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Friday, 18 September, 2009

Good morning

Wow.  With the formal closing of our annual reader fundraiser we have a current total of 756 readers who chose to add their much appreciated support and help keep the newsletter and website up and running.  Special thanks to more 'super supporters' - Joe I (doubling up on his earlier appearance), Joseph W, Fred H, Allen U (who has contributed three times this campaign), John R, Charles S, Hugh F, Steve H, Leslie E, Richard A, Ralph H, Peter V, and Elaine C.

When you consider the very worrying slow start to the fundraiser a month ago, and what seemed for a while an unattainable objective of 630 supporters, this result - and in tough times for us all - is extremely encouraging and enormously appreciated.  We have almost exactly 100 more supporters this year than last year, and while the total amount received is, alas, down on last year, it is enormously encouraging to have so many people choosing to help out.

Most heartfelt thanks to everyone who participated.  And, if you you are one of the 20,000 who have not (yet?) responded, that's okay too, and please note there is a link at the top right of every newsletter - your support is welcome at any/all times, not just during these annual appeals.

A small housekeeping note on this topic - I believe I have sent thank you notes to everyone who has contributed.  A couple of times, my emails bounced back as undeliverable (I guess some people don't keep their Paypal addresses up to date) and a couple of checks came from people who I couldn't match up to an email address.  If you haven't heard from me, I'm not being ungracious - please let me know so I can pass my thanks (and the information about how to get many thousands of frequent flier miles for free) directly to you.

Moving to one of my favorite topics each year, our annual Christmas Markets cruise is now getting excitingly close, and I booked my own travel to/from the cruise earlier this week.  I'd got an email from British Airways promoting a new airfare special, but their special price ended up being about $400 more than with Northwest, so I'm going to be enjoying the fine service on NW/DL's lovely A330s between here and Amsterdam once again, and then the short flights within Europe on KLM.

I had to laugh at one part of what the airlines would doubtless tell our passive 'regulators' are a benefit of codeshare flights.  For the flights in Europe, I generally could choose from three different airline flight designators (all on the same physical plane/flight) - KL, NW and OK (Czech Airlines).  Did it matter to me which airline designator was on the flight - and/or was I advantaged at all by this code share?

Well, it did matter - I get more frequent flier benefits if I'm on a NW rather than KL designated flight.  But there was an almost $500 extra cost if I took the short 336 mile flight between Nuremberg and Amsterdam on the NW flight designator rather than on the KL flight designator.  Can you believe that?  Same flight, same plane, and closely partnered airlines, but a $500 difference in cost for a 336 mile flight as between choosing the KL or the NW designator for the flight.

That's just ridiculous, and it also shows that the two airlines aren't doing a good job of balancing their inventory.  Only a very foolish person would choose to spend that much more for the flight on the NW designator.  If NW is short of seats for its share of the flight, and if KL has too many, wouldn't it be a 'win win' by allowing NW to sell a few of the seats, at moderate prices, that currently KL is concerned it might not get to sell at all?

According to this survey, 88% of Americans plan to take a vacation in the 3.5 months that remain of this year.  Make sure you're in their number, and why not make vacation a special one to remember by joining us on our Annual Travel Insider Christmas Markets Cruise.

The good news is that there continue to be some great airfares for fall/winter travel to Europe, and I'm sure we'll see more in the months that follow.  So if you'd like to take advantage of the wonderful combination of low airfare and $500 per person cruise discount, please do consider joining us for this lovely cruise.  There are still cabins available.

It has been a busy week, gadget-wise.  Last Wednesday saw Apple announce its annual lineup of iPod players, and this Tuesday say Microsoft release its new series of Zune players, too.

I've now had a chance to use both a new iPod and a new Zune.  Some of the new iPods are very exciting indeed, while neither of the two Zunes really offers any solid competition to Apple.

It is amazing that the mega-giant that is Microsoft - a company that actually does make some excellent hardware products (such as keyboards and mice) just does not seem able to come up with a digital audio/video player (and, notably, the software to run on it which defines a large part of the overall user experience) and is getting so extraordinarily trounced by Apple.

Apple has about a 75% market share.  Microsoft has about a 1% - 2% share, and the new Zunes give no indication of allowing Microsoft to capture any more share than it currently has.

