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Friday 13 February, 2009  

Good morning

Today is a 'Black Friday' - a Friday that is also the 13th day of the month, and considered by some to be an unlucky day for most things, especially travel.  So be careful if you must travel today.

At the risk of encouraging the vocal minority of Mac users/advocates to email me triumphantly yet again (please don't) my own bad luck started on Monday, when Microsoft Frontpage - the program I use for my website and newsletters - suddenly stopped working.  I spent some hours trying to resolve the issue, and even uninstalled and reinstalled Frontpage, all to no avail; and so signed up for a Microsoft support incident to get them to fix it for me.

I was called on Tuesday morning and spent 4  hours (!!!) with a wonderfully helpful and competent person in their Frontpage support team, but even he was unable to resolve the problem, and so he arranged for it to be redirected to a different support division.

They were slow calling me back, and so the first person helpfully coordinated a conference call with the other team on Thursday morning, and the three of us spent another 2 hours on Thursday morning; alas, the new 'expert' was verging on the comically incompetent (think Inspector Clouseau, but instead of bumbling round a movie searching for clues and destroying all manner of valuable things, this person bumbled around my computer, and deleted some valuable data without telling me or backing it up).

Eventually I insisted the issue be escalated to someone with a modicum of competence, and despite a promise for yet another call back in 60 - 90 minutes, I'm writing this long after the close of business on Friday, and seven hours after the call back promise, but no further contact has been received.

So I've had an unproductive computer for three days, and have spent almost seven hours on the phone, all with no result.  Microsoft, for their part, have invested, that I know of, over ten hours of their support resource into this issue.  I'm glad they're not charging me by the hour of support time spent, but I wish I could seek some recovery from them of my own lost productivity.

Fortunately, I had written an article prior to the loss of Frontpage, and so I'll use it for this week's feature column.

Monday saw the long awaited announcement by Amazon of its new Kindle 2 e-book reader, but the actual units themselves won't be available to ship until 24 February (unlike the original Kindle which was available to ship immediately it was announced).

This is just the latest in a long series of problems with Kindle availability, and indeed, the real delay isn't just from 9 Feb until 24 Feb, but from before Christmas until 24 Feb - the Kindle 2 had been earlier expected to be released and shipped in time for last year's Christmas peak sales season.  Amazon's commitment to its Kindle product - as evidenced by its in-stock status - has been at best ambivalent, and there's an interesting part of their announcement for the new Kindle 2 which hints at the new unit being upstaged before too long by a completely new approach to e-book storing and reading.

Few if any of the main stream media have picked up on this point.  If you are one of my Twitter followers, (and you're all welcome to sign up for this service, which is free) you'll have received the link way back on Tuesday to the article that (slightly revised) is now being offered to the rest of you today :

This Week's Feature Column :  Amazon's Kindle 2 e-book reader :  I compare my original Kindle with the new Kindle 2, announced this Monday.  Should you get one?  I answer this, and discover that the new Kindle's major competitor might be itself (you'll have to read the article to understand this).

I'd mentioned, back in November last year, the possibility of mounting a Trans-Siberian train tour between Moscow and Vladivostok - a 6,000 mile journey covering eight time zones, using our own private rail carriages for a comfortable and enjoyable journey, with stops along the way at major points of interest.

It has been a long and difficult process, but I've now obtained some indicative pricing from Russian Railways and confirmed the feasibility of the concept.  There would be space for sixteen people on this tour, in two-person private sleeper compartments, plus a shower compartment, plus our own bar/lounge car for daytime relaxation and socializing as well.  The tour would run about 14 days, and I'm debating operating this either in mid/late June through to early July, or perhaps in September.  Pricing will be about $5750 per person (plus airfare) and includes most meals, all accommodation, touring, etc.

If this is something you'd be interested in, please let me know of your interest and which dates would work/not work for you.  If I can get sufficient people willing to commit now, I'll complete the arrangements and make it all happen.

Dinosaur watching :  January saw mixed fortunes for the dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs.  Continuing its transmogrification into a dinosaur, Southwest saw its numbers drop 6.4% compared to the previous year, but (and again emulating the dinosaurs) it also cut back its capacity 4.4%.  One always wonders which comes first - the capacity cutback or the passenger loss.

Still, Southwest did comparatively well compared to United, with United suffering a 10.1% decrease in domestic passenger travel (and a 12.5% decrease in capacity).  United also had a horrendous 15.1% decrease in its international passenger traffic, and I wouldn't mind betting that a disproportionate amount of that decrease was passengers not traveling in business or first class.

