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Friday, 17 April, 2009  

Good morning

Good news and bad news for me on the 15th.  Good news - I did indeed send off a tax return in the mail.  Bad news - it, ummm, wasn't this year's one.  Oh well, that's what the other 364 days of the year are for, right?

Talking about the days in the year, my comment last week about Easter brought a lot of replies, mainly kindly and well meaning; so many that I didn't have a chance to answer them all.  Very briefly, the Bible says (Matthew 12:40) "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

I take everyone's point that "three days" can validly include portions of the three days between and including Friday - Sunday, and so that would qualify for the three days part.  But the three nights part is not explainable by the Friday/Sunday convention.

The answer to the conundrum is that the days we celebrate are wrong.  Some authorities believe they should be Wednesday and Saturday, others Thursday and Sunday.

Still talking about days and errors thereupon - but now in a much more down to earth context - earlier in the week I started writing this newsletter with an opening comment about being joined by my brother, who was to have arrived on Thursday morning, after traveling from New York to Seattle on Amtrak.  I had optimistically drafted a paragraph about that and wrote up to the point "He found Amtrak to be..." and planned to complete that sentence subsequent to his arrival and trip report.

Well, I was overly optimistic.  He first took a train from New York to Chicago, which proceeded more or less normally with no notable issues.  He was then to take a second train - the 'Empire Builder' - from Chicago to Seattle.  Alas, this train was rescheduled to operate only to Minneapolis, due to flooding issues in Devils Lake, ND.

He only found this out a short while prior to the train departing from Chicago, which is unfortunate and inexplicable.

In the mad scramble to urgently find out what was happening and to plan an alternate route, both he and I tried to get someone at Amtrak to give us some realistic information.  The information, when finally uncovered, was surprising and disappointing.

Yes, Amtrak were operating the train only as far as MSP.  I asked what they planned to do with passengers who were traveling further than MSP.  The answer :  Nothing.

Amtrak wasn't scheduling a bridging bus service to shuttle passengers around the flooded area and onto another train on the other side, neither was it scheduling bus service all the rest of the way to Seattle.  Instead, it was just stopping the train in MSP, and giving passengers the option of either getting off the train there or not boarding it in the first place, with no 'protection' or alternate transportation arrangements offered whatsoever (other than offering to send my brother back to New York for free, which wasn't what he was wanting at all).

Passengers such as my brother were offered a refund on that part of the fare they'd paid that related to the part of the trip they didn't take (and we all know how those calculations are invariably skewed in the transportation operator's favor).

This is disappointing customer 'service' on Amtrak's part.  Even airlines generally do a better job of looking after passengers when they have to cancel a flight.  Sure, you might wait a day (or more) at the airport, but they'll eventually get you where you want to go.

My brother is now taking a train first to Los Angeles, then up to Seattle, and instead of arriving Thursday morning, he currently hopes to arrive Friday night.  I'm not going to tempt fate by writing any more on his travels, because the big imponderable is his luggage - where is it, and when will it get to Seattle?  No-one knows at present, because Amtrak don't scan or track passenger luggage in any form at all, so all we can do is call the Seattle station from time to time to see if it turns up.

Talking about Amtrak, there's great news for us high speed train enthusiasts.  Our President promised us on Thursday that he has a plan that 'will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America'.

In exciting us about this big bold proposal, he went on to compare his vision for our future with high speed rail networks (both already in place and actively being added to) in places as far flung as Japan, Spain, France and China.  He envisions a network of short and longer-haul corridors of up to 600 miles, served by trains traveling at speeds up to 150 mph.

A very exciting vision, yes?  No.  Alas, it is more a mirage than a vision.

Apparently Mr Obama doesn't read this newsletter, because if he did, he'd understand that the $8 billion he is proposing to invest in high speed rail is pathetically inadequate to get even a single rail line established, let alone a network of corridors in California, the Gulf Coast, the Midwest and the Northeast as his administration is conjecturing.

As I pointed out in my earlier comments a month ago, the California rail project alone is currently - and optimistically - budgeted at costing $50 billion, with the final true cost sure to end up substantially more.  The $8 billion will likely not be enough to pay for the overrun extra costs on this project, let alone its underlying base forecast cost.

$8 billion - while a huge amount of money for many things - is a drop in the bucket that will do no good at all when it comes to developing a network of high speed rail corridors across the US.  While I continue to urge we invest in high speed rail, the $8 billion will do nothing tangible towards achieving that goal.

We'd be better advised to spend much less on buying more coaches for Amtrak and making relatively minor enhancements to the Amtrak network that would have immediate benefits to people using (and additional people potentially using) the rail system we have, rather than spending $8 billion on who knows what, over who knows how many years, with nothing tangible to show for it.

