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Friday 23 January, 2009  

Good morning

What a lovely week it has been, with continuing good news and video clips flowing onto the internet, all about the amazing water landing in the Hudson River last Thursday.  It is an unusual experience to read about the NTSB investigation into the accident, which will be focusing on all the things that were done right, rather than looking for the things that went wrong.

Actually, it should be a short investigation either which way.  There were little more than a couple of minutes between the birdstrike and the landing.  The two pilots were very busy, first trying to restart the engines, then preparing for a water landing.  Events proceeded so quickly that they had landed before working their way through the three page checklist for a water landing.

It was interesting to read the results of a Tripadvisor survey done between last Friday and Tuesday this week in which website visitors were asked if they pay attention to the in-flight safety briefings or not.

You might be surprised to learn that 38% of respondents said they frequently pay attention to the in-flight safety announcement and another 30% said they always do. These figures are greater than what I'd have expected, so let's do our own instant reader survey and see whether Travel Insiders are attentive or not (I'll confess to paying little attention myself, so don't feel the need to over-state your own degree of interest in the flight safety briefings).

So, would you please click on the link below that best describes how you pay attention to the in-flight safety briefings.  This will create an empty email with your answer coded into the subject line :

I listen attentively to the briefing all the time

I listen attentively to some of the briefing all of the time, or all of the briefing some of the time

I listen to the briefing, more or less, some of the time

I don't really listen to much of the briefing at all

I tune the briefing out and don't pay any attention

Results will be shared next week.

The Tripadvisor survey also found that 15% of the respondents said they have experienced an emergency landing, 5% have been on flights where the oxygen masks deployed, and 2% have been required to put on life jackets.

These numbers are way greater than I'd have guessed, and provide a great intro to  - and raison d'ętre for - my feature column this week.

If you're like me, you've probably been a bit more sensitive to aviation safety issues this last week, and several readers, prompted by the comment last week about keeping my shoes on in a plane until it reaches altitude, sent in some of their own thoughts about personal flight safety.

So I decided to offer, for this week, an article on how to survive an airplane crash.  And then, the article grew and grew, ending up sprawling over several parts and taking nearly 10,000 words in its current glorious totality.  I'll feed it to you in more manageable bite sized pieces, and encourage you to send in your thoughts, comments, and suggestions, so as to ensure that the final piece is complete and as useful as possible.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  How to Survive an Airplane Crash :  Happily, most crashes - even really bad ones - have a surprisingly high rate of survivorship.  But people do die, and experts estimate that 30% of airplane deaths could be avoided.  The information in this series will hopefully help you stay out of this 30% category.

Dinosaur watching American, United and Southwest have all reported losses for their fourth quarter last year, and all largely due to misjudging their fuel hedges.  American ended up reporting a $340 billion loss, United lost $1.3 billion, and Southwest had a relatively mild $56 million loss.

As a result, American says it will cut its mainline capacity by a further 8.5% in the first quarter of this year, and United expects a deeper 11.5% - 12.5% cut in its services.

Southwest's loss was actually a profit (and one which significantly exceeded analysts' expectations - the airline is doing very well, if only it had the vision to see it).  Let me explain.  They showed a $61 million profit before taking a $117 million one-time charge to enable them to zero out their fuel hedge losses, both for 2008 and for much of 2009 too.  They ended up the full year also with a profit, even after the one-off charges they took in Q's 3 and 4; leaving a nice $178 million net profit.

But showing their increasing similarity to dinosaurs, Southwest decided that - annual profit notwithstanding - their best approach to 2009 is to reverse the heritage of almost their entire past and shrink rather than grow.

Their last year-on-year shrinkage was a mere 0.1% in 1988; the 20 years following have all seen expansions.  But Bloomberg is predicting a 4% reduction in capacity for 2009 and quotes Southwest's CEO, Gary Kelly, as telling them 'Now is not the time to be growing.  Passenger traffic is declining.  We're slowing our growth at just the right time'.

Kelly is completely wrong.  A cornerstone of Southwest's past successes has been to exploit the weaknesses of the dinosaur carriers, and to grow at their expense.  But here they are, facing another opportunity to pick up the 'slack' in the system that is being created by the cutbacks in the dinosaur services, and instead of swooping in, they're stepping back and playing at being a dinosaur too.

Here's a lesson for Mr Kelly to take careful note of.  One airline has just reported its Q4 results, and is showing a 32% leap up in sales.  Passenger numbers were up 10%, and revenue per seat was up by nearly 25%.

The airline enjoying this amazing result?  Easyjet, in the UK.  They say their success has come from business travelers switching to Easyjet, and long haul leisure travelers looking for better value.

In theory, Southwest these days is much keener on attracting business travelers than it used to be, and it also offers much longer flights than it used to.  So why can't Southwest copy Easyjet's success, rather than emulate the dinosaur's failures?

Talking about Easyjet makes me think of its similar low cost competitor, Ryanair, who have just come up with their latest customer-unfriendly policy, although this is one I wholeheartedly approve of and would love to see adopted as standard by all US carriers too.

Ryanair says it will fine passengers €30 if they try to take more than one piece of carry-on into the plane with them.  Anyone refusing to pay will not be allowed to travel, and the airline says the policy will be strictly enforced on all flights.  The airline says there has been a big rise in passengers taking more than one bag on board recently.

Checking a bag costs €15.

