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Friday 6 March, 2009  

Good morning

It is another dull winter's day here, and so my thoughts are very much focused on our upcoming lovely June/July river cruise along the beautiful Rhine and Mosel rivers in Germany, with optional commencement in Paris and extension on to Prague.  Indeed, this is proving so popular, I might substitute the Amawaterways Paris extension for a more exclusive Travel Insider extension instead.

If you haven't already, please do consider joining a group of your fellow Travel Insiders on what promises to be a lovely cruise, at a lovely time of year, through a beautiful part of western Europe and on a brand new boat.  And, don't forget that you're saving up to $900 per person, plus enjoying the wonderfully strong dollar exchange rate for any off-ship purchases.

Making it even better value is the now steady stream of airfare specials that are being announced.

Here's our chance to profit from the economic hard times by taking advantage of this wonderful value, and in doing so, our expenditures are helping get the economy moving once more, too.  So don't feel embarrassed, feel proud to be doing your part to help the economy return to normal!  More details here.

I visited the annual Travel Goods Association trade show, held in Vegas, earlier this week.  I was reminded of the line about 'a pub with no beer', except that in this case, it was a trade show all about luggage and bags of all types that didn't provide any type of carry bag for its attendees to collect brochures and samples in.  Although they've provided bags in all previous years, this year the show organizers did not, and none of the exhibitors were giving out big capacious plastic carry bags either.  So, my attempt to be a 'smart packer' resulted in me arriving happily at the trade show with nothing other than a pocket full of business cards and no way to collect and carry all the literature and samples that were being offered.

A fellow journalist ended up buying a bag from one of the exhibitors.  I paused briefly at one exhibit, noting a distinctive and unusual new type of carry-on bag, and wondered if I should buy one of those to store the handouts in.  But upon learning that the retail price of this bag was $2700, I'm afraid I burst out laughing and left the booth hurriedly.

There were some interesting - and more moderately priced - products on display, and there seemed to be a great focus on electronic scales to allow us to weigh our bags and hopefully avoid the worst of airline overweight penalty charges as a result.  I'll be reviewing a couple of these in the future.

Another theme was the range of different types of sleep cushion things on offer - items to try to help you feel more comfortable when sleeping on a plane.  I reviewed one such innovative solution last week (the TravelRest) and some time before reviewed the 1st Class Sleeper.  I tested out two other devices on the return flight to Seattle, each also innovative, in very different ways, and will be reviewing them too in the near future (but currently my favorites - although possibly not yours - remain the TravelRest and 1st Class Sleeper).  I think we all acknowledge the need for something - for anything - that will make coach class travel more comfortable.

There were also the usual range of stupid things that might have some superficial appeal, but which are unlikely to succeed.  Is there any reader who will happily pay $2 for a pair of disposable 'travel slippers' to put on your feet while walking, shoeless, through security screening?  And then there was an elaborate airplane seat cover that was designed to protect you from any germs on the seat via both the physical barrier of the cover and also its impregnation with tea tree oil, but who among us is sufficiently concerned about such things as to go to the conspicuous bother of covering their seat with this white sheeting every time they fly?

Other items had more subtle limitations.  I was initially impressed by a new approach to a travel document holder - instead of the traditional 'wear it around your neck' concept, this one attached to a reel of cord that was clipped to your belt.  It was rather snazzy to just pull on the pouch and have the cord unwind, then allow it to snap back when you'd finished with it, but the need to remove all metal objects (including this) before going through security suddenly made me realize it was as much hassle as help, and just another bit of semi-junk which none of us truly need to overcomplicate our lives with.

I traveled with a new suitcase, a bright red Heys USA bag.  This is a very lightweight bag, weighing only 10lbs for a big 28" suitcase.  Anticipating bringing back a heavy pile of materials from the show, I chose to travel with the Heys bag to keep my weight down, leaving my faithful and lovely - but heavy - Briggs & Riley bag behind.  After many years of traveling with a variety of different suitcases, all made of some type of black nylon fabric, it was a revelation to have an unmistakeably colored bag that I recognized the instant it appeared on the carousel.  While you don't have to choose a bright red color for your next bag, I do urge you to consider something other than black.

Thanks to everyone who wrote in last week with comments about their luggage.  I'm in the process of putting together a bunch of pages on checked luggage, and rather than give you some this week and more next week, I thought it more helpful to give you a more complete set of data, and will release it all next week.

