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27 November, 2009

Good morning

Are you rushing around the malls today - and hopefully getting some bargains?

And did you eat way too much yesterday?  I certainly did, although rather than cooking a turkey, I seized upon the occasion as an excuse to cook up a traditional British style 'Sunday roast' - a mouthwatering piece of prime rib, complete with baked potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, a lovely thick gravy, veges, and all the other trimmings.  Add some nibbles prior to the main meal, and cheese and chocolate for dessert, and it was not easy to finish this newsletter late in the day and get it on its way to you.

Oh well - I now plan on starving myself for at least a week or two - although, in less than two weeks time I'll be back in Europe and enjoying this year's Christmas Markets Cruise.  And that will see me again eating way too much food, both on board, and in the lovely markets ashore, as well as enjoying plenty of the wonderful gluhwein each day too.

I certainly have a lot to be thankful for myself this year, with the tremendous outpouring of support from almost 1,000 of you, choosing to generously support this newsletter.  And so, while I was unable to send out a regular newsletter last week, I gave supporters a special newsletter that shared with them a tremendously simple strategy, endorsed by the suppliers themselves, that can enable you to get $200 and more off the lowest price of a Dell or HP laptop as shown on their own websites.

I tried this myself and it worked with both HP and Dell, and it probably works with all other computer suppliers too.  If you'd like to know what this tremendously simple, totally legal, and totally honest strategy is, plus if you'd like the additional notes about what to look for and how to choose a new laptop computer, please do choose to join our nearly 900 supporters.  I'll of course then send you the link, plus the link for how to get free frequent flier miles, and the back issues of the six supporter only newsletters published so far.

I came across this very simple strategy when researching and buying my own new laptop computer, which I'm told is due to arrive sometime today.  If you're like me, you may have been holding off on buying any new computers until Windows 7 has been released and had a chance to be deemed an improvement or not by users in general.  I feel that time has now arrived, and it seems Windows 7 is being well received.

So I'm eagerly awaiting this 'speed demon' laptop, and its new Windows 7 operating system.  It promises to massively increase my 'on the road' productivity, and it is, after all, when we're on the road and traveling that time is at its most precious and productivity and its most vital.

I've now written up my notes about the two flights I recently took with British Airways between JFK and London's London City Airport.  This ended up spilling over three web pages and taking 5500 words in the process.  The underlying concept - a small, all business class configured plane, flying not to Heathrow or one of the outlying airports such as Stansted or Luton, but rather into the most central of London's five airports, London City - is a fascinating concept in theory.  But in reality?

It sort of works for the flight to London, albeit with some problems and disappointments, but for the return flight from London to JFK, the need to add a refueling stop en route adds too much time and hassle to the journey, and makes it less desirable than regular nonstops from Heathrow.  Some people might perhaps choose to fly eastbound to London on this new service, but return back from Heathrow to New York on a regular flight.

Well, that was a 79 word summary.  For the full 5500 word dissection and analysis, please turn to :

This Week's Feature Column :  BA's new JFK-London City Service : BA's new all-business class flights between JFK and London's City Airport are very different to anything the airline has done before.  But is it different as in better, or different as in, well, just different?  Which is better - to fly to Heathrow or to London City?  I compare and contrasts the services.

One last comment about these two flights.  Longer time readers will know that I've never been, shall we say, unduly generous in my praise of British Airways.  So imagine my astonishment when BA offered me a chance to try out these new flights.

This was a very brave and much appreciated move on their part, and points to the curious dichotomy which exists in so many of the dinosaur carriers.  Although there's a lot to criticize, both at BA and all other airlines, and there's for sure some truly terrible staff in jobs they should never have been given and should not be allowed to keep, there are also some extremely decent and very fair minded conscientious people who do the best they can to ameliorate the worst of the policies they are tasked with implementing.

BA is fortunate to have some first rate people running interference for them in the US - people who seem to work as tirelessly and long as I do (judging by email exchanges at all hours of the day and night, from assorted parts of the world).  My thanks to JL in particular for his ceaseless professionalism on behalf of BA and his help in general.

And another BA item - they will be announcing today a sale that is their own version of a Black Friday special - very low fares to Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Rome, Vienna and Athens, good for travel commencing any time from 1 January through 31 March 2010, and allowing a stay of up to 11 months.

Fares to any of these cities are $498 from JFK, EWR, PHL, BWI and IAD; $518 from MIA, MCO, TPA, ATL and ORD, and $578 from DFW, IAH, DEN, PHX, LAX, LAS, SEA and SFO.  The fares include fuel surcharges, but taxes and fees of about $165 are extra.  Other restrictions, etc, apply.

