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Friday, 15 May, 2009

Good morning

As regular readers know, I currently have my brother staying with me, and I've felt obliged, during the increasingly nice weather each weekend, to entertain him by showing him around the lovely Puget Sound area.

One such pleasant activity has been to visit some of the 600 wineries in Washington state, and to enjoy the samples they offer (or, more commonly, sell) to visitors.  In the course of doing this, I had a sudden flash of wine-fueled inspiration - to write an article about which wineries to visit in Washington.  This would be a helpful addition to the small but growing library of articles already on the site about touring around the Pacific Northwest.

And so, I set about writing a short article about wine tasting and touring.  What happened next should come as no surprise.  The short article became, ahem, long.

The more I researched, the more I found that was interesting to share with you, and so we are now looking at an article series stretching over seven different sections.  This week I'm simultaneously releasing the first four of these articles.  They range from an overview of the wine growing industry in the US through to what I found particularly interesting to put together - an article about the extraordinary variation in cost between sometimes very similar wines, considering what it costs to make wines ranging from the (in)famous 'Two Buck Chuck' beloved of Trader Joe customers (myself proudly included) through to the heady heights of bottles of wine costing up to $6000 a pop.

The 6800 words (!) in these four articles are all merely a prelude to the actual 'here are lists of wineries to visit' article I'd originally intended.  I'll release the actual winery touring lists in a future week, and while I don't think many of you will choose to read through the entire 6800 words of material this week, I thought it made sense to release it all at once for people who did want to read it in a single session, and to hopefully have something of interest within it for everyone.  Which leads to :

This Week's Feature Column(s) :  Wine touring and tasting in WA :  In the first four parts of a new series about Washington's wine industry and touring/tasting around its 600 wineries, I provide some general background about the US and WA wine industries, and ponder on the reasons for the sometimes extraordinary difference between the selling price and underlying production cost of a bottle of wine.

Dinosaur watching :  Now that the airlines have started charging for checking bags, they're continuing to raise these fees further and further.

Hot on the heels of the US Airways increase is United Airlines, with an increase in their fees up to $20 for checking a first bag and $30 for a second bag.  These fees can be reduced by $5 if you pay them online prior to getting to the airport.

Bag fees have become big business.  According to the US Department of Transportation, airlines earned an extra $1.15 billion from baggage fees in 2008.  When one considers the steady series of increases in baggage fees between their inception and now, it would seem possible that in 2009, bag related charges might add close to $2 billion to US airline profitability.

While there is still one notable airline holdout - Southwest - which doesn't charge anything for the first two bags, all other airlines now charge for a second bag and nearly all charge for a first bag too.

International airlines, often restricted by complex multiple airline agreements, are moving more slowly to copy the domestic US airline examples.  But one airline has broken the mold and come up with a truly unique charging policy and baggage 'service'.

The airline is Air Jamaica.  They will now allow one bag free of charge, and levy a $25 fee for a second bag when flying between New York and Grenada or Barbados.  Okay, this in itself is not particularly extraordinary.  But wait, there's more.

In return for paying $25, Air Jamaica promises to fly your bag to your destination - okay, again, nothing special.  But, read the fine print :  The airline says that your second bag won't be on the same plane as you.  Neither will it likely be on the next flight.  Instead, all they undertake is to transport your second and extra bags within seven days of your original flight, and it will be your responsibility to return to the airport to collect your extra bags after they arrive.

So tell me - how does that work if you're going for only a six day vacation?  Does that mean you drop your bag at JFK, then collect it again from JFK a week after you return to JFK, while never having seen it at all during your vacation (and the bag probably just sitting at JFK for the time you're away and the extra one week waiting after you return)?

I'm not making this up.  Here's their official release on their website.

US Airways has announced a welcome change to its previous 'reverse pyramid' boarding method.  Until now, it would board passengers starting from window seats at the rear of the plane, and then slowly allow passengers to board in successively more forward rows, and in middle and then aisle seats in this sort of pyramid type shape.  Time and motion studies had suggested this to be the quickest way to board a plane.

However, in a praiseworthy flash of sensitivity, US Airways said this was disadvantaging its best passengers, who would typically have seats near the front of the plane, and/or aisle seats.  By the time these passengers boarded, they ran the risk of finding no remaining overhead space for their carry on items.

Their new system allows higher fare paying passengers and people who checkin online to board before regular passengers and airport checkin passengers.

There is of course another solution to the lack of overhead space problem.  Memo to US Airways - why not police your carryon policies and limit people to only the carryon they are officially allowed to take on board?

There is also what, on the face of it, seems to be a positive set of changes by AA to their Aadvantage program.  Members can now book free tickets on a one way basis, rather than in roundtrips.  Each oneway journey will require half of a roundtrip journey's miles.

This has two immediate benefits.  For some people who occasionally fly somewhere oneway only, they can now use fewer miles to get a free oneway ticket (in the past, you had to redeem enough miles for a roundtrip ticket and risk upsetting AA by only flying half of it).

The other benefit is that if there is only a first class seat available on one flight, and only a coach class seat available on the other flight, you don't have to redeem enough miles for a first class roundtrip journey, as was formerly the case.  Instead, you can use enough miles for half a first class roundtrip one way, and then the appropriate miles for a coach class half roundtrip the other way.

This can also be used to combine a lower mileage requiring 'Plan Aahead' type award for travel one way and full cost mileage travel the other way if one flight is wide open and the other not available for the discounted mileage levels.

