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Friday, 28 August, 2009

Good morning

Apologies for the late newsletter today.  My Thursday saw a start at 3.45am for an early morning flight, but unsurprisingly, the early start did not translate to a fuller day of greater productivity; quite the opposite.

We're now one week into our annual Reader Fundraising Drive, and thank you so much, all 146 of you who have responded so positively and generously so far.  It is wonderful to have received the support from you, with thanks to reader Mark S for being the first person to respond (and extremely generously, too), within seconds of the email being sent.  Special thanks also to John D, Jody A, Paul F, Marty S, Willie S, Bob G, Nick L, Judy F, Max L, Leah M, and Steve K - suffice it to say you are readers of extraordinary generosity.

Although I've mentioned these readers for their well into three figure contributions, that is not to belittle the $5 and $10 contributions (or all the others of varying amounts) from everyone else.  I do know that for some people, a $5 or $10 contribution is a big chunk of their disposable cash, and this is very much appreciated too - in truth, if every reader sent in $5 - 10 there'd be no need for the special contributors to send in their enormous sums.  An extreme example of the disproportionate kindnesses from some people is the reader who has been unemployed for over a year, but who continues to send in a monthly voluntary payment - I am humbled to be a beneficiary of such extraordinary support.  Thank you, everyone.

In a way, this a curious mix of socialism and capitalism, both working together.  People voluntarily participating at whatever level is comfortable and convenient for them, and with no coercion or compulsion.  The result is a successful outcome for all, with everyone getting what they independently believe to be their fair value for this 'product' - the weekly newsletter and related thousands of web pages of content.

But, there is a cloud hanging over all of this.  Although reader numbers are broadly comparable to last year, and more than in preceding years, the 146 kind readers who have responded so far compares painfully to the 215 readers in the first week last year, the 205 readers in the first week of the 2007 campaign, or even the 152 readers in the first week of the 2006 campaign.  This is a drop of one third, and with the average value of contribution also somewhat down on last year, at this early stage of this year's campaign, we're at about half the level we were last year.

Less reader support, mirrored by a similar collapse in website advertising, is extremely concerning to me and all who care about this website and newsletter.  Alas, I don't qualify for any sort of government subsidy or economic stimulus grant - please don't let this become another casualty of the tough economic times we are all confronting at present.

In an effort to respond and reward the generosity of readers who do support the newsletter, and to encourage more of the other 20,000 of you to join the 146 who have already helped out, I've prepared a page that shows you a simple way to earn anything from perhaps 5,000 up to, well, I'm not sure how many, but potentially 10,000 or more frequent flier miles, and at close to zero cost to you.  With frequent flier miles often considered to be worth about 2 each (and, if you buy them direct from an airline, usually costing more than this) even if you collect 'only' 5,000 miles, it is worth $100 to you.

There is a semi-secret way to get these miles that exploits a promotional offering on the internet.  It is safe and tested and involves a reputable company.  Some of you may know of this system already, but if you don't, what say you send in a contribution of any amount you feel fair and I'll send you the information by return as a small thank you.  And if I missed out on telling any of the people who have already kindly contributed, please let me know and I'll of course send you the information immediately.

Anyway, whether the miles have value to you or not, your support has obvious and essential value to me.  Please do choose to help us meet this year's target of 630 supporters.  If financial circumstances don't allow for as generous support this year as in the past, that's not a problem at all - anything is vastly better than nothing.  I'd much rather see more readers contribute small amounts than to see fewer readers contribute large amounts, so please do choose to help The Travel Insider at any fair level you feel comfortable with.

Back to seeing our glass as half full, we are, after all, almost a quarter of the way there after this first week of the hopefully brief fundraising campaign - we still have every good chance, with your participation, of reaching our target this year.  Your support is valued and valuable, at whatever convenient level you choose.

Many thanks indeed.

This Week's Feature Article :  How to get thousands of free frequent flier miles worth hundreds of dollars :  Please do consider sending in a contribution in order to receive this article.

Talking about feature articles, my series last week on airline slogans is proving very popular, and since its first publication I've spent an extraordinary amount of extra time adding greatly to the number of airlines and slogans, and the earlier three page listing of slogans has now grown to six pages.  There's no end in sight, and I continue to add slogans as time allows, but there's some type of 'law of diminishing returns' at work.  I could do the first 100 slogans quickly and easily, the next 100 took more time, the next 100 took considerably more time, and now that we're still more hundreds of slogans further, tracking down obscure airlines and their slogans is becoming very time consuming.  But it is great to see such a growing collection of one side of airline marketing history.

