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30 December, 2005 

Good morning

Christmas is now behind us for another year, and I'll give the last word on the controversy over whether we should call Christmas Christmas or 'the holiday season' to reader Lara, who writes

I wonder how many of those who find the term Christmas offensive realize the term they prefer - holiday - literally means Holy Day?

I've been recommending people switch to Google's Gmail service as a way of avoiding problems with spam filters trapping each week's newsletter.  So imagine my disappointment at discovering that last week's newsletter was thought to be spam by Gmail.  If you have a Gmail account and missed last week's newsletter, perhaps you too could write to them and ask them to whitelist the newsletter.

Another year draws to a close.  It has been a good year for The Travel Insider.  Readership for the weekly newsletter almost reached 20,000 (we're at 19,757 as of Thursday evening, up from 14,514 this time last year), and daily web visits are more than double what they were last year (don't have current numbers with me at present).

I'll guess I wrote well over a third of a million words during the year, variously in the newsletters (we had newsletters every week with no breaks, plus seven special newsletters) and the feature articles (no idea how many there were of those; most weeks saw one, a few weeks saw more than one, but a few weeks were silent).  This is as much as you'd get in four average sized books.

The year saw our first appearance on a television show (talking about Boeing) as well as various mentions in newspapers and magazines, radio appearances, an Op-Ed piece in one of the New York papers, and providing a new regular column on travel related technology for an upmarket travel magazine.  Our NZ tour was probably the best tour we've arranged so far, and reader support for our fundraising drive back in April/May was stronger than the previous year.

And so, please allow me to hope your own year has been similarly wonderful, and let's all hope for great things in 2006 - for ourselves, for our friends and family, and (why not) for everyone else, too.

One of the great things about my 'job' (even when finishing each week's newsletter at too close to midnight on Thursday night, I find it hard to think of this as a job) is that it encourages me to seek out solutions to problems I face, rather than passively put up with them, in the hope the solutions I uncover will be appropriate to pass on to you.

I've now discovered a lovely little piece of simple, elegant, and effective software which has very much helped with one of the nuisance factors in our everyday internet computing :

This Week's Feature Column :  Roboform Password Manager :  Here's a simple solution for how to create and remember user names and passwords for all the different websites you visit that require them.  Easy to install, easy to use, and affordable.  Don't believe me?  Check out their 30 day free trial and decide for yourself.

Dinosaur watching Independence Air may be nearing the end of its life, and earlier this week sent out formal furlough notices to its employees advising of the likelihood it will cease operations sometime between 7 - 21 January.

Although it is warning its employees of the possible/probable cessation of service any week now, the airline is still accepting future bookings for flights at least through the end of April.

Could this be because Independence knows help may be at hand, albeit from an unlikely and perhaps even unacceptable source?

First, a bit of background to put this turn of events in focus.  Independence Air, under its earlier name of Atlantic Coast Airlines, operated regional services for United from 1989 through to 2004.  This was profitable for ACA and presumably satisfactory for United as well.

However, as part of its bankruptcy, United sought to renegotiate its contract with ACA.  Presumably United's reasoning was 'if we're losing money, then so too should our service providers'.  However, ACA refused to bow to United's demands to accept less payment for its services, and decided to start operating direct services to the public, under the Independence Air name.

During this restructuring, another regional carrier, Mesa Air, tried to buy ACA, making an unsuccessful hostile takeover bid.

And so, ACA became Independence Air, and after a disastrous eighteen loss-making months, declared bankruptcy in November.  It has also filed a $1.28 billion suit against United for its loss of profits from the broken contract.

United's bankruptcy court judge reduced this claim down to a maximum of $500 million, and should the claim be successful, Independence would receive payment at the same rate as other unsecured creditors - ie between about 5c - 8c per dollar owed.  If Independence did lose $1.28 billion, it might recover no more than $25 million.

In a commercial example of the domino effect, it could be argued that the handling of United's bankruptcy has now moved ACA/Independence Air into bankruptcy, too.

Anyway, with this as background, guess who one of the companies now bidding to buy some or all of Independence Air is?  Yes, United Airlines.

