Friday, December 7, 2001
More thoughts on air travel.....  there I was on Monday, enduring a flight on a nearly new state of the art $140 million 747-400 and piloted by a 'highly trained professional' earning as much as $450,000 for as few as 1000 hours of flying a year (most of us work 2000 or more hours).  But, this highly paid professional with his incredibly sophisticated aircraft couldn't make himself heard over the PA system!  And when my wife switched on her overhead light, it came on for the seat next to her; when that passenger turned on her overhead light, it came on at my wife's seat.

So why should I have any confidence at all in the plane, the pilot, and the airline?

After thinking about this for the ten hours of discomfort between London and Seattle, it seems to me that there is a key underlying issue here - the frustration that we all, as sensible people, feel when encountering airline (dis)service.   The reality is that anyone with half a brain could do a better job of managing an airline than is being done at present.  The unnecessary and gratuitous failings to meet any type of service standard at all are what make air travel so frustrating - the hypocritical claims to care about customer service that are contradicted by the nightmare experiences we all regularly suffer.  Air travel doesn't have to be this bad.

This week's horror stories :  The male passenger in Tampa who had a female guard feel between his buttock cheeks as part of a random search; but the female guard refused to search his crotch area.  (Let's please be consistent - if it is necessary to check in such intimate places, why leave a large (?!) part of the body unexplored?  Do it all, or (preferably) do none at all - why not just use a metal detecting wand?)  Read more here And a number of women, including many uniformed flight attendants, are being groped by male security screeners at checkpoints.  When several objected, they were threatened with being strip searched!  A letter of complaint to the Secretary of Transportation on 9 November by the Flight Attendants' Union has yet to be answered or acknowledged.  Meanwhile, another writer reports that airport security staff stole an expensive silver jewelry charm from her, and the security supervisor refused to give her name, calling airport police instead when the victim tried to object and complain.  The writer's conclusion - stop flying.  It is about the only way we have of demonstrating our displeasure at a totally out of control problem.

Airlines are reporting their November results, with most of the major airlines reporting about a 20% decrease in domestic travel and a larger decline in international travel compared to the same month last year.  One notable exception is Southwest, who reported a mere 1.2% drop.  While these results are disappointing, they are generally an improvement over October results, and the expectation seems to be that travel will continue to slowly return to 'normal' (at least in terms of passenger numbers if not flight experience).

Question - why is it that Southwest passengers are less likely to curtail their travel post 9/11 than people that travel on other airlines?  (My suggested answer will be offered next week - if you have an interpretation, please let me know!).

Meanwhile, although airline load factors are down, don't try cashing in frequent flier miles for travel over the Christmas/New Year season.  Word on the street is that airlines are severely limiting free travel during this period in an attempt to try and boost revenues - what good are all the bonus miles we're being offered if we can't subsequently use them?

The least deserving airline to be bailed out?  Midway Airlines stopped flying on 12 September, but was still eligible for a $10 million handout as part of the government's post 9/11 bailout!  The airline's CEO, Robert Ferguson, allegedly said at a press conference on 30 November that this means the airline can restart operations shortly before Christmas, but is now refusing to confirm his earlier statement.

The controversial airline owned travel website Orbitz is in the news again this week.  It announced that it will now charge a $5 fee on all tickets purchased through its site.  And, at the same time, it has entered into an agreement with Comet Cursor whereby people that use the Comet Cursor addin on their web browser will be automatically presented with Orbitz fare data that appears in a window at the bottom of the browser when they are shopping Travelocity or Expedia.  This is an ethically troubling move - basically trying to steal clients from these other websites.  And, needless to say, the Orbitz fares displayed to tempt you to their site do not include their new $5 fee!

Meanwhile, here's a chilling article from USA Today that lists an extensive history of passengers breaking into airplane cockpits and attempting to take over the plane, contrasted against which is a sad saga of complacent inactivity by the FAA and other groups - in 1996 the FAA announced a new policy of 'zero tolerance' towards unruly passengers, but then reduced the percentage of passenger fines it levied!  As I've said before, the events of 9/11 were not 'unforeseeable' but rather a logical extension of events that have been occurring (and predicted/written about) for years.

I came across a fascinating table in an encyclopedic review of the airline industry by the Fitch Group - it shows airline profits by year since deregulation.  Have a look at this chart, which I've placed at the bottom of my 'Winners and Losers' page - note the huge profits that the airlines earned in the past six years and then wonder to yourself just how deserving of sympathy the airline industry truly is!

In my email last week I challenged US airlines to match the RyanAir 300,000 totally free ticket giveaway.  In a probably coincidental response, ATA, the tenth largest US carrier, announced a "Kid's Free" promotion - but if you want to take advantage, hurry, as it ends at midnight Thursday CST (I'm sending this email out a bit early just in case....).  It applies to children 2-11 traveling with adults between 8 Jan and 15 March 2002.  More details on their website or call (800)I-FLY-ATA.  Well done ATA!

Note that although the airline can choose to give away its tickets for free, various taxes and airport surcharges (potentially $30 or more) still apply with full force!

More news on the low fare front - European low fare carrier buzz (owned by KLM) announced a 15% increase in traffic for Nov 2001 compared to Nov 2000.  It attributes this to a switch from short term special fare promotions to a simplified system of all-the-time low fares.  Sounds like a good idea to me - any US carriers care to follow suit?

This Week's ColumnMore Sounds of Silence :  Following on from my earlier review of the $40 Noisebuster headphones, I'm now reviewing the 'top of the line' $300 Bose comparable product.  Should you spend $40 or $300 for such a gadget?  Read the review to find out!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.....

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
ps :  Don't forget to visit Joe Brancatelli's site for his weekly updates, too.

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