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Friday, 24 April, 2009  

Good morning

Last week I mentioned my brother's challenges in traveling from New York to Seattle on Amtrak.  At the time of writing, late Thursday night, he had yet to make it to Seattle.

His arrival on Friday was further delayed, and so I decided to drive 75 miles south to collect him from the Olympia station when the train stopped there, it being much faster to drive him back home than for the train to travel up to Seattle.

Good news and bad news.  The good news - the train eventually arrived in Olympia, where I was waiting for him on the station platform.  Quite a few other people were there to meet arriving passengers too, and more people were getting off the train, so I didn't manage to spot Christopher during the brief time the train was at the station.  After its two or three minute stop, the train moved off, and as the number of people started to diminish, I wondered where he was - could it be I wasn't recognizing my own brother (it was about ten years since we last met)?

My phone rang - time for the bad news.  It was Christopher, who proceeded to tell me that neither he nor anyone else in his carriage was able to leave the train, because no-one had unlocked its exit doors.  By the time they had waited patiently for a guard to come and unlock the doors, then realized there was a problem and started to move to other carriages to get off the train, it was too late and the train left with Christopher and others unwillingly still onboard.  Ooops.  I chased, and of course beat, the train up to Tacoma where he more successfully managed to get off.

As for his three bags, they eventually arrived on Wednesday this week.  This was a tremendous relief.  Prior to then, with no form of bag tracking or control at all, no-one had the slightest idea where they were or when/how they would ever arrive.  Another reason for great sighs of relief was because Amtrak limits their liability for lost luggage to a disgraceful maximum of $500 per passenger - that wouldn't even replace the empty suitcases, let alone any of their contents.

As you may recall from last week, I've been debating how to make best use of a willing extra worker for a week or two.  Christopher assured me he could actually write articles as well as do more trivial tasks, and so we decided on a fun idea that involves your participation as well.

We chose a semi-random topic then each wrote an article, and now ask you to determine which version you prefer.  To make it fair, I'm not telling you who wrote which article.

The topic itself came up as a result of discussions while driving around the area this last weekend.  A friend of Christopher's is an avid follower of Bigfoot/Sasquatch related issues, and was very excited to learn of Christopher's visit here, asking him to go check out some of the local hot spots where such creatures may have been sighted (there have been more sightings in WA than any other state).  Out of this came the suggestion that we both write an article on that topic, and so here are two article series for you to consider, one a three pager and the other a two pager.  We'll (I'll?  He'll?) follow up next week with one more page suggesting some specific places in the Seattle area where Sasquatch/Bigfoot enthusiasts might wish visit as part of their own exploration of the topic.  So :

This Week's Feature Column :  Choose from two pages on Sasquatch, or three pages on Bigfoot; both of which purport to tell you all you might need to/wish to know on this ambiguous and uncertain topic.

And then, please do send in your thoughts about the two articles - you can click on whichever link below best records your preference, and you're welcome to add extra comments in the body of the email response the link will create.

I prefer the article on Bigfoot

I prefer the article on Sasquatch

I think they're both brilliant

I think they're both useless

I haven't read either article, but I'm sure David's article would be better

I haven't read either article, but I'm sure Christopher's article would be better

If you send in a vote, I'll let you know who wrote each article in reply to your vote.

May the best article win!

Dinosaur watching :  My several comments on United last week drew a range of responses, particularly in relation to their new 'if you need two seats, you pay for two seats' policy.  Some people supported it, others thought that if people of large girth should pay extra, so too should people with broad shoulders or long legs, and others felt it was United's responsibility to provide passage at the same price to everyone, no matter their size/weight or seat requirements.

Most relevant perhaps were the people who pointed out that Southwest's second seat policy has a major difference to that of United.  With United, you pay for a second seat, even if the plane is three quarters empty and there are plenty of extra seats that could be used at no inconvenience to other passengers.  Not so with Southwest, - although they also charge for a second seat if a passenger can't fit between the armrests, they will refund that charge if the plane doesn't fly full.  They say that 98% of the extra seat charges end up being refunded.

