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Friday, 17 July, 2009
As much as I enjoy traveling, it is always
great to be back home again. One's own living space, one's own
bed, even one's own pillow - all these things provide a feeling of
belonging and comfort that is seldom matched when traveling, and
hopefully for most of us, perhaps one of the important positive effects
of international travel is the re-affirmation of our satisfaction and
contentment with where and how we currently live.
My return flights with Northwest/Delta were pleasant
and uneventful, taking me from London first to Detroit then on to
I spent almost three hours between flights
in Detroit with its amazingly long terminal concourse and indoor trains
that run along the length of this building, and spent most of the time
in Northwest's lounge, which offered free Wi-Fi and lovely
work stations for people to work at with their computers.
Unfortunately, the free internet suffered from terrible bandwidth
constraints - I tested it and found it to offer a mere 65 kbits/sec of
bandwidth - a speed reminiscent of dial-up modems and one totally
unsuited for modern computing. This meant that for the entire
three hours, my laptop kept trying and retrying to download my email,
failing each time. Rather than work productively, I suffered
Northwest needs to urgently improve the
internet service offered to its lounge members. This is
I had another Hertz car for this second time in
England, on my return from Europe.
Hertz charged me a £35 (plus 15% VAT - US$65) drop-off fee on my
four day rental, something I've never had to pay before when picking up
a car in England at one location and dropping it at a different
Oh - the really outrageous part of the charge?
I picked the car up at London's Stansted Airport, and returned it to one
central London locations, barely 20 miles away, four days later.
To take a car from one London location to another costs a $65 fee?
I also made a slightly bad choice about the
fuel options. I can never decide between the 'return the car full'
or 'return the car empty' options, and on this occasion decided to take
the 'return the car empty' option. Hertz offer what they describe
to be a discounted price for fuel if you pre-purchase the full tank of
fuel, and I decided to take their 'challenge' and see how close to empty
I could return the vehicle.
So, imagine my surprise, on getting in to
the car, to see the trip computer proudly telling me I had 650
miles to go on my tank of fuel! I was not planning on driving
nearly that many miles in the four days. The car had a very large
fuel tank and used diesel, giving it better economy and hence the very
long range on a single tank of fuel. The renting agent should have
warned me about this.
In addition, the price Hertz charged for
diesel (£1.06/liter - ie $6.60/US gallon) did not appear
to be discounted at all. Just about every gas station I drove past
was offering to sell me diesel for that price or less.
Shame on Hertz. They misrepresented
their price for diesel as being discounted, and should have warned me
that the vehicle had such an unusually long range capacity on a single
The only saving grace - after doing some
extra driving, I did return the car with barely a drop of remaining
diesel in it.
I received an email from a reader earlier
this week, pointing me to an article about Delta being fined $375,000
for bumping passengers in a way that contravened the obligations
placed on airlines by the Department of Transportation. This got
me to thinking that an article about being bumped would be a useful
addition to the website.
The inevitable process of article inflation
then followed, and I've now ended up with what will be a six part series
(possibly more) all about being bumped off flights - why it happens, how
to reduce your chances of being bumped, how to maximize your profit if
you volunteer to be bumped, and what the official obligations are for
airlines in both the US and EU. Phew!
I'm releasing four of these six parts this
week, but would like to ask you to help ensure that the very important
remaining two parts of the series are as up to date and comprehensive as
possible. If you have any recent experiences (ie in the last year
or so) at being bumped - either volunteering or being involuntarily
denied boarding - it would be really helpful to find out what the
airline offered you, and any other details and tips that can be shared
with all the other readers. What are the going rates for volunteer
compensation? Have you had success in negotiating the rates up
further? What else have you succeeded in getting from the airlines
If you can offer any thoughts on matters
related to being bumped, please do
let me know.
I'll collate your replies and add them to the material I'm already
writing so as to ensure that the articles are as complete and
comprehensive as possible. Many thanks.
Meanwhile, here is a link to the four
articles already available for you :
This Week's Feature Columns :
about being bumped, including ten (actually twelve!) strategies
to minimize your risk of being bumped, why the airlines sometimes bump
passengers, and what your official rights are.
