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Friday 19 September, 2008
I am humbled by the massive response to
year's fund raising drive. A bit like a performer who is nervous
before going on stage, I'm always anxious when announcing each year's
fundraiser - 'what if they don't like me anymore?' runs through my mind.
A large part of the value of each year's fundraiser is not just the cash
(which is of course terribly essential) but the positive affirmation
that the time I invest in this project is appreciated and well
The first tranche of usual supporters (and
some new helpers too) leapt to my assistance after last week's launch of
the 2008 fund raising drive, with contributions ranging all the way from $5
up to a stunning sum that I hesitate to even mention (special thanks to
Ken). The first contribution,
from Tim, came in
at 2.44am, even before all copies of the newsletter had been mailed out; one reader kindly offered to help still further if the fundraising
goals weren't met, and two readers supplemented their ongoing voluntary
subscriptions with additional payments.
In total, we have received help from 215
readers thus far. This is slightly up on last year, when 205 readers responded in the
first week of last year's campaign, and 152, 94 and 86 readers in
With this marvellous support, we're now
almost exactly one third of the way towards this year's goal of 650
subscribers. I need - yes, I truly need - another 435 of
the 21,989 people reading this to now please join in the fundraiser and
help me and The Travel Insider move forward for another year.
There's always a strange and sad side-effect of the annual campaign, which
unnecessary. There's a lift in the number of people who
unsubscribe. There is no reason for anyone to feel guilty at not
contributing, and everyone is welcome to continue to receive the
newsletter, whether you choose to help out in return or not.
Please don't feel you should unsubscribe if you can't contribute.
If you missed it last week, here's
background on the fundraising drive and why your help is truly needed,
this year more than ever previously. To briefly explain, this newsletter and matching website - my full
time job - is all completely free; and relies on the PBS model with
voluntary reader contributions. Once every year, you are asked to help
out, and this year your help is needed even more than in the past.
Last week I asked you to compare the cost
of one cup of coffee a week to the value/pleasure you get from the
newsletter and feature articles.
This week can I suggest a different
paradigm - in my efforts to ensure the survival of The Travel
Insider, I was paying my attorney $5/minute for her time (and in total
she billed several hundred hours). How many minutes do you feel
able to help me with? :)
Please go to the
support page and help as
best you can. No-one should ever feel obliged to help, and neither
should anyone ever give more than what they can conveniently spare. But
please help to keep us up and going and growing.
I've been so motivated by the generous
surge of supporters that I've written and am now releasing this
evening not just one but two more sections of the 'How to negotiate the
best hotel room rate' series, being now parts three and four. Has
there ever been such a detailed look at the intricacies of hotel
I doubt it, and find this surprising,
because just about everyone who travels stays in hotels at least some of
the time, and - as may be becoming more obvious as the series unfolds -
hotel room rates vary as much as do air fares, with one significant
extra feature : While you have close to zero chance of trying to
negotiate your airfare cost with the person you're booking your ticket
with, hotel room rates are often negotiable and if you ask for a better
rate or extra inclusions, you might well get them. And so, here
are another 4,386 words to help you with your future hotel bookings :
This Week's Feature Columns :
What is included and
what is extra (with your hotel booking) and
How to resolve hidden
extra fees : It is very hard to compare rates for hotel rooms,
even for the same hotel room, because different booking sites have
different semi-hidden fees and surcharges, and may have different
inclusions too. Here's what to look out for when comparing rates,
and - if you are sandbagged at the hotel with an unexpected extra fee,
here are some suggestions for getting that resolved in your favor.
Happy anniversary to the Boeing 707 -
it wasn't the first commercial passenger jet, but it was the first
successful passenger jet and revolutionized air travel when it
entered commercial service 50 years ago. 707s were built for 20
years, with some 1100 sold.
As an interesting aside, even though the
very newest 707 would now be 30 years old, as of July this year there
are 40 known 707s still on the books of airlines around the world,
although 26 of them are in inactive/storage status.
