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Friday, 20 March, 2009  

Good morning

I hope some of you were able to take advantage of the tempting Qantas fares down to Australia and New Zealand that I emailed about on Saturday.

I'd mentioned in the special newsletter that I'd offer a Travel Insider tour of New Zealand in October/November (taking advantage of these wonderful airfare deals) if ten people chose to participate by mid-day on Friday.  Although a number of people have responded, wanting to take part in this tour, we don't yet have ten people committed (hmmm, that sounds wrong, doesn't it - perhaps better to say 'on the list'!).

If this is something you'd like to do, please let me know prior to 12.00 noon today (ie Friday), Pacific time.  I'll send an email to all who have registered interest at 12.01 to let you know if you should go ahead and buy the Qantas tickets or not.

One reader said she'd go on either the NZ tour or the June/July European river cruise (and who knows, might even end up going on both!).  Please also remember that the lowest prices for the European river cruise expire on 25 March, so you've only a few more days to get the absolute best deals on this.

Still talking about travel related things, I want to institute a travel journal of sorts - a type of pictorial diary of some of the travels I do and tours we all go on together.  At its simplest, this could be done as a blog, but I'm hoping to find a more specialized type of program that would do things like create maps of where I've been and where I am when I'm posting journal entries, and allow for both text entries and photos to be conveniently uploaded from a phone as well as from a computer.

Does anyone know of a good program/service for this?  Please let me know if you do.  I plan to write a feature review of whatever program I select, subsequently.

This week sees the release of the first part of a new series on checked luggage.  I built up a fairly comprehensive series of pages on carry on luggage a few years ago, and have occasionally updated it since then with reviews on new pieces of luggage, and am now adding a new section on checked luggage too.

With prices for a suitcase ranging from under $100 to as much as $1000 or more, there's a huge range of quality, cost and value out there.  And so, to get the series underway, here are four pages, including two of comments, tips and suggestions kindly sent in by readers a couple of weeks back :

This Week's Feature Column :  How to Buy a Suitcase :  Is it better to buy a suitcase that is too big, or too small?  Is it better to buy a suitcase that is too expensive, or too cheap?  Go read this new article series for the answers to these and other compelling suitcase related questions.

Still talking about luggage, another popular article series on the site is 'Your Rights When an Airline Delays or Loses Your Bag'.  If you don't want to read the double article, the quick summary is that you could be able to recover perhaps $3300 if your luggage is lost.

But have you ever wondered what happens if your bag is lost by a cruise line?  And, alas, no it is not impossible to have a bag lost by a cruise line.  There's many a slip twixt cup and lip, and similarly, many a slip between quay and ship.  I've always worried, in particular, about the common requirement to place your bags outside your cabin the night before disembarkation - worrying as much about having my luggage pilfered as having it lost.

Here's an interesting article that explains how, unlike airlines that have federally and internationally mandated liability for passenger luggage, cruise lines are free to set their own liability any way they wish.  And so most cruise lines limit their liability down to some ridiculously small figure, perhaps between $100 - $300.

Dinosaur watching :  I've read a lot of airline horror stories in my time, but here's perhaps the most terrible airline horror story I've ever encountered.

The offending and offensive airline is Alitalia.  Read as much of this detailed account of suffering and airline malfeasance as you can, and you're sure to never fly Alitalia again, no matter how many changes of ownership it may go through.

So is Virgin America an American owned airline or not?  As I've already mentioned, this Wall St Journal article seems to clearly suggest that the airline's American investors have sold their shareholdings back to the UK based Virgin Group.  But this article quotes the airline as denying the WSJ's claim.

It will be interesting to see how the DoT responds to all of this and the complaints filed with them by Alaska Airlines on this topic.  Personally, without knowing any more details, my sense is that the WSJ article is the more credible account of the situation.  However, if the airline finds itself with a shareholding problem, I have a simple solution.  Give me your shareholdings!

The airlines continue to suffer massive drops in their premium fare passengers.  This widely reported story suggests a drop of 16.7% in business and first class passenger numbers for January, and a drop of about 25% in revenue due to the fewer premium passengers traveling.