Should this occur, and likely at a very low transaction value, I'll leave it to you to work out the very many different ways that United will have won on the deal.  And, if United does buy the remains of Independence Air, does that mean United will end up paying itself damages?  Quite possibly so, with the net effect being less money to be used to compensate third party creditors, and more money ending up in United's own pot.

As I've said before, Chapter 11 - particularly with a compliant judge who consistently sides with the company - is a weird but not wonderful thing that desperately needs to be drastically changed.

Unsurprisingly, Mesa Air are also trying to buy some or all of Independence's assets too.

The other interesting lesson to be learned out of this entire corporate disaster is how profitable regional airlines can be.  ACA, by its own claim, lost out on $1.28 billion of profits if it had continued to provide services to UA as originally contracted.  Many of the other regional carriers (including Mesa Air) are robustly profitable.

Why are regional carriers so profitable when the dinosaur airlines they contract with (and in effect also compete against) are so unprofitable?  There are various and complex factors at play, with the generally less-unionized labor being an important part of the puzzle, which is why some of the dinosaurs have their own wholly owned regional carriers.

Why no reduction in fuel surcharges?  American Airlines boasted that its jet-fuel costs will be much lower than expected, with an average cost per gallon of jet-fuel for the fourth quarter of $2.03, compared to a projected cost of $2.34.  American's fuel surcharges remain unchanged.

Could it be that American is taaking aadvantage of its paassengers with unnecessaarily extended fuel surchaarges?  Surely not.

Rules are rules (even if you create them yourself), at least according to Delta.  Reader Foy writes

You've got to hand it to Delta - they become more and more creative at shooting themselves in the foot.

Two weeks before Christmas I flew from Atlanta to St. Thomas first class, and Delta served, by today's airline standards, a decent lunch.

Last week, I flew first class from Atlanta to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and to my surprise there was no lunch served. When I inquired why, I was told Delta only serves meals in first class on international flights in excess of 1,550 miles. I asked how far it was from Atlanta to St. Thomas. The reply - 1,590 miles. I then asked how far it was from Atlanta to San Juan. The reply - 1,540 miles.

Ten miles short. Go figure.

Not serving a meal, on an almost four hour flight, not even to passengers who paid top dollar to travel in First Class, sure is a clever way of saving money.

And here's an even cleverer way for Delta to save money.  DL has asked its bankruptcy court for permission to close 16 of its 24 gates at Orlando ('close' probably means 'walk away from the lease commitments for').  But, while reducing its gates from 24 to 8, DL says it will maintain its average of 115 flights a day.

How is this possible?  Maybe they'll make 'better use' of gates that would otherwise be unused at, say, 4am?

There's a clue to their plans when they say, in the filing, that although the number of flights will remain the same, the number of seats will drop.  In other words, there'll be more small commuter planes, with up half a dozen flights clustered around each gate, and instead of jetway access, you'll be taken down onto the tarmac and then up the airstairs.  Oh joy - especially in some of the spectacular rainfalls and thunderstorms that occur in the area.

The DoT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics came up with some interesting 'before and after' statistics to show how the airline industry has evolved since 9/11.  But before quoting a couple of them, let me first object to the use of 9/11 as a reference date.

The only thing that changed after 9/11 were some tweaks in aviation security.  The demise of the dinosaurs had started well before 9/11, and nothing in the events on that day made us less willing to pay over-inflated fares for poor service than we were on 9/10.

Let's also not forget the third - but less quoted - part of this number.  It is not just 9/11.  It is 9/11/01.  Yes, more than four years ago.  To still be referring to something 51 months ago, in the context of today's issues is totally specious.

Every comparison to before/after 9/11 - unless narrowly based on security and fear of flying type issues - further enshrines the untruth the dinosaurs seek to hide their incompetence behind.  They want us to feel as though their disgraceful losses are somehow not their own fault, but rather the fault of terrorists.

Anyway, let's see what the statistics tell us.  Even if the events of 9/11 had some valid impact on the years subsequent, passenger numbers returned back to the level of/prior to 9/11 in July 2004, and have been continuing to grow ever since.  A year later, in July 2005, passenger numbers had grown a further 10% (to 71 million).

The airlines have been operating fewer flights, but with more passengers per flight, and so the underlying load factors and potential profitability is very much greater than prior to 9/11.

