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5 March, 2010

Good morning

I've spent most of this week in Las Vegas, attending the annual Travel Goods Show.  Last year's show was a disappointment, generally attributed to the troubled economic times, but this year's show was an even greater disappointment, with notably fewer travel gadget type products on offer, and mainly just a repeat showing of 'the same old same old'.

There were a couple of interesting things, including a self-weighing suitcase (it had four weight sensors in its four legs), although the self-weighing suitcase seemed a bit ambivalent about its weight, showing a different weight (in kg not lbs - the manufacturer hadn't thought to design it to the US market and weight system) each time I picked it up and set it down.

A design that perhaps has a few kinks to be worked out of it still.

Another idea perhaps not yet ready for the market was a remote transmitter/receiver pair to alert you when you get close to your suitcase - for example, when the suitcase arrives on the carousel at the end of a flight.  But unlike other designs which allow you to command the suitcase receiver to make a sound when it gets close to you, this design has the transmitter silently on the suitcase and it is the receiver in your hand that makes a noise.

I'm sure the airlines will love that - airplane holds full of suitcases continually broadcasting radio signals during the flight.  We're not allowed to have even the most harmless of powered items switched on during take-off and landing (eg Kindle ebook readers and noise cancelling headphones) so I think the chances of being allowed to put transmitters on our suitcases is close to zero.

For the last dozen or so trips I've made, I've been traveling with one or two of a set of very light-weight Heys USA 'Eco Case' suitcases.  They are made of some type of ABS plastic, and Heys said they've added extra plasticizers to keep the plastic from going brittle.

I've always been intrigued by these very light weight bags, wondering if they were sufficiently robust as to withstand the rigors and demands of repeated airline flights, and I have noticed that both bags have become dented, and the extendable handles have become stiff to extend and retract, and their locking mechanisms don't work as well as they used to either.

The bag I traveled with to Vegas ended its life en route, with one corner cracking 95% of the way around, leaving the wheel in that corner hanging on to the rest of the bag by a small remaining piece of plastic.  As dire as this damage sounds, I only noticed it while wheeling the bag into the hotel (the bag has four wheels).

Conventional wisdom says you must report any baggage damage to the airline before leaving the airport.  Obviously that was not possible, but I took some pictures of the bag as soon as I noticed the damage.

I called Alaska Airlines and their first response was to say that damage to wheels is not covered.  I tried to explain that it wasn't the wheel, but rather the whole corner of the bag that was damaged, and offered to send a photo, but I was told they have no facility to accept emailed photos.  That was a shame, because I didn't want to make a roundtrip to the airport ($30+ in taxi fares, and an hour or more of time) on what might be a fool's errand if they'd refuse my claim.

So they graciously said I could show them the bag when I flew home, while checking in, and as soon as the lady checking me in saw the bag, she immediately offered to get it repaired/replaced, so on balance I was very fairly treated by Alaska Airlines.

I have to feel disappointed though in the durability/robustness of the bag, and find myself again returning to the typical type of soft-sided woven nylon bag for my future travels.  I've never had any such woven nylon bag calamitously/completely fail on me the way this solid plastic bag did, and we all know the hassle factor posed by a bag failure at the start of an extended trip.

I've long recommended Briggs & Riley bags, not just for their bulletproof construction but also for the amazing no questions asked all-encompassing lifetime warranty they give their bags.  Any time I mention B&R, I get a flood of emails from readers enthusiastically sharing their own beyond-positive experiences, both with the bags per se and the company's excellent support and warranty/repair service if it has ever been required, and they continue to hold a special place in my affections for these two vitally important reasons.

But it has to be conceded that B&R bags carry a premium price, and so for a value alternative, I'm becoming increasingly enamored of the High Sierra range of bags.

This year I particularly liked two High Sierra products.  The first is an excellent full sized rollabout bag from them weighing only 6.5lbs and with a retail price of only $120 (EL100 22" carry-on), and the second is a huge wheeled suitcase/duffle weighing only 8.8lbs and priced extremely fairly at $150 (EL104 34" Drop-bottom Wheeled Duffel).