Far from a 'shovel ready' project, the $8 billion will be wasted in feasibility and environmental studies, consulting reports, and other paperwork, but is unlikely to actually lead to any two cities being connected by any new high speed service.

Back to the immediacy of Amtrak and my brother's eventual arrival this evening, although it is something more than ten years since I last saw him, my plan is not to spend great amounts of time 'catching up' with him but rather to, ahem, put him to work, helping me with some of the administrivia of the website development and management.

We are in the process of slightly changing the page layouts, to make them wider, allowing the necessary advertising to blend in better with the content, and using the latest web coding and design conventions to make them friendlier to search engines.  I'm also rejigging the site's menu structure to reflect the way it has grown in the five years since its last redesign - with an internet year often being equated to a 'dog year' - ie seven normal years - that's a very long time with no revisions to the site layout or structure.

It will be nice to have someone else helping out for a while.  Alas, the site's 'revenue model' (if it can be dignified with such a term) is so soft as to make it somewhere between impractical and impossible to pay a 'normal' person (ie not a family member) a 'normal' wage (ie anything more than the zero payment Christopher is getting!) for helping on the website.

I have managed to be particularly productive this last week, and have now completed my seven part series on London's airports, adding new pages of detail for the 'other' four airports.  I'd first released two introductory/summary pages, and a detailed page about Heathrow, and now have added pages for (in order of airport size) Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City as well.

They're intended more as reference pages rather than as captivating reading for the sheer pleasure of it; be aware they're there, and refer to them as needed.

Perhaps the big 'take home' point about these airport pages is to use them to consider a possibly different way of traveling to Britain and then from Britain on to Europe.

If you can find a great low fare to London, and if you want to spend time in London and in Europe, consider the possibility of simply buying your international ticket to London (which will probably get you to Heathrow or Gatwick) and then look at buying a ticket on one of the crazy low fare discounters (Ryanair, Easyjet, or any of the other less well known carriers) for your travels between London and the continent. instead of buying all your travels on the one international ticket.  In such a case, you may find yourself flying out of Stansted or Luton.

While your airport choices when traveling between the US and UK are probably limited, your choices when flying from London on to Europe are much broader.  Be sure to check off the 'consider nearby airports' feature when searching for fares on eg Kayak.com so as to get the maximum range of options, and you might want to go check some of the discount airlines directly because they don't all participate in the airfare aggregator sites like Kayak.

How to find a list of European discount carriers?  One easy way is to go to the airport websites and see which airlines fly from there.

Or - another travel concept using the extra information on my airport pages - you could fly into/out of Gatwick then take a train direct to St Pancras Station and connect with Eurostar over to Paris, Brussels, and beyond.

Mmmmm - all this talk about travel to Britain and Europe definitely makes me look forward even more to the Europe Heartland Cruise in June/July.  I'm glad I haven't yet booked my airline tickets - maybe I'll fly to London then through one of these other airports on my way to Paris or from Nuremberg!

There are still some cabins available on this cruise, and you're cordially invited to come join some of your fellow Travel Insider readers and myself on this cruise.  This will be the only river cruise I'm offering this year - I think it is time to take a break from Christmas Market cruises, so do think about coming with us on this lovely cruise along the Mosel and Rhine rivers in Germany.

Completing the flood of new material published this week is what I'll designate the feature column.  It reviews one of a series of DVDs published by Great City Guides.  I decided to review a Seattle travel guide DVD - having lived in Seattle for 24 years now, it seemed a good one to critique.

At first I was very disappointed with the DVD, because I was comparing it either to what I'd expect from a guide book, or perhaps from what I'd expect if I were to write a 'What to See and Do in Seattle' series myself (hmmm, there's an idea for a future weekly feature....).  But after thinking about this, I had a paradigm shift and realized that the DVD shouldn't be considered as an alternative to either a good guide book or careful online research, but rather as a supplement to both.

So, after this change of perspective, did I like it?  I'm glad you asked that question, with the answer now to be found in :

This Week's Feature Column :  Seattle City Guide DVD :  If you're considering a trip to Seattle, or if you're seeking something as a souvenir of a visit here, would this 42 minute video help you?

By the way, there was a fairly muted response to last week's review of an ingenious device for carrying a Bluetooth headset.  My perception is that many readers are likely to have Bluetooth headsets, and, for me if not for you, the challenge of how to carry it when not on a call is one that has been unsatisfactorily resolved until now.