Dinosaur watching :  It isn't just this year's reader fundraising that is reporting a depressed result.  Airline revenue is also down, although the figures are a bit more complicated than the starkness of my figures.  According to the Amex Business Travel Monitor, airfares are at their lowest levels since 2005 - in the second quarter, fares are 18% down compared to last year.  The average domestic fare was $212 compared to $280 last year.  And according to the airline lobbying group the ATA, revenue is down by 21% in July compared to July last year - not only are fares lower but there are fewer people traveling.

Some of us have occasionally been the beneficiary of this, scoring some wonderfully low fares.  But these aggregate percentage drops obscure the fact that for many of us, ordinary normal coach fares are not that much down on last year.  The 18% average drop masks the fact that there has been a disproportionate reduction in business/first class fares sold, so those of us who normally buy coach class fares may not always see that much of a drop.  As always, 'the devil is in the details' and looking at overall numbers can distort the underlying trends.

A great example of the devil being in the details is this very disappointing article about airline safety that many readers forwarded to me.  On the face of it, you'd think this to be a great example of investigative and analytical reporting, revealing the facts and figures of individual airline safety - statistics that are seldom otherwise disclosed.  Wouldn't we all like to know if the airline we choose is more or less safe than our other airline choices?  So it is unsurprising that this has been a very popular article.

But, for once, I find myself siding with United Airlines, which, based on these statistics, would appear to be the least safe of the ten largest airlines.  They said 'It is difficult for us to comment on these figures because we do not know the methodology behind them' - and they are completely correct.

How are these figures obtained?  Are they adjusted to reflect that some airlines have more flights than others?  And, most concerning of all, the data includes not only 'accidents' but also 'incidents' - and we're not told how accidents are scored, or how incidents are scored compared to accidents, and how incident data is compiled.  For example, what are the relative scores given to the US Airways flight that landed safely in the Hudson compared to a flight that suffers unexpected turbulence causing some passengers to be injured?  And how are either of these experiences compared to a flight that crashes with some (or all) passengers killed?

Indeed, what is an accident?  The article says we all know what they are, but I'd like to see the formal definition.  And as for the incidents, I've no idea what constitutes an incident, and am very uncomfortable seeing such 'exact' seeming ratings published from such fuzzy and inexact, unexplained, source data. So what does the actual rating scale signify?

It is appalling that the article fails to answer any of these questions, especially after United raised them.  I wrote to Rudy Maxa, the article's author, asking him if he'd explain his methodology, and have received no reply.  Perhaps he is embarrassed by my questions - and if he isn't, he surely should be.

There's a related article that is similarly disappointing.  It is described as an analysis of the rankings and as offering further suggestions for travelers, but offers platitudes and generalizations rather than specifics.  I bet you can't summarize this second article into a clear statement or two of which is the best and worst airline, and which is the best and worst airplane (and, in each case, why), and I don't think any of us can find a single suggestion offered to travelers.  This is a sad example of a journalist who needs to write an article but is handicapped by having nothing significant to say.

If you are interested in this general topic, the first part of my four part series on How to Survive a Plane Crash lightly touches on some of these issues.

Good news or bad news?  After a Sun Country flight from JFK to MSP last Friday that had what is bizarrely referred to as a 'taxi time' of 5 hours 45 minutes (what - did the plane taxi all the way from New York to Minneapolis?), the airline has said that if flights are held on the ground for more than four hours, the plane will return to the gate and disembark its passengers.

But - four hours?  How about making the four hours three?  Or two?  Or even one?  Indeed - why not strike at one of the very hearts of the problem - the fact that planes get in a queue for take-off based on the time they push back from the gate.

Surely in this day of more sophisticated ways of measuring and controlling things, we should not accept such an antiquated method of controlling planes on the ground.  Why can't we have the local airport's ground traffic control people co-ordinate with the air traffic control people to work out a take-off time slot, and then assign a take-off time slot to the flight, and tell the flight that it is prohibited from leaving the gate until an appropriate time prior to its take-off slot.  There's no mystery for how long it takes to taxi from a given gate to a given runway; add an extra few minutes for any trivial delays on the ground, and we can save everyone a huge amount of bother, and a huge amount of expensive fuel burned for no good purpose (global warming, anyone?) as well.