Many of us were willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt when the first generation Zunes came out three years ago.  But this is now the 'fourth generation' of Zune players, and while they are extremely much better than the first generation units, the Zunes are still as far behind the current iPods as the original Zunes were in 2006.

If you want to watch video, neither the iPod nor the Zune has nearly big enough a screen.  But here's a new product from Archos that would do an admirable job of showing a more sensibly sized video image.

Want to know more?  Hopefully you do, because here now is :

This Week's Feature Column :  Apple's 2009 iPod Lineup :  All you need to know about the latest enhancements and upgrades to Apple's wonderful range of iPod players, plus details of the Microsoft Zune too.

Before moving on to the usual dinosaur watching, I wanted to comment on one more gadget sort of thing.  Many of you probably know that the new Dan Brown novel (he who wrote 'The Da Vinci Code') came out this week.  But did you know not just that it predictably zoomed straight to the top of Amazon's best seller list, but also that Amazon has been selling more copies of the book in electronic Kindle eBook format than in the normal hardback version?

That is the first time this has happened, and is an amazing pointer to the future of book publishing.  If anyone was doubtful about the inexorable and permanent shift towards eBook publishing, this must surely make them into a fellow believer.

I also have a guilty confession.  After reading all the hype (but none of the reviews) I decided to download a copy of the book myself.  This is, after all, one of the seductive pluses of eBooks - you can buy a book now and have it on your eBook reader seconds later, and at an under $10 cost, it becomes almost a discretionary spend that you don't think twice about.

Now for the stupid bit.  I started reading it last night, and found that while it deteriorated in quality and became less and less interesting as the story moved forward (to say nothing of having some plot flaws and unrealistic foundations to the story to start with) I couldn't put it down, and so I didn't finish the book (and go to bed) until just after 4am this morning.  Ugh.  Suffice it to say that this is one book which is an excellent candidate for being improved by transforming into a Reader's Digest Condensed Version.

Oh - one last thing about eBooks.  You can read eBooks easily on the iPod Touch and iPhone, but as far as I can tell, there's no way to add eBooks and easily read them on the Zune.  How do I know this?  I read the entire eBook on my iPhone; it was as easy and convenient as it would have been on a regular Kindle or with the hardcover book itself.

If you're thinking about getting a Kindle, my new advice is to get an iPod Touch or an iPhone instead.  You're getting a much more flexible unit for a similar price.

Dinosaur watching :  Interesting things afoot in Japan, where Delta and American Airlines are competing against each other to get a shareholding in financially very troubled Japan Airlines.  Delta first announced its intention to buy into JAL, with American quickly saying it too wished to buy in, and now British Airways and Qantas are watching anxiously too.

There's a lot more at stake than the obvious, here.  On the face of it, a small minority share-holding in JAL is hardly a game-changer for either Delta or American.  But there's an underlying big deal.

JAL is currently a Oneworld alliance member, and Oneworld has transitioned from being perhaps the strongest of the three airline alliances to now being perhaps the weakest of the three alliances.  If Delta buys into JAL, you can bet they will pressure JAL to switch from Oneworld to Skyteam (which DL belongs to).  This would massively weaken Oneworld, the alliance that AA, BA and QF all belong to.  So it has become a much higher-stakes game to see which airline can buy into JAL.

Talking about American Airlines, here's an interesting article about how both UA and AA are offering flights between Heathrow and Brussels this winter.

I completely agree with the writer's analysis - the airlines are doing it not because there's anything approaching a good sense need to fly their long-haul planes on this short 200 mile route, but rather it is a way of maintaining their LHR slots (that they might otherwise lose under the 'use it or lose it' rules of congested LHR slot allocation).  Another example of how the real reason for an airline's actions is not the obvious reason.

Talking about United, they have come up with a clever product innovation.  Called 'Premium Travel', this is a bundle of benefits which are sometimes given for free to high level frequent fliers, but which anyone can now buy.  You get to check in two bags at no charge, use priority security and boarding lines, get a seat in Economy Plus (if available) and a 25% bonus on the miles earned for the flight.

A higher level product, Premium Travel Plus, gives you double miles and access to United's lounges (as well as all the benefits of the Premium Travel package).  United says that these packages can save you up to 50% compared to buying the components individually.

