3 March, 2006
My problems with BA's website, (I could not book their advertised special web-only fare) took an unexpected and embarrassing turn for the better last Friday morning.
Travel agent Lynn from Liadis Travel wrote to ask why I didn't simply get a travel agent to book the flights for me. Silly me - I'd thought a web only fare could not be booked by a travel agency. Apparently it can be, and Lynn quickly got me the flights I wanted and at BA's special fare. Many thanks to Lynn, and shame on me for not turning to a good travel agent in the first place.
As for BA, although the people I spoke to at BA all tried to play the oldest trick in the book - where they pretend I'm the only person in the entire world to have any problems with their site, implying the problem is mine not theirs, it turns out I'm far from alone in having problems with the BA website.
I'm taking up quite a bit of newsletter space to abundantly prove that point, and to encourage you, when you have problems yourself and are told that you're the only one with such problems, to realize that many times that statement is more bluff than reality.
Reader Jo finds neither Mac or PD hardware works with BA's site
Reader John actually managed to succeed, but not with any help from the same Amanda who didn't help me
Reader Lynn says
Reader Kelly (in the US) finds the easiest way to get help from BA is to call their Dutch booking center in Amsterdam
Reader David also has problems with their website
The problem extends beyond the US, and apparently have been ongoing for at least two years. Seth writes
Bill writes from Bangkok
In fairness, reader Bruce (and several others) pointed out these problems are not unique to BA :
There's no feature column this week; I've been tied up developing various things for future columns. I should be reviewing a new set of noise reducing headphones next Friday, and in the early part of next week I'll be attending the Travel Goods Show, looking at all the latest and greatest in travel luggage and accessories. This will undoubtedly provide lots to tell you about in the weeks that follow.
However, while not writing a feature column this week, I've been thinking more about my enthusiasm for the book I reviewed last week, The Way of the Road Warrior. If you choose to get a copy (and I hope you did/do), I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about this book; indeed I'll send them on to author Rob Jolles as well.
Many times I know I can recommend something that you will like the same as me, but I'm uncertain as to whether this book uniquely struck a chord with me, or if it truly does have general appeal to most readers. Please pass your thoughts on, to help calibrate my appraisal process for future books I review.
On the basis of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' we're seeing an unusual alliance of groups from all sides of the political and social spectrum uniting against the email fees AOL and Yahoo will be imposing shortly. But it seems the more people protest, the more resolutely AOL dig their heels in and say they are determined to impose the fees.
While Yahoo has been more quiet, it seems they're already doing some testing of the technology. For the last couple of weeks, there have been increasing amounts of delayed Travel Insider newsletters going to readers with Yahoo email addresses. Does this worry me? Yes - not because the newsletter is urgent time sensitive news (it isn't!) but because I get error messages back for every one of those delayed messages. How would you like to find up to 1000 error messages clogging your email box when you log in on Friday morning - something that is an inconvenience when connected to a broadband feed, but which cripples and disables my entire email service when I'm on the road and on dialup.
If you have an AOL or Yahoo email account, please lend your voice to the mounting chorus of anger. This really is a watershed moment in the evolution of the internet - do you want email to stay free or are you willing to have it become a pay per item service?
I still have some free Gmail accounts from Google available - let me know if you'd like one. If you're using AOL or Yahoo to get email (and, alas, thousands of you are), please consider switching to a different email service.
Dinosaur watching : In the 4.5 years I've been writing these newsletters, I've encountered some outrageous actions by airlines against their customers. But this story here has to rank as the best (ie worst!) behavior ever.
Please read the entire story, written by American Airlines' passenger Brad, because just when you think American has maxed out the asinine aggressive stupidity meter, in the second last paragraph, it outdoes itself.
It is truly scary that such arrogant idiots are controlling our lives every time we step into an airport.
And on the basis that it never rains, but it pours, here's another story of appalling greed combined with unthinking bureaucracy - a story that can only be possible when dinosaur airlines are involved.
How much more can they cut? United's CFO, Frederic Brace, said United plans to cut in-flight service for 'low-value customers who quite frankly don't value it and aren't willing to pay for it'. So apparently it is our fault UA gives such poor service - poor service that is about to get even worse.
United's stock closed on Thursday at $36.07, compared to $36.14 last Thursday, almost unchanged for the week.
As readers know, I continue to be surprised at the strength of United's share price, which represents a significant earnings multiple premium over other dinosaur airlines.
This week Morningstar Equity Analyst Chris Lozier said 'We think it's significantly overvalued, as are the other legacy airlines based on the way we view the future of that business model' but added 'I don't know how long it's going to take to get down to what I think it's going to be worth'.