Christmas Markets Cruise
has excited a positive amount of interest, and if you've not yet
considered this, please do so. It is my perennial favorite cruise,
and while the idea of cruising along the Danube in December seems
counter-intuitive, the weather has never been too cold/wet/snowy on past
cruises, and the special circumstance of the Christmastime spirit and
the lovely Christmas craft markets really make for a very appealing
Don't forget also all the other
river cruise savings - up to
$1650 per person on the longest cruises - currently available too.
Dinosaur watching : United
seems to be extending its new policy of not accepting credit card
payments from passengers if they buy their tickets through certain
travel agencies. They have now sent out notifications to a second
group of travel agencies; their first notices take effect from Monday,
and the next round will take effect on 3 August.
This continues to be a strange way of
introducing a new policy, and seems clearly intended to signal to the
other airlines 'hey guys, look what we're doing, do you want to come
join us', with the second round of notices being seen as saying 'Hey!
We're serious. We really want to do this. Come on, please do
But so far, the other airlines are sitting
on their hands and waiting to see how the marketplace responds.
Alaska Airlines and Jetblue have both issued meaningless statements that
they could switch in an instant - Jetblue in particular said that
they are not, at present, looking at changing their policies on
credit cards although they are focusing on reducing costs.
That highly qualified statement leaves
the door wide open for Jetblue to introduce credit card fees or to
refuse to accept credit cards any time they choose.
Thirteen members of Congress have jointly
signed a letter to United's CEO Glenn Tilton, asking him to delay
implementation of this new policy. They cite interference with the Fair
Credit Billing Act and asked Tilton to respond by yesterday.
The Congress members want a postponement of
the policy for the next 60 days to allow Congress time for their
committees to evaluate the likely effects of the policy and if
necessary, to take action to mitigate the effects on agencies and
consumers. The letter said any delay would not impose a hardship
on United because only a small number of agents were affected. The
senders of the letter want United to explain and justify their claim
that this new policy would not hurt consumers and travel agents.
Let's hope (or perhaps not hope) that United
does a better job of justifying this action than its pathetic attempt
here, where spokesman Robin Janikowski says 'costs of
distributing our services are significant and we will continue to reduce
these costs while we run an efficient airline for our customers'.
So what exactly are the 'significant'
distribution costs United incurs. Commissions? Nil.
Shipping/fulfilment/ticket printing? Nil. Phone calls?
Nil (they charge if you book through the phone). Credit card fees?
This is a business model most companies
would die for - no transportation/freight costs to get their product to
market and to the purchaser, and no commissions or margins to the
resellers who sell their product for them. It is ridiculous to
suggest a 2% credit card fee - a fee that most businesses accept
without blinking - is significant.
Many people missed the item in last week's
newsletter about the person who suffered a broken guitar after
checking it on a United flight, and the
he then recorded after United refused during nine months of negotiation
to compensate him for the broken guitar, and so wrote in to tell me
about it, even though I'd already mentioned it. :)
United, confronted with a video that has now
been viewed more than 3.1 million times, has finally responded, and
donated $3000 on behalf of the guitar's owner to support music education
through the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. I'm sure guitar
owner Dave Carroll appreciates that gesture, but has United actually
reimbursed him for the cost of his guitar repairs yet?
Apparently Carroll has two more videos he plans to release on the topic,
so no doubt we'll get updates via YouTube.
Perhaps part of the reason United has been
so slow to reimburse Dave Carroll for his guitar damage, and are now
seeking to avoid absorbing credit card fees, is that they're in
desperate financial straits.
an article that speculates about United going yet again into
bankruptcy, perhaps in about 12 months time. The last time
Unitd borrowed money - $500 million in June, secured by a mortgage over
their spare parts inventory - they were forced to accept an interest
rate of 17%; which is not only a huge cost but a massive surcharge over
regular interest rates for regular loans with regular credit risks.
And as part of its desperate attempt to save
money any way it can, United is delaying the refurbishment of its first
class cabins in the 777 fleet. This is unfortunate, because first
class passengers expect the best possible experience and offer the
greatest profit opportunities. Is United being 'penny wise and
Meanwhile, although trying to save money
every which way, United has incurred an $80,000 expense that it
absolutely did not need to incur.
The Department of Transportation has fined
United $80,000 for failing to tell customers that the flights they were
travelling on were code-share flights operated by another carrier.
The DoT requires airlines to give customers that information before they
book a flight.
