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25 December, 2009

Good morning

And a Very Merry Christmas to you all.  I hope you were generously visited by Santa Claus, and that your holiday season is filled with happiness and joy.

As this is the last newsletter of 2009, may I also wish you the very best for 2010.  It was an interesting year this year, and I think I speak for most of us when I say that it ended up being not as bad as we feared, while also not being as good as we wished for.  Let's hope that 2010 sees more improvements and few problems for us all, in our professional and personal lives.

And talking about Christmas, I'm now returned from this year's Christmas Markets cruise.  As in all previous years, it was a wonderful experience, and the distinctive feature of this year was the prevalence of snow and the sometimes severe cold weather experienced.

The snow  - mainly on the ground, with only occasional snow falls to freshen it - was beautiful and added immensely to the beauty of the vistas we enjoyed while traveling through Austria and Germany.  And the extreme cold resulted in a very unusual event that neither I nor any of the crew on the boat had experienced before - the Main-Danube canal was lightly iced over, forcing our ship to do double duty not only as a luxury cruise boat but also as an icebreaker too.  This was a fascinating new experience - apparently the canal sometimes might ice over in February, but never in mid December.

With record cold temperatures all around the world wreaking havoc on pre-Christmas travel, the irony of the global warming conference in Copenhagen seems to have escaped the awareness of its attendees.

The cruise was good and everyone enjoyed it, but I did notice some disappointing areas in which Amawaterways had cheapened their product compared to past years.  And the most surprising part of the journey was not the snow, but rather an interaction with the boat's glorified bus-driver in the fancy dress suit - otherwise known as the ship's captain, in this case a dour Dutchman.

For the third time in a row, I had chosen steak for dinner, and asked it to be medium well done, cooked right through with a bit of pink in the middle, and for the third time in a row I was served a rare steak.  Indeed, on this occasion, three of us at the table had ordered steaks, two of us wanting medium well done and the third wanting rare, and our three steaks were all cooked identically.  I expressed frustration and disappointment to the waiter, asked for a replacement steak, and asked for a chance to speak to the ship's cook (who literally went into hiding after I raised the first steak debacle with him on the first night).  The cook refused to come speak to me, and continued to hide in his kitchen rather than make the triumphant tours around the dining room as is customary.

But the captain, who was seated at the next table, leaned over to me and said 'David, you shouldn't always be complaining.  My steak was perfectly good.  You should eat and enjoy your steak, too.'

Yes, apparently there's a new standard by which we should judge food onboard Amawaterways ships.  If the captain likes his food, then we must like our food too, and not complain but rather should sit down, shut up and eat up.

One last Christmas thought.  As always, some companies fail to understand that the holiday on 25 December is actually to celebrate Christmas, and they send out various greetings and wishes that refer to the 'holiday season'.  Each year some companies stand out more than others in terms of corporate hypocrisy as between their eagerness to profit from Christmas while pretending it doesn't exist.  This year's example is Viking River Cruises, a company that derives a fair measure of its income from selling Christmas Market cruises in Europe.  When selling these cruises, it doesn't refer to holiday markets, and neither does it refer to 'Winter Solstice' markets - it refers to Christmas markets, which is absolutely what they are.

But the card they sent me wished me a happy winter solstice.  Nowhere did they acknowledge Christmas on the card at all.  Why not?

Weekly feature articles will return in the new year.  This is a short Christmas version of the newsletter and with no associated feature article this week.  Instead, can I use an event this last week as a prompt/reminder/encouragement for you to visit/revisit an article series I wrote earlier in the year.

There was good news and bad news for passengers on AA flight 331 to Jamaica on Tuesday.  The bad news - the plane overshot the runway in Kingston while landing in heavy rain, crashing off the end of the runway and breaking into three pieces.  92 of the 148 passengers and 6 crew were taken to hospitals, with 13 admitted.  More details here.

The good news - no-one was killed.  It is helpful, in a slightly macabre sort of way, to read several of the different news accounts of what happened in the flight and its crash landing, to better prepare yourself for such an eventuality yourself.  A couple of key points to consider from the accounts that have been published so far - first, it happened 'all of a sudden' and unexpectedly.  Consider the implications of that - you never know when an ordinary flight might not suddenly transition into a disaster, and you need to plan and anticipate these issues.  When they actually happen, it is too late.

The second point is that it happened in the dark, in driving rain.  Want to guess how many of the passengers were wearing or holding cold/wet weather gear?  Probably very few.

And so with that as introduction, please do read my four part article series on the complex topic of How to Survive an Airplane Crash.

Dinosaur watching :  The Department of Transportation offered us an early Christmas present this year, when on Monday they announced a new rule that requires airlines must allow passengers the choice of deplaning if they so wish after having a plane operating a domestic flight stuck on the tarmac for three hours.

A myriad of exceptions apply, so it remains to be seen how useful the rule will actually prove to be.  The rule - which unfortunately doesn't come into effect for 120 days (although the airlines of course wanted even more delay) - also requires airlines to provide adequate food and drinking water within two hours of a plane being delayed, and to maintain operable lavatories.  Here is the DoT's press release announcing the new rule and here is a link to the lengthy formal document (the actual new regulations start on page 73).