Maybe there's some other way to carry a BT headset (other than permanently in your ear)?  Or maybe there's a design flaw in these BlueClip headset holders that I haven't noticed?  If you've got an alternate solution that is clever rather than obvious (ie don't just say 'I stick it in my pocket' please let me know.

Or if there's a reason you don't like the BlueClip's two approaches to carrying a headset (around the neck or on a retractable cable) let me know about that, too, please.

But if you do have a BT headset and don't feel you've yet come up with the best way of carrying/caring for it between calls, perhaps consider the Blueclip if you haven't already.

Dinosaur watching :  One of my recurrent themes over the last year or so has been how Southwest Airlines is evolving into a traditional dinosaur airline.

Little by little, all the earlier things that differentiated Southwest from the dinosaurs are being lost, and now we see, for the third quarter in a row, one more example of Southwest copying the dinosaurs - on Thursday it reported a loss for the first quarter of $91 million.

Built in to the loss was another example of how Southwest has transitioned from being a winner to now being a loser.  In years past, it had made massive profits from its fuel hedging programs, but now it, along with many of the dinosaurs, is losing money from its fuel hedging.  $71 million of its loss was due to bad fuel hedging, with the other $20 million attributable to - well, whatever you wish to blame.  Tough economic times?  Bad airline management?  Whatever.

Southwest used to boast an extraordinary run of consecutively profitable quarters.  Until these three loss-making quarters in a row, it had not had a loss in its first quarter all the way back to 1991 (the first Iraq war).

But Southwest still has a bit of catching up to do before it fully emulates its hometown dinosaur, American Airlines.  AA reported a $375 million loss for the first quarter.  However, this was less than expected, so AA's share price jumped up 20% after its announcement, and continued to rise the next day, whereas Southwest dropped 10% in the initial response to its loss.

There are times when one completely fails to comprehend the vicious inhumanity with which airline employees react to human suffering.  One recent ultra-appalling story is very well told in a letter of complaint subsequently written to United's CEO - please do read the letter and its tragic conclusion here.

As those of us who have suffered the loss of a loved one already know, there are times when a final chance of meeting, sharing, possibly reconciliation, resolution, and rapprochement can make an enormous difference to one's ability to come to terms with the loss.  To willfully deprive this poor lady of a chance to spend a couple of precious hours with her dying mother defies all that makes us human rather than impersonal robots.

To be even-handed, here's an interesting response to the situation, but I don't believe it to be an accurate response.  Yes, maybe labor laws in California (where the people were attempting to fly from) requires UA to give their staff a break at rigid times, but do those same labor laws threaten sanctions against employees if they voluntarily choose to delay their break the few minutes it would take to issue the tickets?  And/or why did the agent not arrange for anyone else to issue the tickets instead?

I'm puzzled by the complainant's reference to spending 10 minutes arguing with the ticket agent.  It would have taken less than 10 minutes for the tickets to be issued, or for a supervisor to appear and issue the tickets him/herself.

Here's an interesting bit of insight that hasn't been so well offered up in the replies to the two linked articles.  It is regrettably true that some people shamelessly invent stories of personal tragedy to attempt to break airline rules and policies, and as a result, airlines have become less flexible and positive in such cases.

In my own past experience as a travel agent, I vividly remember the time I called up an airline's 'Special Services' desk to get an advance purchase requirement waived for a client.  While this was being done for me, I was making my usual light chatter with the airline agent, and happened to mention 'It is very kind of you to do this and I'm sure my client will appreciate it.  His father is dying so he's in an urgent rush to travel to the hospital'.  As an aside, this was something they automatically did 100% of the time, whenever I called and asked, but politeness required me to pretend it was a special favor rather than an automatic response.

There was a silence at the other end of the phone, then the agent said 'David, I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that; we've been told we're not to make special exceptions for medical reasons because too many people are abusing that'.

In other words, that particular airline was more willing to help anyone for any ordinary reason than they were willing to help people with special medical emergencies!

On the other hand, if you do have a medical emergency that causes you to need to travel somewhere urgently, and you're going to be seeking special favors, you should prepare for this, as best time and circumstance can allow.  Ideally, get the hospital or funeral parlor or whoever to fax you a short note detailing the bona fide need for you to urgently travel, and a death certificate, if available, is helpful too.  If the person you're going to see has a different last name, some sort of documentation establishing your relationship would help also.  If nothing else, have a phone number of someone at the hospital or wherever - someone who will likely answer their phone! - available to share.

While airlines get roundly abused by people trying to cheat the system here, if you're already prepared with the documentary proof of your situation, that might help counter the prejudice that you may have to combat, and flip the situation into a more positive experience.