I wish I could say I was surprised, but I'm not.  Quite apart from the tougher economic climate, what we're seeing is a modern day example of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes.  Passengers have finally figured out that the 'perks' of flying up front just aren't worth the extra cost associated.  Who in their right mind would ever pay $10,000 to fly business class (or perhaps even $15,000 to fly first class) on a roundtrip flight that is ten hours each way when you can fly coach class for something under $1000.

In round figures, who can conceive of the luxury that an airline would have to offer to justify the $500/hr premium for business class travel compared to coach class, and the $750/hr premium for first class over coach class (or even the $250 additional premium for first class compared to business class)?  It is impossible to justify this, and the airlines have made it as difficult as possible to so justify, by cutting back on all the frills and frippery and benefits of these premium cabins.  Somewhere along the way, the continued reduction in lettuce leaves in the salad, the cheaper and cheaper amenities kits, fewer and poorer wine choices, and every other lost perk/privilege have resulted in too little benefit and too much cost.

It is extraordinary that when an airline is charging a $10,000+ premium for one type of airline ticket over another, the airline would choose to try and cheapen the premium fare experience.  Depending on what you do and don't cost into the equation, the extra cost to an airline of a passenger in first class rather than coach class is probably something in the order of $25 - $50 each way; less than $100 on a roundtrip.  This would be made up of a few dollars extra on the food allowance, a few dollars extra for the drinks, possibly a few extra dollars of jetfuel to fly a few more pounds of luggage, a dollar or two for the amenities kit, and what else?  Maybe if you depreciate out the better seating you'd add some more cost, but whatever the total trifling cost, it brings about as much as $5,000 - $10,000 in extra revenue.

Rather than obsessing about ways of reducing this $100 cost down to $90, and demonstrably risking the loss of the $10,000 extra revenue in the process, don't you think a more prudent airline would be looking at increasing its spend from $100 to $150, or even $200 so as to protect the $10,000 in revenue so created?

And here's the even sillier thing.  That $10,000 business class fare will often be discounted by the airline, down to maybe $7,000 or $6,000 - maybe even, if you drive a hard bargain, down to $5,000.  Why are the airlines so willing to selectively discount by such massive amounts, without being also willing to spend vastly smaller sums of money on protecting/enhancing the underlying experience that people are paying so much for?

One last thought on this.  The general impression is that most airlines sell very few first class seats - their first class cabins are generally filled with airline employees, people traveling on frequent flier awards, or on either paid or courtesy upgrades.

If you were an airline, asking $15,000 for a roundtrip firstclass flight between the US and Europe, but only selling maybe 20% of your seats, and with most of those sales being discounted by up to 50%, with the rest of the seats either given away for free or left empty, wouldn't you follow one of the most basic business laws and adjust the price of the fares to encourage more people to buy them?

The airlines have mercilessly ratcheted their business and first class fares as high as they can when there has been a market willing to pay their high prices.  Now that this is no longer the case, isn't it now appropriate to do the same thing, but in reverse, and drop pricing down to the point where the cabin is being more nearly filled with revenue passengers once more?

Southwest continues its puzzling anti-evolutionary process into becoming a dinosaur.  Its latest move suggests it is considering turning its back on one of its recent strong selling points - the fact that it has been a 'no fee' airline (and also a no food airline).  According to this report, Southwest is now considering selling food on its flights.

A more stunning about face by Southwest, however, requires us first to remember back to July of 2007 when Southwest removed an attractive coed from a flight, deeming that her low cut top and short skirt were inappropriate for 'a family airline' and too provocative.  Subsequent television interviews showed, to a delighted nation (or at least, the male half of it) that the attire wasn't really as over the top as we'd hoped it might have been.

But that was then, and this is now.  Southwest now seeks to be thought of as an airline with a 'FUN and edgy factor' (whatever that means).  Well, actually, we do have an example of what it means for an airline to be fun and edgy.  A massive image adorned along the side of one of their 737s of this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model, in a rather skimpy bikini.  Yes, okay - I know you want to see a picture.  Here it is.

They say there's no such thing as bad publicity - a comment that Ryanair has clearly taken to heart.  They almost make a virtue out of being bad, explaining away every negative thing as a way they can further save their passengers money.  Of course, when they 'sell' many tickets for free (but you pay for almost literally every optional extra) there's some truth in their comments.