That is an extremely fair policy.

And talking about extremely fair Southwest policies, Wall St beancounters have been offering gratuitous advice to the airline about how it can return to profitability.  The helpful advice was to become even more like the other loss-making dinosaurs (Gee, thanks for the great advice, guys) by starting to charge fees for checked baggage.

CEO Gary Kelly refused to do this, saying it would drive away more customers than it would create extra revenue.  He very sensibly said

Southwest is a very well-known brand and it would be disruptive to all of the things we're doing to build the brand.  You just risk losing customers.  I don't see there's any reason for us to panic based on the first-quarter results.  Not charging bag fees is no difference than not charging $400 Minneapolis-to-Chicago one-way.  We don't want to be another airline that nickels and dimes customers.

Amen to that.

Back to United, other comments tended to focus on United's poor levels of customer service.  For example, John said

I started my current consulting gig on 7/24/04 and was given a choice of 4 airlines by my customer.  Living in San Antonio, US Airways and Delta didn't work out, but United and American did.

I tried United for 3 weeks.  Out of 12 segments, only one was on time, and every person I interacted with at United was at best distant.  I will never fly them again.

I have flown about 1.2 million miles with American, and they have treated me very well.  Granted as merely a gold level frequent flier, they don't lavish riches on me, but they were still courteous.

But an alternate viewpoint came from Steve, who writes

In March, I was returning from Denver to San Francisco on United, traveling on miles rather than a revenue ticket, with two regular bags, a ski bag, and a boot bag (the latter two count as one bag).

Upon arrival at check-in in DEN, I was informed that the aircraft assigned for my flight to SFO had not yet left ORD and a go/no go decision was expected in an hour.  Based upon my Premier Executive status with UA, I asked for and received confirmed protection on the next flight out to SFO (two hours later than my scheduled flight).

When the decision on the inbound aircraft from ORD kept being postponed, I exercised my right to the protection I had been accorded, was moved to alternate flight to SFO, and was assigned a most comfortable exit row seat.  To my amazement, the UAL agent then asked for a description of my bags, had them located, had them moved to the actual flight I was traveling on rather that my original but now to be later flight, and then paged me prior to departure to advise that the bags were with me on the same plane.

The lesson of this story is that loyalty to a carrier leading to elite status together with treating an agent with respect does makes a HUMONGOUS difference.

Steve's lesson is absolutely correct.  It really does pay to put all your eggs in one basket and get a premium level of frequent flier status with one airline, because that will hopefully transform your travel experience and give you extra help when you most need it.

Although the dinosaurs (and Southwest) are reporting first quarter losses, some airlines are showing profits.

Jetblue enjoyed a $12 million profit.  Tiny Allegiant Air had a $28.3 million profit, nearly three times its earnings in 1Q 2008.

And AirTran posted a massive profit of $28.7 million, its best ever first quarter result.

US Airways' response to its $103 million first quarter loss is to add a new fee - you'll now pay a $5 surcharge if you don't prepay your checked bag fee prior to arriving at the airport.  There's a wonderful sort of 'vicious circle' logic to this charge.

US Airways said it costs them time and money to accept payment of the fees they charge for checked bags ($15 for the first, $25 for a second).  Okay, so what is surprising about that?  They charge $15/25, and have some offsetting costs, but still make a good profit on the transaction.  Most companies would be delighted with such a situation.

Not so US Airways.  They apparently perceive it as our fault that it costs them time/money to charge us a fee for baggage.  So, they've three options to choose from.  They could absorb the costs and view them as a legitimate cost associated with generating a new profit source.  They could, ummm, stop charging us for baggage.  Or they could both charge us more and/or subject us to more inconvenience.

With their unerring instinct, they have of course chosen option three.

Delta also showed a first quarter loss - in their case a sizeable $794 million, and they too have turned to baggage as a new revenue source.