This week also saw me receive a new Amazon Kindle 2, and it came in handy for the flights to and from Vegas.  In addition, on Wednesday Amazon did what I'd picked up on and commented about earlier - they released a free version of their Kindle reading software to run on the iPhone (and iPod Touch too).

The software is free but of course you have to buy books - but - and here's the game changing 'but' - if you've already purchased a book to read on your Kindle, you can copy it to your iPhone for free and have access to it on both devices, with the two devices even synchronizing where you're up to in reading the book.

Amazon will allow you to access your books on up to six different devices, and will doubtless be releasing versions of the Kindle software for other hardware, too.  A Kindle, a phone or two or three around your family, a couple of computers or more - it will become very easy to end up with at least six devices you might want to read your Kindle books on.

In my earlier article on the Kindle 2 I'd expressed doubt as to the convenience of reading a book on an iPhone or other device with very small screen.  At the time, reader Stephen wrote in to provide an alternate opinion, saying

You say, in your latest review "But to comfortably read right through a novel, you'd be 'turning pages' continually and the process would be very unnatural."

I've found that not to be the case.

I've read two dozen novels using the Stanza eBook reading software for the iPhone (including thousand-page monsters like McCullough's "Truman") and it's simply transparent. One touch on the screen advances the pages... even at my very fast reading speed, it's not intrusive at all.

The Stanza software is free (although the books cost money).  I suggest giving it a try.  After a few dozen pages, you won't notice at all.

I did try the Stanza software, and after tweaking its settings (it can be quite richly configured) it became relatively quick and easy to use.  I'm not sure my enthusiasm is quite as strong as Stephen's, and I'm also far from certain what sort of battery life one would get, and what the experience would be like for several hours in a row, but for casual reading, it definitely works just fine.

The Amazon Kindle software, and it now evolving to become platform independent, is a fascinating thing, and I'll be writing about that separately in some more length, because it really does mark a game-changing paradigm shift in how/where you own/read books.  For now, suffice it to say that it presents pages on the screen in a manner quite similar to Stanza, with about 15 - 20 short lines of text, each with about 6 words, on the screen at a time (you'll probably find that it takes about 15 seconds to read each screen of text).  The text is clear and can be varied in size.

The most surprising thing about this is that Stephen Jobs claims to have no interest at all in eBooks.  While Apple's business plan revolves around selling music and videos to play on iPods, and software to add to iPhones, Jobs purportedly said 'people don't read books any more' and  has no interest in eBooks.  I think he's missing the boat on something that would be an idea extension of their current business model and which could be a massive new income source.

Dinosaur watching :  You would hope that the airlines learned a valuable lesson when US Airways had to return to giving free non-alcoholic drinks on its flights, having found this was finally the straw the broke the camel's back and was costing it more in lost business than it was saving in the cost of drinks.  Apparently there's a point beyond which we as passengers rebel and say 'Enough already!' and start switching to more fair minded airlines.

But Spirit Airlines, hiding behind its excuse of being a low cost carrier, is trying to explore new territory.  It will be re-instituting a 'passenger usage fee' - probably about $10 - 15 per ticket - which is incurred every time you buy a ticket anywhere other than at its airport ticket counter.  If you want to buy a discounted advance purchase ticket, you'll either have to drive to the airport, park your car, go and stand in line then buy the ticket at the counter and drive home again - probably wasting an hour or more, plus the cost of gas and airport parking - or pay Spirit their new 'passenger usage fee'.  This will apply whether you buy the ticket through a travel agent, a website, or even Spirit's own website.

Does this sound as honest and fair as a $3 bill?  The Department of Transportation had objected to Spirit's earlier attempt to charge such a fee (as well as a $2.50 'natural occurrence interruption fee' - to cover the airline's costs if a flight was delayed/cancelled, and an $8.50 'international service recovery fee' to pay for some of the airline's other costs over and above all the specific taxes and fees already added to tickets).  This resulted in a $40,000 fine (probably much less than the airline took from passengers in the form of these fees) and an order to stop charging them.

This time, Spirit says it is working with the DoT to come up with a way of charging the fee that doesn't circumvent the letter of the law and which the DoT will be okay with.  Ummm - suggestion to Spirit :  Never mind what the DoT thinks.  How about considering what your passengers might think?