High Sierra gives a somewhat vague 5 yr warranty on their bags - I say vague but in a good way, because there is the possibility they'll cover airline damage as well as other damage (and, let's face it, the only sort of damage a bag gets is at the hands of airlines).  Most other luggage companies flat-out refuse to cover airline damage.

So, extremely lightweight, robustly constructed, great value, and with reasonably good warranties.  That's close to four out of four for High Sierra.

At the show I noted that two of the more innovative companies I've followed with interest for some time, each with only a single travel product, have both merged with or sold themselves to larger companies that carry a broad range of all the usual travel products/gadgets/accessories.

They each, separately, told me they feel these days it is too hard for a single product company to survive in the tough marketplace, and I guess what they most mean is that their costs of marketing and distribution are way too high to be supported by a single product and income stream.  That's a shame because both products will lose their prominence when merged into a broader product range, but maybe the comments, independently offered by two different entrepreneurs, are correct about needing to merge.

Which provides an excellent segue into this week's feature article.  As you know, whenever I read of another airline merger being approved, and whenever I read of another airline alliance successfully winning anti-trust immunity, I invariably moan and groan about the nonsense being foisted on us; we are always assured by the airlines involved and the compliant US Department of Transportation that such moves are necessary and for our benefit.  I've never believed these statements, which seem at best counter-intuitive and contrary to the fundamental principles of free market economics.

The trigger point for this week's feature article was the announcement a couple of weeks ago about the pending approval for the Oneworld (primarily AA & BA) joint operating agreement and anti-trust immunity which is in the final stage of being granted by DoT.  In particular, this approval struck a raw nerve - not just because it was piled on top of all the previous ones, and not just because it attacked the special situation at Heathrow (shortage of slots at this most desirable of all UK/EU airports giving incumbents a huge advantage), but also because it represents, in effect, the last nail in the coffin of trans-Atlantic airline competition.

According to the DoT's earlier ruling in the 2008 Skyteam alliance approval, just a couple of years ago there were 50 different airlines operating between the US and UK/EU.  What with alliance tie-ups and airlines going out of business, when this latest approval is given, we'll end up with three mega-carriers (Skyteam, Star and Oneworld), plus an assortment of unaligned airlines, most notably Virgin Atlantic, struggling to compete.  We've gone from 50 down to three plus a couple of 'also ran' contenders?  And we're supposed to believe this is good for competition?  Wow....

So I was all set to thunder forth my disapproval of this latest approval, but as I researched the issue, I realized it was not so much a new development, but rather the inevitable conclusion of the growing avalanche of earlier approvals - first to small airline combinations piecemeal, and then more generously across the board to the airline alliances.  The DoT's reasoning for why it should give AA/BA the immunity to collude that they sought was wrapped tightly up in the concept of 'if we've given it to the others, we can't now not give it to AA/BA too', and that's an understandable line of reasoning.  Somehow, the measurement paradigm has changed from 'airline vs airline' and tens of different airlines competing, to 'alliance vs alliance' with only three alliances in the game.

But, although it is understandable that if the other two get approval, so too must the third, it does not necessarily lead to a correct conclusion.  And so I started to look first of all at how it is we got to be at the point we are now at.  I enjoyed excellent help from, believe it or not, the Department of Transportation, with their relevant official spokesman always answering my pesky and somewhat adversarial questions very quickly and very helpfully.  One of his answers astonished me so much I had to ask him a second time to confirm, which he did.

I had asked what the DOT did after issuing an anti-trust approval to follow up on all the extravagant (and to my mind totally untrue) promises by the airlines, offering all sorts of benefits to us as travelers such as lower fares and improved schedules.  These promises usually seemed to be the clinching part of the airline applications, showing the anti-trust immunity to be 'in the public interest'.