On the other hand, AirTran reported a 4.5% increase in their passenger numbers, even though they too reduced capacity by 3.8%.  Amazing.

AirTran's CEO, Bob Fornaro, said AirTran could benefit from cutbacks by other airlines during the financial crisis by expanding it's network beyond Atlanta.  AirTran intends to focus on Milwaukee this year, as Midwest has continued to shrink, and hopes to have some 30 daily departures from there.

Delta is also shrinking it's capacity this year by 6% to 8%, offering valuable opportunities for AirTran at the Atlanta hub where they directly and fiercely compete.

Is AirTran destined to become the new Southwest?  It used to be Southwest that expanded when other airlines shrunk, but in its efforts to become more mainstream, it seems it is also copying the same ebbs and flows of fortune as its dinosaur competitors.

Perhaps the clearest lesson about the ebbs and flows of airline fortune is to be gained from Canada, which is more or less a two airline country these days.  Dinosaur Air Canada reported a 7.7% decrease in passengers and a 8.5% decrease in capacity, while WestJet reported a 10.3% increase in passengers, with a closely matching 9.4% increase in capacity.

Question - is AC's loss of business due to tough economic times, or just due to WestJet eating AC's lunch and successfully stealing market share every which way?

If I was Air Canada, I'd be extremely focused on finding out what it is that WestJet does so well, and then wholeheartedly copy those things.

However, to be fair to AC, they did announce a truly innovative concept this last week, and it seems to be a clever and sensible win-win idea for everyone, rather than yet another cutback in services and amenities.

They introduced a new program that allows passengers flying within North America to agree to be bumped at the time they book their tickets, in exchange for an immediate $7 discount off the airfare price, and the option of picking an alternative flight time as a 'just in case' alternate.  If a passenger who volunteers for what AC call their  'Flexibility Reward Option' gets bumped, they're eligible for up to $50 more and will get two to four days' notice of their bumping.

This gives AC freedom to sell more pricey, last-minute seats - it can simply do the calculation - if it finds someone willing to pay more than $50 above the fare a potential bumpee has paid, then it makes sense to accept the additional booking, and with no passenger service problem downside.  It is indeed a very clever idea.

Until now, AC - along with most other airlines - use past flight history to give them a feeling for how many passengers they can overbook a flight, with the expectation that a reasonably accurately predicted percentage of passengers will not turn up for the flight.

As my Twitter followers already know, United has proudly announced it is closing the call center (in India) which handles customer relations phone calls - people calling in to complain (or, perhaps, to praise).  In the future, United's customers will have to mail or email in any communications.

Now you might think that United would have the decency to be a bit embarrassed about this.  But, no.  Instead, it tells us they did a lot of research and that people who write in are more satisfied.  So I guess they feel this to be an improvement in their customer service?

Interestingly, eliminating this call center won't save United any money - probably because it takes a person more time to read and write a reply to a letter than it does to listen and talk on the phone.

Oh no - not only have I been plagued with Frontpage problems all week, but my standby Frontpage machine has just crashed, and, as too often is the case, Frontpage's inability to automatically backup my work (and my forgetting to back it up manually), means I've just lost a couple of hours of work on the newsletter.

So, my promise to myself (and to you) is that I'll wean myself off Frontpage.  I just can't afford these hassles, and much as I love the convenience of the automatic inbuilt functions of Frontpage, I think the time has come to double flush it away to the nasty dark place where it belongs and leave it well alone.

If anyone has any recommendations for suitable web authoring software (other than the obvious choice of Dreamweaver) I'd be interested to learn of them.  And if anyone has a less than full price DW disk and license they'd like to sell, that would be appreciated too.

So, quickly rushing through the rest of the newsletter now :

Good and bad news for US Airways.  Good news - it massively reduced the number of officially reported (to the DoT) customer complaints in 2008 compared to 2007, going from 2007's 3.16 complaints per 100,000 passengers to 2008 and only 2.01 complaints per 100,000 passengers.

The bad news - it is still the worst airline for customer complaints, and is eight times worse than the best airline (Southwest, with 0.26 complaints per 100,000 passengers).

Is travel to Cuba on the cards?  There's a new bill introduced into the House last week that seeks to allow us a chance to go there as we please.

While I've no particular liking for the Castro regime, it seems to me there are plenty of much worse countries out there that we can currently travel to freely, so why not Cuba too?

Happy birthday to the 747, which turned 40 on Monday.  Sadly, these days it struggles to be sold against newer better competitors (not only Airbus but newer Boeing planes too) and one has to wonder just how solid the business case is for Boeing continuing to offer it for sale in a passenger configuration (it still has some appeal in a freighter configuration).