In a strange and seeming contradiction,
there are 127 of the Douglas DC8 planes - arch rival to the 707, and
which came out at almost exactly the same time - on the books of world
airlines, with 28 of them in storage.
What makes this strange is that only 556
DC8s were produced, and production ceased 36 years ago.
There's another anniversary to keep in mind
as well. Two days ago saw 100 years since the
first ever airplane fatality.
Perhaps it was oversensitivity to this issue
that caused passengers to start an on-board petition to successfully
demand a replacement plane after the 737 they were to fly on had to
turn back to the gate twice just before take-off.
The flight - an Air Berlin flight attempting
to depart Nuremberg last Sunday, was a new 737 and while taxiing from
the jetway the pilot noticed one of the cockpit display screens was
faulty, so he returned to the gate. The screen was repaired and
the plane pushed back a second time, about an hour late.
While taxiing to the runway, one of the
flight attendants fainted.
But, rather than ask for a replacement
flight attendant, the passengers demanded a replacement plane. The
airline agreed, and the 172 passengers had to wait 15 hours for a
replacement plane to be flown in to Nuremberg. Two of the
passengers refused to fly at all, apparently traumatized by the
Excuse me, but this is beyond pathetic.
A flight attendant faints but the passengers ask for a replacement
plane? They're happy to wait 15 hours for it to arrive, all the
while presumably looking out the terminal windows at a nearly brand new
737 in perfection condition?
A couple of other anniversaries about now.
It is the 30th anniversary of deregulation, which was signed into
law back in October 1978.
It is also the 30th anniversary of the
'invention' of business class.
This advertisement from British Caledonian (long since defunct)
claims they invented business class in 1978, but a careful check of
their history suggests that probably they might have announced it first
in 1978, but their first planes to feature it didn't fly until some
later time in 1979. Qantas also claims to have founded the
concept of business class in 1979, which, if correct, probably means
their first business class equipped planes took to the air before
British Caledonian, even if British Caledonian was first to announce the
idea back in 1978.
And if that isn't already more than you
wanted to know about business class, there's lots more in
Dinosaur watching : It seems I
must advise you to be very careful if you have travel plans involving
Attempts to sell the airline appear to be
stuck, due to the intransigence of the airline's striking unions who are
objecting to staff lay-offs which are almost unavoidably an essential
part of any plan to bring Alitalia anywhere close to profitability in
the future. If Alitalia is to be resurrected, it needs to
rationalize its route structure and its workplace practices, and
currently there appears to be an impasse between the unions and
Will the Italian government allow
Alitalia to close down completely? We'll probably see the
answer to that question any day now, and if the government does choose
to allow Alitalia to cease operations, well - you'll have a problem with
any future flights you've booked with them.
So, be very vigilant if you have flights
scheduled with Alitalia in the next short while, and if you're
considering Alitalia in the future, you need to consider the possibility
either that the airline may cease operations entirely or may massively
change its schedules, and factor that in to your choice of which airline
Talking about airlines in trouble,
BA CEO Willie Walsh predicts that 'up to' 30 more airlines will
go bankrupt between now and Christmas, in addition to what he calls
'30 or so' airlines that have gone out of business so far this year.
I asked BA for details on which airlines Mr
Walsh believes are at risk, but (and perhaps understandably!) they
didn't reply to my note.
One airline Mr Walsh doubtless would love to
see go bankrupt - but which announced an improved profit last year so
seems unlikely to do so - is arch-rival Virgin Atlantic, with their
quirky owner, Sir Richard Branson announcing that he'll spend
millions of dollars if necessary to attempt to block the alliance
between BA and AA (and Iberia). This finds Sir Richard back in
the underdog role that he loves so much; more details
Also about airline mergers, opposition to
the DL/NW merger is coming from an unexpected quarter - passengers.
A group of 28 air travelers are suing the two airlines, seeking an
injunction to block the merger. They say it violates antitrust law
and will substantially lessen competition.