The DoT made test calls to United's
reservations line to determine if the carrier's employees were advising
consumers of code-sharing arrangements and found that United's
reservations agents failed to disclose code-sharing during a
"substantial number" of those calls.
Although United said, earlier in the year,
that it was looking at placing at order for up to 150 new planes to
replace the older planes in its aging fleet, it is far from clear how
United would be able to pay for them.
And does it really matter if UA simply keeps
on operating older planes? After all, we as motorists know that
there's a great deal of savings to be enjoyed if we keep our cars longer
and don't trade them in for new cars so regularly.
Well, what's true of cars is not so true of
planes. Here's an
interesting item that discloses how the new 737-800s being received
by American Airlines are providing a 35% saving in fuel costs per
passenger mile compared to the older MD80 planes they're replacing.
That's a stunning difference in operating cost.
However, even with these new planes,
American Airlines still managed to lose $319 million for the second
quarter. After some special item adjustments, the loss
increased to $390 million.
Although AA has plenty of excuses for its
loss, one excuse it can't make is the cost of its jet fuel. As
this item reports, airlines paid an average of $1.73 per gallon
of jet fuel in May, compared with almost twice that much - $3.23 a
gallon - a year ago.
Talking about new planes, Air France has
seen its first A380 roll out of the Hamburg factory, and expects to
start operating it on the Paris-New York (CDG-JFK) route in November.
This will make AF the first European airline to fly the A380, and the
first airline to operate A380s across the Atlantic.
They are stuffing more seats into their
A380s than other airlines have to date. The AF A380s will have 538
passengers, compared with as few as 450 on Qantas. Here's a
table of how different
airlines are configuring their A380s, which is part of my review of
the A380 last year after enjoying a flight on a lovely Emirates A380.
And in a quiet U-turn on their earlier proud
policy of '4 Engines 4 Long Haul', whereby Virgin Atlantic (VS)
touted its 747 and A340 planes with four engines as being better/more
reliable on the trans-Atlantic routes than competitors with only two
engines on their planes, the airline has now signed a contract for ten
A330 airplanes (which have only two engines).
This will make them the first twin-engined
planes operated by VS, and it is thought the 250 - 300 seater A330s will
replace most of VS's larger 747s.
The airline also has six A380s on order,
although its commitment to accepting delivery of them seems to grow
weaker and weaker with every passing year, and it wouldn't surprise me
at all if part of the negotiation for buying the A330s might not be a
concession by Airbus allowing VS to either further delay or entirely
cancel their A380 order.
It is interesting to see VS ordering the
A330 rather than waiting for the A350, but being as how their Airbus
order was somewhat triggered by delays in Boeing's 787 program, perhaps
the airline is desperate for any planes at all, as soon as possible.
In more Airbus news, it has now delivered
its first A320 that was assembled at its plant in - no, not Hamburg and
neither was it from Toulouse. Instead, the plane was assembled at
Airbus' Chinese plant in Tianjin. Airbus plans to increase its
airplane assembly in China, reaching a rate of 4 planes/month by the
end of 2011.
And talking about Air France, the black
boxes from its crashed A330 have still not been located, and with
the locator 'pingers' on the boxes now probably inactive due to the
batteries having run down, there's now little expectation they'll ever
While there was no certainty the black boxes
would have told us what happened, the cockpit voice recorder tape might
have been very helpful, as may have been the data from the data tape as
well, and without this information, the cause of the A330 crash may
never be determined with any degree of certainty.
interesting article about the conflicting issues surrounding what
would seem to be a simple issue about improving the ability to receive
flight data and/or locate crashed plane black boxes.
But this light cloud now hanging over the
A330 clearly didn't discourage VS from ordering ten of them.
And bad news for Boeing.
Although they've sold 93 planes this year, they've also had 89
cancellations. Worse still, the theoretical value of the new plane
sales is $6.3 billion, while the cancellations represent about $9.5
billion. Ouch. Details
Bookend stories : Airlines love to
merge and create alliances, but they hate it when other airlines try
and do it. Case in point - the Star Alliance has now been allowed
to expand to include Continental Airlines, and for CO to participate in
a four airline joint venture along with United, Air Canada, and
Lufthansa, with full antitrust immunity.