So it seemed to me that rather than accepting these extravagantly optimistic and unrealistic promises at face value, there should be some sort of accountability built in to the system.  His answer to how the DOT followed up on these promises :

we haven’t done the analysis to quantify specific after-the-fact benefits

Hmmm!  Well, maybe the DOT haven't, but I've now done some 'back of an envelope' calculations myself, in the second of the first two parts of what is becoming yet another lengthy article series.  Care to guess if my calculations confirm or deny the reality of the airline promises?

To find out, you'll have to click over and read :

This Week's Feature Article(s) :  Airline Competition, 1980 - 2010, R.I.P. :  Air traffic is growing; more people are flying more planes to more destinations than ever before, but the number of independent airlines is disappearing faster than polar bears and glaciers.  After a mere 30 years of competitive existence, I'm naming 2010 as the year that international airline competition became extinct.

Scotland Tour :  A quick update on this, all good news.  We currently have 18 people signed up, and assuming they all travel, that means the tour price has dropped to the 19+ person rate, $2545 per person.  And the UK exchange rate is holding steady currently below the 1.56 rate which the tour was costed at, meaning that the price will drop by another $100 per person if the exchange rate holds at its present 1.50 level, reducing the tour price to $2445, a heck of a deal for a great tour of Scotland's Islands and Highlands.

There is still time to chose to join us, but please do let me know as soon as possible if you wish to do so.

Dinosaur watchingBritish Airways is doing amazing things in continued anticipation of a strike by their flight attendants.  Maybe this is to calm anxious would-be passengers, or maybe it is to send a very strong message to the flight attendants, but their latest announcement details not only how they now have 1,000 volunteer staff members from other parts of their UK operation trained and ready to stand in for striking flight attendants (including even many pilots), but they've made arrangements to 'wet lease' 23 planes, complete with crews, from a charter company to provide backup support.  6,000 other BA staff have volunteered to help in other operational areas to help the airline through a strike.

BA says this means they'll be able to operate all their flights from London City Airport, all their long haul flights from Gatwick (I don't think they operate many longhauls from Gatwick), half their short haul flights from Gatwick, and 'a substantial number' of flights from Heathrow.

In this game of poker, the table stakes are rising and BA continues to call the flight attendants' bluff.

A similar story applies to American Airlines, however, where their flight attendants are also proving fractious - or is it AA who is playing hardball?  The strike process is more cumbersome in the US, with the flight attendants needing to give 30 days notice and secure approval from the National Mediation Board on the basis of negotiations being stalled before than can strike.  AA says that negotiations aren't stalled, but did walk out of contract talks ten hours before their scheduled completion.

This is probably posturing on both sides, and apparently they're reasonably close to agreement on most issues already.  So no need to panic and cancel your forward AA bookings just yet.  Details here.

Talking about flight attendants, I wonder if the new agreement being negotiated at AA will include a provision about what to do when flights have to be cancelled due to fighting between the flight attendants, as was the case with this Delta flight.

United Airlines has a peculiar version of a 'Don't Ask/Don't Tell' policy.  They charge $25 if you are checking a bag on a domestic flight, and $35 if checking a second bag.

Now, there are some bicycles that can be collapsed and folded up and packed into a normal sized suitcase, in particular, those made by Bike Friday.

So, imagine this scenario.  You go up to check two suitcases for your flight from, eg, Los Angeles to San Francisco, with $60 in hand to pay for the cost of checking them.  The United counter agent casually asks you 'that's a lot of luggage for your three day trip.  What have you got in your bags - bricks?'  You enthusiastically reply 'Oh no, the first bag has my clothes and stuff in it, and I've a folded portable bike in the other bag.'

The checkin agent leans forward and says 'Oh.  I see.  That will be an extra $175 then for the second bag.'