This week they sought court approval to
depose the CEOs of American, Continental, US Airways and United to get
their views on airline consolidation and to question them on public
statements they had earlier made on the subject. Delta and
Northwest objected to this, and the judge refused the petitioners
permission to question the CEOs.
The case will be heard on 5 November in San
Francisco, and is expected to last about ten days, with a ruling
possible prior to Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, an inability to
adduce testimony from other airline CEOs would seem to weaken the case
for these passengers.
And talking about passengers suing
airlines, here's a lovely heart-warming story of a passenger who did
exactly that, and won. Attorney Mitchell Berns and his wife were
traveling back home from Vegas to New York, only to have Delta cancel
their flight due to weather. Berns couldn't help noticing that the
weather problem DL cited didn't interfere with other flights proceeding
normally and asked DL to rebook them on another airline, or at least to
refund the balance of his ticket so he could buy fares directly.
Delta refused, pointing out that it had no obligations to assist in the
case of weather related problems.
When Berns eventually got home, he checked
with the National Weather Service, and discovered that the weather
problem DL was using as an excuse was exactly that - an invalid excuse.
The snow DL said was the problem wasn't expected to fall until five
hours after his cancelled flight would have landed in New York.
So, Berns sued Delta in small claims
court and won a judgment for the $938 he had to spend on buying
tickets with JetBlue. DL didn't even bother to turn up for the
hearing, and so Berns won. Details
Bottom line - call the airlines' bluff
when they come up with excuses, and take them to small claims court.
As fuel prices continue to drop, and oil is now under $100/barrel, what
does United do? United doubles the fee it charges for a second checked
bag, from $25 to $50 each way. Yes, you'll now pay $100 roundtrip
for a second checked bag.
On Friday last week, Continental added a $15 fee for the first checked bag, for
travel beginning Oct. 7. They said they expect the fee to
generate more than $100 million in annual 'net benefits'.
Indeed, there's been such a flurry of
airlines increasing their bag fees over the last few weeks it is
difficult to keep up with all the changes. I need to rewrite my
pages of bag fee policies, but I'm hoping for a slowdown in the changes
before doing so. Meantime, here's a
good article about the increases in fees, the extra profits for the
airlines, and the extra problems for us as passengers.
Hot on the heels of United and Continental
increasing their checked bag fees, Air Canada announced that it would
eliminate the fee it has been charging for a second bag, and
simplify its other baggage fees. Now, usually, when an airline
'simplifies' something, that means it will increase the cost or
eliminate some lower priced options, but in this case, simplification
seems to actually mean savings.
Air Canada also said that it would merge
its fuel surcharges into its published base fare to make it easier
for passengers to understand what they are paying for their flights.
Doesn't that also sound high minded and praiseworthy?
Well, be careful, whenever an airline starts
to sound too decent, they're probably up to something, and reader Hugh
thinks he knows what AC's game is. He says that by
hiding/obscuring the fuel surcharge, AC is now insulating itself from
calls to reduce its fuel surcharge as jet fuel prices drop. Could
well be that Hugh is onto something there.
One can well understand why some airlines
might be embarrassed at the way their fuel surcharges have grown.
KLM recently published a fare for travel from Curacao and Aruba to
Amsterdam and back. The publicized special fare - AWG549
roundtrip. But the total cost? AWG1450 - almost three
times as much as the quoted airfare. The largest part of the
extra costs was an AWG640 fuel surcharge.
Having a fuel surcharge substantially
greater than the fare is like the tail wagging the dog. It
is time for all airlines to bring sanity back to what they call airfare
and what they call surcharge.
And, let's not also overlook the third part
of the total fare cost. We had an airfare of AWG549, fuel
surcharge of AWG640, and then a slew of taxes and fees totaling AWG261.
How much is fair to pay in taxes and fees
when flying? In this case, they add 22% to the base ticket and
fuel surcharge price. And built into the fuel surcharge and base
fare are all the extra taxes that are added to the price of the fuel,
and all the other taxes and fees that are absorbed into the airfare
rather than separately costed out. In total, probably well over
30% goes in taxes and fees.