After the heartening example of customer pressure forcing US Airways to change, if any of you actually do fly Spirit Airlines, maybe you should share your thoughts about this with them now, and as soon as it becomes a reality, switch to any other carrier until such time as Spirit comes to their senses.

Shrinking airlines :  United reported its February traffic was 17.2% down on Feb 08, with sharpest drops (exceeding 24%) in trans-Pacific and Latin America services.

Continental was down 13.1%.  American was down 13.5%, and US Airways had a 12.2% drop.

Internationally BA reported an 8.3% overall drop in passengers for February, but this overall number obscures the terrible 20.2% reduction in business and first class passengers.  That much loss of highest fare paying passengers has to disproportionately hurt.

In Canada, Air Canada took a 9.8% drop while Westjet took a 5.5% increase.  Air Canada remains almost three times larger than Westjet, but if it keeps shrinking at 10% and Westjet keeps growing at 5%, it won't take very long for that to change.

This article, which reports US Airways saying it won't pull out of Boston in the face of new competition from Southwest, includes a fascinating quote from CEO Doug Parker, who says the carrier can't easily cut any more services due to its obligations under its contract with its pilots union to provide a certain minimum amount of employment for the pilots.

Which do you find more surprising?  That US Airways is prevented from shrinking still more by this provision of its agreement with its pilots?  Or that it would let such an issue prevent it from shrinking further - it isn't as though the airline is any stranger to bankruptcy filings, after all!

Close - but no cigar :  The House passed a bill that would ease partially ease travel restrictions to Cuba, but not in any way that will allow most normal Americans a chance to visit.  Instead, the bill allows people with close relatives in Cuba to visit once a year rather than once every three years, and to spend $170/day instead of $50/day while in Cuba.  The legislation also allows for general licenses permitting travel to Cuba for marketing and selling agricultural products, and of course now needs to be passed by the Senate too before becoming law.

One country that might be hoping that Cuban travel isn't opened up is Jamaica - it is currently experiencing a 4% year on year growth in tourism, which is the most important part of Jamaica's economy (even more so than rum, it seems) and which is, in general, the only growth industry in the Caribbean at large.

However, the country is finding itself in a difficult position.  Air Jamaica is up for sale and will be sold by the end of March, and the country is concerned as to what type of air service it will have in the future.  Countries that depend on tourism, and which also depend on air service to bring visitors to them (ie many smaller island nations) can be terribly at the mercy of airlines, and have often been motivated in the past to underwrite the operating costs of a national airline, although more commonly than not, with disastrous results.

The better solution would simply be to subsidize any regular commercial airlines, and/or to reimburse passengers directly for some part of the cost of their airfares.  For example, if a typical traveler spends $200/day somewhere, perhaps it makes sense to give them a $40/day subsidy towards the cost of their airfare - call it perhaps $300 for a one week visit.  That would surely enhance the affordability of travel to many foreign destinations, and would be a 'can't lose' arrangement for the country in question - they're only paying out money after getting greater sums in return.

Air travel might be down, but supporting my continuing theory that air travel is down as much due to it having become too nasty an experience for most of us as it is due to economic issues, cruising numbers are showing surprising strength.  Carnival reports that the week ended 1 March saw its best ever one week for new bookings, and overall, bookings are up 10% on last year's numbers.  Princess said that a recent promotional period ('Wave Season') saw bookings up 6% on last year.

For sure, there are lots of bargains out there that are driving passengers to cruises, but the key issue here is simply that while many fewer people are flying, pretty much at any price, many more people can be induced to go cruising if the price is right.

I've mentioned before that LAX has problems handling the new A380 super-jumbo planes.  The A380 is about 50 ft wider than other large planes, and when an A380 is moving about the airport, it can sometimes 'spill over' onto adjacent taxiways, making it necessary to block other plane movements to give extra space for the A380.

This has been not much of an issue so far, not only because there are only a couple of A380s flying in/out of LAX each day at present, but also because airplane numbers are appreciably down at LAX overall, giving it some spare capacity and ability to absorb the inefficiencies of the A380s.  But if other airlines join Qantas in operating A380s to/from LAX, and if/when air traffic numbers increase, there is going to be some major issues at LAX.  Air traffic controllers are saying that even a small increase from two to perhaps four or five A380 flights a day would be sufficient to cause chronic delays to other flights.

So let's hope that Singapore Airlines and/or Emirates don't have any immediate plans to operate their A380s to LAX.

