[Web Version of Newsletter]  [Newsletter Archives]  [Advertising Info]  [Website Home Page]  [Please Donate Here]

Friday, 25 September, 2009

Good morning

People have been very kind and are continuing to respond to our 2009 fundraiser.  We now have 787 participating supporters - a tantalizing hair's breadth shy of 800......

In addition to the information on the free frequent flier miles, I'll be sending out a special discount offer on some good noise cancelling headphones to supporters next week - stay tuned for another small 'thank you' from me to you in return for your much appreciated kindness.

Needless to say, everyone else can still choose to support at any time - simply click the link above if the spirit so moves you and you'd like to become part of this wonderful reader-funded project (or if you want to know how to get a 20% discount on some great value headphones and/or if you want to get thousands of frequent flier miles for free).

It has been a frustrating week, editorially, which I'll share because I sense you are often interested in what life is like on this side of the newsletter.

I had delayed a bit in reviewing a new Bluetooth hands-free speakerphone unit for in-car use (or anywhere else for that matter) that I'd received from its manufacturer earlier this year.  I finally got around to reviewing it this week, only to discover that the manufacturer has gone out of business between then and now.  Ooops!

I pressed on with the review, because the unit is still commonly available and it seemed like a wonderful little unit that I could positively recommend to you, but it was only when I had almost finished my testing that I encountered a terrible limitation that completely negated its other positive features.

A bad product from a company that has gone out of business - that's hardly a compelling feature article for this week, is it!  You can read the review of the Airlite 900 Bluetooth Speakerphone if you wish, but sadly, much as I wanted to like the unit, it is not a good choice for you to consider.

So, desperately rummaging around, I came across another Bluetooth unit of a totally different type.  Now mindful of the apparently ephemeral nature of such things, I rushed to complete a review while it is still fresh and new.

My reviews are, as you know, very thorough and detailed, as is the testing of the units, and during the course of testing, using the unit with many different phones and other units, I uncovered a strange problem that, as unlikely as it seemed, appeared to be in the unit (unlikely because most other reviews have spoken very positively of the unit).  After some interaction with the manufacturer, I agreed to put the review on hold pending receipt of a replacement, in the hope that the issue may prove to be nothing more than merely a faulty unit.

But, this left me, on Thursday, with a not useful review and a not yet publishable review.  In other words, with nothing to offer as a feature article tonight - except this long-winded excuse!

One last comment before diving into this week's airline perfidies.  There are only five remaining days to take advantage of the wonderful savings on this year's Christmas Markets Cruise.  There are still cabins available in most categories, and we'd love you come join our small group.

Details here.

Dinosaur watching :  My love/hate relationship with British Airways tilted towards the 'love' side earlier this week, but now I'm sadly watching as the pendulum swings back the other way again.

First, let's happily look at the 'love' side.

Next week sees the inauguration of an interesting new service between JFK and London's lovely London City Airport (LCY airport review here).

BA are operating tiny little (and brand new) Airbus A318s for the flights.  Although the smallest jet in BA's fleet, they are also the largest planes that can fly in/out of LCY due to the short runway and steep descent needed.  BA have the plane configured into 32 seats in an all-business-class layout, and with new lie-flat seats that all face the front (unlike the backwards/forwards layout in their other planes).

The benefit to people flying between New York and London is that LCY is the closest airport to central London, and is on the same side of the city as London's main 'financial district'.  It is a wonderful airport to quickly transit through, both coming and going (there's only a 30 minute advance checkin requirement for the return flights from LCY to JFK), and BA is in a sense positioning these flights as the fastest way between the two cities, plus pulling out all the stops to make the service a premium service for its passengers.

As well it should, because unlike other all-business-class services (including those operated by its subsidiary company OpenSkies between JFK and Paris) the fares are full business class fares rather than massively discounted.

I've been fascinated by this new flight since its first mention last year, and to my astonishment, BA graciously agreed to allow me to try it for myself.  That's a brave move on BA's part, and they've allowed me a chance to try out this service with no editorial strings attached - they must be very confident indeed about its quality and efficacy!

I'll be using their hospitality to fly over to London to attend the annual World Travel Market exhibition in early/mid November, so expect a review shortly thereafter, and don't hesitate to enjoy the service yourself prior to then.

So there I was, enveloped in a warm fuzzy glow of happy thoughts about BA, until I read Joe Brancatelli's newsletter just minutes ago.  In the past, a point of contention between BA and me has long been their advance seat assignment policy (they wouldn't pre-assign seats for most ordinary passengers, even in Business Class).  But now, according to Joe's scoop, the good news is they will start pre-assigning seats.

