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Friday 23 May, 2008
The South of France cruise finished earlier
this week, and everyone had a wonderful time, with generally good
weather, a lovely ship, good food, abundant wine, beautiful
destinations, and a great group of fellow travelers and crew.
The highlight of the cruise, for me, was
definitely the region we toured through. Gorgeous little villages
dating back to Roman times, and outstanding scenery with rolling
countryside and very fertile heavily cultivated fields (mainly grape
growing, of course) made the tour a feast for the eye from every new
bend in the river.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this ends up as
another Amadeus cruise that I can highly recommend. But note, if
you now decide to go enjoy this cruise yourself, most of the remaining
cruises for this year are already sold out. Some space remains only
the sailing that starts with time in Paris on 5 August; otherwise, there
is plenty of space on most of the 2009 sailings. Cruise details on
Amadeus Waterways site, and remember that if you book any Amadeus
cruise through me,
you get a 5% discount in addition to any other discounts (such as AARP,
Past Passenger, etc).
My current travels have offered a
kaleidoscope of different experiences. Barcelona in Spain, the
small towns and villages of rural Provence, Paris, London, and now today
I'm writing to you from Stow-on-the-Wold in the beautiful Cotswold district in England,
preparing a destination feature for the website, to be released in a
week or two.
Perhaps the only downside of the river
cruise was unreliable access to the internet from the ship. Much
of the time there was a problem with the connection, and when the access
was available, it was terribly expensive. So I've not been able to
do as much as I'd hoped, but, on the positive side, I do have a feature
article ready to be released, chronicling the disappointment of my
recent trial of a spam filtering device.
Note that the review is
probably of interest primarily to people with their own mail servers,
I'll be offering a review on a better (free) way of controlling spam
that can apply to all users in the near future :
This Week's Feature Column
: Barracuda Spam Firewall : In theory, this is an ingenious
device that attacks and destroys spam before it gets anywhere near your
mail server or your inbox. In practice, it shows itself to be
flawed, expensive, and underperforming.
Dinosaur watching : Air fares continue
to increase (as does jet fuel) and the amount of value we receive in
return for our increasingly expensive tickets continues to decrease.
The latest paradigm shift in what you do and
don't get for your money comes courtesy of American Airlines.
You'll recall that only a few months back the airlines started charging
$25 to check a second bag. Earlier this week American announced
it will now charge $15 for checking a first bag, too. About a year
ago, you could check two bags weighing up to 140 lbs total for free.
Now you will pay $40 for two bags weighing 100 lbs total.
It might seem that there is no such thing as
a cost increase promulgated by the airlines that I like, but this is not
so. Some things I understand, accept, and agree with. But I
do not agree with the idea of charging for luggage. Yes, I know
some busy-bodies seek to impose their own pack-lightly ethos on the
rest of us, but my objection is more operationally based.
What AA is doing is encouraging more people
to abuse the carry-on rules, and with nearly full flights already,
overhead space is already at a premium. Those of us who take only
a modest amount of carry-on with us may now find the overheads bulging
with monster roll-aboard suitcases by the time we board and get to our
seat, while various smug faced people are innocently not catching our
eye (because not only did they cheat the system with the amount of
carry-on they brought with them, but they also cheated the system by
boarding before their row number was called).
The dinosaur's death wish continues to be
starkly exhibited. Their response to tough times is to make air
travel even less pleasant than ever before, a scenario that will only
result in fewer people flying, and therefore, still greater losses to
Indeed, AA is already anticipating more
passengers fleeing from their flights. They also announced a cut
of almost 12% in their capacity, with effect from Q4 this year, and will
be taking 75 planes out of service.
Oh, AA is also increasing all sorts of
other fees, too. It will now cost $150 to change a domestic
ticket, and from $150-300 for an international ticket. Booking by
phone or through the frequent flyer program went from $15 to $20.
Using a travel agent, including online agencies like Travelocity went
from $15 to $20 and buying a ticket at the airport from $20 to $30.
Taking a pet along in the cabin went from $80 to $100 each way on
domestic, Mexico, Canada and Caribbean flights while travelling in cargo
went from $100 to $150 each way. Unaccompanied minors went from
$75 to $100 each way. Oversized and overweight bags will now cost
$150 each way, up from $100.
The increased bag charges make it even more attractive to consider
expressing your luggage by a courier service. I wrote about this
when the second bag charge first started and showed that the cheapest (and often best!) way to overnight
your bags, seven days a week, is through USPS.
While most of AA's increases are 'more of the same', and while it is a
shame to see them increasing, it is hard to argue against the airline's
ability to charge what it chooses for what it offers. But how
about charges associated with 'free' frequent flier tickers. What
part of 'free' does AA not understand? Frequent flyer awards will
now cost from $100 to $150, and reinstating miles for unused flight
awards will now cost $150.
This is grievously unfair. The cost to us of a 'free' ticket is
going up and up - in terms of the cost to earn the miles in the
first place, the number of miles we need for an award, and now the
ancillary fees and charges associated with getting a free ticket issued
AA's share price dropped 24% in response to its announcement of these
new measures. Great own goal, AA!