Yes, no matter that it is a regular size, shape and weight suitcase.  If United discovers there's a bike inside, it will up the fee to $175 each way for your suitcase.  $350 roundtrip - that's more than most tickets it sells.  Maybe better to buy a regular ticket for your bike, and to sign it up for a Mileage Plus membership too.

Okay, so maybe I'm joking about the ludicrous nature of this charge, but it isn't really a joke.  By what shred of fairness can United justify charging $350 roundtrip for a suitcase with a bike inside, but $50 roundtrip for the same suitcase with the same or greater weight of clothes inside?  Things like this are outrageous and encapsulate all the reasons why we hate the airlines so much.

There's a Facebook protest group with currently 6281 members here, and more information about United and other airline policies and Bike Friday here.

Talking about baggage, I saw an amazing thing when flying on Alaska Airlines to Las Vegas.  They had a carry-on sizing template at the gate, and announced over the pa system that they'd be using it with any passengers who had larger sized carry-ons.  If the carry-on didn't fit in the template, they'd require the passenger to check their bag and would charge a $25 checked bag fee, too.

The net result was a completely full flight, but with empty space in the overheads.  Amazing.

I've heard from ARTA that other airlines are starting to enforce their carry-on rules too.  It is about time.

It isn't just the airlines that are charging outrageous fees these days.  The cost of a US passport is about to increase, now up to a massive $135 for a first time passport and $110 for a renewal.  These fees are claimed to be simply recovering the costs of providing the passports to us, not having any extra profit component at all.

Most astonishing of all, the Department of State has calculated that it costs them $82.48 to stick a bunch of extra pages into a current passport.  Sometimes people fill up their passport with visas before it expires - this can be quite easy with the full page visas that are stuck in passports by many countries these days, and until now, one could get the Passport Office to simply stick in some extra pages, for free.

Don't ask me how, but the Department of State calculates 'the cost of the pages themselves, of having the pages placed in the book in a secure manner by trained personnel, and of completing the required security checks results in a cost to the U.S. Government of $82.48'.

Of course, this is from the government that happily pays thousands of dollars for toilet seats and screws, so perhaps we should not be surprised, but there's something enormously wrong with our government's cost of doing business if sticking a bunch of pages into a passport costs $82.48.

The bottom line is that adding extra pages to your passport, something formerly done for free, will now cost us $82.

Oh, if you're one of my many non-US readers, and if you'd been thinking of traveling to the US, the cost of a basic single entry US visa is proposed to rise, too.  Sure, your country may well allow us to visit without a visa, or may sell us a visa for a few paltry dollars, but we're now going to charge you $150 for the privilege of traveling to our marvelous and mighty country.  Trust us - it is well worth the cost.

We have a few days remaining to share comments about the fairness of these proposed fees if you wish.  You can comment online here.

Talking about government fees, the Canadians are charging new increased 'security' fees to airline passengers.  Strangely, the security fees are set at three levels - the lowest level, an extra C$2.50, applying to domestic passengers, and higher levels applying to passengers traveling internationally, or to the US.

Now, we all know that the US is applying paranoid, draconian and largely ineffective security measures to passengers traveling inbound from Canada that far surpass the cursory security screening that is given, more or less identically, to domestic passengers and to passengers to other international destinations.

So you'd expect the security fee for travel to the US to be highest, right?  Strangely, no.  Passengers pay C$4.37 (a strange amount implying a very exact calculation) if they're flying to the US, and a massive C$8.91 for travel to other international destinations.

Does this mean that passengers to the US are only getting half the security of other foreign bound passengers?  And does it mean that domestic passengers get little more than one quarter as much screening as international passengers?

One can't start to guess at how these sums were calculated.  Details here.

A lot of killjoys have been getting needlessly upset about a story that has even been described as 'young kid controls planes at busy New York control tower'.

Nothing of the sort happened, but plenty of fools are getting themselves all upset.  What happened was a controller brought his school aged child in to work (apparently on an approved basis) and while his child was there, allowed him to make five broadcasts, almost certainly whispering the words to say to his child.