Alas, my own father's sudden death in New Zealand occurred way too quickly for me to get back in time for one last contact, but the terrible circumstances of my loss were extremely classily handled by Qantas, who were kind and compassionate way beyond what one would expect of strangers.  Mercifully, not all airlines and not all airline employees are as uncaring as the United staff in San Francisco were.

One more thought about Qantas.  Last week I'd included a note from a reader reporting on his 'above and beyond the call of duty' positive experience with Qantas recently, and this prompted reader Frank to add

His article this week on Qantas is right on the mark.  We booked premium economy during their short 2 for 1 sale and when they changed equipment, eliminating premium economy seating, they upgraded our $2600 tickets to Business Class (more like a $19k value ) - without extra cost.

I occasionally hear from readers who have suffered the opposite experience - being downgraded by an airline from a premium class of service into a less premium class of service, and often being offered no compensation or some ridiculously inadequate form of compensation.  So now, when I next get an email like that, I'll know what to say - 'You should have flown Qantas'!

Frank's experience was very different to that of the person mentioned in this article who paid extra for premium seating on US Airways, only to discover that the premium seating ended up moving them further back in coach class to where they had been already seated.

Upon complaining about this, US Airways staff generally agreed this was unfair, but showed no interest or inclination in either moving them back to their original seats or refunding them the extra money they'd been charged for allegedly better seats.

Back to United again.  They announced this week a new seating policy for 'passengers of size'.  Basically, if you can't comfortably fit in a seat with both armrests down, you're now required to buy a second ticket.

We'll probably have to agree to disagree about their policy - some people are ardently supportive of the concept that 'if you need two seats, you should pay for two seats' while others are equally ardently of the opinion that there shouldn't be any fare discrimination based on a person's size.  But, accepting that UA have now created this policy, one has to actually admire the almost even handed and - dare I say it - close to fair way in which they seek to apply it.

You'll never have to pay more for a second seat than you did for the first seat.  And paying for two seats gets you a double luggage allowance (but I bet it doesn't get you a double frequent flier accrual!).

If there isn't a second seat available, they won't charge you anything to change or cancel your flights, even if it is a non-refundable ticket.  But they do dubiously hide behind the TSA by claiming the TSA won't allow them to allow you to take a double allowance of carry-on baggage on board.

So, all in all, it is about as good a policy as you can expect from an airline.  I'm also advised by the ARTA travel agent association that there is one exception - if you're a couple flying together, and you're a Tweedledum and Tweedledee couple such that the two of you together can fit into two seats, even if one of you, alone, requires a bit more than one seat!

This reminds me - I advised my Twitter followers about United's move on Wednesday.

Other of the eight 'tweets' (as Twitter messages are colloquially called) I've sent this week have included information on a sale on a range of my favorite Briggs & Riley luggage pieces (that's the company with the no questions asked lifetime warranty - they'll fix or replace your suitcase, no matter how old, and no matter if it is airline damage, caused by a bus running over it, or anything else), information on a tremendous Amazon sale of DVDs and Blu-ray discs, as well as a recommendation about what clothing you should pack if seeking permission to visit Britain and a gruesomely awful ad full of double entendres to do with 'mowing your lawn'.

I'm not sure if Twitter will be a passing fad or a lasting feature, but it is free and easy to use, and while I'm neither the most prolific nor the best Twitter poster, you'll definitely get another slice of your Travel Insider experience as a Twitter follower of mine.

Reader Barry passes on another example of airline unfairness.  He was flying home on Northwest, and changing planes in their Detroit hub.  But the pilot apparently parked the plane to close to the gate such that the jetway couldn't reach over and match up with the plane's door.  It took NW 40 minutes to get a ground tug to come and haul the plane into its proper position so the door could be opened and passengers deplaned.

Next, what he describes as 'the baggage lift for carryon' - I guess he is referring to gate checked pieces of hoped to be carry-on items - had a problem and didn't work for ten minutes.

So there were 50 minutes of delay caused by two separate examples of airline error, causing Barry to miss his ongoing flight, and forcing him to stay overnight in Detroit.

The good news - Northwest helped arrange him accommodation at an unpleasant downtown motel.  The bad news - they charged Barry $50 for the privilege of not sleeping at the airport due to their mistakes.

Barry and I both wonder if the $50 fee was actually more than the paid the motel for his roomnight.

Here's a mildly interesting article on which airlines are most and least likely to cause you to be involuntarily bumped off a plane.

And here's an article about the growing numbers of planes stored in desert locations.  It goes a bit further than the regularly written and superficial article about planes in the desert, and has some interesting facts and figures in it too.