At the same time that we're finally getting some limited relief from being trapped on planes, two other stories broke last week about other trapped scenarios - one about passengers trapped on Eurostar trains (extreme cold caused the trains to fail in the tunnel under the English Channel) for up to 15 hours with no food or water (or power or heat) and the other about passengers on the Long Island RR stranded for six hours.

The Department of Justice also offered a weak Christmas present to us by objecting to the proposed alliance between AA, BA and Iberia.  It said the alliance would cause fares to rise by up to 15% on at least six routes.  It recommended that the DoT require the airlines to give up slots at Heathrow and/or impose other conditions if approving the airlines' request, and the DoT in turn has extended the time it will accept comments on the proposal.

Look for a decision no sooner than April 2010 on this.  But even though both DoJ and DoT are showing some signs of waking from their slumber, don't expect anything too special.

Another alliance is nearing possible approval - this time an alliance between Delta and new Australian airline, V Australia.  Both the airlines started flights between the US and Australia this year, and now they've decided to join forces into the future.  The Australian government gave approval to their alliance request last week, the US approval has yet to be granted but is likely to be issued, particularly when one considers the mammoth nature of Qantas' current dominance on those routes.

This is actually a 'good alliance' because Qantas needs to be confronted with a strong competitor.

The airlines have come up with a new excuse for why they are losing money.  Well, actually, it isn't a new excuse at all, it is an old excuse, and is trotted out from time to time in rotation with all their other 'it isn't our fault' excuses.

Glenn Tilton, CEO of United Airlines and chairman of the airline lobbying group Air Transport Association suggests a reason for the airlines' chronic unprofitability (US airlines have lost a combined $27 billion since the start of 2008, and $60 billion since 2001) is due to them paying too much tax.

Of course, what he actually means is that we are paying too much tax - we, the passengers, are paying too much tax on the tickets we buy from the airlines, and what he further means is that if there were fewer taxes on tickets, then the airlines would raise their prices.  Tilton quotes the example of a $300 ticket which can include up to $60 of taxes, and says that in general, taxes on air travel are higher than sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco.  While this might be a mathematically correct statement, it ignores the fact that the taxes on alcohol and tobacco basically just go direct into the government's general fund, whereas air travel taxes go primarily to support government provided services such as the TSA and the FAA.

Tilton also displays the airlines' 'we want something for nothing' approach to business.  He (quite sensibly) advocates accelerating and funding the deployment of improved 'next generation' air traffic control, but how does he expect this to be paid for if, as he also advocates, the government reduces the tax collection on air tickets?  These and other comments by Tilton are quoted here.

The bottom line of Tilton's comments puts us in a difficult position when choosing which side of this equation to support - would you rather pay money to the government or to the airlines?

Virgin America announced its first ever 'operating profit', earned during its third quarter this year.  But note that an 'operating profit' for an airline is a massive misnomer - it is akin to other businesses claiming to have made a gross trading profit, but in both cases, all the overhead and sundry costs still need to be figured in to reach the net profit figure.  They claimed a $5.1 million operating profit, but a net loss of $5.9 million for the quarter.  However, this is both close to break even and also amazingly better than their result for Q3 last year - a $59 million net loss.

So it is great to see the airline's financial picture improving, but they are still a distance away from making a real profit.

Boeing's long delayed 787 finally made its first flight on 15 December, with no major problems.  A second 787 also took to the air a few days later; Boeing will now be working through a very intensive series of flight tests in its attempt to get the plane certified and deliverable late in 2010.  Boeing says it will have six 787s flying almost round-the-clock during a nine month testing period.

Although the plane's development schedule has been delayed for more than two years and the first flight postponed six times, it has definitely been outstandingly popular, with about 850 units being sold so far.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A reader who for prudent reasons wishes to remain anonymous writes :

I have now been through four airport terminals on two roundtrips carrying a 4-inch blade jackknife.

The first trip to Detroit from JFK in early October, I carried it inadvertently, having forgotten that it (in a sheath)  was attached to a shoulder strap of my backpack following a hike some weeks before the flights.  On the second trip at Thanksgiving, I left it in place as a test.  The TSA failed the test.  Going out of another terminal at JFK, I flew unfettered to Fort Myers and back.

So on four different occasions, in four different airport terminals, the TSA and their security screening procedures have completely failed.  Bottom line - don't think you're safe out there.

He concludes by saying he doesn't plan to continue his testing any further.

Lastly this week, here's a Christmas time story to chill the heart.  There was a growing mess of angry passengers at Delta's JFK terminal, frustrated by delayed and cancelled flights.  Instead of handling the situation positively and proactively, and addressing the problems and concerns of their passengers, Delta called the police in to control the angry crowd.

Perhaps they shared the outrage of reader Larry, who writes

My flight is cancelled as I type this while other planes and other airlines are flying to my destination and all they can tell me is because of weather...REALLY?

Marvelous, isn't it.  Mistreat your customers so badly, then don't do anything fair or appropriate in response, but instead call the cops on them.  I wonder if Glenn Tilton could see beyond his claims of the airlines being unfairly taxed and see any possible lesson in this as to why the airlines truly lose so much money?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and a wonderful Christmas/New Year festive season

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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