So how much does it cost?  Rates vary depending on the length of the flight, and start at $47 for Premier Travel and $84 for Premier Travel Plus (which is good for about a 300 mile flight).  Rates can go as high as $167/298 for long journeys such as San Francisco-Tokyo.  These rates are each way, not roundtrip.

If you can be sure of getting a Economy Plus seat, and if you have two bags to check, maybe Premier Travel makes sense.  But the murkiest part of the deal is what happens if you can't get the Economy plus seat, or if you (or they) make a flight change that causes you to lose the better seat.  United says you'll get a refund, but how much?  And note that the bonus miles don't count towards your annual elite level qualification.

Southwest continues to get more and more like the major airlines.  It has now decided to eliminate lemon slices from its onboard beverage service, offering only lime slices instead.  Apparently this is hoped to save the airline $100,000 a year - although one has to wonder, because presumably most people who formerly asked for a slice of lemon will now accept a slice of lime instead.

Has airline management reduced to this - obsessing variously over lettuce leaves and lemon slices?  To put the $100,000 into context, in the last three months alone, Southwest had $2.6 billion in revenue (and $54 million in profit).

A more substantial policy change is also being pursued.  You may recall that Southwest's initial point of differentiation was that it offered short distance point to point flights.  Since that time the airline has been slowly adding longer and longer flights, with many flights now going coast to coast nonstop, and has a small amount of hubbing too.

But one thing has remained inviolate - no international flights.  That too is now being re-examined.  Last month Southwest's CEO said the airline was 'seriously considering' international flights to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.  And now their Director-Network Strategic Planning has said the airline is also looking at service to Europe and South America.

It does seem strange to see an airline which became strongly successful by doing more or less the opposite of what its competitors were doing, now becoming more and more like its competitors.  Is it merely a coincidence that Southwest's profitability is becoming less certain at the same time?

I wrote last week about how the world as a whole, and the UK in particular, are inappropriately obsessing on airplane flights as a source of carbon emissions, which may or may not cause global warming, which may or may not be occurring.

My point was - and remains - that if we are to genuinely be concerned about some of the Armageddon like prophecies about what may be happening to the world's eco-system and the damage being caused by carbon emissions, surely we should treat it seriously and focus on the most cost effective solutions and largest offenders.

Last week I pointed out that money spent on birth control gives five times the benefit of most of the 'traditional' types of carbon emission controls.

This week, here's a truly amazing set of statistics about industrial growth in China.  While the west obsesses over restricting flights - an action that at best might reduce carbon emissions by perhaps 0.1%, look what is happening in China.  A recent study suggests that China will produce 60% of the world's carbon emissions - just for its energy production (everything else, including Chinese aviation, is extra) by 2050.

Even after assuming a steadily diminishing rate of growth compared to that shown during the period 2002 - 2008, China will burn 100 billion tons of coal in 2050.  To put this into perspective, the entire world consumed 16.1 billion tons in 2008.  These numbers - and their implications - are beyond comprehension.

If you're worried about carbon emissions - and even a skeptic such as myself has to sit up and take notice when confronted by these extraordinary numbers - how can you justify, for a single minute, any attention at all on the miniscule impact aviation has on global carbon emissions when China's growing energy needs alone are sufficient to destroy the world's ecological balance?

I don't mean to pick on China unfairly.  But I do mean to point out that if there is a genuine problem with too much carbon being emitted, we need to get serious and stop playing around with airline regulation and focus on the enormous and currently completely unregulated emissions elsewhere.  Instead, we suffer lunacy, perpetrated by lunatics.

Naughty Spirit Airlines has been ceremonially slapped on the wrist by the Department of Transportation.  The DoT levied a fine on the airline due to violations of regulations to do with advertising airfares (showing all fees and other costs), lost baggage liability, and denied boarding compensation.  But while described as a $375,000 fine, it is actually a $215,000 fine, to be paid in four equal installments between Oct 1 2009 and June 1 2010, with the threat of a further $160,000 fine a year later if the airline continues to transgress.