These are good fares, and if you're thinking of treating yourself to a winter or very early spring break in Europe, you only have until midnight on Sunday to take advantage of the deals.  Details should already be loaded in their computer system, so go check it out.  I'm very tempted myself!

Dinosaur watching :  There was an interesting and surprising outcome announced this week that related to one of the regular outrages that cause passengers to be trapped on a plane on the tarmac somewhere for way too many hours for no good reason.

You may (or may not - they all tend to merge into an ongoing blur of misery) remember the Continental flight back on 8 August that was stuck on the ground at Rochester for six hours while Mesaba Airlines staff refused to allow the passengers off the plane and into the airport, wrongly claiming that the TSA would not let them do so (yet another example of airline employees hiding behind non-existent regulations and requirements to cover up their own laziness).

For some reason, this triggered even more outrage than normal and reverberated with the growing sensitivity in Congress to such issues.  Accordingly, the DoT investigated, and found that both Continental, its ExpressJet affiliate that actually operated the flight, and Mesaba all violated a law prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices.

And the outcome - Continental and ExpressJet were fined $100,00 in total, and Mesaba (part of Delta) was fined $75,000.

Bravo.  Hit the airlines where it hurts - in their pocketbook.  Now how about fines for each of the other extended periods passengers have suffered, stuck on airplanes while the airline and airport staff dither about what to do?

And how about some passenger compensation as well?

In related airline passenger rights news, over in more enlightened Europe, a court case has just ruled that EU rules for compensation on cancelled flights also apply to delayed flights.  In a moderately bold interpretation, the court found that a delay due to a delayed flight was the same as a delay due to a cancelled flight, and so for either reason, passengers should be awarded compensation.

In another part of the ruling, the court narrowed the 'get out of jail free' exemption that airlines here often claim.  Maintenance related delays will not be accepted as an excuse unless the delay was an extraordinary circumstance and not something which by its nature or origin is inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and within its actual control.

In the EU, passengers can get compensation of up to 600 (almost $1000) for cancelled flights, with that compensation now flowing through to delayed flights too.

This is a very positive strengthening of passenger rights in the EU.  We could - and should - learn from this.

Last week saw some across the board delays to flights in the US due to a computer problem interfering with airline flight planning for FAA/air traffic control purposes.  The computer outage lasted about four hours from early Thursday morning, and of course, the ripple effect saw problems flow through the balance of the day as well.

The actual problem was a failed router card in a Salt Lake City data center.  It took time to identify the cause of the problem and then took more time to send a technician to the onsite facility and physically fix the problem.

This event has been seized upon by various special interest groups as vindication of their respective positions on issues.  Most specious perhaps is the FAA employee union statement claiming that instead of the four hours it took the third party maintenance contractors to solve the problem, if the facility was managed directly by FAA employees, the problem would have been corrected within minutes.

Apparently we are to believe that FAA employees are a hundred times more cleverer and quicker at detecting/resolving problems than private sector employees?

And maybe the DoT should now levy fines on the FAA and its contractor for the delays that resulted?  Or is the DoT fining the FAA becoming a bit too incestuous and ridiculous!

Combining the twin themes of European attitudes to air travel regulation and government involvement in air travel issues, it is true the Europeans are better at consumer protection issues, but only sometimes.

So, what to make of the German government's actions, attempting to get non-German airlines (most notably super-star airline, Emirates) to increase their business class fares!  Believe it or not, Germany is saying it is illegal for non-EU airlines to set fares on routes from Germany to non-EU destinations that are lower than other (presumably EU ) airlines.

Emirates says that would hurt competition and consumers' interests.  I completely agree.  Has the German government taken complete leave of its senses?  Or is this an oblique desire to protect and favor its own flag carrier, Lufthansa, and at the expense of its citizens?

The days of semi-official national 'flag' carriers are coming to an end, with successively more liberal air treaties between nations allowing for more airlines, and from unrelated third countries, to fly routes between countries, and allowing for increasing foreign ownership of domestic airlines.  Governments can now best serve the national interest by encouraging the best and the lowest cost services to and from their country, not by seeking to preserve inefficient and costly dinosaur airlines purely because they are headquartered inside the country.

A380 super jumbos return to New York.  After the short lived service operated by Emirates was withdrawn, the east coast has been without A380 service, but now Air France has commenced daily A380 service between CDG (Paris) and JFK.

One has to feel sorry for Air France.  Does it really want to accept the A380s it ordered many years earlier - back when air travel seemed to be proceeding much more positively into the future than it currently is?  Of course, the underlying French nature of Airbus and national French pride make it impossible for Air France not to put on a positive public expression of confidence in the A380, but one does wonder about the actual current need for the plane.

It seems most airlines with A380s on order are delighted every time Airbus announces further delays in its delivery schedule.