So, if you want to do a pre/post 9/11 comparison, the findings are that more people are flying today, and the airlines are operating more efficiently than before.  There's nothing to feel sorry for in any of those facts.

Why are the airlines losing money, then?  Well, more (but still not most) of us are choosing to fly on lower-cost carriers (and, no, you can't blame 9/11 for that).  While the lower-cost airlines are still smaller in size than the dinosaurs, their impact on airfare pricing has become disproportionately high, to the point they can now set prices which the dinosaurs must copy.  And so, airfares are at their lowest levels for many years - for example, this January through March period was the lowest since 1999.

Don't blame terrorists.  Don't blame fuel costs.  Blame the airlines themselves for problems of their own making.

Talking about losing money, Northwest announced its result for November.  A $64.5 million loss.

Competition is not only a fact of life with regular airline service, but increasingly it seems competition will be a key part of space travel as well, or so this article suggests.

Talking about Sir Richard Branson (as in Virgin Galactic) he is taking on a curious new role - brand ambassador for a Samsonite premium brand of luggage.  Sir Richard will earn 2.5 million euros and will donate the entire fee to a charity of his choice.  To earn this sum, he will make six appearances worldwide in the one-year deal.

And talking about luggage, I received an interesting letter from a reader that sounds a bit like a test case in a legal exam.  She writes

I just read your article on missing bags when flying with more than one airline.  My situation is complicated.  I flew on airline #1 from my home to JFK in New York.  I was scheduled to take airline #2 to Israel.  I missed the flight and airline #2 was not willing to put me on a flight for another four days (they claimed they were overbooked until then; as this was over the holiday, that might be true).

I asked airline #2 for my bags back and they only located one.  They told me I could not file a missing bag complaint until I arrived in Israel because my bag had an Israel tag on it.  Since there were no flights leaving JFK that had any room on them for four days with airline #2, I took my bag and a taxi over to Newark and flew over on airline #3.

My other bag never made it.  Airline #3 says they are not responsible for the bag because I never checked the bag in with them.  Airline #2 says they are not responsible because I ended up flying on a different airline.  Airline #1 says they are not responsible because their records show they gave the bags over to Airline #2 already.

So, who is responsible for my stuff and who should I be pushing to reimburse me if/when it is not found?

Normally, the airlines use a rule of thumb that the responsible airline is the final airline that gets you to your ultimate destination.  But in this case, airline #3 is probably not responsible, assuming the lady bought a new ticket for that flight, rather than having her existing ticket endorsed over from airline #2 to airline #3.

Normally airline #2 would be responsible, but the lady probably either 'no showed' for her flight or cancelled her flight; in either case, airline #2 could argue it is no longer responsible to get her bag to Israel, but that doesn't mean it can then freely lose the bag.  And airline #2's inability to return her bag to her at JFK is probably a pivotal failure that increases their liability.

But the underlying cause of the problem seems to be airline #1's delayed arrival into New York, causing the lady to miss her flight on to Israel and change her plans.  The lady gave her missing bag to airline #1 and that is the last she ever saw of it.

Assuming airline #1 is a US carrier (as seems most likely) I'd recommend she bring an action in her local small claims court against airline #1 for compensation for the missing and possibly lost bag.  If that claim fails, she should then repeat the process, in the same court, with airline #2.

Here's a rather ordinary story, with a twist.  A BA 747, flying from New York to London, had to make an emergency landing due to smoke in the cockpit.  The twist?  The airplane had 17 crew on it, and guess how many passengers?  Two.  This isn't normal for BA flights - the plane had earlier been delayed due to a birdstrike when landing at JFK, and all the other passengers had been transferred to other flights.

Is it real, or is it Memorex?  This is nothing to do with travel, but it is such amazing technology I thought you'd be interested.  Here is a website showcasing a set of musical 'samples' you can use to create your own music, on the computer, as if you were an entire group, or even a full classical symphony orchestra.  No longer do you need to hire an orchestra at $10,000/hour - just buy a few hundred dollars worth of software and another few hundred dollars worth of hardware.

