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Friday, 17 July, 2009

Good morning

As much as I enjoy traveling, it is always great to be back home again.  One's own living space, one's own bed, even one's own pillow - all these things provide a feeling of belonging and comfort that is seldom matched when traveling, and hopefully for most of us, perhaps one of the important positive effects of international travel is the re-affirmation of our satisfaction and contentment with where and how we currently live.

My return flights with Northwest/Delta were pleasant and uneventful, taking me from London first to Detroit then on to Seattle.

I spent almost three hours between flights in Detroit with its amazingly long terminal concourse and indoor trains that run along the length of this building, and spent most of the time in Northwest's lounge, which offered free Wi-Fi and lovely work stations for people to work at with their computers.

Unfortunately, the free internet suffered from terrible bandwidth constraints - I tested it and found it to offer a mere 65 kbits/sec of bandwidth - a speed reminiscent of dial-up modems and one totally unsuited for modern computing.  This meant that for the entire three hours, my laptop kept trying and retrying to download my email, failing each time.  Rather than work productively, I suffered nonstop frustration.

Northwest needs to urgently improve the internet service offered to its lounge members.  This is unacceptable.

I had another Hertz car for this second time in England, on my return from Europe.  Hertz charged me a £35 (plus 15% VAT - US$65) drop-off fee on my four day rental, something I've never had to pay before when picking up a car in England at one location and dropping it at a different location.

Oh - the really outrageous part of the charge?  I picked the car up at London's Stansted Airport, and returned it to one of their central London locations, barely 20 miles away, four days later.  To take a car from one London location to another costs a $65 fee?

I also made a slightly bad choice about the fuel options.  I can never decide between the 'return the car full' or 'return the car empty' options, and on this occasion decided to take the 'return the car empty' option.  Hertz offer what they describe to be a discounted price for fuel if you pre-purchase the full tank of fuel, and I decided to take their 'challenge' and see how close to empty I could return the vehicle.

So, imagine my surprise, on getting in to the car, to see the trip computer proudly telling me I had 650 miles to go on my tank of fuel!  I was not planning on driving nearly that many miles in the four days.  The car had a very large fuel tank and used diesel, giving it better economy and hence the very long range on a single tank of fuel.  The renting agent should have warned me about this.

In addition, the price Hertz charged for diesel (£1.06/liter - ie $6.60/US gallon) did not appear to be discounted at all.  Just about every gas station I drove past was offering to sell me diesel for that price or less.

Shame on Hertz.  They misrepresented their price for diesel as being discounted, and should have warned me that the vehicle had such an unusually long range capacity on a single tank.

The only saving grace - after doing some extra driving, I did return the car with barely a drop of remaining diesel in it.

I received an email from a reader earlier this week, pointing me to an article about Delta being fined $375,000 for bumping passengers in a way that contravened the obligations placed on airlines by the Department of Transportation.  This got me to thinking that an article about being bumped would be a useful addition to the website.

The inevitable process of article inflation then followed, and I've now ended up with what will be a six part series (possibly more) all about being bumped off flights - why it happens, how to reduce your chances of being bumped, how to maximize your profit if you volunteer to be bumped, and what the official obligations are for airlines in both the US and EU.  Phew!

I'm releasing four of these six parts this week, but would like to ask you to help ensure that the very important remaining two parts of the series are as up to date and comprehensive as possible.  If you have any recent experiences (ie in the last year or so) at being bumped - either volunteering or being involuntarily denied boarding - it would be really helpful to find out what the airline offered you, and any other details and tips that can be shared with all the other readers.  What are the going rates for volunteer compensation?  Have you had success in negotiating the rates up further?  What else have you succeeded in getting from the airlines too?

If you can offer any thoughts on matters related to being bumped, please do let me know.  I'll collate your replies and add them to the material I'm already writing so as to ensure that the articles are as complete and comprehensive as possible.  Many thanks.

Meanwhile, here is a link to the four articles already available for you :

This Week's Feature Columns :  Lots about being bumped, including ten (actually twelve!) strategies to minimize your risk of being bumped, why the airlines sometimes bump passengers, and what your official rights are.

