[Web Version of Newsletter]  [Newsletter Archives]  [Advertising Info]  [Website Home Page] [Please Donate Here]

Black Friday, 13 March, 2009  

Good morning

Daylight saving is now upon us for another year, but extraordinarily, we got still more snow in the Seattle area earlier this week.  Snow, Seattle, March, and daylight saving are not usually concepts you read in the same sentence.

I can't help noticing that 'global warming' is increasingly being referred to, by its advocates, as 'climate change' - a nice change of name which not only takes away the paradox that many of the people who are now terrified of global warming were, only a decade or two back, equally certain there was a new ice age coming; but of course, 'climate change' also allows them to 'have their cake and eat it too' - they can use any type of weather to support their cause.

And, talking about weather, no matter what variation of the climate change doctrine is your personal preference, the chances are reasonably good that the weather in Europe will be pleasant come late June/early July, and our river cruise along the Rhine and Mosel rivers in Germany.

Although you're welcome to choose to join us on our lovely June/July European river cruise any time you like, can I point out that there are only twelve days remaining to take advantage of the extra bonus discount for bookings made and paid prior to 25 March.  So, if you're planning on adding your name to our growing number, perhaps you should do so today while the extra discount is still available.

A bad week, and some out of town travel, means a short newsletter and no feature article this week.  But I'll offer a 'Blast from the Past' to give you some alternate reading.

Blast from the Past :  Way back in 2002, I was writing about international cell phone usage - a topic I've regularly commented on.  Most of the article remains current, but stay tuned for a special 'Travel Insider' phone deal we'll be releasing soon.

In 2003, I wrote about what happens when an airplane's engines fail, a topic that had recent relevance with the Hudson River water landing.  Fortunately my 2003 article proved reasonably accurate in its predictions.

And in 2004, I was writing about USB flash drives, with the teaser line in the newsletter referring to 'holding up to 2GB of data'.  Today, USB flash drives can be found holding 64GB, and costing only a little more than $100.  To put that another way, the capacity of a USB flash drive has doubled every year between 2004 and now, while the price has remained fairly steady.  And the 2GB state of the art drive of just five years ago has almost been discontinued, due to being too low a capacity and of too little value to manufacture/sell - they're priced as low as $3.50.

Sometimes progress is good, isn't it.

Dinosaur watching :  I took my first ever flight on Virgin America (VX) earlier this week, flying from Seattle to San Francisco.  Boarding the plane (at 6.30am when it was still dark outside) caused one to be greeted by an unearthly blue/purple diffuse glow - VX's time of day sensitive mood lighting.  The first class seats looked to be marvelously better than on any other domestic short haul airline I'd ever seen, but there were only two rows of two on the A320; clearly VX doesn't anticipate many first class fliers (other airlines might have four rows on that size of plane).

My coach class seat was okay, but the effective seat pitch seemed very minimal with my knees pressing into the seatback pocket in front of me, even with the seat in front not reclined.

A reasonably good in flight entertainment system in each seat back gave one a choice of movies and tv shows (well, correction - it didn't give the movies, but instead charged $8 to watch a movie (and one would struggle to be able to watch a full movie in the short flight to San Francisco) and tv shows ranged from free to $3.

One of the things that the new startup airlines like to feature are nice friendly young crews.  After all, friendly positive customer service costs nothing extra, and with the Virgin family of airlines priding themselves on being 'airlines with attitude' I was curious to see what the flight attendants (sorry, on VX they call themselves 'hosts') would be like.

Alas.  The flight attendants were a total disappointment.  In flight announcements were delivered in a high speed monotone with no personality at all.

And the flight attendants were both mean minded and stupid.  Three of the four exit rows (two on each side) were empty, with apparently almost no-one choosing to pay the $25 extra fee to sit in an exit row.  I wondered if an airline was obliged to sit people in its exit rows so people would be present to open the emergency exits in an emergency, but apparently that isn't the case.

When the flight had finished loading and the door was shut, a couple of ladies moved from the rows they were in (which were full) and spread themselves out, two across an emergency exit row of three seats.  This was good, giving them more room and comfort and also freeing up the otherwise full rows they came from, giving the other passengers who remained more space and comfort too.

But a flight attendant rushed up and told the two ladies that unless they paid extra, they'd have to go back to their original seats.  How mean minded is that?

But, wait, it gets better.

The flight attendant who'd rushed up then turned around and walked back down the aisle, triumphant.  As the ladies gathered up their things to move back, another flight attendant, passing by, said 'oh, you can sit anywhere' and pointed to one of the other empty exit rows on the other side of the aisle!

And, don't stop now, there's still more.

After we finished climbing to cruise altitude and with the seat belt sign off, one of the two ladies decided to move to the empty emergency exit row behind the row the two of them were currently in.  I guess these ladies liked as much empty space around them as possible.

Within a minute of moving, a 'host' came up and told the woman she wasn't allowed to sit there, because it was an emergency exit row, and made the woman return back to her earlier seat, which was, of course, also in an emergency exit row!  What was that all about?

My return flight back to Seattle was with Alaska Airlines.  Sure, I had the hellish discomfort of a middle seat with large men on either side, but overall, the Alaska flight was more normal, the lighting was simply white, and the flight attendants more gracious.

So - weird colored lighting, weird crew behavior, and cramped seating.  Nothing amazingly positive at all.  I continue to be pleased that Virgin America exists, if for no other reason than it has driven down fares from Seattle.

