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Friday 28 November, 2008  

Good morning

Did you eat too much turkey yesterday?  Whether you did or not, I hope you're enjoying the rare luxury of a four day weekend and not reading this at work on Friday morning.

I've had a somewhat lazy Thursday myself, and plan for this to be a short newsletter, hopefully to be sent out early rather than at the usual 1am or later time every Friday morning.

I spent the day doing some 'back end' maintenance of the website - frustrating trivial things that take a lot of time but result in no apparent change to the public front of the website, making me sometimes worry that it is a waste of time (it isn't, but it feels that way with usually nothing tangible to show for it).  Believe it or not, there are some 1600 pages of material on the website these days, so any type of 'search and replace' or update can take a long time to ripple first through the development server and then the production live server.

Reciting my annual list of things to give thanks for has to include you as readers, and the airlines and travel industry in general.  Without the generosity, encouragement, and intelligent participation of you as readers, I'd be writing this for no good purpose, and without the idiosyncrasies (to be kind) and idiocies (to be sometimes more accurate) of the airlines and travel industry as a whole, there'd be precious little to write about, readers or not!

And perhaps we should all be thankful that 200 years ago this month saw the birth of Thomas Cook, the pioneer of popular tourism.  Here's an interesting photo-journal story about the rise of his company.

There will be some small changes to the newsletter in the weeks that follow.  I am going to be experimenting with including advertising in each newsletter, and may also agree to send occasional supplemental mailings comprising only advertising messages from individual advertisers.

I'm sure you appreciate it is rare to get a free newsletter these days that has no advertising in it, and I hope you'll understand that I absolutely must do all I can to bring in desperately needed cash.  The advertising will hopefully be inoffensive and minimal, and I'm not allowing any advertisers direct access to your email address or anything like that.

With that in mind, anyone who wishes to consider advertising in the newsletter is invited to view the page on advertising, also linked at the top of the newsletter.  Your support may be welcomed if you've an appropriate product to offer.

Today is of course 'Black Friday' - a name that sounds negative, but which (and particularly this year) is filled with bargains for us as shoppers.

The bargains aren't confined only to traditional retail stores.  Increasingly online merchants are adopting a similar policy, using the concept of 'beat the crowds'.  These days I find I never begrudge the shipping costs on an online/mail order order (assuming them to be fair and reasonable) - the time saving and gas saving more than matches the shipping cost.

One such online store with a great deal is our good friends at Pro Travel Gear.  They are offering a 40% off everything in stock sale, but it is for today only - Friday.  It ends at midnight Friday.  Go check out their comprehensive site, and use the coupon code AFTERTG when completing your order for the 40% discount.

But - please hurry.  The last time we mentioned one of their sales, some of the hottest items sold out very early on, and just about everything had sold out prior to the end of the sale!

Black Friday marks, among other things, the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season.  While retailers are fast to encourage us to buy, buy, buy, not all retailers are willing to acknowledge what the underlying purpose of this buying orgy is.  Here's a table showing the retailers who find themselves unable to refer to the concept of Christmas in their 'holiday' promotions, and the retailers who have no difficulty with the 'C' word at all.

Another bargain basement type sale - this time from British Airways.  They're offering roundtrip business and first class fares between the US/Canada and London at massive discounts.  As little as $1998 for business class and $3996 for first class - these prices being roundtrip from New York to London, with taxes and fees (but no fuel surcharge) to be added.

The prices are amazingly low compared to regular business and first class fares that can quickly go way over $10,000.  They are good for travel from 2 December through 22 March, and have no blackout dates.  The last date to buy this fare is Monday, 1 December.

Dinosaur watching :  Well deserved congratulations to Continental for winning the Zagat Airline survey as best large domestic carrier in terms of customer satisfaction and also best value on international flights.  JetBlue came top in two categories, Southwest won four categories, and Virgin America also won in a category.

Talking about surveys, thanks to everyone who responded to my question about London hotels and where you generally stay in London.  The largest group of answers were from people who would stay anywhere.  Very few people were interested in staying in 'The City' and the eastern parts of London, and very few people wanted to stay south of The Thames, which really does act as a definite boundary between the tourist and international/business parts of London and the local parts.

Another survey, this one by IBM, asked consumers for their opinions about airline fees and other related issues.  There's no surprise to learn that 78% felt the charges for checking bags were unfair, and 76% didn't like the extra fees associated with redeeming 'free' frequent flier awards.

More surprising though was the 70% who felt that coach class fares were reasonable, the 42% who were happy with first class fares, and the 50% who didn't object to fuel surcharges.

Talking about fuel surcharges, there's been an unwelcome removal of a 'fuel surcharge'.  Unwelcome?  Yes - the IRS is dropping its standard mileage rate rather than increasing it on 1 January, going down from 58.5c/mile to 55c/mile.  The rate was increased to 58.5c on 1 July in response to the massive increases in gas prices.