Our 2009 Christmas Markets Cruise has excited a positive amount of interest, and if you've not yet considered this, please do so.  It is my perennial favorite cruise, and while the idea of cruising along the Danube in December seems counter-intuitive, the weather has never been too cold/wet/snowy on past cruises, and the special circumstance of the Christmastime spirit and the lovely Christmas craft markets really make for a very appealing cruise.

Don't forget also all the other river cruise savings - up to $1650 per person on the longest cruises - currently available too.

Dinosaur watching :  United seems to be extending its new policy of not accepting credit card payments from passengers if they buy their tickets through certain travel agencies.  They have now sent out notifications to a second group of travel agencies; their first notices take effect from Monday, and the next round will take effect on 3 August.

This continues to be a strange way of introducing a new policy, and seems clearly intended to signal to the other airlines 'hey guys, look what we're doing, do you want to come join us', with the second round of notices being seen as saying 'Hey!  We're serious.  We really want to do this.  Come on, please do the same.'

But so far, the other airlines are sitting on their hands and waiting to see how the marketplace responds.  Alaska Airlines and Jetblue have both issued meaningless statements that they could switch in an instant - Jetblue in particular said that they are not, at present, looking at changing their policies on credit cards although they are focusing on reducing costs.

That highly qualified statement leaves the door wide open for Jetblue to introduce credit card fees or to refuse to accept credit cards any time they choose.

Thirteen members of Congress have jointly signed a letter to United's CEO Glenn Tilton, asking him to delay implementation of this new policy. They cite interference with the Fair Credit Billing Act and asked Tilton to respond by yesterday.

The Congress members want a postponement of the policy for the next 60 days to allow Congress time for their committees to evaluate the likely effects of the policy and if necessary, to take action to mitigate the effects on agencies and consumers.  The letter said any delay would not impose a hardship on United because only a small number of agents were affected.  The senders of the letter want United to explain and justify their claim that this new policy would not hurt consumers and travel agents.  More details here.

Let's hope (or perhaps not hope) that United does a better job of justifying this action than its pathetic attempt quoted here, where spokesman Robin Janikowski says 'costs of distributing our services are significant and we will continue to reduce these costs while we run an efficient airline for our customers'.

So what exactly are the 'significant' distribution costs United incurs.  Commissions?  Nil.  Shipping/fulfilment/ticket printing?  Nil.  Phone calls?  Nil (they charge if you book through the phone).  Credit card fees?  About 2%.

This is a business model most companies would die for - no transportation/freight costs to get their product to market and to the purchaser, and no commissions or margins to the resellers who sell their product for them.  It is ridiculous to suggest a 2% credit card fee - a fee that most businesses accept without blinking - is significant.

Many people missed the item in last week's newsletter about the person who suffered a broken guitar after checking it on a United flight, and the YouTube video he then recorded after United refused during nine months of negotiation to compensate him for the broken guitar, and so wrote in to tell me about it, even though I'd already mentioned it. :)

United, confronted with a video that has now been viewed more than 3.1 million times, has finally responded, and donated $3000 on behalf of the guitar's owner to support music education through the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.  I'm sure guitar owner Dave Carroll appreciates that gesture, but has United actually reimbursed him for the cost of his guitar repairs yet?  Apparently Carroll has two more videos he plans to release on the topic, so no doubt we'll get updates via YouTube.

Perhaps part of the reason United has been so slow to reimburse Dave Carroll for his guitar damage, and are now seeking to avoid absorbing credit card fees, is that they're in desperate financial straits.

Here's an article that speculates about United going yet again into bankruptcy, perhaps in about 12 months time.  The last time Unitd borrowed money - $500 million in June, secured by a mortgage over their spare parts inventory - they were forced to accept an interest rate of 17%; which is not only a huge cost but a massive surcharge over regular interest rates for regular loans with regular credit risks.

And as part of its desperate attempt to save money any way it can, United is delaying the refurbishment of its first class cabins in the 777 fleet.  This is unfortunate, because first class passengers expect the best possible experience and offer the greatest profit opportunities.  Is United being 'penny wise and pound foolish'?

Meanwhile, although trying to save money every which way, United has incurred an $80,000 expense that it absolutely did not need to incur.