Meanwhile, Qantas has had to briefly ground its entire A380 fleet (well, it only has three of them so far), due to problems with the fuel tanks leaking.  Ooops.

Doubtless smiling at Qantas' problems is the new airline now flying between Australia and the US, V Australia (which operates 777 planes).

Whether it be due to increased competition on the US-Australia route (with Delta expected to add service later this year, too) or just the tough economic times, there's a wonderful stream of airfare deals downunder at present.

Talking about planes, move over Airbus and Boeing.  There's a new competitor on the block, and one not easily ignored.  The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac for short) has brought forward its plans for a 737/A320 competitor, what it calls its 919.  Originally expected to appear in 2020, they are now projecting the plane will have its first flight in 2014 and will be in commercial service in 2016.

It goes without saying that government owned Chinese airlines will almost certainly buy government owned Comac airplanes.  And in choosing to meet the 737/A320 head-on, the Chinese are very sensible for two reasons.  Firstly, the 737/A320 represent the plane type that sells in the highest numbers every year.  And, secondly, both the A320 and the 737 are old designs that are due (some would say, 'overdue') for replacement with completely redesigned new airplanes and engines to suit.

It almost seems that Boeing and Airbus have had an unwritten gentlemen's agreement - 'I won't replace my plane if you don't replace yours' - enabling both companies to spare the massive expense of yet another airplane development project and to instead safely compete with each other with the present two airplane families.  As soon as either Boeing or Airbus announce plans for a successor to their current range, the other airline will be compelled to follow suit, and both airlines are more than a little pre-occupied at present with their 787/A350 projects.

While it is not very likely that 'normal' airlines outside of China will simply abandon Boeing/Airbus when ordering 737 vs A320 vs Comac 919 planes in the future, having a viable third alternative will make it much harder for Boeing/Airbus to continue to milk these 'mature' airplane designs for as much profit as they can for much longer.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Currently we pay a $2.50 per flight, up to a maximum of $5 per ticket, security fee to help cover the costs of the TSA.  The proposed federal budget could see those costs potentially triple in 2012.

Although the fees raised about $2 billion in 2008, this is barely one third of the TSA's costs, and the new budget seeks to increase the amount recovered from passengers.

Cost/benefit analysis continues to suggest that the money spent on the TSA and air security is sometimes less than one hundredth as effective as money spent on other ways of protecting/extending our lives in general (such as health and road safety).  Meantime, the notable absence of any orchestrated attacks on our airplanes since 9/11/2001 - ineffective and porous TSA security notwithstanding - is counterbalanced by the increasingly inappropriate seeming 'national threat alert level' for air travel being stuck at orange - only one level down from the maximum red alert.

Three thoughts - do we really need to spend all this money on 'security' that still fails to find at least one in every five guns test smuggled successfully through TSA screening?  Do we really need to have our national security alert set at orange?  And if spending money in other areas could bring one hundred times the benefits to our lives in general that it does when spent on the TSA, isn't that something we should seriously consider?

On the other hand, the TSA recently spent who knows how much money to institute courtesy training for its screeners.  While I joked about this at the time, it is correct that a hallmark of a civilized society is that its law enforcement personnel are respectful and polite to the people they serve, and it is good that the TSA wishes to be more courteous and considerate.

So what should we think then of this story about a man - albeit a fool - who asked a border guard to say 'Please' before complying with the guard's order to turn his car's engine off.  The border guard refused to say 'please' and after a stand-off ensued, resolved the matter by pepper-spraying the visitor, and then arresting the man and holding him in custody for three hours.

Sure, the Canadian visitor was stupid to insist on the border guard saying 'please' and stupider still not to back down.  But was it necessary to pepper spray the guy and then hassle him for three hours (then refuse him admission to the US)?  Shouldn't we expect and require our public servants to be polite and respectful to us, the people they serve?

Lastly this week, we all like to joke about the day coming when airlines will start charging passengers to use their toilets.

Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary is now suggesting they might do exactly that, although his comments (which you can read about and see here) were subsequently explained away by the airline as being a joke (which is quite in character - there's an X-rated video clip of O'Leary joking in an interview about the type of, ahem, extra services that would be offered to passengers in their new business class service).

Many a true word spoken in jest?

Assuming you do live in the US and not in AZ or HI, don't forget daylight saving starts this weekend ('Spring forward, Fall back' being the mnemonic for setting your clocks alternately forward and back each year).

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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