Wait - do you want to hear the bad news too?  They're going to charge for the seat assignments.  Okay, you might think, no big deal, even when you learn it is $30 extra each way for a seat assignment (and $75 for an exit row).

But - wait a bit longer.  It gets much worse.  Those rates are for seat assignments in coach or premium coach class.  Now you might think that when you're paying something in the order of $5000 - $10,000 for a business class seat, you'd be able to get the seat assignment included in your fare.  Not if you're booking BA.  You'll now pay $90 - yes, $90 - each way between the US and London to get a business class seat assignment.  And if you're flying further on into Europe, you'll pay still more for those flights too.

Charging this much money, on top of a business class fare that is usually at the high end of the range of business class fares available from other airlines, for a seat assignment in business class is a whole new concept in airline fees.

This turns the concept of business class totally around.  It used to be that by paying the massive extra cost of business class, you got more things included in return.  Now, not only are seat assignments not included for free, but you pay $90 (instead of 'only' $30 in coach class) for a seat assignment, per flight.

There's no excuse or justification for this fee, other than as an obvious case of myopic greed by idiotic airline executives blinded by their wish to claw extra money from us, no matter whether it is fair or sensible or not.

It was bad enough when BA cut out hot towels and sandwich meals to business class passengers on their European flights in August - but I guess we should be appreciative that they didn't continue to provide hot towels, and charge us $5 for each one.  To pay $180 or more extra just to get one's business class seat pre-assigned is enormously over the top.  Shame on BA.

Still, things could be worse.  At least so far, BA has not indicated any interest in adopting this new style of airplane seating.

One has to suspect that the new seat layout suggestion would never be implemented, due to the requirements for seats to have certain levels of crash survivability, which does not seem to be at all possible with this proposed design.

Talking about fees, in the first half of this year the airlines have collected $1.24 billion in baggage fees, and another $1.19 billion in cancellation fees.

That's wonderful, isn't it - $1.19 billion for not flying you anywhere.

While cancellation fees showed a modest 4.3% rise from Q1 to Q2, baggage fees are skyrocketing.  Last year (with outrageously expensive oil prices), the airlines collected $178 million for baggage fees in the second quarter.  This year, with jetfuel prices at multi-year lows, the airlines collected $566 million in Q1 and $669 million in Q2.

But not every airline is savaging our wallets when we travel with checked bags.  Gulf Air is increasing its free checked allowance in all three classes of service.  Coach class passengers now have a 30kg (66lb) free allowance, business and first class passengers have more.

Things have really got bad when an airline can proudly point to a 66lb luggage allowance as being generous.  Only a year or two ago, some international airlines were allowing as much as 210lbs to coach class passengers (ie three bags, each weighing 70lbs).

Last week I repeated an article from Air Transport World that quoted Southwest's Director-Network Strategic Planning, as saying the airline is also looking at service to Europe and South America.

Southwest has now 'clarified' those remarks.  Their spokesman said

An industry trade publication recently misstated that Southwest was targeting Europe and South America. So we wanted to set the record straight: Southwest Airlines does not have any plans to fly distant, long-haul International flights at this time or in the near future.

Our immediate focus is on developing our previously announced codeshare partnerships with WestJet and Volaris, and we have expressed interest in exploring near international markets, including Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, with our own fleet.

While we can't rule out the possibility in the future, we are not actively considering service to distant international markets with our own aircraft.

But note the careful wording.  They don't have plans at this time or in the near future.  And they can't rule out the possibility of doing that in the future.

So what does this statement actually tell us?  It seems to reinforce rather than detract from the original statement about Southwest's interest in international services, but simply indicates that this won't happen in 2010 or 2011, but beyond that, anything might (and possibly will) happen.

A quick heads-up if you are booked on a Northwest flight subsequent to 24 October (for international) and 1 November (for domestic).  Delta has renumbered all NW flights so that the same flight numbers won't apply to both DL and NW operations.

All NW international flights will now be in the range from 250 to 348.  Say goodbye to Northwest's flagship flight NW1 (LAX-NRT).  NW domestic flights will be in the 2000 - 2999 number range, except for those operated by their ancient DC-9s, which will be numbered 7000-7999.

The revolving door?  Former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey has been appointed to the United Airlines Board of Directors.

With the winter flu season approaching, some of us are a bit apprehensive at the thought of flying with the possibility of swine-flu infected passengers sharing the plane with us.  But according to the US CDC, we are probably at greater risk of catching an infection such as the flu from the flight attendants rather than from our fellow passengers.  This is because most passengers don't move much around the cabin, whereas the flight attendants do.  Flu germs can remain active on exposed surfaces for dismayingly lengthy amounts of time.