This technology in its simpler form is nothing new, but this is by far the most sophisticated type of sampling I've ever heard, and the technology was used to create the entire accompaniment to Tchaikovsky's famous Nutcracker Ballet by a ballet company not far from Seattle this last season.  The fact the dancers didn't realize it was 'artificial' either shows how high a quality it is, or reveals how little importance the dancers give to the music.  You can listen to some of the pieces here.  Developer Gary Garritan promises even better sampling in the future, which will hopefully improve some of the remaining weaknesses, particularly in the lower strings, and points to his new set of Stradivarius samples as a hint of what the new release will contain.

I was writing, just last week, about how technology may make pilots obsolete.  Will the same happen with musicians?  To be sure, you still need musical training to use one of these sampling programs, but apparently you no longer need a group of musicians responding to your direction.

Reader James writes in with an interesting problem.  He says

The mini-jacks found in most airline seats for accessing entertainment audio are too loose to make solid contact with the mini-plug on my Bose Quiet 2 headphones.  On a recent United flight to and from Washington DC I had to continually manipulate the mini-plug to listen to audio.  I posted a question on the User Forums asking if anyone knew if oversized mini-jacks were available to fix this problem.  After 125 hits there has been no response.

I wonder if my experience was an isolated case.  Maybe you could mention this in your weekly newsletter and we'd see if we may have an industry wide problem.

Have you had problems plugging your headphones into airline seat outlets?  If so, on which airlines?  Please let me know.

Mobile phones are becoming so ubique that they are, in some cases, a more reliable way of communicating with people than 'snail mail'.  Or, if not more reliable, definitely lower cost.  In South Korea, prosecutors will start sending indictments by text message in 2006, and in Britain, people who don't pay court fines may start getting collection notices also by text message.

Here's an interesting look at what are claimed to be the fifty greatest gadgets of the past fifty years.  How many do you (or did you, as the case may be) have?

By narrowly considering only the exact identical items that are on this list, I scored a disappointing six.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The failed Mensa candidates who currently screen your luggage but lack the mental agility to interpret their rules with any measure of humanity, common sense, or humor, and whose idea of conversational repartee is 'do you have any loose change in your pockets' and 'please step over there for secondary screening' are now to be trained to spot possible terrorists.

TSA screeners will receive training in how to engage travelers in casual conversation to see if a person becomes nervous or gives evasive answers.  You can just see it now, can't you.

'Nice weather we're having, isn't it?'

'Uh, I dunno, I guess, I'm not from here...'

'Ah ha!  Got you!  You're an international terrorist, and I'm placing you under arrest.'

Passengers who fail the initial test will get extra physical screening and could face questioning by police.  Although we're correctly told these techniques have been used in Israel for years with success, the TSA fails to understand that Israel's screeners are a very much better trained and motivated group of specialists than our TSA employees are.

And, success or not, this introduces another non-accountable way for TSA employees to bully passengers.  If we don't act obsequiously respectfully to these little Hitlers (oh dear, that will trigger some spam filters) we'll for sure find ourselves enjoying 'extra physical screening'.  Does that sound fair, right, or proper to you?

It sure isn't how I understand due process to operate.  Anyone care to bet against me that the net result will be increased delays and hassles at the airport, but zero apprehended terrorists?

Talking about delays and hassles, if you're wanting to travel to Brazil, it now takes 3-4 weeks to get a visa processed.  No Visa processing company can offer an expedited service.

Apparently the Brazilian authorities believe that international terrorists are an impatient group, and hope the gratuitous 3 - 4 week delay (for an unnecessary and pointless process) will dissuade terrorists from visiting.  I'm sure the Brazilian people feel much safer now.

Here's a hint for what to wear next time you travel.  Although smart travelers long ago learned to wear comfortable loose clothing, this is about to change.  Wear tight clothes.  According to the TSA's chief at Denver, screeners won't need to do as many random pat-down searches on people who are obviously not hiding anything, as opposed to a person with loose clothing with the danger of concealed explosives lurking underneath.

Hey - there's a possible line for the screeners to use while 'engaging travelers in casual conversation' :  'Is that a concealed explosive, or are you just pleased to see me?'.....

And, with those words, that will be it from me for 2005.  I'll be back in 2006, writing to you from the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas next week, scouting out all the latest and greatest gadgets for the year ahead.

Until next week and next year, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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