DL will start charging $50 for a second checked bag on international flights, and expect this to earn them an extra $25 million a quarter in net revenue.  As for a plan to address the other $769 million in quarterly losses, they'll retire some old planes and shrink their services some more.  On the positive side, they say that their merger with Northwest is proving to be a success.  It is a good job they told us that, because with a $794 million loss in a single quarter (almost $9 million a day, every day), this 'success' sure isn't intuitively obvious.

In other Delta news, it has announced it is reversing its 2002 policy of outsourcing call center work to India.  It will still have some call centers in Jamaica and South Africa, but will be downsizing those too.

In addition to trying to search out new ways to nickel and dime us, the airlines as a whole have an even more dysfunctional solution to their present problems.

If we are to believe the airlines, their present problems relate to not enough people flying - the tough financial times have reduced people's willingness to spend money on non-essential travel.  And if we are to believe economists, if you want to increase the demand for a product and get more people to buy it; you drop its price, then follow some fancy pricing formulas to work out the 'sweet spot' that brings you in the best mix of maximum revenue and maximum volume.

The airlines have clearly understood this simple economic truth, because they've had nonstop and wonderful value fare sales for the last few months.

So, what do they do in an increasingly desperate attempt to boost travel and thereby grow their bottom lines?  More airfare sales?  Permanent drops in airfares?  Maybe even ease off on some of the nasty extra fees?

Nope - if you guessed any of the above, you clearly are not qualified to be an airline CEO.  The airlines have, instead, raised their prices by $10 on most roundtrip fares.

A kind description of this would be to call it a courageous and innovative decision.  A more brutal description would be to say it is an epically stupid decision, and one which will grow still further the imbalance between theoretical published fares and real-world discounted fares.

Meantime, successful Canadian airline Westjet continues to show its commitment to providing more service and care for its passengers, with its newly announced 'Care-antee'.

This contains a list of promises and undertakings, including not to charge for bookings you make by calling direct to their reservations number, a promise not to overbook flights, and allowing you two checked bags free of charge.

More interesting is their promise

We will give you ample legroom and overhead bin space

however the fine print states

And by ample we mean 32 inches of leg room. We have lots of overhead storage space. Oh, and your little carry-on suitcase will most likely fit in the overhead bin (just make sure it weights less than 10 kg or 22 lb.) Don't worry, there's lots of room for everyone's stuff.

Since when did 32' become ample?  That's not as extravagant a promise as it may seem.

A more generous promise is this one

We will accommodate you if your flight is delayed - even if it's Mother Nature's fault.
Our job is to get you where you are going. Even if that means buying you lunch or putting you up for the night.

Good for them.  The complete 'Care-antee' can be seen here.

Staying on the topic of providing good service to customers, profitable airline Airtran is asking for our input as to what extra they should include for free on every flight.

Suggestions submitted to date range from pony rides (11% of people in Washington want pony rides) to more sensible suggestions like Wi-Fi, food, and television.  You can vote too, by visiting this website.

This is of course the exact opposite of the recent stunt by Ryanair which asked for advice on what new fee they could add.  The most popular new fee was a 'fat tax' (perhaps United had a sneak preview of the results), and - getting a third round of publicity from this stunt - the airline is now asking for advice on how this tax should be levied, with four different proposals to choose from.  Details here.

Is now a good time to start a new airline?  Many of us might think it a bad time, but the investors in a new Florida based airline clearly disagree.  On the other hand, they're not launching a regular airline, as their name might imply - the airline is called Pet Airways, and it is to be a pet-only airline.

Initially, the airline will offer service between five cities - New York/Teterboro, Baltimore/BWI, Paulwaukee/Chicago Executive Airport, Denver/Rocky Mountain Metro Airport, and Los Angeles/Hawthorne), using Beech 1900 twin turbo-prop planes.  Flights start on 14 July, and introductory fares are in the order of $150 each way, which are competitive - and sometimes better - than what you'd pay to have your pet on a regular airline in the cargo hold.