The only downside to this may be that with flights staying longer at the gate rather than holding on the tarmac, some airports might run out of gates.  But, actually, that's not a problem.  If there is a shortage of gates, here's a way to work it as well, or better, than present gate allocations.  A plane should go to a gate to unload its arriving passengers, then leave the gate and go to a holding area.  It can be serviced at the holding area.  And then, when a gate departing time has been set, it can go back to a gate sufficiently prior to that to load its passengers.  This means that planes will likely end up spending less time at gates than they do at present.  Okay, so there's a bit of extra ground travel time involved, but what is better for the airline - to shuttle a plane briefly to/from a gate, or to have the plane and all its passengers sitting on the tarmac with engines running for hours at a time?

Why has no-one suggested this before?  The solution to the 'flights and their passengers stuck on the ground' problem is not to return planes to the gate after four hours (yuck - we're supposed to be pleased that we'll still be stuck on the plane for four hours???).  The solution is to change the way planes load their passengers and are assigned take-off slots.  A sensible change such as I've outlined above will not create any problems, but will solve them instead.

Maybe there are some costs involved to create new scheduling programs and systems.  But - consider this.  In the last three month period, American Airlines alone spent $1.4 million on lobbying costs.  Just about every other airline also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars (eg UA $590,000, US $430,000) and much of these millions of dollars of lobbying costs were spent arguing that we should not do anything at all to change the current system - a system that is obviously broken.

Couldn't these millions of dollars been better spent improving our broken system?  If there's a cost associated with creating a better way of managing planes and their ground movements, why don't the airlines repurpose their lobbying dollar costs?

The off again, on again relationship between Southwest and Canada's WestJet - a partnership that was curiously de-emphasized earlier this year - is now on the front burner again.  Sometimes one can see clear benefits to both airlines when two airlines start code-sharing and working together, but I wonder if there's really a lot of upside to WestJet in this case?  If I were WestJet, I'd be a bit worried that I might be encouraging Southwest's interests in cross-border flights into Canada, and noting Southwest's new disclosure that it could start flying its own flights to Canada within a couple of years, might worry that putting Southwest flight numbers onto WestJet planes might be followed up by Southwest operating its own flights in direct competition.

In related news, Southwest seems that it has run afoul of the FAA again, this time for having unauthorized parts installed on at least 42 of its planes.  Southwest's maintenance-control procedures apparently failed to pick up on this.  The suspect parts don't pose an immediate safety issue, but one has to wonder how what is supposed to be a fastidious process to ensure only approved parts are installed on planes failed.

There was a very interesting statement from Continental's CEO, Larry Kellner, this week.  In comments about his airline having no plans to charge for credit card use, he said 'If something is used by more than 20% of our customers, we want that in the base fare'.

A laudable comment, for sure.  But let me ask Larry - if that is the case, will you undertake never to have a separate fuel surcharge?  After all, 100% of your customers 'use' fuel on their flights.

And how about your luggage charges -  you are about to start charging $15 for a first checked bag - are you telling us that less than 20% of your passengers check a single bag?

It is very hard to reconcile his statement with the reality of the airline's fees and other charges.  What could possibly be the reason for the disconnect between what he tells us and the reality of what his airline actually does?

RIP to Senator Kennedy.  Did you know he was one of the prime movers of airline deregulation (and also of interstate trucking) back in the 1970s?

Happy 90th birthday to British Airways, which makes this claim by tracing the birth of its ultimate antecedent company back 90 years to 1919.  On August 25, 1919 the world's first daily international air service was launched from London to Paris, operated by Air Transport & Travel Ltd - a precursor to British Airways.

British Airways itself is not nearly so old, of course - it was formed in 1974 by the merger of BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation - the main predecessor to BA)  and BEA (British European Airways - an airline split out of BOAC in 1946 to operate domestic and European short haul routes), and then was privatized in 1987, with its initial float being oversubscribed eleven-fold.  One could therefore suggest the airline is only 22 years old rather than 90 years old.

In related BA news, it continues to give away tickets in a generous and sensible campaign to help grow business activity.  It gave away 1000 tickets to US business people (from some 6,000 applications received) and now is continuing with 'phase two' that is designed to help smaller US companies with a valid need for international travel.  This really is a wonderfully positive response to the tough economic times we all are currently confronting - imagine the tangible effect if other airlines, and other companies in general, offered their own economic stimulus packages.  Thank you, BA.