The underlying concept of a super-jumbo flying between congested airports remains sound, longer term, but at present there are fewer routes that need the extra capacity of the A380, as has been indicated by the virtual freeze in new A380 orders.  Airbus must be starting to get a bit worried - it could explain away few A380 orders to start with on the basis of airlines choosing to 'wait and see' and also due to the lack of airport infrastructure to handle the huge planes, but now that A380s have been flying for over a year, and with more airports able to handle them, Airbus must surely be hoping that airlines will start ordering their new plane.

Congratulations to Virgin America, JetBlue and Continental.  They were among the winners of the annual Zagat Airline Survey, based on ratings from 5,900 fliers who between them flew over 100,000 flights in the last year.

Astonishingly, the results show a "gradual, mild increase" in satisfaction with U.S. airlines, according to Zagat Survey CEO Tim Zagat.  16 US airlines and 66 international airlines were rated on comfort, service and food.

Unsurprisingly, airlines such as American, Delta and United scored poorly in the survey.  JetBlue was named the top large US airline for coach passengers, scoring 19 points on Zagat's 30-point scale.  JetBlue's score was 2 points lower than the 21 scores of Virgin America and Midwest.

Continental was rated the best U.S. airline for premium-class passengers.  Though American and Delta had low overall scores, American ranked No. 2 and Delta No. 3 among U.S. airlines for fliers who travel in first and business classes.  Singapore Airlines was deemed the best foreign airline for coach and premium-class passengers.  SQ also scored highest on in-flight food.

Virgin America received the best food score for coach passengers on domestic flights.  United Airlines was ranked best for food for coach passengers on international flights.

The survey also shows the unpopularity of airline fees - no surprise there!  Nearly three-quarters of respondents say they wouldn't pay for snacks, beverages, blankets or pillows if there was a charge for them.  JetBlue, which airs live TV programs on video monitors at every seat, was considered to have the best in-flight entertainment on domestic flights. Virgin Atlantic was considered No. 1 on international flights.

The FAA has released a policy clarification on what can be stowed in aircraft seat pockets.  The previous policy, in effect since 1998 but largely overlooked stated: "the only item allowed in seat back pockets should be magazines and passenger information cards."

The clarification adds that items up to three pounds in weight can be safely stowed in a seat pocket.  The intent of the policy is

to prevent carry-on items from slowing an emergency evacuation and to prevent injury to passengers by ensuring items are properly restrained.  Seat pockets have been designed to restrain approximately 3 pounds of weight and not the weight of additional carry-on items.  Seat pockets are not listed in the regulation as an approved stowage location for carry-on baggage.  If a seat pocket fails to restrain its contents, the contents of the seat pocket may impede emergency evacuation or may strike and injure a passenger.  If small, lightweight items, such as eyeglasses or a cell phone, can be placed in the seat pocket without exceeding the total designed weight limitation of the seat pocket or so that the seat pocket does not block anyone from evacuating the row of seats, it may be safe to do so.  The requirements of the carry-on baggage regulation are applicable to take-off and landing.  Nothing in the carry-on baggage regulation prohibits a passenger from taking out small personal items from an approved stowage location and placing them in the seat pocket after takeoff and stowing them in approved locations prior to landing.  Crew members may still direct a passenger to stow carry-on items in an approved stowage location, during flight should they pose a hazard, such as in the case of turbulence.

For more information check out Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14CFR) part 121.6 and 121.589.

I continue to blow hot and cold on the subject of dedicated eBook readers.  With more software being released to enable us to read books on our phones, our laptops and our netbooks, how essential is a dedicated eBook reader?  Apart from longer battery life, why would anyone buy a $260 eBook reader with monochrome screen when they could spend $360 to get a Netbook with color screen, and general computer functions and capabilities in addition to eBook reading?

Better still (or worse still, depending on your perspective) each eBook reader can pretty much only be used with eBooks from the one supplier - an Amazon Kindle won't work with Sony or Barnes & Noble eBooks, and vice versa; whereas you can load reading programs from multiple eBook sources onto your netbook or iPod/iPhone.

One of the other limitations of eBook readers to date have been their low contrast monochrome screens - this being due to the need to use the lowest power possible to drive the display.  But that might be changing.  This article talks about a new type of screen technology that is also low power, but which allows for color rather than black and white imagery to display.

Sure, we don't really need much color when just reading the latest best seller fiction book.  But if you're wanting to read nonfiction with illustrations or photographs, or just to have a better user interface and to assist with annotating and navigation, color starts to become very valuable.