The pilots enjoyed it, you can be sure the child loved it, and speaking as a proud parent myself, I'm sure the father did too.  Indeed, speaking also as a loving son, some of my most vivid childhood memories were of visiting my father at his office and being allowed to do things there.

Everyone had so much fun that the next day, the controller brought more children in and let them make a couple of announcements too.  No harm, no foul, right?

Wrong.  When people completely unaffected by this harmless act found out about it, they worked themselves up into a foaming fury, and the politically correct FAA has suspended the controller and his supervisor, saying 'This lapse in judgment not only violated FAA's own policies, but common sense standards for professional conduct.  These kinds of distractions are totally unacceptable. This kind of behavior does not reflect the true calibre of our work force.'

Even the union representing air traffic controllers condemned the workers' behavior.  They offered a meaningless but negative comment 'It is not indicative of the highest professional standards that controllers set for themselves and exceed each and everyday in the advancement of aviation safety.'

Shame on the FAA for its knee-jerk political correctness, and double shame on the controllers' union for not acting as a voice of reason.

But when it comes to the ne plus ultra of pathetic political correctness run amok, how about the story of some sad sorry AirTran flight attendants who are protesting about their airline painting up one of its planes in the picture of a swimsuit clad model as part of a tie-in to this year's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.

Wait!  Don't leap to any conclusions.  For sure, the annual SI issue features women of stunning beauty and in very revealing swimsuits.  But look at the picture of the AirTran plane and its artwork (shown here) first before you decide if there is even a shred of reason behind the protests of the flight attendants.

But wait, I've an even better story.  How about the Rahway NJ family who were told by the police they had to cover their snowman - it was in the shape of the famous statue of Venus de Milo.  Picture here.

Good job they didn't ask the policeman why, but instead obediently complied.  If they'd asked why, they would have risked being arrested, as happened to this person in Atlanta.

Talking still more about politically correct and pathetic actions, as you know, the last few months have seen the almost complete implosion of what can now be fairly termed the global warming myth, a myth that has been revealed as being based on lies, pseudo-science, and demagoguery (most recently here), and perpetuated by a cravenly corrupt United Nations cabal of countries and individuals who see the topic as an opportunity for the biggest and most baseless transfer of wealth from rich nations (us) to poor nations (them) in the history of the planet.

So what does the University of Tennessee in Knoxville decide to do?  Oh, they've decided to award an honorary Doctorate of Laws and Humane Letters in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology to that person whose career they describe as marked by visionary leadership, and his work as quite literally changing our planet for the better.  This person is also described as being among the most accomplished and respected Tennesseans in history (shame on those of you who said that isn't setting the bar very high), and in being awarded this doctorate, now takes his rightful place alongside the only two other recipients of honorary degrees from UT - ex Sen Howard Baker and Dolly Parton.

This person is, of course, none other than Nobel laureate and Oscar winner, Al Gore.  Currently 94% of the readers of this article feel this to have been a bad decision.

As an aside, people sometimes attack me for including global warming rebuttals on the grounds that it is nothing to do with a travel newsletter.  Not so.  When the global warming advocates decided that air travel was their enemy, and when they sought to marginalize and tax air travel to 'save the planet', they made global warming a front and center issue for all of us who appreciate convenient and affordable travel (and all those who rely on the travel industry for their income).  We ignore them at our peril.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A Muslim woman who was booked to fly out of Manchester, UK to Pakistan, refused to be screened by one of the new Whole Body Imaging devices, and left the airport rather than be screened or searched.

Her reason for refusing, and for choosing to abandon her travel plans to Pakistan entirely?  She had an 'infection'.  Hmmmm.

Details here.

One of the things I've never understood is how a fighter plane flying alongside a passenger plane can 'assist' the plane, either in the case of a terrorist attack or, as in this case, with an unruly passenger.