You may recall that over the last few weeks, Ryanair and their blunt talking CEO have first of all said they were considering charging for toilet use on their flights, then they said that this was just a joke, then they said that, no, they were entirely serious about doing this, then they said, again, that it was just a joke.  That has given them four different sets of headlines.

Now they're playing with us even more on the subject of user fees and surcharges and extra optional costs.  They're holding a competition for the most imaginative new fee they could charge their passengers, with a €1000 prize for the best idea submitted.

They have mentioned some suggestions already received as including

  • Charging for toilet paper – with CEO O’Leary’s face on it

  • Charging €2.50 to read the safety cards

  • Charging €1 to use oxygen masks

  • Charging €25 to use the emergency exit

  • Charging €50 for bikini clad Cabin Crew (take note, Southwest)

You can send in your own suggestions - details on their website.  I've sent in 18 ideas myself, my favorites being :

  • Coin operated overhead lights

  • A scalable fee based on how many years of flying experience the captain has

  • A convenience fee for using a jetway to board/deplane (with no alternative means of boarding/deplaning)

  • A seat back reclining fee if you wish to recline your seat, or if you wish to prevent the passenger in front reclining their seat (the person who pays the higher fee prevails)

  • A priority deplaning fee for people who wish to be allowed to leave the plane first

  • A crew recreational fee to cover their costs of partying while on layovers

  • An accounting fee to cover the costs of assessing and collecting all their fees

Websites that feature what purport to be end-user reviews of products are touted as being part of the new Web 2.0 paradigm.  Two of the best known implementations of user reviews would be Amazon.com and TripAdvisor, but both these sites - and the reviews featured on them - have often come under criticism.

In the case of Amazon, their top reviewers would seem to review an impossible number of books and movies and other things - there aren't enough hours in the day for them to read/view/write reviews of the incredible numbers of items they review.  I've also noticed that some of my own modest number of reviews have mysteriously disappeared off the site - perhaps because they were critical rather than praising the products reviewed?

In the case of TripAdvisor, it is widely believed that companies attempt to review their own hotels or tours or whatever, and/or to get their staff to do that, and/or to 'encourage' their customers to do so (positively); offsetting which is the other generally understood phenomenon that some companies will also write harsh and unfair reviews of competitors.

User reviews are something that can be helpful, but which need to be considered with a large amount of open minded skepticism.

And now there's been a new revelation this week.  It seems that the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line may have been rewarding prolific favorable reviewers of their cruises (primarily on the CruiseCritic website) with free cruises.  Details here.

A rose by any other name?  A South African luxury safari company, formerly known as Conservation Corporation Africa, expanded its operations to other continents as well, and so changed its name to the really stupid name  "&Beyond".

This is a bad choice for several reasons - for example, you can't have a website url with an ampersand in it (and possibly other computer data programs may also refuse to accept an ampersand or give problems when encountering one), and how do you put the company in alphabetical order with other companies?  They also refer to themselves as andBEYOND, and longer time readers know how I feel about company names that can't use proper capitalization of the first letter only and no others.

Much greater stupidity followed when upmarket travel operator Abercrombie & Kent got wind of CC Africa's new name.  They sued, claiming that the name &Beyond would confuse people into believing that this company was related in some way to A&K.  They managed to obtain a temporary restraining order.

Please keep reading - the best is yet to come.  A&K have now settled with the new company, which will now use a revised version of the ampersand.  So &Beyond has now been renamed &Beyond (the ampersand is now in a Trebuchet font, in case you didn't notice).  Their website has yet to be updated, however.

I wonder how much in attorney and design consultant fees that all cost?

The government's 'bail out' package includes $8 billion for high speed rail.  Isn't that great - at last, a solid commitment by the federal government to develop some world class high speed rail service in the US.

Ummm - alas, it isn't great at all.  It is a ridiculously pathetic amount of money that won't start to pay for any measurable investment in high speed rail.  It is like offering a starving man a single Hershey's Kiss, then congratulating yourself for your generosity as you walk away.