The Department of Transportation has fined United $80,000 for failing to tell customers that the flights they were travelling on were code-share flights operated by another carrier.  The DoT requires airlines to give customers that information before they book a flight.

The DoT made test calls to United's reservations line to determine if the carrier's employees were advising consumers of code-sharing arrangements and found that United's reservations agents failed to disclose code-sharing during a "substantial number" of those calls.

Naughty United.

Although United said, earlier in the year, that it was looking at placing at order for up to 150 new planes to replace the older planes in its aging fleet, it is far from clear how United would be able to pay for them.

And does it really matter if UA simply keeps on operating older planes?  After all, we as motorists know that there's a great deal of savings to be enjoyed if we keep our cars longer and don't trade them in for new cars so regularly.

Well, what's true of cars is not so true of planes.  Here's an interesting item that discloses how the new 737-800s being received by American Airlines are providing a 35% saving in fuel costs per passenger mile compared to the older MD80 planes they're replacing.  That's a stunning difference in operating cost.

However, even with these new planes, American Airlines still managed to lose $319 million for the second quarter.  After some special item adjustments, the loss increased to $390 million.

Although AA has plenty of excuses for its loss, one excuse it can't make is the cost of its jet fuel.  As this item reports, airlines paid an average of $1.73 per gallon of jet fuel in May, compared with almost twice that much - $3.23 a gallon - a year ago.

Talking about new planes, Air France has seen its first A380 roll out of the Hamburg factory, and expects to start operating it on the Paris-New York (CDG-JFK) route in November.  This will make AF the first European airline to fly the A380, and the first airline to operate A380s across the Atlantic.

They are stuffing more seats into their A380s than other airlines have to date.  The AF A380s will have 538 passengers, compared with as few as 450 on Qantas.  Here's a table of how different airlines are configuring their A380s, which is part of my review of the A380 last year after enjoying a flight on a lovely Emirates A380.

And in a quiet U-turn on their earlier proud policy of '4 Engines 4 Long Haul', whereby Virgin Atlantic (VS) touted its 747 and A340 planes with four engines as being better/more reliable on the trans-Atlantic routes than competitors with only two engines on their planes, the airline has now signed a contract for ten A330 airplanes (which have only two engines).

This will make them the first twin-engined planes operated by VS, and it is thought the 250 - 300 seater A330s will replace most of VS's larger 747s.

The airline also has six A380s on order, although its commitment to accepting delivery of them seems to grow weaker and weaker with every passing year, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if part of the negotiation for buying the A330s might not be a concession by Airbus allowing VS to either further delay or entirely cancel their A380 order.

It is interesting to see VS ordering the A330 rather than waiting for the A350, but being as how their Airbus order was somewhat triggered by delays in Boeing's 787 program, perhaps the airline is desperate for any planes at all, as soon as possible.

In more Airbus news, it has now delivered its first A320 that was assembled at its plant in - no, not Hamburg and neither was it from Toulouse.  Instead, the plane was assembled at Airbus' Chinese plant in Tianjin.  Airbus plans to increase its airplane assembly in China, reaching a rate of 4 planes/month by the end of 2011.

And talking about Air France, the black boxes from its crashed A330 have still not been located, and with the locator 'pingers' on the boxes now probably inactive due to the batteries having run down, there's now little expectation they'll ever be found.

While there was no certainty the black boxes would have told us what happened, the cockpit voice recorder tape might have been very helpful, as may have been the data from the data tape as well, and without this information, the cause of the A330 crash may never be determined with any degree of certainty.

Here's an interesting article about the conflicting issues surrounding what would seem to be a simple issue about improving the ability to receive flight data and/or locate crashed plane black boxes.

But this light cloud now hanging over the A330 clearly didn't discourage VS from ordering ten of them.

And bad news for Boeing.  Although they've sold 93 planes this year, they've also had 89 cancellations.  Worse still, the theoretical value of the new plane sales is $6.3 billion, while the cancellations represent about $9.5 billion.  Ouch.  Details here.

Bookend stories :  Airlines love to merge and create alliances, but they hate it when other airlines try and do it.  Case in point - the Star Alliance has now been allowed to expand to include Continental Airlines, and for CO to participate in a four airline joint venture along with United, Air Canada, and Lufthansa, with full antitrust immunity.