Although some reports of this particular incident referred to the Royal Air Force scrambling two fighters to 'assist' the flight, let's be honest and direct about this, don't you think?  The planes were sent with orders to shoot down the plane and all its passengers if it seemed that terrorists had taken control of it and were likely to crash it into a building or other public place.

I wrote last week about how the Lower Merion School District in Ardmore PA has been discovered surreptitiously monitoring its students, at home, and out of school hours, via the webcams in the Mac laptops provided to the high school students.

The school district continues to deny most of the allegations made against it, claiming the remote monitoring was only used - and successfully so - to trace and recover stolen laptops, but a continuing tidal wave of reports from students of their webcam activation lights coming on at random times, with their computers absolutely not being reported as stolen, seems to speak against the school district's claims.  And the school district itself contradicts its protestations by its actions - it appears it used images obtained through remote monitoring a student at home after school to accuse (incorrectly) the student of dealing drugs.

There are some other related details that are distressing about this case too.  The school district never disclosed in any form to parents or students that it had any type of remote monitoring capabilities, and when students asked why their camera lights kept coming on, they were lied to and told it must be some sort of glitch in the system.  Disabling the camera was impossible.

Furthermore, the school district mandated that all students must use the school provided laptops.  Use of personal laptops was totally prohibited - a prohibition backed up with the threat of confiscation of the laptop.  Any attempt to secure the provided laptop against remote monitoring was grounds for expulsion of the student.

Here's a good article, although somewhat technical, about all the 'good practice' violations, as well as the privacy violations, inherent in what the school district did.  An unspoken subtext of course has to be what types of images, over and above that of the adolescent boy eating candy, may have been obtained of the high school students while they had their laptops with them in their bedrooms.

Bottom line - if you're buying any sort of online device with a built in camera or microphone, be aware that there's a chance it could be remotely activated.  Some years back, I knew people in the security field who, when wishing to be discreet, would not only insist that everyone turned off their phones, but would then require us to remove the batteries from our phones too.

I'm not sure how they'd handle iPhones and other phones which don't have a user-removable battery.  Well, yes, I am sure - they'd emulate other companies I've dealt with that forbid people to take phones inside their building.

It is interesting to compare the fairly passive response to the school district's surreptitious video recording of its students at home with this story of a man who was prevented from taking a picture of his son on a child's train ride in a mall due to concerns about being a pedophile, and then threatened with arrest if he didn't obey the (unlawful) demand that he surrender his cell phone/camera to a policeman.

I know airline food is bad, but you'd have to be pretty hungry to eat a scratch lottery card on a flight.  And if you'd just been told that the lottery card had won you $14,000, which you could collect at the end of your journey, the action becomes incomprehensible.  But that is apparently what a man did on a Ryanair flight earlier this week (they sell scratch lottery cards on Ryanair flights, apparently).

He was reportedly upset that the cash wasn't presented to him on the plane, and so he ate the card.  A spokesman for the airline said 'In the last two year's Ryanair's scratch cards have given away 10 cars, over €300,000 in cash prizes and over 100,000 flight vouchers. Passengers have always been delighted to claim their large cash prizes after returning home.  Unfortunately our latest winner felt that we should have his €10,000 prize kicking around on the aircraft.  Yesterday's events prove that while Ryanair's scratch cards offer large cash prizes they clearly taste great too!  Crew tried to stop the gourmet scratch card eater by offering him one of our great tasting sandwiches, pizzas or snacks instead, but clearly he had much more expensive tastes!'

Ryanair - masters at public relations that they are - say they will donate the unclaimed winnings to charity, and are inviting members of the public to vote on a range of possible charities.

Next time you look at the man in a pilot's uniform walking confidently into the cockpit, spare a thought for this story of the pilot who flew for 13 years with a fake pilot's licence.  Actually, after 13 safe years of flying, perhaps the fact that his original licence was fake no longer matters much.

And talking about uniforms, I'll close this week with a report about a hot demand for 'hot' JAL stewardess uniforms.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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