The DoT found that Spirit bumped passengers from oversold flights but did not provide compensation or a written notice of their rights to compensation, and that Spirit failed to resolve baggage claims within a reasonable period, on one occasion taking 14 months to provide compensation.  In addition, Spirit violated DoT rules by providing compensation for delayed baggage only for the outbound leg of roundtrip flights and only for purchases made more than 24 hours after arrival.  The airline also violated baggage-liability laws governing international travel by refusing to accept responsibility for missing laptops and certain other items it accepted as baggage.

Spirit also violated DoT rules requiring fare ads to state the full price to be paid.  The DoT said Spirit omitted carrier-imposed fees from the base fare in the ad.  It also failed to make available on request a copy of the DoT's rule prohibiting discrimination against disabled passengers.

Spirit's perfidy continued in other areas.  The DoT also cited Spirit for referring to DoT and Federal Aviation Administration regulations when responding to consumer complaints even though the complaints did not concern DoT or FAA rules (if I had a dollar for every time an airline and its staff has referred to non-existent DoT/FAA rules to justify some ridiculous action, I'd not need my annual fundraisers!).  Spirit also tried to obscure its failings by not retaining copies of consumer complaints and not filing required reports in a timely manner.

It is good to see the DoT levying this fine, but here's an interesting alternate viewpoint that sees our glass as air travelers being half empty rather than half full.  Bottom line :  The DoT could - and should - be much more aggressive in going after airlines for many issues.

In a similar but different piece of news, the Alaska Attorney General is 'cracking down' on retailers who advertise 'blowout' sales and 'everything must go' sales, with such sales tending to be ongoing rather than temporary, and perhaps therefore designed to deceive tourists who briefly visit a town (reminds me a bit of rug shops that seem to be in an endless cycle of massive 'going out of business' sales in this area).

The AG says the signs found in Juneau, Ketchikan and other Southeast shops are misleading and violate advertising regulations.  The state has sued two jewelry store owners for displaying such signs when regular prices for the items did not exist. 'It's deceptive to the consumer because they think they're getting some sort of reduction when they're not,' said Assistant Attorney General Cynthia Drinkwater.  'Sometimes stores will do what essentially becomes a continuous sale.  If something is always on sale, then the sale price is the regular price.'

This article cites two recent studies, both of which show that when businesses spend money on travel, it benefits rather than penalizes their bottom line.  Clearly the studies require some reasonable restrictions on the type of travel dollars spent, but one of the two studies suggests that each dollar of prudent travel expenditure results in an average of $3.80 in extra profit.

Wow.  No more fundraisers for me.  I'm just going to fly around the country and world, hoping that every dollar I spend brings me back $3.80!

Of course, one of the curses of frequent fliers is the all too frequent situation whereby one catches a cold or something more serious after a long plane journey.  Sure, the airlines continue to 'prove' that cabin air is clean and safe, but our personal experience contradicts their proof.

Now here is potentially good news - new improved air filtration systems that promise a massive reduction in airborne germs.  But how to get the airlines to spend money on adding them to their planes?

A new route for Amtrak?   Possibly, yes, but with an associated $517 million need for track and rolling stock investments, the plan to add passenger rate in an Ohio densely populated region between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati by 2011 looks far from certain to proceed.

Even if it does proceed, how successful will it be, with trains limited to a top speed of 79 mph (and averaging much less)?  If you want to travel from Cleveland to Cincinnati (about 4.5 hours by car according to the article, or 4 hours according to Google maps) you're looking at 6.5 hours by train.  Sure, there is discussion about adding Wi-Fi to the train, but who really wants to spend 6.5 hours on a train (plus time to get to the train station and the hassle of what you do at the other end without your own transportation, and the restrictions of fitting in with when the trains operate) compared to the flexibility and simplicity of just getting in your car and driving to your destination, when and how it suits you?

If train service is to be viable, it has to be truly fast and truly frequent.  Look at Britain and Europe, where trains depart every hour or so (sometimes several times an hour) to wherever you want to go, and take appreciably less time to get there than driving would require.  A moderately high speed train could travel the 250 miles from Cleveland to Cincinnati in less than 2.5 hours, compared to the projected 6.5 hours of this possible new service.

As always, please understand that I really like trains, and wish to see Amtrak expand and improve.  But (and again, as always) I'm far from convinced this will be a successful enhancement to Amtrak's network - indeed, Amtrak's own projections suggest the route would lose $17 million a year.