Even the IRS can get with the new lower costs of fuel.  But not so most airlines, now with oil around the $50/barrel level as it is now.

More on baggage scales - the New York Department of Consumer Affairs has recently checked 810 baggage scales at JFK and found 102 of them to be calibrated incorrectly.  The largest offender was AA, with 28 incorrectly calibrated scales.

AA compounded its sin by continuing to use the scales after the DCA had stickered them as being unfit for use and issued a 'stop use' order.  If you should see a big red sticker from the DCA on a scale that the airline is using to check in your bags, report the airline to the DCA.

Strangely, the department doesn't say if the scales were reading too high or too low.

Only in Canada?  Let's hope so.  Canada's Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal from the airlines, therefore allowing to stand intact a lower court judgment that obliges airlines to give 'people of size' two seats on a plane.

Yes, airlines must now give - for free - a second seat to people who are too large to fit in a single seat.

Is this fair?  And is it sensible?  It is neither.  Why should a for-profit airline be obliged to forego the revenue it could make selling a seat to a passenger, and instead give it for free to another passenger?  An airline could normally sell two seats to two 150lb each passengers, but now has to give them both to one 300lb passenger.

How will the airline plan for this - what say it doesn't have spare seats available at checkin?  Does that mean the overweight person will have to be denied boarding, or can they voluntarily relinquish their right to two seats?

Could an airline have an overweight person on either side of a block of three seats and have the two people 'share' the middle seat's extra space?

Have you ever noticed in some clothing stores that you pay extra for large sized clothing?  Will that too become illegal?

And, is it sensible?  There are no clear guidelines as to what the trigger point is for a person qualifying for a second free seat.  Will we see sizing templates for people as well as luggage?

What say a person of average or even below average size finds themselves wedged into a middle seat with 200lb + passengers on either side?  They're going to be very uncomfortable, too.  Will airlines (in Canada) have to give them a second seat?

How about tall people with their knees wedged into the back of the seat in front of them?  Will the airlines have to upgrade them to first class for free so as to give them more generous leg room?

This ruling opens a Pandora's Box of consequential entitlements.  Shame on the Canadians for displaying too much political correctness and too little common sense.

Last Friday saw the much awaited release of Blackberry's answer to the iPhone - what they are calling their Storm phone, with a touch screen similar to the iPhone.  Is it a good phone?  Should you get one?

Well, often, I'd be rushing out to get such a phone myself and excitedly sharing my thoughts with you, but this time, I don't think there's any need.  In a review that has to be even more blunt and brutal than me at my worst, David Pogue of the NY Times leaves no doubt at all about how dreadful he considers this phone to be.

The review is fun to read, even if you're not considering buying a new cell phone.  I didn't think the 'main stream media' could be so raw in their commentary.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A group of nine counter-terrorism unit police officers swoop in and raid two offices and a private home, arresting one individual who they take to the police station and interrogate for nine hours straight.

What's this, you ask?  A major terrorist plot foiled?  Actually, no.  The individual is none other than a British Member of Parliament, a senior Opposition figure.  And the charges that may be pressed against him are not at all terrorist related.  The MP is alleged to have received whistle blower documents from Britain's Home Office and passed them on to journalists, who published them.  The documents in question - at least the ones published to date - are nothing to to with terrorism or security, and are, instead, a series of embarrassing revelations about the ineptness of the ruling Labor party.

Is this the best use of counter-terrorism police?  Or is it a scary standover tactic by a ruling party that is seriously behind in the polls, attempting to quieten its critics, and a tactic more at home in a 'banana republic' than in Britain?  More details here.

Talking about the problems of whistle blowing, this article shows that protections for whistle blowing Federal Air Marshals in this country are woefully inadequate.

In more scary 'security' news from Britain, here's a story of a reality that echoes the science fiction movie 'Minority Report'.  Computers analyze security cameras and predict when they think crimes are about to be committed based on the observed behavior of people and cars.  In such cases, police will be dispatched and they will ask the potential criminals to explain their behavior.

That will be an interesting discussion in an otherwise 'free' country that formerly adhered to the presumption of innocence, won't it - now requiring innocent citizens to 'prove a negative' - that they aren't about to commit a crime.  More details here.

And in some security good news, the TSA is liberalizing its liquid laws, allowing greater than 100ml bottles of liquids to be taken onto planes in cases of medical necessity.  This is due to them rolling out the ability to scan bottles and determine what type of liquid is inside the bottle.  Details here.

Lastly this week, as readers know, I'm considering a Travel Insider tour to Dubai and the UAE in November 2009.  Here's the story of an event there this November - try as I might, I don't think I'll be able to beat or even match this for next year's Travel Insider tour.

Talking about touring, if you were/are traveling this Thanksgiving, I hope your travels have been convenient and free of delays.  With both air and road travel down this year, and no major weather disruptions, it promises to be a better travel experience than for some years.

Until next week, when I'll be back with a full newsletter and feature article, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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