On the other hand, Helane Becker, an analyst at the Benchmark Company, contends that United is significantly undervalued. She says its shares should be trading near $48, because of the airline's strategy of providing both low-cost and premium service, which she considers to be innovative. 'They're never going to be the lowest-cost producer, but they don't have to be.' she said. 'I think they're trying to do something a little different.'
But Chris Lozier says this about the airline's 'innovative' strategy ' : 'UAL's strategy of offering both low-cost and premium service is confusing and impractical in an industry where simplicity is the key to profitability'.
One thing's for sure - both analysts can't be right....
Welcome back to the real world to ATA. The airline exited their Chapter 11 on Tuesday. The airline has scaled back its fleet of jets, slashed destinations and cut their labor force in half. ATA will focus on vacation destinations such as Cancun, Los Angeles and Las Vegas and increase their military charter business.
Earlier in the week, a story came out that Delta would be cutting back on many of their routes where Song competes against JetBlue to Florida. JetBlue shares strengthened significantly on the news.
But on Wednesday, Delta said the earlier announcement was based on an error caused by a schedule distribution last week in which Comair data was omitted, causing an apparent but incorrect reduction in service. Delta says it plans to continue competing vigorously and is not reducing any flights from LaGuardia.
JetBlue's shares continued to drift upwards, notwithstanding Delta's 'correction'.
Southwest, meanwhile, continues to add to its services. The airline currently operates two gates at Denver and will add another next Wednesday and a fourth on June 1, subject to approval by the Denver City Council.
Southwest currently operates 13 flights from Denver. With the addition of two more gates it could operate as many as 40 daily flights. On March 4 the airline will add new routes from Denver to Baltimore and Salt Lake City.
Phoenix is encouraging Southwest to move their headquarters to Phoenix, where Southwest is currently the second largest carrier. Herb Kelleher said the airline has received inquiries from several cities keen for Southwest to move from Dallas; apparently the airline is considering new headquarters after Congress failed to lift government restrictions at Love Field. In reality, one has to think this is as likely to be another ploy in the high stakes maneuvering surrounding the very complicated and political issue of air service from Love Field.
In other words, don't get your hopes up, Phoenix.
Here's a great concept. A group of rebellious directors, supported by dozens of company executives, have forced the President and CEO of Japan Airlines to resign, considering him ultimately responsible for the airline's recent safety and financial problems. Six other senior executives will also be retiring at the end of March as part of a process of 'rejuvenating' the airline's senior management.
Please take note, directors and employees of Delta, Northwest, or just about any other dinosaur airline.
From time to time, a story surfaces about, variously, pilots, flight attendants, or passengers feeling sick or strange while on a plane. Sometimes the affected people report smelling strange odors, other times they don't.
A few years ago a group of Alaska Airlines flight attendants pursued the issue as far as they could, with inconclusive results and no underlying cause absolutely confirmed. But, while not admitting any errors or liability (!) modifications have been made to some planes, especially planes which had cabin air intakes situated at places where they could suck in engine gases.
Those people who ascribe some significance to these reports generally believe the symptoms arise from fumes from burning oil or hydraulic fluids leaking into the cabin. Here's the latest such story - perhaps it is a shame that the Evac-U8 smoke hood isn't capable of filtering out toxic fumes for an entire flight!
I mentioned last week how the 787 may be no better than any other Boeing plane when it comes to having too many seats crammed too tightly together, even though the initial promises were very different. Perhaps this is why the plane is strangely called the 'Dreamliner' - the initial promises were nothing more than a passing dream.
Although the Airbus A380 doesn't really compete with the 787, Airbus is talking up the capacity of this plane, too, and is already mentioning the possibility of a stretched version that would have a maximum passenger capacity of 1000 passengers. The current model A380 has a maximum capacity of 800, although most airlines are talking about seating no more than 500 in the plane.
Last week I wrote about the final Boeing 717 rolling off the production line. This week Boeing said it may soon close down production of its 767. Except it didn't use those words. Instead, using a lovely turn of phrase that makes ceasing production sound like an achievement rather than a failure, the company said 'a decision to complete production could be made in 2006'.
Which would leave Boeing having only the 737 and 777 in current production, with the new 787 due in two years and promise of possibly a new 747 to come.
Two weeks ago I expressed dismay at Boeing's public statements about having no plans to replace the 737 any time soon. Last week this was underscored when I mentioned Airbus winning four times as many new plane orders at the Singapore airshow as Boeing - with these wins largely being A320s beating 737s. This article provides further support to challenge Boeing's pride in the 'success' of its 737 series.