No matter what you think to be a fair amount
to pay for taxes and fees, you'll probably agree that 30% is too much.
Talking about fuel surcharges and the
declining cost of oil and jet fuel, there's a claim on the US airlines'
lobbying group, the Air Transport Association, that each dollar
increase in the cost of oil per barrel represents an extra cost to the
US aviation industry of $430 million.
So, does that also mean that a drop in the
cost of oil saves the industry $430 million? And with close on a $50
drop from oil's peak of several months ago, does that mean the
industry will be making an extra $21.5 billion in profits due to savings
in fuel over the next twelve months?
Apparently what goes around doesn't come
around, at least in the airline industry. We are now being asked to believe
that each dollar fall in the cost of oil doesn't translate into the same
saving as each dollar rise causes an increase. For example, in
John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist for the ATA, explained that despite crude-oil prices declining from
recent highs, jet fuel is still expensive, as only a percentage of each
barrel is refined for jet fuel. He added that airlines have been unable
to raise fares at rates that could keep pace with rising fuel prices.
'It's a race between fares and fuel, and fuel is winning,' Heimlich
said. 'Don't think that seeing the crude price is what airlines have
Hmmmm. The fact remains that the
airlines have created a trap for themselves. Understandably, they
never thought oil prices would plunge as far down as they (temporarily)
have, and so never thought they'd be called to account for the opposite
side of the $1/bbl = $430 million extra cost equation they've been using
to justify their ongoing battle against their customers.
The 'Field of Dreams' theory is alive and well in Las Vegas - not only
in the form of hoteliers who continue to build new hotel rooms, but in
the airport authority there, too. The city expects a further
32,000 hotel rooms to open up between now and the end of 2011, making
for a staggering 165,042 hotel rooms in total. But, there's a big
problem associated with that - airlines are cutting back flights to Las
Vegas, and because the city relies on air services to bring 50% of its
guests to it, that's a big problem.
Even bigger is that to be able to handle the projected extra flights to
serve the extra 32,000 hotel rooms (assuming half the new visitors come
by air, I estimate this will require 50 - 75 extra flights a day),
McCarran Airport needs to build another terminal. But tell that to
the airlines who are being asked to fund the new terminal development -
they're cutting back on flights rather than adding them, making the current terminal facilities
more than sufficient. They don't want a new terminal, and they
doubly don't want to spend money at present on building something they
neither want nor need.
But the airport authority has chosen to listen to the local hotels, and
is pressing on with the development regardless. Details
Talking about airports, would you like to
buy an airport? London's Gatwick Airport is up for sale.
If an airport is a bit too much, how about a
train? A set of luxury train carriages is
for sale here in
35% of Blackberry users would choose
their Blackberry over their spouse, or at least according to a
survey reported in
Now, if it was preferring one's Blackberry
over one's ex-spouse, I could certainly understand the statistic.....
Talking about Blackberrys (or should it be
Blackberries, I wonder?), get ready for the exciting new cell phone
that will be based on a new operating system called Android, and
developed by Google.
Could this be the answer to the iPhone
(and the Blackberry)? We'll know more this coming week, when a
formal announcement is expected from T-Mobile, which will be the first
carrier to start selling the phones. The first Android phone, made
by high end phone manufacturer HTC, will be priced at a moderate $199
(with new 2 yr contract), and is expected to be available some time in
mid October. I hope to be one of the first to get one, and will
let you know my impressions as soon afterwards as possible.
And talking about cell phones in general, I
received my first ever telemarketing sales call on my cell phone
So, if you haven't done this already, go to
www.donotcall.gov and register
all your phone numbers - home and cell - on the national do not call
list. It is only recently that cell phone numbers have been
available for telemarkets to access, and it is also only recently that
you've been able to add your cell phone numbers to the national Do Not
One last cell phone comment - long time
readers know I'm gravely suspicious of the dangers of cell phone
radiation, and believe we're at a state of social awareness of this
issue similar to the situation with the cigarettes/lung cancer issue
back in the 1950s. The analogy is even more appropriate because,
as witness the Blackberry item above, we're as much addicted to our cell
phones today as smokers ever were (or are) to their cigarettes.