But there are some slowly evolving undercurrents that must be causing all airlines a low level of ongoing concern.  Here's an interesting article about the slow but steady build in businesses who are cutting back on air travel, and substituting it instead with video conferencing.  The concept of video conferencing is of course nothing new, but the continuing improvements in technology and the massive reductions in costs are making it more and more practical, and while video conferencing will never completely replace business travel, I'm convinced that it will increasingly impact on the amount of business travel.

If you haven't done so already, try video conferencing for yourself.  Assuming you have a faster than dial-up internet connection, you can enjoy basic video conferencing for less than $50.  Buy a webcam (assuming you don't already have one) and then use the free video chat feature in Skype or Microsoft Messenger or Yahoo Messenger to talk to a friend.  You'll be amazed at the quality of the image and the clarity of the sound.  If you're simply chatting with a friend, it helps you feel closer together, and if you're talking to a business acquaintance, you can use associated tools to allow you to share files, to 'whiteboard' things jointly, and to interact more productively.

This is a very basic form of video conferencing, of course, and nothing like the special conference rooms with huge screens and multiple images for multiple remote participants in a formal meeting, but it shows that the 'picture phone' that has been long promised from way back in the days of the New York World Fair in 1964 is now an everyday reality, should we wish to use it.  But that is the other issue - many of us don't want to use a picture phone for normal ordinary calling, because if we do use such a device, we can't 'multi-task' and do something else at the same time we're talking with a friend or colleague.

Bottom line though from an impact on air travel perspective - regular low cost simple video one on one type contact with colleagues will reduce (and already is reducing) the frequency with which we need to meet in person, and formal higher cost video conferences can provide productive meeting experiences that are 99% as good as official get togethers - perhaps even better because no-one has to waste time traveling, and if no-one needs to fear leaving anything behind, because they are in their own office or close to it, and with everything necessary close at hand.

But conventions are a different thing - video conferencing can't substitute for a hall full of exhibitors, or the serendipity of meeting someone unexpected over a lunch and making a valuable new contact.

In other technology/travel news, the airlines are making an interesting discovery about airplane Wi-Fi.  Passengers want it, but they don't want to pay for it (this is news?).  Just like how many people would eat free airline food, but few people buy it, the airlines are discovering that Wi-Fi usage drops off considerably when they charge for it.  Alaska Airlines found in one test that even a $1 per person charge massively reduced the usage level.

The problem with this is that airlines were expecting their Wi-Fi service would pay for itself and even become a new profit center.  This now seems less certain.  But (and perhaps surprisingly) there continues to be progress in the deployment of Wi-Fi, with Southwest the most recent airline to announce its intention to add it to their entire fleet, although it is silent on the time frame over which this will occur.

Talking about charging for things, I now have my Nexus card for expedited travel between the US and Canada.  It cost me $50, and is good for five years of travel. Of course, some might think that all citizens should fairly be able to travel across the border with only short delays and that no-one should have to pay for the privilege.  No one should ever have to wait 90 minutes or longer to return to their own country.

There's a new 'Global Entry' program offered by the government as well, that will expedite your passage through Immigration when returning to the US by air from overseas.  If you'd like to join that program, you need to pay $100 for a five year membership.  This is a much less palable fee to stomach, because we all have a fee added to our airline tickets for every time we cross the border and return into the country already.  So our basic per journey fee isn't paying for 'good service'?

And, wait, there's more.  If you'd like to enjoy fast travel across the Mexican border, there's another card - SENTRI - that will give you that privilege too.  Joining SENTRI costs $122.25 (more if you want to register more than one car) for a five year membership.

So, if we get all three products, we could be spending $272.25 to get five years of good service crossing our border.  That's a huge move from what is surely a fair and reasonable expectation that our taxes (and ticket fees) should buy us decent service from our government in the first place.

A little known FAA regulation may be about to become a more obtrusive part of our getting ready for a flight routine.  Did you know that in 2007 the FAA ordered that nothing can be stowed in seat back pockets except magazines and passenger information cards?  Many people choose to put a book, maybe a water bottle, and maybe a video player or something else in the seat pocket as well, but when we do that, we're being naughty.  Look for airlines enforcing this more strictly in the future.