One of the things about high speed rail is that, almost by definition, it only makes sense for longer distances.  A 50 mile journey could take 40 minutes or 60 minutes without impacting much on the practicality of train ridership.  But the difference between two hours (moderate/high speed) and four hours (Amtrak speed) for a 200 mile journey could make a big difference to people's travel choices.  Because of this, high speed rail projects have to be 'big' rather than small, and this also means they inevitably will be costly.

By way of indication, the high speed rail project in California is currently costed as requiring $50 billion (and will probably end up costing appreciably more).  Perhaps the $8 billion might be sufficient to pay for the cost overrun on this one project, but it is completely adequate to actually get a completed high speed rail line operational anywhere in the country.

How would you like to become 20% more productive when using your computer?  And with an investment of no more than perhaps $250 - $300 in extra computer equipment?  Is that the biggest productivity gain on the smallest investment you've yet been offered?

The way to get this productivity gain - and even more in some cases - is simply to upgrade your monitor to a larger size higher resolution monitor, allowing you to keep more data on the screen at any time.  I recommend a 24" - 26" monitor with a 1920x1200 or thereabouts resolution (I have a 24" 1920x1200 monitor).  Here's a somewhat self-serving study from NEC that details their research and findings.

Now for the trick - if you choose to do this, you need to know how to use Windows properly (it amazes me how few people do).  Here are six things you need to know, otherwise, you won't get significant productivity gains at all :

  • Tip #1 - Don't ever minimize a window or close a program.  Just let the window you now want to use go on top of the other windows already open on your screen.

  • Tip #2 - Overlap windows so you can quickly/easily click onto a different window to get to that program.

  • Tip #3 - Understand how to direct switch between windows using the Task Bar at the bottom, and the Ctrl-Tab (and Ctrl-Alt-Tab speed keys).

  • Tip #4 - Never have a window filling the full screen (possible exception might be graphic editors and spreadsheets).  Have windows that are the right size but no bigger, so you can have more things visible on your screen simultaneously and more quickly/easily swap between windows.

  • Tip #5 - Don't 'multi-task' too much.  Try not to interrupt yourself and check your email every time a message comes in.  Try and work in blocks of time - maybe ten minutes per task before going to read new emails.

  • Tip #6 - If the screen fonts are too small on your new monitor, you can adjust the font size in Windows to make the system fonts larger or smaller any which way until they are exactly comfortable and balanced for you.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  They're baaack.  That is, the TSA has re-instituted random gate checks of passengers as they board planes, pulling people to one-side for hand searches either of themselves or their carry-on items.

A cynic would point out that such actions inevitably implies that the TSA concedes their earlier security screening process when you go through the metal detector, shoeless, beltless, and jacketless, is less than 100% effective - an implication that should surprise none of us.

It is surprising that with all the claimed advances in screening effectiveness between 9/11/01 and now, the TSA has found the need to reintroduce this extra layer of security, briefly instituted after 9/11 then removed.

I particularly object to this random gate screening.  One of the most valuable frequent flier perks to me is being able to board the airplane early, so as to stow my carry-on bag in the overhead before everyone else rushes on board and takes up all the overhead with their ridiculous amounts of carry-on items.  But, of course, the TSA don't care if a person is a high level frequent flier or not when it comes to randomly selecting passengers for this additional level of screening.

Apparently, the TSA also don't care even if a passenger is a member of the House Transportation Committee and a former chairman of the aviation subcommittee.  This was what Rep Peter DeFazio (D) found out when he was one of the unlucky few selected for further screening at Portland, OR.

The congressman apparently become rather upset, and subsequently said "TSA is off track here and we are going to try to fix the policy".  Details here.

Care to take a bet on if the policy changes or not?

It is perhaps a good job that Southwest Airlines only flies domestically.  One destination they could never fly their swim-suit model painted 737 to is Dubai.  Although by all accounts Dubai is struggling with the current global economic slowdown, it has found time to issue formal behavior guidelines which restrict immodest dress, dancing, holding hands and hugging (oh, and kissing is right out).

They also ban swearing, so I guess that rules out Ryanair and its CEO as well.  Details here.

I wonder what the residents of Dubai would make of these people and their behavior in the Swiss Alps?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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