Initially the airline is set up to handle cats and dogs, but plans to add facilities for other animals such as pigs, birds, and reptiles.

At a time when airlines are reporting disproportionate losses of passenger numbers in their premium cabins, Air New Zealand is doubling the number of premium economy seats in its 777-200ER planes, from 18 up to 36.  In addition, it is enhancing their quality, with seat pitch growing from 38" up to 41", and a providing a new self service bar (and that, for sure, is something us Kiwis will much appreciate!).

Air New Zealand says the growing popularity of its premium economy class (the airline has also twice increased the number of premium economy seats in its 747-400s, and now has 39 seats on those planes) is not a reflection on more coach class passengers choosing to upgrade, but rather a result of business/first class passengers choosing to downgrade.

This sort of confirms my feeling that the ongoing evolution of airplane seating is such that first class is becoming a threatened product, business class is the new first class and is very similar to what first class used to be a decade or two back, while premium economy is, in turn, becoming the new business class and is also very similar to what business class used to be a decade or two back.  The more things change, the more they remain the same?

Well, actually, there is one exception to this evolutionary simplification.  While the seat comfort and pitch of business class now is comparable to that of first class 10 - 20 years ago and the same for premium economy vs business class, the in-cabin service, food, drink, and general amenities is massively inferior to those offered back then.

I've written despairingly about the apparent willingness of our government regulators to allow airlines exemptions from anti-trust laws that would otherwise strike down the airline alliances that continue to develop.  It continues to puzzle and disappoint me that our regulators are so apparently gullible and readily convinced about the alleged - but elusive - customer benefits that such airline groupings claim will flow from their anti-trust collusion.

And so, with great pleasure, I can report that the EU may be riding in to the rescue.  They have launched a probe into two airline alliances involving seven airlines - AC, CO, LH and UA in one alliance, and AA, BA and IB (Iberia) in the second alliance.

Of course, there's no promise that this investigation will result in anything other than a European whitewash to match the US acceptance of these arrangements, and the lofty language setting out the goals of the review may indeed betray a subsequent disappointing outcome, but we can hope.

There's also no deadline by which the review will be completed.

Some good news - the FAA has reversed its recently announced decision to make airplane bird strike information secret.  DoT secretary Ray LaHood says 'I think all of this information ought to be made public and we're going to make this information as public as anybody wants it'.

Which is the way it always should have been.

Some more good news - the competition between major internet booking sites has just notched up another small level, with Orbitz announcing that it will reduce its (largely obscured) booking fees on hotel bookings and will now show, up front, the total cost of a hotel room, including all the so-called 'taxes and fees' that previously only appear after you've started the booking process.

The taxes and fees part of a hotel's total price varies between websites, and it sometimes happens that a website that advertises a hotel at, say, $129/night before taxes and fees might end up charging $155 a night in total, whereas a second website that advertises the same hotel at, say, $134/night before taxes and fees might end up charging less in total.  This has made accurately comparing hotel prices very difficult - something that suits the purposes of the websites, and Orbitz is to be congratulated for introducing this new level of transparency into their site and hotel rate quoting.

Let's hope this will be copied by other websites and will become ongoing standard practice for all.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Often I write about low level incompetence in some part or another of our nation's security services.  This may sadden us, but doesn't really surprise us.  However, we all desperately cling to the hope that, the more senior the staff member, the more sensible they become.

So, when we read this dismaying and alas accurate commentary about the person heading up the enormous Homeland Security Agency, Janet Napolitano, it seems that any hope for any competence at any level is misplaced.

Here's a sobering story about a lady who broke her neck while in an airplane toilet when it encountered unexpected turbulence (the plane, not the toilet).  Should we ask for seat belts in toilets?  And, if they are provided, will flight attendants then look in to check we've fastened them?

For a more upbeat story about toilets, they might be dangerous, but soon they may become quieter, at least on cruise ships with vacuum operated systems, as this article happily reports.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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