Whatever the reality of cell phone radiation
dangers, one thing does seem clear. Younger children are more
susceptible to these dangers than mature adults. Which makes
this item about schools allowing wireless companies to put
transmitters on their sites all the more regrettable.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
The very concept of 'terrorism' has expanded way beyond anything that a
normal sensible person would understand to be terrorism. And
draconian laws that usurp our previous rights - laws hurriedly passed in
the name of dire need to combat terrorism - are now being re-purposed
for more mundane matters.
In drought afflicted Australia, people who
steal water are being described as terrorists. Details
In VA, some teenagers who stupidly wrote
death threats on playing cards, emulating a concept from a recent Batman
movie, but with no apparent plans to do anything about the threats they
wrote, have been called terrorists. Details
But, winning first prize and becoming this
week's security horror story is the lady in Dundee, Scotland, who walked
home from work, taking a short cut along a cycling path. She was
arrested under the UK's Terrorism Act for walking on a pathway that was
designated for cyclists only, not pedestrians. Details of this
epic act of lunacy
Not called a terrorist, but a similar
victim of epic lunacy is the MN high school student who is now
facing expulsion. His crime? It was noticed that there was a
box cutter in his car, parked in the school grounds. He says the
box cutter was needed for his after school job.
But the school has a zero-tolerance
(which invariably equates to zero sense) weapons policy.
If you are an international terrorist,
please stop reading now. Because I'm about to tell my honest law
abiding readers how to smuggle things through airport security
and onto a plane. Hide them inside the hollow tubes of your
wheeled carry-on's expandable handles. Details
However, here's a reward for the
international terrorists who hopefully didn't read the preceding
paragraph. If you want to get your name off the 'No Fly' list,
here's a simple solution. Change your name. That's what
Mario Labbe did in Canada.
Efforts to get Mario's name off the TSA list
never succeeded, so he simply changed his name to Francois Mario
Labbe, and now flies with no problems whatsoever. Presumably his
friends all call him by what is now his middle name, but he flies under
his first name. Details
Here's an interesting analysis of airport security, and a novel but
compellingly convincing reason why seizing harmless things such as
liquids doesn't protect us from terrorism at all. The only
problem is the solution advocated by the writer - either abolish the
liquid (and other) bans (= good), or treat people with too much liquid
as severe risk terrorists (= bad).
What are you doing on your birthday in 2009?
Disney are offering free admission to everyone on their birthday
next year - details
I wrote a few weeks ago about a bizarre
ad featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld. They're back, and
this time, instead of an expensively long 90 seconds,
ad is an extraordinary 4 minutes 30 seconds (nine times longer than
a normal television ad). But I quite liked it, in a strange sort
of whimsical way.
Unfortunately, just as I was starting to
like the concept, Microsoft announced it will not be releasing any more
ads in the series (there might be a third one released, but I haven't
managed to find it). Which makes this sudden spark of creativity
all the more peculiar.
I've always been fascinated by and loved
dolphins, and my first ever exposure to them was at the Marineland
facility in Napier, New Zealand. And so there is something
haunting and evocative about
this story of a dolphin funeral, of sorts, off the shore from
How did the other dolphins know?
Truly, there are many mysteries in nature that we're not yet privy to.
And talking about nature's mysteries, and
ocean dwelling creatures, here's a
different sort of story, about polar bears.
In closing, I hope you've enjoyed the 8600
words in this week's newsletter and two feature columns. Please
consider honoring my once a year request for reciprocity, and give some
much needed financial support to help this
I'll share, next week, our continued
the 650 reader contributions goal.
Until next week,
please enjoy safe travels