But, at the same time, it seems likely that
some airlines will be formally objecting to the new marketing alliance
between Delta and V Australia. Among the airlines thought
likely to object are United and its Star Alliance partner Air New
Apparently, it is fine for United to ally
with Air New Zealand, and to create a close-knit joint venture with CO,
LH and AC, but when UA finds itself confronted by the possibility of its
own AC/NZ/UA operations in the South Pacific being combatted by a
Delta/V Australia alliance, it is time to call foul and complain.
Some people might consider that rank
There are a couple of trends currently, both
pointing to a product I reviewed a few years back as becoming
increasingly essential for travelers.
Firstly, we all know that flights are
getting more and more full, and the chances of having people sitting
close to us are increasing all the time.
Indeed, we now may even find ourselves
suffering the ignominy and discomfort of a middle seat, apropos which 3M
have just released results of a survey showing that 54% of Americans
would rather visit the dentist than suffer through a flight in the
middle seat. 20% of those surveyed said they'd add an
overnight stay and take a later flight rather than accept a middle seat
on a more convenient flight.
The top five dislikes about a middle seat
Having a nosy seatmate peering
over your shoulder (84%)
Crawling over someone to get
to the bathroom (83%)
Not being able to stretch out
Having an overweight seatmate
on either side of you (80%)
Not having a place to rest
your head (71%)
65% of people are concerned about nosy
neighbors snooping on personal or work emails and with good reason,
since 49% of people admit to glancing at strangers’ computer screens.
The second trend is that more and more
people are working on planes, due to the gradual roll-out of
in-flight Wi-Fi, encouraging people to work on board. While
working in coach class with a regular sized laptop is seldom easy or
comfortable, the growth of the new small 'Netbook' computers are making
this more practical to consider.
AirTran earlier this week announced that it
now has Wi-Fi internet on all its planes. Virgin America also has
its fleet fully equipped, and DL, UA and AA are all increasing the
number of planes in their fleets with Wi-Fi too.
Which brings me to the product I reviewed
(and like). This is 3M's Computer Screen Privacy Filter - a
very clever device that limits the field of view from which your laptop
screen can be viewed.
Check out my review
and consider getting one of these devices - all the more important not
just because of more people potentially looking over your shoulder but
also because of the wider viewing angles otherwise possible on newer
I was using one of my GPS units to help me
navigate while driving around England the last few weeks. Before
leaving the US, I'd loaded an optional set of speed camera location data
onto the GPS, and it was a most magical experience. Every so often
the GPS would beep, and then count down the distance to a speed camera.
Invariably, right at the zero point, I'd see a speed camera on the side
of the road, and so was able to moderate my speed to keep it
satisfactorily close to the posted limit on each occasion.
This was a tremendously convenient service,
and while you could argue that it encourages people to speed, you could
also say that it reminds drivers of prevailing speed limits and the
consequences of exceeding them. If the purpose of speed cameras is
as it is claimed to be - ie, to keep speeding down, rather than simply
to generate revenue from speeding fines, then one would assume that the
authorities would welcome such GPS services. For sure, it helped
me concentrate more carefully on my own driving speed.
But the DC police have a different
perspective. Although they don't say speed cameras are merely a
way to make money, they definitely object to drivers being prompted to
check their speed by their GPS when approaching a speed camera, as
this article reports.
The QE2 seems to be risking a fate similar
to that of the original Queen Elizabeth. You may recall that the
Queen Elizabeth suffered an ignominious and unloved fate in Hong Kong
harbor, with a mysterious fire ending various failed plans to repurpose
the ship after it was withdrawn from passenger service.
The QE2 had been planned to be berthed
permanently in Dubai as a floating hotel, but the depressed state of
things in Dubai has caused that to be reconsidered. Now it seems
that the QE2 might instead be sent to Cape Town to be a luxury floating
And in other ex-cruise ship news, the boat
know to many of us as 'The Love Boat' (from the television series), and
which was actually the Pacific Princess, has now been seized by the
Italian Coast Guard in Genoa, acting on the authority of an Italian
court who ordered it seized due to non-payment of $14 million in
refurbishment bills by the ship's current owners.
However, some better news for the current
Queen Mary 2 and the soon to be launched Queen Elizabeth (III) ships.
Their 2011 World Voyage tours have experienced booking levels 50% up on
last year's release/sale of the 2010 program.