But, at the same time, it seems likely that some airlines will be formally objecting to the new marketing alliance between Delta and V Australia.  Among the airlines thought likely to object are United and its Star Alliance partner Air New Zealand.

Apparently, it is fine for United to ally with Air New Zealand, and to create a close-knit joint venture with CO, LH and AC, but when UA finds itself confronted by the possibility of its own AC/NZ/UA operations in the South Pacific being combatted by a Delta/V Australia alliance, it is time to call foul and complain.

Some people might consider that rank hypocrisy.

There are a couple of trends currently, both pointing to a product I reviewed a few years back as becoming increasingly essential for travelers.

Firstly, we all know that flights are getting more and more full, and the chances of having people sitting close to us are increasing all the time.

Indeed, we now may even find ourselves suffering the ignominy and discomfort of a middle seat, apropos which 3M have just released results of a survey showing that 54% of Americans would rather visit the dentist than suffer through a flight in the middle seat.  20% of those surveyed said they'd add an overnight stay and take a later flight rather than accept a middle seat on a more convenient flight.

The top five dislikes about a middle seat are

  • Having a nosy seatmate peering over your shoulder (84%)

  • Crawling over someone to get to the bathroom (83%)

  • Not being able to stretch out (83%)

  • Having an overweight seatmate on either side of you (80%)

  • Not having a place to rest your head (71%)

65% of people are concerned about nosy neighbors snooping on personal or work emails and with good reason, since 49% of people admit to glancing at strangers’ computer screens.

The second trend is that more and more people are working on planes, due to the gradual roll-out of in-flight Wi-Fi, encouraging people to work on board.  While working in coach class with a regular sized laptop is seldom easy or comfortable, the growth of the new small 'Netbook' computers are making this more practical to consider.

AirTran earlier this week announced that it now has Wi-Fi internet on all its planes.  Virgin America also has its fleet fully equipped, and DL, UA and AA are all increasing the number of planes in their fleets with Wi-Fi too.

Which brings me to the product I reviewed (and like).  This is 3M's Computer Screen Privacy Filter - a very clever device that limits the field of view from which your laptop screen can be viewed.  Check out my review and consider getting one of these devices - all the more important not just because of more people potentially looking over your shoulder but also because of the wider viewing angles otherwise possible on newer laptop screens.

I was using one of my GPS units to help me navigate while driving around England the last few weeks.  Before leaving the US, I'd loaded an optional set of speed camera location data onto the GPS, and it was a most magical experience.  Every so often the GPS would beep, and then count down the distance to a speed camera.  Invariably, right at the zero point, I'd see a speed camera on the side of the road, and so was able to moderate my speed to keep it satisfactorily close to the posted limit on each occasion.

This was a tremendously convenient service, and while you could argue that it encourages people to speed, you could also say that it reminds drivers of prevailing speed limits and the consequences of exceeding them.  If the purpose of speed cameras is as it is claimed to be - ie, to keep speeding down, rather than simply to generate revenue from speeding fines, then one would assume that the authorities would welcome such GPS services.  For sure, it helped me concentrate more carefully on my own driving speed.

But the DC police have a different perspective.  Although they don't say speed cameras are merely a way to make money, they definitely object to drivers being prompted to check their speed by their GPS when approaching a speed camera, as this article reports.

The QE2 seems to be risking a fate similar to that of the original Queen Elizabeth.  You may recall that the Queen Elizabeth suffered an ignominious and unloved fate in Hong Kong harbor, with a mysterious fire ending various failed plans to repurpose the ship after it was withdrawn from passenger service.

The QE2 had been planned to be berthed permanently in Dubai as a floating hotel, but the depressed state of things in Dubai has caused that to be reconsidered.  Now it seems that the QE2 might instead be sent to Cape Town to be a luxury floating hotel there.

And in other ex-cruise ship news, the boat know to many of us as 'The Love Boat' (from the television series), and which was actually the Pacific Princess, has now been seized by the Italian Coast Guard in Genoa, acting on the authority of an Italian court who ordered it seized due to non-payment of $14 million in refurbishment bills by the ship's current owners.

However, some better news for the current Queen Mary 2 and the soon to be launched Queen Elizabeth (III) ships.  Their 2011 World Voyage tours have experienced booking levels 50% up on last year's release/sale of the 2010 program.

