets on ceases to fly has been allowed to expire.  And in 2003, I published a review of the Palm T3 PDA.  Does anyone even remember Palm, and dedicated PDAs that weren't part of a multi-purpose cellphone?

The world has changed profoundly from that portrayed in all three articles.  I think my favorite, today, is the interview with Jim King, and many of the issues raised remain valid today, even if Aloha is no more, so this week's blast from the past is 'There are No Easy Solutions'.

Dinosaur watching :  A tale of two airlines.

Airline 1 :  I received a press release from Emirates earlier in the week proudly advising that, for the election day and results evening on Tuesday, they'd be updating their on-plane news updates every fifteen minutes, or more regularly when major election related stories broke.  I'm sure every passenger on their flights appreciated the opportunity to be kept in the loop as the results unfolded on Tuesday night.  Kudos to Emirates.

Airline 2 :  I was flying on BA from Seattle to London on Tuesday evening.  After we'd been flying for an hour or so I decided it was time for an update on what was happening, so tuned in to the news channel on their video on demand system.  The news program, on Tuesday night, was actually pre-recorded at some time on Monday, because it was all about what the two candidates were doing on the last day of campaigning prior to the election.  Excuse me, BA - a 24+ hour old pre-recorded news program isn't news.

Airline 2, continued :  After dinner had finished, and people had more or less settled, I got up and found the Flight Services Director, the senior person in charge of the cabin crew, and politely asked her if she could ask the pilot if he could get a news update.  She replied 'Oh, yes, sir, we've had a lot of passengers asking us for this already'.  I was delighted - and unsurprised - to hear her say that, and waited happily to be given a results update.

But, she continued 'Unfortunately we're out of radio contact now, and won't be able to get any updates until we almost arrive in London'.  She turned away, either because she felt she'd got rid of the pesky business class passenger troubling her (ie me) or because she didn't have the balls to stare me in the face after delivering such a naked lie.

She expected me to believe that for five or more hours on the flight, the airplane had no radio communications.  Because I'd already shown myself to be a possible 'security risk' (see this week's security horror story) I didn't make a fuss or confront her with this ridiculous lie (how stupid did she think I would be to believe her?), but simply walked back to my seat, saddened that BA chooses to stupidly lie to its business class passengers (and all the other passengers who'd asked for election news too) rather than do a really simple thing and provide an extra courtesy service at no cost to them.  Please understand that the captain and first officer have almost nothing to do except struggle to stay awake while the plane is in the cruise portion of its journey.

Returning to my seat I noticed the at-seat satellite phone providing mute contradiction to the Flight Services Director's lie about being out of radio contact, and debated calling a friend to ask for election results and then offering them to the FSD, but decided against it - not only are calls expensive for passengers to make, but she was unlikely to be pleased by being confronted with the truth.

My flight to London had me arriving into Heathrow's new Terminal 5, and it is indeed a lovely terminal, although the 'walk' from the gate to the terminal can be much longer than in the other terminals if your flight comes in to one of the outlying satellite terminal areas.

I thought I was to become a victim to T5's notorious problems with baggage when it took my bag 30 minutes to arrive on the luggage carousel, apparently being almost the last bag off the plane.  Oh - did I mention that, as a business class passenger, my bag had priority luggage tags on it?  If a 30 minute delay is 'priority' I'd hate to experience 'normal'.

BA has a new Arrivals Lounge for arriving business and first class passengers that BA is very proud of, and they were handing out invitation cards to the lounge on the flight and talking about it on the plane's pa system (the lounge in T4 was something they tended to keep much more a secret).  The lounge remains open only until 2pm - apparently people arriving after 2pm aren't expected to want the services offered in the lounge - spa treatments, showers, clothes pressing, internet access, food, etc.

I visited the lounge, arriving there shortly after 12.30pm, and had some difficulty being admitted in.  I handed over my invitation, but the desk staff insisted on seeing my boarding pass for the now completed flight, which I'd thrown away.  Eventually I did get in, and having foregone breakfast on the plane (a stale warmed up bacon roll) went eagerly to the food serving area, to find a couple of bowls of fruit and some muesli sort of stuff, and a buffet area with no food in it.

A couple of staff were cleaning around the hot buffet and I guessed perhaps the food service was transitioning from breakfast to lunch.  I asked when the food would come out, and they looked at me as if I were stupid and told me they'd stopped serving food (something not mentioned on the invitation).  I expressed puzzlement and regret, and so they patiently explained to me that the lounge closes at 2pm, so they of course had to stop serving food some hours prior to the lounge closing.  Hmmmm.......

I went in to London and ate fish and chips instead.

Talking about lounges, Toronto Airport is opening a new lounge in the international pier of their Terminal 1 which will be open to all passengers, with admission being $35.

This is a logical extension of the evolution of airline/airport lounge policies.  Many airlines now allow anyone in to their lounges too, in return for paying a similar type of fee.  I'll be writing an article on lounge admission strategies in the near future.

Now that the NW/DL alliance is a reality, one would think that NW's 'fortress hub' in MSP would be even more secure and uncontestable than ever before.

So it is interesting to see Southwest Airlines announcing flights and fares from MSP to Chicago's Midway airport and places further afield.  In its first fare filing, Southwest (airline code WN) announced fares to 56 different destinations, with their lowest price fare between MSP and Chicago being a mere $69 one way, compared to the lowest one way fare with the dinosaurs being a $376 roundtrip fare (the cheapest one way fare is $426).