Also this week, it was announced that the US investors in VX sold their shareholders back to the UK Virgin Group.  This would seem to cause the airline some problems meeting the requirement that a US airline be both 75% owned and 75% controlled by US entities.  Alaska Airlines had already filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation, prior to the sale of the US ownership.  It will be interesting to see what transpires.

Incredible shrinking airlines - American says it plans to cut its domestic operations by 9% and international operations by 2.5%.  United is reducing the business and first class seats on its international flights by 20% (as part of an upgrading process).  Delta is reducing its international flights by 10%.  And Southwest is reducing its capacity by 4%.

This week's stupidest cutback by an airline - United is discontinuing its weekly E-Fare updates, formerly sent to its Mileage Plus members.  The fares will be available if you to to their website and look for them, but they'll no longer be emailed out.

Ummm - did no-one tell United that sending out emails is actually as close to zero cost as is possible?  It is hard to know how abandoning a form of free publicity/promotion will either save United money or help it to earn more money.

Close call - An  American Airlines MD-80 made an emergency landing at JFK earlier this week after an apparent engine failure.

The pilots declared an emergency shortly after takeoff, during the plane's initial climb from La Guardia.  According to the Wall Street Journal,  = maintenance on the engine that failed was overdue and it had a history of problems.

The right engine suffered a major turbine failure and the pilots opted to divert to JFK.  The engine failure will likely prompt scrutiny from both the FAA and the NTSB because it was an 'uncontained' failure - pieces of the engine escaped outside of the engine, and some metal fragments were found embedded around the plane's tail.  In addition, metal parts, believed to be from one of the aircraft's engines, fell on a neighborhood in in the Queens area.

This is the second engine failure in less than a month for American (the other being with a 757).

Talking about American Airlines, here's an interesting story of a man who spent $400,000 to buy lifetime passes for first class travel for himself and a companion on AA.  The airline revoked his passes, claiming he was fraudulently making 'speculative reservations' for companions, whatever that means.  The man is now suing AA for $7 million, this being what he values the lost use of the passes at.

For sure, if the passes could be used to buy $7 million worth of extra travel, you can understand why AA would be keen to revoke them at any possible opportunity.  But let's also try and guess what the future pass values might be worth.  The man bought the passes in 1987, and let's say he was perhaps 30 at the very youngest back then.  So today he is at least 52.  Maybe he has another 23 years of flying left in him.

Let's say that he always travels with a companion (an assumption that gives him the benefit of the doubt) and let's say that two first class tickets, on average, are worth $4000 (this assumes a mix of domestic first class travel, with tickets usually costing less than $1000 each, and international travel, with tickets costing $5000 or more each).  $7 million would buy 1750 roundtrips for two.  In other words, both he and his companion would each have to be flying 76 roundtrips every year to use this value of tickets.  Not very likely.

Talking about suing airlines for huge amounts of money, how about the Yale student who is suing US Airways for $1 million.  And what terrible thing did US Airways do to warrant such a large suit against them?  Oh, the student's Xbox gaming computer was stolen out of his luggage during his flight.

In all seriousness, this is a nonsense lawsuit that will fail for several reasons, not the least of which being that by law airlines have a maximum liability of $3,300 per passenger for lost luggage.  But don't only blame the silly student for his opportunistic ploy.  How about the attorney that agreed to take his case?  What is the attorney hoping to achieve?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Back in 2005 an Austrian tennis player was on his way to a tournament when he was taken off a flight at Vienna after clearing security.

Apparently, after thinking about it, security decided that his racquets posed a terrorist threat.  Okay, so far, so stupid.  But wait - it gets better.  Whereas the TSA, for all their faults, publishes a list of banned and permitted items on its website so we have a general idea what we can and can't take on a plane with us (note that the TSA reserves the discretion to ban anything it chooses for any reason it chooses), the EU takes a different approach.

For incomprehensible reasons, the EU's list of banned items were kept secret, for (of course) security reasons.

The tennis player sought compensation from the Austrian authorities for failing to inform him that he would be carrying banned items.  The Austrians, in turn, took the case to the European Court of Justice, where one legal advisor accurately referred to this as a 'fundamental absurdity'.

The outcome?  The list has now been made public, and - ooops.  Tennis racquets aren't on the list.

Notwithstanding this, British airport operator BAA is now 'advising' tennis players to check rather than carry on their racquets.  Which just goes to show that even after winning this case at one level, tennis players - and common sense - have still lost.

From time to time we hear about the government's various terrorist watch lists, and in the last year or so, there have been a number of official stories about how these lists are being quality controlled, duplicate and wrong names being removed, and so on.

So you'd think then that the total number of people on these lists might be reducing, or at worst, staying constant.

If you thought that, you'd be wrong, as this article points out.  There are now one million names on these lists, a 32% increase since 2007.  Apparently terrorism is a massive growth industry.

Talking about watch lists, the TSA is about to require more details from all airline passengers when we make air reservations.  In the future, we'll have to disclose our gender, our date of birth, and our full name, which will be required to exactly match the name as shown on the Photo ID we present at the airport.  This information will be used to check our identity against these watch lists, and we'll only be given a boarding pass if our details don't match a watch list entry (which many times does not include a full name or date of birth.....).

This new process - known as 'Secure Flight' will shortly be instituted on domestic flights, and later in the year for international flights.  The airlines claim it will cost $630 million to enhance their reservation systems to store and forward this information to the TSA.  And that's a number that's almost as nonsensical as the $1 and $7 million lawsuits mentioned above.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

If this was forwarded to you by a friend, please click here and subscribe to the newsletter yourself
If you ever wish to unsubscribe, simply reply to this email and set the subject line to say 'unsubscribe'.