Typing the Euro currency symbol (if you have a PC, you will probably find it appears if you hold down the Alt key and type the four digits 0128 before releasing the Alt key) just now reminded me of the continued glorious strength of the dollar, although who knows how long it may last.

A Euro is back under $1.30 again, much nicer than the $1.60 of last summer.  Equally nice are the likely continued deals to be had on trans-Atlantic airfares, and more great deals on hotels and tours once you get to Europe.  Low costs, a low exchange rate, and probably reduced visitor numbers in total all combine to make for the 2009 season to be the best for quite a few years.  If you're thinking 'Should I/shouldn't I', you might want to give yourselves the benefit of the doubt and head to Europe this year.

Don't forget the great deals on the Amawaterways cruises - save up to $650 per person off their full brochure price on a wide range of cruises listed here.

It is happening very slowly, but A380 flights are becoming more prevalent, with the latest milestone being a few days ago when three different airlines all had A380s flying in to Heathrow on the same day.

All three A380 equipped airlines now have service to Heathrow (Emirates, Singapore and Qantas), and continue to add to their A380 fleets and services just as quickly as they can get planes from Airbus.

Talking about Heathrow, the opponents of the decision to build a third runway there have started what promises to be an ongoing campaign of active and disruptive protests (or, more accurately, continued - they've been at it for some years already), albeit in a slightly unusual form last week that, ahem, revealed their disapproval.

Atlanta would probably love to have Heathrow's problems.  At Heathrow, airlines are lined up, begging for permission to fly in and out of LHR.  In Atlanta, its two major carriers (Delta and Airtran, which between them control 93% of ATL's traffic) have started renegotiating their lease terms in public, threatening to move flights away from ATL and to other airports instead.

For sure DL has way too many hubs now (with the NW hubs added to its own), so perhaps their threat is a bluff that ATL wouldn't want to call.

Their current leases remain good through September 2010, so there's plenty of time for the rhetoric to cycle up and then back down again between then and now.

Some interesting facts and figures from the Cruise Line Industry Association.  Their members added 17 new ships to their fleets in 2008, will add another 14 in 2009, and 21 more between 2010 and 2012 (it takes about three years to build/commission a new cruise ship).

'Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead' seems to be the attitude of the cruise lines to the economic slowdown.  Good for them.  And good for us too with some very attractive cruise pricing coming out, although note that it is nowadays possible to double your cruise price after adding on the optional shore excursions (which is one of the nice things about river cruising - nearly all shore excursions are included in the price).

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Here's a thoughtful article about the abuse of Patriot Act legislation by cabin crew, actively aided and abetted by willing law enforcement agencies.  Offenses that were added to the Patriot Act with the intention of being used to counter terrorists about to hijack planes are now being used to prosecute ordinary passengers who end up in arguments with cabin crew.  Simple disruptive behavior has been redefined as terrorist behavior.

I'm not seeking to defend passengers who cause disruptions on planes, but am I the only one to think it a ridiculous overkill to charge disgruntled passengers - people who usually have an underlying genuine reason for their unhappiness and who are then mishandled by uncaring airline staff and who then 'lose it' - with federal felonies, to send them to jail for months at a time, and to cause them to lose the custody of their children as a consequence?

Talking about threatening passengers, here's a distressing story about a flight from hell.  Well, actually, it was a roundtrip journey.  A flight from Mexico City to Seattle was unable to land in Seattle due to fog, and so landed at Portland instead (about 160 miles south of Seattle airport).  It is far from unheard of for flights to divert to Portland and passengers then either be flown on up to Seattle when the weather clears, or to be bused from PDX up to SEA (an easy three hour journey).

But these passengers were forced to remain on the plane for four hours while nothing happened.  Then the airline decided to return back to Mexico, so in total, the passengers flew six hours up to Portland, stayed on the ground four hours, then flew six hours back to Mexico, where, of course, they had to fly another six hours to Seattle subsequently.

The reason for being trapped on the plane for four hours?  We are variously told that there either were insufficient or no Customs/Immigration officers available to process the passengers.

Passengers grew unruly, so local police boarded the plane and told passengers either to behave or be arrested.  The passengers chose to behave.

Big mistake.  I'd have called the police bluff and said 'Yes, please, arrest me'.  How can the police take someone off an international flight and arrest them if there are no Customs officers available to allow the person to enter the country?  And these days, what jury is going to convict a person of any offense for demanding to be let off a plane after being trapped on it for a six hour flight and then four hours extra on the ground?

When faced with a four hour wait, couldn't a couple of officers driven down from Seattle or any other Customs/Immigration post to process the people on the plane?  Or, gasp, a few of the officers who actually work at PDX be brought back for some overtime duty?  One has to assume that the issue arose at least half an hour before the plane actually landed - at some point on the journey, the pilot would have been told about Seattle's weather status, and so he would have been negotiating as to where to land his flight and what to do with the passengers on board.

This is a total failure of our Customs/Immigration people to service us, the taxpaying US public who they are supposed to be working for.

One last thought - why couldn't passengers at least have been taken off the plane and allowed to wait in an airport holding area somewhere on the secure side of the terminal, whether they 'officially' enter the country or not at that point?

Talking about total failures, did you hear about the VIA train that stalled while running a service between Toronto and London (ONT) last week?  The conductor went walking through the train, asking passengers if anyone had a 9V battery, which apparently was needed to restart the train.  No-one did, so an engineer walked to a nearby store to buy one.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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