Northwest and other carriers are busy now matching the Southwest fares, and it will be interesting to see what evolves - the typical competitive response to a low cost competitor is for the dinosaur to swamp the smaller carrier with lots more flights and to match their fares.  But WN isn't an underfunded small startup, and it already has an extensive route network throughout the US, which can allow Minneapolis area fliers to consider strategically switching to WN for much/most of their travel needs, and WN can certainly afford to accept losses as readily as NW/DL if the dinosaurs try and make it a 'fight to the finish'.

Southwest has just reported its October traffic - a 2.9% growth compared to October last year.  Contrast that with the results from American (11.5% drop in domestic traffic), US Airways (4% drop), Continental (10.2% drop) and United (10.3% drop).

It used to be that Southwest expanded its market share by growing more than the other airlines.  Now it seems it is growing its market share by shrinking less.  The net result is the same - the continued ascendancy of WN at the cost of the traditional dinosaur carriers.

It is strange that the dinosaurs, who are so adept at copying each other's strategies for failure, have never chosen to copy Southwest's strategies for success.

Oh, but before we start to feel too sorry for the dinosaurs, here's an interesting article.  It says the bad news is that the economic slowdown may cost the dinosaurs $150 million each in lost revenue.  But - the good news - fuel savings may give the dinosaurs an offsetting upside bonus of $1 billion a piece.  Details here.

Talking about fuel, the Florida Attorney General filed a lawsuit against Imperial Majesty Cruise Line earlier this week, citing them for allegedly failing to adequately disclose fuel surcharge fees, and falsely representing those fees as government fees or taxes.

The cruise line collected some $4 million in fuel surcharges from late 2006 to present, advising consumers on their web site that a fuel/security surcharge would be added to their onboard account only if they had not paid those fees at the time of booking. When they arrived at the ship they were charged the surcharge of some $20 to $30 dollars even though it was not mandated by any government entity.

If you sailed on the ship from October, 2006 to the present and felt you were not informed of the charge at time of booking or that the charge was misrepresented, call 866-966-7226 or visit www.myfloridalegal.com for more information.

I hope you're as excited as I am about the great news in the election results on Tuesday night.  No - not the Presidential election, which one wryly observes has been greeted by the largest two day stock market drop since 1987, but rather the passing of a $10 billion bond in California to fund the first part of a projected $45 billion 800 mile high speed rail project.

One has to be a bit doubtful about the promise that the first trains could be operating in only six years.  It has taken 14 years just to go from concept to this initial funding.  But let's hope for good things, and, who knows, our new President might be more sympathetic to rail than the present President has been.  Details here.

I was riding a suburban train in London yesterday, and even this suburban train was rattling along the track at speeds of up to 100 mph.  Amtrak, eat your heart out.

I also fell asleep on the return journey back in to London (I'm researching how to get to London's five airports) and woke to find myself in an empty carriage at the station, and got off the train just before the doors closed and it moved away somewhere else.

This was perhaps a side effect of jet lag from the eight hours time zone change, and so it is very interesting to read of a discovery that suggests a pine bark extract from French Maritime Pine trees, 'Pycnogenol', may reduce jetlag by almost 50%.  More details here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  In the last month or so, I've enjoyed a flight on Emirates and OpenSkies, and in each case, took plenty of pictures of the experience.  I had provisionally decided to try and emulate, at least in part, the peripatetic Johnny Jet who peppers his newsletters with pictures of himself enjoying flights and other experiences all around the world.  We should all be so lucky!

So, on the BA flight on Tuesday, I thought I'd get a picture of myself in their new somewhat redesigned business class seats to allow me to update my review on their business class service.  I asked a flight attendant if she could take my picture, but she said she was busy (business class was little more than half full) and hurried off, promising to come back later.

An hour or so later, she had never returned, so I asked another flight attendant to take my picture instead.  She refused, saying she wasn't allowed to.  Although I could guess the inevitability of the answer, I asked why she wasn't allowed to take a picture of a happy passenger in their seat.

She said it was for security reasons.

What?  Are terrorists going to destroy the western world as we know it with a series of digital images taken by flight attendants of them in their seats?  Is there some sort of subtle security weakness in a business class seat that is only visible in a picture, but which can't be seen when actually in the seat in person?  And if there is this strange security weakness that is only visible on film, not in person, wouldn't terrorists be surreptitiously filming the airplane cabins, rather than asking flight attendants to take images which may or may not include the security secret thing?

I can maybe understand not being allowed to take a picture of the cockpit door, but not being allowed to take a picture of oneself in one's seat?  I wanted to be sure the flight attendant wasn't mistaken, so asked her 'how long has this been forbidden' and she said she didn't know, but she'd just recently returned to work and was told that she was not now allowed to take passengers' pictures.

Refusing to take a passenger's picture while in their seat for 'security reasons' is as stupid and unfriendly as, well, as lying to passengers and claiming the plane is out of radio contact for the next five hours.

Question to BA :  Do you have a special department that dreams up new ways to be unfriendly and unhelpful to passengers, and then matches up these new privations with ridiculously untrue excuses?

I'd complained last week, after my experience flying OpenSkies, about the unfairness of having security staff in foreign airports blaming the US TSA for their own acts of capricious stupidity.  One of the other journalists traveling over to Amsterdam with me now writes about her experience returning back through Amsterdam airport's security.  I wish I'd been there to enjoy her harmonica playing.  Details here.

Another of our group has now updated his own OpenSkies review to add a foil to my comments about the airline.  Details here.

Talking about OpenSkies, they've just announced another fairly sweeping and generous airfare sale.  This is not the act of a profitable airline flying full planes.  My concern about their viability and survivability continues.

Lastly this week, here's an amusing story about a bilingual roadsign in Wales.

I get back home Wednesday night next week and hope to have a normal newsletter at the usual time on Friday.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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