Which makes Boeing's assertion that it could be as much as ten years before they introduce a successor to the 737 seem like too little too late.
But wait.... On Tuesday this week, Boeing changed its mind. Instead of, as recently said, indicating that any successor to the 737 was unlikely to be introduced until maybe 2014 or 2015, they named an initial planning team to start work - now - on the 737's successor.
This is a very risky move on Boeing's part. As soon as it indicates there will be a successor to the 737, airlines which can delay their purchase of new planes will likely choose to do so. Unlike new car models, the new plane will almost certainly be more efficient and economical than the 737 it supersedes, and few airlines would wish to buy into the end of a model line, complete with higher operating costs, than to get a competitive advantage by having the new better plane.
So Boeing needs to send some mixed messages to the marketplace - yes, we'll be coming out with a better new plane in the future, but, by golly, the present plane is still wonderful. The head of the development team, Mike Cave, even sounds doubtful if they'll succeed at developing a new plane when he says 'Someday both the Next-Generation 737 and the (Airbus) A320 will need to be replaced, but so far we have not found a more compelling airplane for the single-aisle market. Until we do, we will continue to invest in the Next-Generation 737.'
In case that isn't clear enough, he also says, 'The Next-Generation 737 is a wonderful airplane with a strong future in the marketplace; the challenge of dramatically improving on its proven economy, performance and reliability is a daunting task and one that will take considerable innovation'.
His reference to the A320 series is no accident. He is hoping, of course, that the announcement of a planned successor to the 737 will not just harm his own company's future 737 sales, but will also harm Airbus' ongoing sales of its newer A320 series planes.
And with Airbus having been apparently blind-sided by the new 787, and still scrambling to come up with its A350 answer to the 787's success, Boeing's plans for a 737 replacement should result in - this time - Airbus coming up with a timely response.
More details here.
The Virgin group of travel companies is
known for its slightly offbeat and wacky sense of humor.
And so it is perhaps no surprise to learn of a stunt they pulled earlier
this week in Britain, when staff from Virgin Trains, including a
BA staff attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop the Virgin staff from boarding the staff, and tried to prevent other passengers from seeing them in the boarding area by standing in front of them.
Even more funny, though, is this story about a flight across the Atlantic. But, alas, Virgin's PR team, usually quick-witted and nimble tongued, could merely stutter out an empty non sequitur in response, which almost sounds as if they approved of the flight attendant's actions :
The other cell phone danger : We all know about the possible dangers with cell phone radiation causing harm to ourselves. These possible dangers are unproven and so largely ignored by most users. There's another type of cell phone danger that is equally unproven, but which is accepted as real, even though there's not yet conclusive evidence to prove it - the alleged harmful impact of cell phone transmissions on airplane electronics.
An Associated Press article on Tuesday was headlined 'Study: Cellphones can impact cockpit devices', and so I read it thinking 'at last, some firm proof on this topic'. The article promised much by its headline, and its opening sentence confirmed this :
But, reading on, there was this bizarre contradictory statement as the only 'evidence' :
So, with the person advocating limiting the use of cell phones (and other electronic devices) on planes saying there's never been an accident caused by them, where's the beef?
The study did find, by surreptitious radio monitoring, that typically there are several cellphone calls made on most flights while the plane is taking off and landing. And apparently, notwithstanding these illegal cellphone calls - on tens of thousands of flights every day, they have yet to cause any problems to any planes. So, please tell me again, why should we be limiting use of our cell phones, iPods, and anything/everything else electronic during takeoffs and landings?
The AP story was amplified in this newspaper account, which again uncritically cites unspecified claims, including the allegation that cell phones might interfere with a plane's GPS navigation system.
Like many of you, I drive in cars, every day, with GPS navigation systems, either built in or as external add-ons. I also have and use cell phones in my cars. The GPS navigation systems in a car use identical technology (not just similar, but identical) to those used in airplanes.
I've never had any problem with my GPS receivers, other than that caused by loss of satellite signal. I've sometimes even had two cell phones both in use in my car at the same time, and still no problem. I bet you've never had a problem, either.
Furthermore, if there is a potential problem, why choose the negative option as a solution? The negative option is to ban cell phone use - a ban that seems to be only partially successful. The positive option would be to 'harden' the GPS circuitry to make it more resilient to interference, and make the GPS receiver generally more reliable and robust.
So, if there is indeed any danger (something I'm very unconvinced about) let's meet the problem head-on and solve it.
Perhaps what the cockpit needs is a coat of this new cell phone blocking paint.
The most expensive city in the world is now considered to be Oslo, displacing Tokyo (last year's most expensive city) for the honor, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Reykjavik is now number three.