I bought a ticket on AirTran earlier this week for travel the next day.  After completing the transaction, I got a warning notice advising that federal security regulations require that the airline be advised of the date of birth of every passenger at least 72 hours prior to departure.

I called AirTran to ask what that meant for people booking a ticket for travel less than 3 days in advance; I was told just to ignore the requirement.  Strange.

The saga of delays to Boeing's new 787 took two new turns this week.  This article and this article suggest some huge and as yet undisclosed problems with the plane that might add as much as two more years of delay.  But Boeing has now announced that the first flight of the plane will occur prior to the end of the year, and has apparently already been promising this to some of its major customers.

So - what to believe and expect?  I really don't know.  It is possible we might indeed see a first flight prior to the end of this year, but the real acid measure is when commercial deliveries start to occur.  This is currently promised to start in the last quarter of next year.  I'm doubtful.

In other Boeing news, it is raising the stakes in its negotiation with WA state about where it will locate a second 787 assembly line.  On the face of it, there is no sense in Boeing locating this anywhere other than in the same area it has all the rest of its resource - ie Washington - but on the face of it, there was little sense in Boeing moving its headquarters out of the Seattle area and to Chicago - some might even wonder if the disconnect between corporate management and the actual products they are making is in some small way part of the reason for the terrible messups with the 787 development.

For sure, Boeing is a brilliant master at beating up on WA and getting quite ridiculously generous incentives in return for minimal commitments by Boeing.  But it is also true that other states do present very tempting offers to Boeing, and this public negotiating ploy by Boeing may or may not indicate a genuine level of interest in moving.

One reason to consider moving from Seattle is its appalling traffic congestion.  Here's a series of fascinating studies that cost out the impacts of traffic congestion (scroll down a little bit) - in the case of Seattle, it is estimated that there is a $13 billion annual cost to productivity caused by congestion.  That would sure pay for a lot of extra lanes on the freeways.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  On Wednesday the ACLU sued the Department of Homeland Security over the topic of laptop computer searches when people enter the US.  On Thursday, and  in apparent response, the Homeland Security Department issued a press release announcing new guidelines for searching laptops at borders.

But, read their press release and see if you can get any sense about what has actually changed?  It is bureaucratic double-speak that means absolutely nothing in reality - even their press release doesn't promise anything at all.  And that's before you actually look at the underlying new 'directives' - which are actually guidelines rather than directives.

So, if your interest extends further, you can actually read the public statement of the new guidelines.  They seem to be close to useless in terms of giving any rights to us as travelers, or imposing any restrictions on the Customs & Border Patrol in terms of how and when they may choose to search/seize laptops.  For example, look at point 5.1.3 - all searches shall be in the presence of a supervisor, except for, ooops, if it is not convenient, in which case all the searching officer needs to do is tell a supervisor subsequently.

Keep reading - point 5.1.4 becomes quite Alice in Wonderland-ish.  Searches shall be in the presence of the owner of the laptop, except that, although they may be in the owner's presence, the owner need not be allowed to actually watch the search procedure.  Does that mean the searching officer will be like the Wizard of Oz, hidden behind a curtain?

As a journalist, I wonder what 5.2.2 actually means?  Anyone care to guess?  I can just see myself saying to an officer 'Wait, according to guideline 5.2.2 you can't do that'.  Not!  And what is the protection afforded by business travelers in point 5.2.3?  I could continue to pick apart most of the rest of these guidelines too (for example the requirement that laptops be kept for no more than five days, except in cases where they are kept for longer than five days, or the provision to search with or without any suspicion) but you probably get the point already.

Don't get me wrong.  I agree that there may be times when it is necessary for CBP to search laptops, but to pretend these new guidelines actually afford us as travelers any rights or recourse is absolute nonsense, and I am offended by the government's attempts to pretend that black is white by proudly announcing these new 'guidelines' (and, hey, isn't there a huge difference between a guideline and a rule anyway?).

I mentioned last week about Dave Carroll, the Canadian who suffered a broken guitar at the hands of United, and who made a video singing about his woes that became a viral hit on YouTube.  It appears that such a situation, and such a response is not new.  Tom Paxton released a song 'Thank You Republic Airlines' in 1985 after suffering a similar problem

Lastly this week, I know we all get frustrated sometimes on our flights, but this gentleman's response seems to have been a bit over the top.

Please do consider adding your personal support and helping this year's reader fundraising reach its goal.  Your help really is needed.

Until next week please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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