Let's hope the airlines screen their employees as assiduously as the various proposals to screen passengers for signs of infection.

We should all do like the White House (near the bottom of this article) and surround ourselves with as much Purell hand sanitizer as possible.

Congratulations to Virgin America, coming top in the 'Best Business/First Class' domestic airline section of Conde Nast's annual business travel poll, to be released in their October issue.  This is the second year in a row that the new small airline has won this award.  Based on reader surveys, the airline earned a score of 68.6 for its service; the next best airline (Alaska) scored a mere 38.8.

Stablemate Virgin Atlantic came top of the Transatlantic Business Class section, and Singapore Airlines won the Transpacific section.

JetBlue had a convincing win also in the single class airline category, scoring 52.9.  Next closest airline was Midwest at 39.7.  Southwest came very last with only 23.9.

Top US airports were DCA, PDX, TPA, MSP, and MCO.  Top international airports were SIN, HKG and AMS.

Many of us have been worrying about the financial stability of the airlines we fly.  But consider also the financial problems hotels are facing, as highlighted in this article.

Marriott is also reporting problems with its timeshare business, and plans to take a $760 million charge in their third quarter to reflect reduced values and write-offs with its timeshares.

In addition to writing off a cool three quarters of a billion dollars relating to its timeshare business, Marriott are proudly announcing they are relaunching their Renaissance hotels as a 'global lifestyle brand'.

I'll confess that whenever I read 'global lifestyle brand' I feel a barely controllable need to vomit.  But wait - there's more.

Better get a bucket before reading on.  Marriott says :

The Renaissance experience appeals to guests who want to discover something new with each and every stay. Our guests are current and in the know. They are passionate about travel, architecture and history, and they want a hotel experience that allows them to get the most from a trip - to discover the unique character of their destination.

So what exactly does that mean in terms of the comfort of the bed, the bandwidth on the in-room broadband, or the towels in the bathroom?  Who knows.

At a time when hotel chains are struggling, what does Hilton decide would be its best strategy for the future?  It has relocated its global headquarters from the west coast to the east coast, and now is going to change its name.  Hilton Hotels Corp will be known as Hilton Worldwide.

Hands up all who now wish to go stay at a Hilton Worldwide hotel next time you're traveling somewhere.  Isn't there something more valuable Hilton could be doing than simply changing its name?

Meanwhile, venerable Holiday Inn is making some changes too.  They are getting a new logo (as of course are Renaissance and Hilton too), revamping the public spaces in their properties, and - I kid you not - mandating that hotels standardize the smells that are artificially pumped into their lobbies.

A mélange of ginger, white tea, citrus and musk will be pumped out at full-scale Holiday Inns; sweet grass and green tea will be emitted at cheaper Holiday Inn Express sites.

I wonder who the marketing genius was who decided to use white tea smells for mid-market Holiday Inns but only green tea smells at Holiday Inn Express properties, and how many dollars were spent on research.  Does the difference in tea smell make you rush to upgrade?  Or are you a coffee drinker, anyway!

Talking about hotels, I got a press release earlier this week touting a London package being sold by Cheapoair (great name, isn't it).  The exact wording was

Cheapoair is offering a special package to the Copthorne Hotel Slough Windsor in London. Guests can absorb the historic culture of the city, from a stop at Windsor Castle, to a leisurely boat-ride on the River Thames.

Sounds great, doesn't it.  But - wait.  The Copthorne Hotel in Slough?  Do you know where Slough is?

Put it this way - Slough is a 30 minute drive from Heathrow - but not in the direction towards London.  Rather, it is in the direction away from London.

No-one in their right mind would choose to stay at Heathrow as a base for a London vacation, and as for a hotel in Slough - suffice it to say I'm appalled at Cheapoair referring to this as a London package from which you can absorb the historic culture of the city (maybe they mean the experience of taking the old commuter trains between Slough and Paddington - Slough being so far out it is beyond the reach of the Underground?).

Moral of the story - it always pays to check where your hotel is on a map.

There's an interesting article in Bloomberg about replacements to the 737 and A320 planes.  It largely restates what I said a couple of weeks ago about the threat to both Boeing and Airbus with their increasingly outdated planes.

To put the size of the market into perspective, this article suggests that 17,000 single aisle jets (mainly analogous to 737s and A320s) will be sold in the next twenty years.  That's both an enormous slice of the total airplane market, the loss of which could destroy either Boeing or Airbus, and also a huge temptation for other airplane manufacturers, be they Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Brazilian, Canadian, or from another country not yet guessed at.