Here's an interesting article about a very speculative/futuristic new technology - putting 'feathers' on a plane to improve its streamlining and efficiency.  Note in particular the comment toward the end about possibly needing a self-cleaning system - there's a lot still to be worked out about this.

If I may modestly comment, this technology is remarkably like that which I speculated on, for submarines, in my (alas unpublished) 'technothriller' novel I wrote back in 2001.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The new 'backscatter' type X-ray screening of passengers going through airport security is 'too good' according to a freshman congressman, Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).  It gives too clear a view (one TSA staffer is quoted as saying that he can tell the change in a person's pocket).  He opposes them for this reason.

Let me get this right.  A screening device that works too well?  Come back to earth, Mr Chaffetz.

There's actually a massive vulnerability in our airport screening at present.  Metal detectors don't/can't detect plastic explosive, which can be molded like kids' Playdough into a thin sheet and wrapped around your waist or other body part - indeed, done well, even a 'pat down' is unlikely to detect it.  A terrorist can, with a 99% degree of certainty, smuggle ten times more plastic explosive through an airport security screening than he would need to destroy a plane in flight.  As for detonators, they can readily be camouflaged into many different pieces of electronic equipment, and/or improvised from perfectly legitimate electronics.

Yes, while the TSA is obsessing over short bladed Swiss Army Knives and box cutters, there currently is almost no way they can detect fully-lethal amounts of high explosive being carried through security.  Only if they have a sniffer station or use an explosive detecting swab on you (and how often has that happened to you?) will they detect explosives.

This is the largest part of the reason for pressing ahead with these backscatter X-ray screening machines.  These new machines truly will make it very difficult for plastic explosives, or anything else, to be hidden underneath clothing.  But Rep. Chaffetz opposes them because TSA staffers will also get to see ghostly computer screen images of, ahem, body outlines and our various appendages.  Do any of us care what some faceless TSA person sees in another room as we quickly walk through an X-ray screening machine, happily without now needing to remove all our clothing and shoes first?

I wrote last week about the unfortunate person who had a bad case of 'the trots' and needed to urgently get to a bathroom on his DL flight, from Honduras back to Atlanta.  There was a trolley in the aisle behind him, and the flight attendants refused to move it to allow him to get past.  After waiting in his seat as long as he could, he absolutely had to go, and so went to the toilet up front in business class, only to have another flight attendant bar his way.  Depending on who you believe, the passenger either stumbled and grabbed the fa's arm, or perhaps he willfully pulled her arm down and twisted it for good measure.

Bottom line - after spending two nights in jail, he has now been formally charged with a federal felony charge.

Question to the attorneys who read this - by all accounts, this happened half an hour in to a three hour flight between Honduras and Atlanta.  How is it that US law applies when the plane wasn't in US airspace (they were probably in Mexican airspace at the time)?  (This question of course ignores the broader issue as to if Delta acted fairly or decently in refusing to help their distressed passenger.)

And Delta, vacillating between excusing their actions on an FAA regulation (nonexistant) and a TSA policy is now blaming the TSA, while offering a nonsense meaningless response saying their flight crews 'do everything within the limits of the law to ensure the safety and security of our passengers'.

Which is absolute nonsense and contradicted by anyone's commonsense appraisal of the facts.

'Everything within the limits of the law' would have meant moving the cart blocking the aisle to the aft toilets out of the way.  The flight attendants did no such thing and instead refused to help the guy get to an aft toilet.  Shame on them, and shame on Delta's spokeswoman for offering such a stupid response.

As for the 'TSA policy', I also wonder what effect that has on a plane from a foreign country that has yet to enter US airspace, and I'd also like to see the exact wording of the policy and understand the consequences of the policy being broken.  As I said last week, just about every flight I take has at least one passenger straying from coach class into business or first class to use a toilet.

In a related incident, here's a story of a passenger who perhaps had been following the problems encountered by the Delta passenger.  This person took a rather different approach to relieving their need.

Doubtless Delta would approve.

One last Delta comment to close this week's newsletter.  As you may know, pilots have at least one way of surreptitiously alerting air traffic control to their plane being hijacked.  Unfortunately, a DL pilot apparently did this accidentally last Saturday.  More unfortunately, there was then a 'technical malfunction' which prevented the pilot from advising Air Traffic Control that it was a false alarm.  Most unfortunately, this was on a flight that was approaching Tel Aviv.

Fortunately the Israeli Air Force, which scrambled two fighters, were more tolerant of innocent mistakes than Delta is with its passengers, and so did not shoot the plane out of the sky, and instead simply 'escorted' the plane to Ben Gurion Airport.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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