All in all, a generous and very fair change to American's program policies.

Good news also from AirTran.

In contrast to other airlines such as DL and UA  that have been rolling out onboard Wi-Fi at a glacial pace, they announced on Monday that every one of their 136 planes would be equipped with Wi-Fi by late July.  And, yes, that is July 2009!

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the propensity for US airlines and their captains to turn on (and leave on) the Fasten Seat Belts sign at the slightest hint of potential turbulence.  Dan - a reader and pilot - writes in with this fascinating account of more than you ever wanted to know about the topic, including some rather graphic material in the last paragraph that hopefully never applies to ordinary air travel....

As a former airline Captain, I pride myself on being sensitive to the needs of the passengers. At United Airlines, when I was hired in 1978, the general philosophy was that the seat belt sign should be OFF as soon as possible, unless you were aware of known turbulence during climb-out. And it should be kept off during cruise until well into the descent, unless turbulence was encountered.

The pilot's flight operations manual told us it was only mandatory to turn the seat belt sign on during MODERATE or greater turbulence -- it was NOT mandatory (but most pilots turned it on anyway) during LIGHT turbulence.

As the years went by, lawsuits happened.  Southwest Airlines had a classic case (lawsuit), and Southwest OVER-reacted with the seat belt sign ON all the time now, unless a), In cruise, b) absolutely smooth air, c). Its been smooth for about 20 minutes, d) no other aircraft is mentioning turbulence on the radio, e) approximately 10 minutes BEFORE top of descent  f) ALL the above! Shame on them!

As you probably have noticed, FAILURE to turn the seatbelt sign OFF results in:

a) Passengers getting up anyway -- they have needs.
b). Loss of respect for the sign -- it is now meaningless.
c). No credibility for the Captain.
d) Flight attendants don't care -- in fact, they prefer the seatbelt sign be on the entire flight so they can get their work done without those pesky passengers getting up to go to the bathroom!

I see that happen on Southwest, US Airways, Allegiant, and Delta all the time -- failure to turn the seat belt sign off during smooth air results in passengers ignoring it -- it (and the Captain) loses all credibility.

As to your question below: (What are you to do?) Just get up and GO anyway! Most airlines have a policy that if a Flight Attendant sees you get up, she is supposed to warn you that you do so at your OWN RISK. That's fair. Shame on the F/A's who make a blatent PA to embarrass you, and basically try to show the rest of the passengers that they are in charge, not you.

Bottom line: IF you have to go, and the seat belt sign is on, you CAN go (they don't want you to soil your pants or your airline seat!) -- but you just have to realize it will be at your own risk... don't you DARE contemplate suing the airline if you should be injured when the turbulence tosses you and the 'blue water' to the ceiling while you're in there!

[Just a little humorous side note... well... kind of... During 1981-1984, I flew as a test pilot on a US Navy Convair 880 (that's a 4 engine jet). Most of the time, it was just 3 pilots and no passengers. We flew the plane much like a fighter jet. If one of us got up to go to the 'blue room' (aptly named in this case), it was common for the remaining pilots to nose it over a bit, just enough to go 'negative G', such that the blue water would float UP out of the toilet, and so would your own pee! At zero G, it wasn't so bad, but at negative G, sometimes the fluid would hit the ceiling! You can imagine the blue stains all over the lavatory on that plane!]

Do you think we should be able to travel to Cuba?  If you do (and apparently 67% of Americans feel this way), why not sign a petition being coordinated by Orbitz that advocates lifting the travel restrictions currently in place.  If you do so, and if travel to Cuba becomes legal, Orbitz will give you a $100 discount on a four night vacation package to Cuba.

More details here.

Here's a wonderful new website - www.voyij.com.  It approaches the concept of good deal travel from a new and very relevant perspective - rather than telling the site where you want to go, you tell it where you are, and it tells you all the deals it can find from your home city.

The site is still a bit rough around the edges, and is limited currently to offering deal only within the US/Canada and to the Caribbean, and it seems to have just airfares and hotels - no cruises or other travel deals, but I played with it a while and found several mouth-watering travel deals from Seattle that I didn't know about.

Definitely worth a visit.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Have you ever stopped to wonder just how much the government is spending on 'security'.  This article reports the Homeland Security Department is being given $55 billion in the latest federal budget - with this amount not including user fees from airlines and passengers.

If you see your glass as half full, you're appreciative that this annual expenditure has won us almost eight terror free years.  If you see your glass as half empty, you wonder where all the terrorists have gone and worry about government audit reports that claim our system is almost as vulnerable to terrorist attack today as it was on 9/11/01.

Three things to close the week with.  Firstly, readers know I continue to advocate using a good travel agent to help you with your travel planning.  There's still an important role for 'bricks and mortar' travel agencies in this internet age.

Such as, perhaps, this one?

Secondly, Southwest isn't the only airline to promote its policy of no hidden passenger fees.  Another airline trying this strategy is my home country airline, Air New Zealand, which promotes the concept they have nothing to hide, by showing, well, staff members who are, ahem, hiding nothing...  Video link here.

In related Air NZ news, they are offering a 'Cupid' flight to New Zealand in October - they claim this to be the world's first matchmaking flight.

And lastly, birds aren't the only foreign object that airplane engines apparently sometimes attempt to ingest (I've seen similar pictures in the past relating to other similar occurrences).

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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