To put this into context, a reader sent me a link to a wonderful site full of pictures of Atlanta Airport in June 1956.  Look at all the pictures of the old planes - Martins, Douglases, Convairs, Lockheeds, even the excellent English made Vickers Viscount.

But - no Boeings.  You see, back in the 1950s, Boeing, for all intents and purposes, was not in the passenger airplane business.  It did not have any passenger planes worth mentioning from prior to WW2 through until the launch of its 707 in 1957.

Since 1957, we've seen all the other five airplane manufacturers disappear, while Boeing has blazed into being as the dominant passenger airplane manufacturer - at least until 2003.  For the last five years Airbus has been delivering more planes than Boeing, as shown here.

My point is this - Boeing is as vulnerable today as were the seemingly invincible market leaders back in 1956, the year before Boeing rewrote the rules of the passenger airplane industry.

My further point is that Boeing's main challenger is not Airbus, but it is some company that Boeing has yet to take seriously, and the main thrust of this challenge will be to attack the 737 family.  With at least five and up to ten years between a new model plane being announced and the first plane being flown commercially, Boeing can't afford the luxury of waiting for a new threat to appear.  It needs to keep the initiative that served it so well in the 1960s and 1970s.

Naughty Alaska (the state, not airline) - it appears that the $50/head cruise passenger tax it has been levying is not all being applied to cruise ship related projects.  Who'd have thought that?  I'm sure you're shocked by this revelation.

The Alaska Cruise Association is definitely shocked, and so is now suing the state for the repeal of this nasty exploitive tax.  I hope they succeed.

It seems that if you now wish to travel to Brazil, you're going to have to travel to a Brazilian Consulate Office in the US and apply for a visa in person.  The cost of having to fly to one of the few available consulates (and the time it takes), combined with no guarantee of being granted a visa, is a huge negative, and a big reason to consider traveling to Argentina or any other South American country instead, or, for that matter, to any other country elsewhere in the world.  How stupid and short sighted of Brazil.

Except that.....

Did you know this is exactly what Brazilians must do in order to travel to the US?  For many years, they have needed to make an appointment to be interviewed at a US Consulate in Brazil, also with no guarantee of being granted a visa.  They have to pay a substantial fee for the privilege of being interviewed, and an additional fee if they're then granted a tourist visa.

And it isn't just Brazilians.  With the exception of the 35 'visa waiver' countries, citizens of all countries need US visas before visiting here, even if they're just going to change planes and not leave the secured part of an international airport terminal.

Brazil is simply trying to make a point to us.  They have my sympathy.

Here's a great article on how to negotiate the best discount when buying home electronics at a retailer.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  We've been regaled with the story, this week, of how the FBI apprehended a would-be terrorist who was apparently hoping to blow up buildings with explosives made from chemicals sold in beauty stores (details here).

But to refer to the explosives that could be created from using the massively diluted hydrogen peroxide sold in beauty stores as 'weapons of mass destruction' (as he is now being charged) is as much a nonsense flight of fancy as may be the potential terrorist's hope to build effective bombs with weak and largely harmless hydrogen peroxide - a chemical used by those wishing to become 'peroxide blondes' and as a mild antiseptic, teeth whitener and mouthwash.

Isn't a weapon of mass destruction supposed to be something like a nuclear bomb - something that can destroy an entire city?  Since when has an explosive that might possibly knock a hole in the side of a building, but not cause it to fall over, been considered a weapon of mass destruction?

While pure hydrogen peroxide is an excellent oxidizer (and is sometimes used as one half of liquid rocket fuel for that reason), the stuff you buy at a pharmacy or beauty salon is watered down to only a 3% (or sometimes 6%) solution.  This is sometimes referred to by a 'volume' measure - a 3% solution is a 10 volume solution - ie, it releases ten times its volume of oxygen.  Laboratory grade hydrogen peroxide is a more potent 30% solution.  There's another problem with hydrogen peroxide - once it gets much more concentrated than about 40%, it becomes unstable, making it not well suited for use as an explosive due to its propensity to self detonate.

My point is not so much about the efficacy of the explosive this person may have been planning to create.  My point is that this was not a threat against the airlines, and neither was the threat detected by the TSA at an airport security check point.  It was detected by good old fashioned sleuthing by the FBI - although it does seem that the FBI suffered some unfortunate twists in their intelligence gathering that rather messed up their shadowing and surveillance, and forcing them to show their hand perhaps prematurely (apparently before any bombs had been constructed).