Gadget alert - Walmart are now selling a
Blu-ray Disc player for $98 (the Magnavox NB530MGX). That's a
heck of a price, and with the cost of the discs gently reducing as well,
and the range of titles increasing, maybe now is the time for you to
consider one of these amazing devices (which will play regular DVDs as
But you'll only notice the improved picture
quality if you've got a high quality television/monitor.
Preferably one that can support 1080p, and if not that, then hopefully
Cell phones are dangerous for your health
(in surprising ways) : Here's the
story of a girl who fell down an open manhole and into the sewer
below because she wasn't watching where she was walking while texting.
What will be next - states passing laws banning texting while walking?
This Week's Security Horror Story :
If you've been vaguely following things, you may know that new US
passports now contain an RFID chip inside them that contains some or all
of your personal details on it. Although the State Department
first assured us that no-one could read these chips and the data they
contain, they are now conceding that actually this is possible, and are
recommending that you keep your passport in a special radio-insulating
Even though there's no convincing reason for
adding RFID chips to passports (and to other ID devices such as even
driving licenses) the State Dept insists on continuing to add the chips
Big deal, you might think. There's no
real personal risk to you by having an RFID chip in your passport.
Well, while it is true that the risks associated with an RFID chip are
low and obscure, they are still definitely present. Read
this article, and note in particular the reference to the security
consultants who, to prove a point, built a concealed pretend-bomb
(actually some harmless fireworks) and hid it in a trash bin, then added
a detonator to the 'bomb' that was activated when a US passport came
close to it.
So if you're an international terrorist,
wouldn't you love the ability to create concealed explosives and leave
them in places all around the world - bombs that will only be triggered
when a US citizen walks past?
Would someone tell me again why we need an
RFID chip in our passport?
Actually, someone needs to tell the states,
and the present administration, why we need to robustly identify people
before issuing them with state ID such as driver's licenses. The
states have hated the thought of being required to comply with the REAL
ID law - a law which not coincidentally would make it impossible for
illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.
So the states have invented some fantasyland
style stories about the costs to them of complying with REAL ID, and
some states have flat out refused to follow the federal mandate, and the
federal government has weakly looked the other way. The states now
have a new, albeit unlikely ally in their fight to not carefully confirm
the identity and eligibility of people applying for state ID - none
other than the Homeland Security Secretary herself, Janet Napolitano.
In her former incarnation as governor of Arizona, she signed into law a
bill that self-proclaimed AZ to be exempt from the need to follow these
federal requirements. Details
This flagrant refusal to follow federal
security requirements clearly well qualifies her to now be Homeland
Security Secretary. When the criminals take over the police
station, only mayhem and madness will follow.
Talking about when the criminals take over,
this story of a TSA officer being arrested on charges of grand
larceny arising out of stealing items out of passenger baggage?
Lastly, here's a
puzzling story that begs for further detail. After some sort
of disagreement at security, an AirTran pilot then proceeded to his
plane and was getting ready to fly the plane on its scheduled flight
when local law enforcement officers boarded the flight, arrested and
handcuffed him, and took him away and locked him up in the Newport News
This caused the flight and its passengers to
be delayed three hours while a replacement pilot was flown in.
The TSA made a nonsense statement about
the incident which explained nothing. The airport and airline
have both refused to comment.
Wouldn't you like to know what it was which
was apparently so innocuous as to allow the pilot to proceed freely to
his plane, but so serious he then had to be arrested, handcuffed, and
detained, at considerable inconvenience to the airline and its
And why the secrecy? It seems the only
time the TSA actually disclose information is after the person they've
victimized goes public and complains. We know they have plenty of
surveillance/security camera footage, and we know that when it suits
their purpose, the TSA happily make it public to 'prove' their innocence.
How about releasing some footage now to prove the pilot's guilt?
We deserve to be told the full details about
what transpired; secrecy removes what little accountability remains for
these public officials.
It subsequently transpires that the captain
- a 57 yr old former Marine with an honorable discharge after 22 years
of service (not your typical criminal or terrorist, apparently) - has
been charged with assault and battery, the exact details of which remain
obscure. After being charged, he was released from jail on his own
recognizance prior to a subsequent court hearing.
Until next week please enjoy safe travels