My sense is that for most of us, there's little compelling need to buy an eBook reader currently.  Buy a netbook or an iPod Touch or an iPhone and read your eBooks there.  Wait for a 'multi-standard' eBook reader that can read books from multiple sources, and which has a color display.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  I'll quote from my three part feature article this week.  It describes what happens when BA's flight from London to New York briefly stops in Shannon for refueling.  The good news is that while the plane is refueling, the passengers are being pre-cleared through a US Immigration and Customs outpost.  The other news is what makes it a security horror story :

When you arrive at Shannon, you're shepherded off the plane, then lead through several empty and 'secure' corridors, to arrive at - yes, you guessed it, a security screening station.  First, you are made to wait in an area with only 18 seats (insufficient for 32 passengers) until mysterious things are done to your checked bags somewhere else.  When that unexplained process is complete, you go through 'security' prior to then encountering the US Immigration and Customs staff.

One starts off by doing all the usual things one does when going through airport security.  You are required to take your laptops out of your bags, and to remove your shoes, and you place everything onto the conveyor that leads into the X-ray machine.

Although one wonders at the need to rescreen people who have walked straight off one flight, gone nowhere else, and had no contact with anyone else, and who have been under observation by airport staff the entire time, one meekly submits to the process.

As I was doing this, I did what I usually do.  I transferred all the metal objects on my person into my various jacket pockets, and then went to take my jacket off and put it, too, on the conveyor.  One of the staffers saw me doing this and hurried over.  They told me I didn't need to take my jacket off.

That was a surprise.  I started to take the metal things out of my pockets, then looked around and suddenly realized - there was no metal detector for passengers to walk through!

Yes, dear reader, that is correct.  We had to take our shoes off and allow them to be X-rayed, but we could load our jackets up with as much as we liked, and simply walk to the other end of the X-ray machine, without having to go through a metal detector.

If you can understand any part of this 'security screening' process - the need for it to start with, or how it actually makes us any way more secure, please do let me know.

There was another non-security experience as well on the return flight from London City (LCY) to JFK.  At LCY I went through regular security and walked on to BA's gate.  At the entry to the gate, there were some rent-a-cops who asked for my passport, etc.  Then they announced I had been randomly selected for secondary inspection - what they said would be a 'quick' search of my carryon bags plus, as a bonus, a body search.

I protested at this, mainly out of curiosity to see how they'd respond, but they of course (and very correctly) insisted I comply.  After spending about 5 minutes, maybe more, searching through the first of my bags (but not opening all compartments), they then decided it was all too much trouble and didn't look at the second bag at all.

Now for the interesting part. I said 'I'm just going to drop the bags in the gate/lounge, then I'm going back into the public area to buy some things, do you want to search me before or after I go to the gate/lounge now?' They said they'd search me after I'd been to the lounge and back to the public areas.

So that meant I went in to the lounge, unsearched, and could have then left anything I didn't want them to find in the lounge, prior to going out, and having another opportunity to drop things in the public areas, and only then being searched when returning to the lounge.  Of course, after getting back to the lounge, I could have collected whatever it was I didn't want them to see.

Furthermore, when I went in to the lounge, out again to the public areas, and then back, I prepared myself for the body search, but they waved me through with no search at all.

This flies in the face of all concepts of random searching.  If you decide to designate a passenger as a random searchee, you must not then allow them to argue their way out of it, and you mustn't give up the process half way through.

And now for a security horror story of the absolute opposite kind.  A few weeks ago several readers brought a blog entry to my attention from a woman who alleged, in her blog post, in very graphic and over-wrought terms that the TSA took her toddler son away from her during secondary screening.  Her original post can be seen here.

At first, I was keen to leap on the bandwagon, and accept her story without question, and join a chorus of other commentators in yet again decrying insensitive actions on the part of the TSA.  But, after carefully considering the issues, I felt that her complaint and story lacked credibility.  That was a wise move on my part, because the TSA responded by posting video from the security cameras that showed her passing through the security screening process.  The cameras irrefutably showed that she was never separated from her son, something that she has now obliquely accepted herself.  Her story was a total fiction, and the TSA rebuttal a masterly stroke of showing her to be, well, not completely correct in her account.  You can see the TSA video on their own blog.

Amazingly, some people are so determined to see evil that they suggested that the TSA had doctored the videos, even after the woman in question had accepted their accuracy.  But I do accept one line of thought which is to note that while the TSA has several times now shown its willingness to post security camera video to rebut complaints and to support their side of a story, they are seldom as willing to release video that might confirm complaints against them.  What's good for one should be good for the other too.

We should insist on a public right to access records of all airport security screening video.  Surely the video is there as much to protect us from TSA allegations as it is to protect the TSA from our allegations.

If you have been, are, and/or will be traveling this Thanksgiving, I hope your travels proceed smoothly and with a minimum of inconvenience.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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