Now for the point that I'm moving towards for the security horror story of the week.  Although this particular Afghani was a legal immigrant (he moved to the US in 1999, back when it was much easier for people to travel to the US), the increasing moves to make it more difficult for people intent on doing us harm to move lawfully to the US are making illegal routes to the US necessarily more attractive to terrorists.

The US Border Patrol is responsible for securing 8,607 miles of border - primarily our land borders with Canada and Mexico, plus some stretches of coastline in FL, PR, VI and the Gulf of Mexico.

Guess how many of those miles of coastline are deemed by the Border Patrol itself to be secured?  As of May 31, they report there were 32 miles secured on the Canadian border, 165 miles secured on coastal borders, and 697 miles along the Mexican land border.  Almost nine out of every ten miles of our border is insecure.

According to a GAO study, last year saw three persons 'linked to terrorism' and 530 aliens from 'special interest countries' successfully intercepted at Border Patrol checkpoints last year.  Clearly this vulnerability is being exploited by people wishing us harm.  For the same year, we have no information about how many people linked to terrorism were intercepted at TSA airport checkpoints, but it seems likely to interpret the lack of self-congratulatory press releases from the TSA as implying that they actually caught not a single terrorist in twelve months.

So, at the same time when airport security can show us no sign that it is either preventing or deterring would-be plane hijackers, we have a massive vulnerability along our borders - a vulnerability underscored by the fact that even with the terribly inadequate coverage currently in place, we are catching would-be terrorists.

What is the government doing for the next year?  Is it scrambling to better secure our borders?  How about maybe diverting 10,000 or more TSA airport staffers and have them patrol the Mexican border?  Actually, no.  The government is reducing its manpower along the Mexican border by 384 agents.

We may as well hang out 'Terrorists Welcome' and 'Cross Here' signs on the border.  We already have 'Immigrant Rights' groups who do all they can to provide illegals with food and water as they sneak across the border, and police are forbidden to check the immigration status of people they interact with in many jurisdictions.

What is the point of all our new measures for enhanced security to restrict legal migration, what is the point of all the focus on airport security, when, quite literally, our 'back door' is wide open, and terrorists are increasingly focusing not on airports but on other vulnerable structures in our country?  Details here.

The long held suspicion by many of us that the TSA plays up the inconveniences to passengers in the hope we'll confuse it with effective security measures is underscored by the comments by this security industry expert.

Not only is there new technology that would allow the TSA to abandon its ridiculous nonsense with its 3 oz of liquid rules, but this gentleman points out that simple software upgrades to many of the X-ray scanners would abolish the need for us to take the laptops out of our bags.

Arsenal Blue By Gilles Cantuel For Men. Eau De Parfum Spray 3.4 OuncesLast week I commented on how a bottle of cologne and adjacent pair of hair clippers was confused by TSA screeners, looking at it on their Xray machine screen, as being a hand grenade.  How could that be, I wondered?

Quite easy, replies a reader, who sent in this picture of 'Arsenal' cologne.

One of my themes is that if you choose to believe in global warming, why are you focusing on trivial sources of carbon emissions such as airlines?

Why not focus on the massive uncontrolled growth sources of carbon emissions (such as the burgeoning need for coal fueled power stations in China) or on the most cost effective ways of reducing carbon emissions (money spent on contraceptives is five times more effective than money spent on anything else).

But, for reasons best known to themselves, those people seeking to solve the problem of global warming instead attack irrelevancies while avoiding the big issues.  The latest irrelevancy is to suggest that we should downgrade the quality of the toilet paper we use.

What will be next?  A restriction on the number of squares we can use per time?  Or perhaps a requirement to recycle toilet paper?  Meanwhile, China is adding more coal fired power stations.

Here's a story that is almost too good to be true about a response to a noisy woman using a cell phone on a plane, but being as how the story teller claims he was the 'hero' in the story himself, maybe it is true.  One hopes so.

Lastly this week, Seattle is famed for being the home of Starbucks and the 'coffee culture' craze that is sweeping the globe.  So too is this latest story of Seattle's, ahem, 'coffee culture' sweeping the globe, with a reader in New Zealand being just one of the several people to draw it to my attention.

It surely does add a whole new context to my earlier plea to support The Travel Insider in line with the cost of an occasional cup of coffee.  But - no - I'm not going to provide such extra services, no matter how generous you may be!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and please exercise the appropriate modicum of self control when ordering your coffee

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

If this was forwarded to you by a friend, please click here and subscribe to the newsletter yourself
If you ever wish to unsubscribe, simply reply to this email and set the subject line to say 'unsubscribe'.