Gadget alert - Walmart are now selling a Blu-ray Disc player for $98 (the Magnavox NB530MGX).  That's a heck of a price, and with the cost of the discs gently reducing as well, and the range of titles increasing, maybe now is the time for you to consider one of these amazing devices (which will play regular DVDs as well).

But you'll only notice the improved picture quality if you've got a high quality television/monitor.  Preferably one that can support 1080p, and if not that, then hopefully 1080i.

Cell phones are dangerous for your health (in surprising ways) :  Here's the story of a girl who fell down an open manhole and into the sewer below because she wasn't watching where she was walking while texting.  What will be next - states passing laws banning texting while walking?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  If you've been vaguely following things, you may know that new US passports now contain an RFID chip inside them that contains some or all of your personal details on it.  Although the State Department first assured us that no-one could read these chips and the data they contain, they are now conceding that actually this is possible, and are recommending that you keep your passport in a special radio-insulating pouch.

Even though there's no convincing reason for adding RFID chips to passports (and to other ID devices such as even driving licenses) the State Dept insists on continuing to add the chips to passports.

Big deal, you might think.  There's no real personal risk to you by having an RFID chip in your passport.  Well, while it is true that the risks associated with an RFID chip are low and obscure, they are still definitely present.  Read this article, and note in particular the reference to the security consultants who, to prove a point, built a concealed pretend-bomb (actually some harmless fireworks) and hid it in a trash bin, then added a detonator to the 'bomb' that was activated when a US passport came close to it.

So if you're an international terrorist, wouldn't you love the ability to create concealed explosives and leave them in places all around the world - bombs that will only be triggered when a US citizen walks past?

Would someone tell me again why we need an RFID chip in our passport?

Actually, someone needs to tell the states, and the present administration, why we need to robustly identify people before issuing them with state ID such as driver's licenses.  The states have hated the thought of being required to comply with the REAL ID law - a law which not coincidentally would make it impossible for illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

So the states have invented some fantasyland style stories about the costs to them of complying with REAL ID, and some states have flat out refused to follow the federal mandate, and the federal government has weakly looked the other way.  The states now have a new, albeit unlikely ally in their fight to not carefully confirm the identity and eligibility of people applying for state ID - none other than the Homeland Security Secretary herself, Janet Napolitano.  In her former incarnation as governor of Arizona, she signed into law a bill that self-proclaimed AZ to be exempt from the need to follow these federal requirements.  Details here.

This flagrant refusal to follow federal security requirements clearly well qualifies her to now be Homeland Security Secretary.  When the criminals take over the police station, only mayhem and madness will follow.

Talking about when the criminals take over, how about this story of a TSA officer being arrested on charges of grand larceny arising out of stealing items out of passenger baggage?

Lastly, here's a puzzling story that begs for further detail.  After some sort of disagreement at security, an AirTran pilot then proceeded to his plane and was getting ready to fly the plane on its scheduled flight when local law enforcement officers boarded the flight, arrested and handcuffed him, and took him away and locked him up in the Newport News jail.

This caused the flight and its passengers to be delayed three hours while a replacement pilot was flown in.

The TSA made a nonsense statement about the incident which explained nothing.  The airport and airline have both refused to comment.

Wouldn't you like to know what it was which was apparently so innocuous as to allow the pilot to proceed freely to his plane, but so serious he then had to be arrested, handcuffed, and detained, at considerable inconvenience to the airline and its passengers?

And why the secrecy?  It seems the only time the TSA actually disclose information is after the person they've victimized goes public and complains.  We know they have plenty of surveillance/security camera footage, and we know that when it suits their purpose, the TSA happily make it public to 'prove' their innocence.  How about releasing some footage now to prove the pilot's guilt?

We deserve to be told the full details about what transpired; secrecy removes what little accountability remains for these public officials.

It subsequently transpires that the captain - a 57 yr old former Marine with an honorable discharge after 22 years of service (not your typical criminal or terrorist, apparently) - has been charged with assault and battery, the exact details of which remain obscure.  After being charged, he was released from jail on his own recognizance prior to a subsequent court hearing.

Until next week please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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