So - we should invest something over half a billion dollars, then continue to pay out something more than $17 million every year, for exactly what in return?  Does Amtrak really need to invest all this money in another loss making service, increasing its annual dependency on a government handout still further?

In other Amtrak news, they are offering a US Rail Pass that allows for semi-unlimited travel over certain time periods, ranging up in cost from $389.  This might be good value (depending on where you'd choose to travel), but you should understand that the pass covers only a 'seat in carriage' fare - if you want to upgrade to first class seating or to a sleeper roomette, you will pay substantially more (sometimes potentially this much again for a single journey).

However, this is a good idea on Amtrak's part - their current services are primarily of interest to leisure travelers, and they need to more aggressively promote themselves to retirees and other people who are 'time rich' and can afford (and may enjoy) the lengthy journey times involved in Amtrak travel.

Talking about rail passes, Britrail are offering their usual winter discounts for their UK rail passes - 20% off the usual rates.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  In an astonishing display of stupidity and naivety, the TSA said it welcomes electronic boarding passes that show a bar code on your cell phone screen because 'The security benefit is that the bar code cannot be manipulated' - or so says TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis.  Her quote and related details can be seen here.

That is outrageous nonsense.  While there might not be readily available off-the-shelf programs that you or I could conveniently buy from Amazon or eBay tomorrow, there are plenty of specialized bar code print programs (and bar code reading programs) that can be purchased by terrorists or anyone else wishing to prove a point and create fraudulent bar coded boarding passes.

I'm in favor of electronic bar code images on cell phones.  But I don't for a minute think they add any extra security at all; indeed, because they are a 100% 'virtual' and low resolution document that only appears on a phone screen, they are in many ways easier to forge than a printed out onto paper document.  How on earth can the TSA describe these as not being able to be manipulated?

As you may vaguely know, although you probably don't care, we currently have a five stage security alert level system in place in the country.  This is used to set a level of readiness/precaution against terrorist attacks.  Currently we are on the second from top ('orange' or 'high') level of risk, and have been on that risk level continuously since 2006.

This is nonsense, to be at the second from top of five levels, nonstop, for three years.  We have never been at either of the lowest two levels since the system was deployed shortly after 9/11/01.

So now a new task force is recommending we simply delete the bottom two levels.  The lowest level would not be green (low level of attack) but instead would be yellow.  Does that mean our nation will never be able to relax again in the future?  Is this an admission of failure and of the impossibility of creating a lasting and permanent solution to terrorist attack?

Or is the whole thing - the system as it is, and the findings of the task force - all a load of ridiculous bureaucratic nonsense that we're best off ignoring entirely?

Would it be too much to ask the government to annually publish a report listing all the terrorists they have successfully caught and convicted of plots against the US?  Why should this be secret?  The terrorists for sure know if they've been caught or not.  Why can't we too have this information, so we can all understand just what value we're getting from the billions of dollars spent on 'security', and just what level of ongoing terrorist attempts against us are being detected and foiled.

The chances are that the report wouldn't cost a lot of money to create and print.  My feeling is that a detailed list of any year's terrorist convictions could be easily listed, in big print and double spaced, on a single sheet of paper.

Perhaps if we could reduce our level of paranoia slightly we'd have fewer situations like this, where an airport screener decided that an X-ray image of a pair of hair clippers and a bottle of cologne in a checked suitcase was a grenade, causing a (mercifully brief) airport alert in Tallahassee.

On the other hand, here's a fascinating short video clip that shows the truly impressive effects of a liquid bomb placed inside a bit of old plane fuselage.  The potential threat is real.

Lastly this week, would any of my annual supporters object if I allocated some of their kindness towards this?  It would of course solely be for the purposes of subsequently writing a review.

Many years ago I had the great good fortune to fly a 747 simulator in what was then the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Florida.  It was 99% the same as flying the real thing - the same sounds, the same sights, and the same physical feelings.

Truly this is the ultimate 'video game', and if you should find yourself with free time in England, and if you already know a little about the principles of flight (buy a copy of Flight Simulator and practice) so as to understand what you're doing and why, this would be an incredible thrill.

Until next week please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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