The global tax on airline tickets is gathering a bit of steam. The tax was proposed by French President Jacques Chirac and goes into effect July 1. Now 13 additional countries - UK, Norway, Brazil, Chile, Congo, Cyprus, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Luxemburg, Madagascar, Mauritius, Nicaragua and Norway have agreed to impose the tax, to provide funding to fight AIDS and other diseases in poor countries. IATA is opposed to the tax as is the US and the Association of European Airlines.
The rationale for linking a tax on airline passengers with funding medical programs in poor countries remains obscure.
I'm sure you've seen - and maybe even occasionally bought - the various 'Entertainment' coupon books. I buy them myself from time to time, and usually manage to get more back from the savings than the cost of the book itself.
Here's one such coupon book for you to consider if you're planning to go up to Alaska this year. The Great Alaskan TourSaver book, which has 150 different 'two for one' offers throughout Alaska.
Participating tours include a $205 flightseeing over Mt McKinley, a National Park Cruise of Kenai Fjords National Park ($149) and even a three-day/two-night rail tour to the McKinley Princess from Anchorage (a $329 value).
Yes, there are huge savings available with this coupon book. The book itself isn't cheap - $100 a copy - but you only need to do one of the tours above, or a couple of the other tours, to recoup its cost and get ahead on the deal. This is the eighth annual edition of the book, which is published by well known Alaskan travel personality, Scott McMurren, who also publishes a free weekly newsletter about Alaska. Details here.
This Week's Security Horror Story : Maybe it's time to step back for a minute and consider the security monster we've created in this country. The TSA - 45,000 people strong - spends more money every year than the FBI, but has yet to resolve the problem of unscreened cargo traveling on passenger planes.
Homeland Security funding - $50 billion in 2006 alone - has been redirected to cover every imaginable type of pork barrel project, or for 'security' items that stretch the concept of security beyond breaking point. How about the money given to the Princeton NJ Fire Department - sounds fair? Well, the money was spent on Nautilus exercise equipment, free weights and a Bowflex machine. Or the $38 million to cover fire-related claims in New Mexico - what has that to do with Homeland Security? Why do we spend more per capita on Homeland Security in Wyoming ($37.74) than in Washington DC ($34.16)?
This article raises these and many more questions.
Meanwhile, although money is being spent on the most unusual things, here's a sensible project - a high-rise building escape system that could have saved hundreds of lives on 9/11 - being ignored.
I was driving a friend to the airport on Thursday evening, and half way to the airport, I burst out laughing. My friend looked at me in polite puzzlement. I said to him 'Do you realize what we've just been doing?'
Suddenly my friend turned pale. We'd stopped on the way to the airport at a local gun range and shot 100 rounds of ammunition through several different handguns. We both reeked of cordite, had gunpowder stains on our hands, and my friend had stuffed the targets we'd been shooting into his luggage as souvenirs of his marksmanship.
What would happen to him if any explosive detection equipment was used to test either himself, his clothing, or his luggage?
The TSA rehired a group of Orlando security screeners who were fired after failing one of two exams related to their jobs.
'We've gone back to re-evaluate that policy and decided to allow a TSO [transportation security officer] to stay on if they passed one of the tests,' TSA spokesman Christopher White said. So if TSA staff fail their qualification tests, the TSA simply lowers the pass requirement.
I wrote last week about an Indian scientist, Goverdhan Mehta - a former distinguished visiting professor at the University of Florida, and president of the International Council for Science - being refused a visa to make another visit to the US on the specious grounds that his knowledge of chemistry could pose dangers to this country.
He has now been given a visa, and the State Department - unable to simply say 'we made a mistake' - now claims that even though Mr Mehta was given a form letter that said 'you have been refused a visa' this was not actually a rejection, but rather part of a conditional process aimed at obtaining additional information.
Being as how Mr Mehta declined to provide any additional information, and with officials not commenting on where the additional information came from, it seems plain that what happened was the public uproar in India, in the international scientific community, and among US scientists, all at a time shortly before President Bush was to visit India seeking to strengthen ties between the world's two largest democracies, simply shamed the State Department into issuing the visa it had earlier denied. Details here.
Reader Jack writes with a different type of security horror story :
More from reader Sarah this week, who points out a fascinating new project and form of virtual travel - into your past.
Talking about time travel, she also offers up this site for your interest.
After last week's gem and these new delights, we wait with bated breath for next week's finds.
Lastly this week, reader LuAnn describes the following as the news story of the year, and reader Fred hopes the groom got an appropriate pre-nuptial agreement duly executed before entering into this marriage.
Strange what seems to interest Travel Insider readers, isn't it....
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
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