But if you think 40 is old, think also of the 737, two years older than the 747.

Both the 737 and 747 have evolved considerably since their first incarnation to their current models.  In round numbers, both planes can now carry about half as many again passengers, and about half as far again.  Here's an interesting reference page of summary data about most of the world's passenger planes.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Security has become the 'third rail' of such a lot of things to do with air travel, and you just know that when any advocacy group starts to talk about the security justification for the position they're advocating that they've run out of better reasons to put forward.

And so, what to make of the Association of Flight Attendants, who have announced their opposition to in-flight Wi-Fi, for, ummm, security reasons.  They fear that not only will in-flight Wi-Fi be a potential threat to their ability to keep order in the cabin, but are also concerned that terrorists plotting some sort of nefarious scheme on a plane could use Wi-Fi to communicate with one another on board and with conspirators on the ground.

Let's look at this latest expression of modern Ludditism carefully.  In reality, there are no new threats posed by Wi-Fi.  Many modern in-flight entertainment systems already allow passengers to phone each other onboard at their respective seats, to phone down to people on the ground, and even to send text messages.  In years gone by, seatback airphones offered the same capability.  And passengers can easily create their own on-board Wi-Fi network by turning on their Wi-Fi hubs and linking together.

Shame on the AFA for trying to hide behind security in their opposition to Wi-Fi.  Isn't it sad how some people, when confronted with any type of change, immediately slam their mind completely shut, other than to creatively think up nonsense reasons why the new change should not occur.

Safety is a strange concept, isn't it.  When it comes to security, we instantly accept any amount of inconvenience at any amount of cost as an acceptable price to pay for adding another imperfect layer of security (think the ridiculous liquids ban, for example) that has minimal or possibly no actual measurable safety benefit at all.

But when it comes to airplane safety, instead of enacting new requirements in a matter of hours after a vulnerability has been uncovered, and requiring immediate and full compliance, the FAA ponderously considers issues for years or even decades before announcing new safety measures, and then allows airlines more years to comply with them.

Can anyone explain this apparent contradiction?

The latest example of the FAA approach to safety is not a slow implementation of a new safety requirement, but rather it is a relaxation of one it had earlier put in place.  And, strangely, the FAA's own engineers call this new policy 'an unjustified step backward in safety'.

Why is the FAA doing this if its own engineers are so stridently opposed?

Coincidentally, the rule relaxation will help Boeing complete the development of its struggling and massively behind schedule 787.  Details here.

Here's an interesting item about the growing rate of thefts at DFW (they've more than doubled in the last five years), although a spokesman for the airport tells us that the 607 thefts and stolen vehicles at DFW last year is low in the grand scheme of things.

I hope the 607 people affected last year agree with him.  And, in the grand scheme of things, it is interesting to note that at nearby Love Field there were only 12 crimes reported in 2008.

However, and continuing the grand scheme view, DFW is a paradise compared to Mexico City International Airport, where they've just added another 100 police officers in an attempt to try and bring some security and safety to that airport.  They now have at least 500 uniformed officers patrolling the airport, which alas is not yet enough to stop a series of high profile assaults and robberies on foreign travelers, including the shooting of a French scientist during a robbery last month.

Ooops - it appears that Saturday is Valentine's Day.  If you - like me - have yet to arrange any special gifts for that special person in your life, how about a private jet charter flight?

Or for something slightly less pricey, if you're flying on any of the four Emirates flights from the US on Saturday (they've two from New York, one from Houston and one from San Francisco), they'll make you their Valentine, and give you free chocolate dipped strawberries, champagne, and other beverages during the flight.

Plus they'll also let you phone home (or, ahem, anywhere else) and send your love via a free SMS message.

Lastly this week, why not a joke (and this is not about an Emirates flight).

A woman was flying from Seattle to Los Angeles.  Unexpectedly, the plane was diverted to Sacramento along the way. The flight attendant explained there would be a delay, and if the passengers wanted to get off the aircraft the plane, they could, and would re-board in just over an hour.

Just about everyone got off the plane, except one lady who was blind. Her Seeing Eye dog lay quietly underneath the seat in front of her throughout the entire flight.

She was obviously a regular because the pilot approached her, and calling her by name, said, 'Kathy, we are in Sacramento for an hour. Would you like to get off and stretch your legs?'

The blind lady replied, 'No thanks, but maybe Buddy would like to stretch his legs.'

Picture this:  All the people in the gate area came to a complete standstill when they looked up and saw the pilot walk off the plane with a Seeing Eye dog! The pilot was even wearing dark sunglasses.  People scattered.  They not only tried to change planes, but they were trying to change airlines!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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