Meanwhile, showing yet again that shrinking is not the only way to
Southwest is adding two new destinations from Denver on September 2, with
three daily flights to both San Francisco and Omaha.
Another week - another fare increase.
United have started a new fare increase on Thursday, with increases
of $10 - $60 roundtrip, and AirTran announced a $50 increase on most of
their routes. Look for the other airlines to match over the next
The last time I wrote about British Airways
it was to praise their service and in particular, to comment about the
lovely beef short ribs served on the flight to London, but this week it seems I'm back to my
British Airways will no longer serve meat in coach
class - it will limit the choices to either a fish pie or chicken.
The reason for this backward step? Surprisingly, it has nothing to
do with the high price of fuel. Instead, BA points out that some of
their customers won't eat pork for religious reasons, and others won't
eat beef, and so out of sensitivity to those customers, and because they
can only have two choices available (why?) they are limiting the choices
to chicken or fish.
Would I be the first person to point out
that sensitivity to minority groups is all very well and good, but how
about showing some sensitivity to the majority of customers first?
As for the people who won't eat pork or beef (what about lamb?) isn't
that why special meals are offered?
A common statistic that we all look at are the Department of
Transportation flight delay figures - information on flights that arrive
more than 15 minutes later than scheduled.
However, these numbers do not paint the whole picture, because they only
consider flights that actually take place as scheduled. Cancelled
flights are not counted as delays, and neither are diverted flights.
And 'personal' delays by way of being bumped off a flight are also not
Researchers at George Mason University’s Center for Air
Transportation Systems Research (CATSR) have come up with a better
measure. 'Passenger trip delay' data includes trip disruptions due to delays, rebookings due to cancellations, rebookings after denied boardings,
and diverted flights.
The results are,
needless to say, quite a lot worse than the DoT figures. Although cancellations, rebookings, and
diversions are still relatively infrequent, when they do occur the delay
times per passenger are quite large. While the average for a simple
flight delay last year was 57 minutes, if your flight was diverted, your
average delay was 3.75 hours, and if you had to be rebooked due to an
oversold flight, your average delay was 3.0 hours. And if you 'win
the jackpot' - having a flight cancelled - your average
delay was 11 hours.
Putting all this together, 26% of all passengers
experienced a delay last year (compared with 23% in 2006) and the
average passenger trip delay was 1 hour and 54 minutes—a 24-minute
increase from the previous year.
The biggest reason for the increase was the increase in the number of
cancelled flights, combined with higher load factors which meant there
was less slack in the system to accommodate stranded passengers.
The airlines with the lowest average
passenger trip delay were (in order) Hawaiian, Aloha, Southwest,
Frontier, and Airtran. The five
worst, averaging from 24.4 to 29.5 minutes, were Colgan, JetBlue,
Pinnacle, Mesa, and (in last place) American. The most improved
performance was by Alaska (in 7th place) and the biggest decline was by
How did airports fare? Of the 35 biggest airports, the five with the
lowest average passenger trip delays were Honolulu, Chicago Midway, Salt
Lake City, San Diego, and Portland (OR). The five worst were Dallas-Ft. Worth,
Newark, LaGuardia, Chicago-O’Hare, and in last place, JFK. The biggest
declines in performance last year were at JFK, Minneapolis/St. Paul, DFW,
and LaGuardia. Most-improved were Denver and Houston-Bush.
Here's an annual piece of non-news.
Airlines rank poorly on an
annual customer satisfaction survey. Do you think it is
because the airlines are uniquely inept, or because they simply
And if you're looking for an example of such
poor customer service, how about
this story of a man who was told to give up his seat and instead
sit in the toilet on a recent JetBlue flight?
Another example : I'd mentioned the
inevitable situation with our group and a member of it not getting their
luggage upon arrival into Barcelona last week, with the web tracking
site continually showing 'nothing is known' about the bags right up to
the moment they arrived at the hotel. Mark writes about this :
As for lost bags, and dinosaurs, “Come
on guys, put a tag on the bag, scan it, scan it onto the plane, scan
it coming off.” Crimminy, FedEx, UPS and the USPS do it
millions of times a day, and I can track my package up to the minute
from a laptop anywhere on the planet. And the dinosaurs can’t
pull this off? Sheer incompetence and lack of will.
More money for Amtrak? Over the last few days I've traveled by
high speed French TGV from Lyons to Paris, by Eurostar from Paris to
London (both at speeds of up to 186mph) and by a short distance commuter
type train from London to Salisbury (but still at speeds of up to 90
mph). And while traveling by coach between Barcelona and Arles,
the guide was proudly pointing out the earthworks and developments for a
new high speed rail line connecting Spain and France, a multi-billion
dollar project that the two countries were happily investing in and
which the citizens were enthusiastically supporting.
Traveling in and out of the stations with trains busily coming and going
in a successfully orchestrated series of on-time departures and
arrivals, and each train holding as many as 500 passengers, showed a
ground transportation reality that is beyond our US comprehension, and a
transportation alternative that beats the airlines on every relevant
measure, whether it be ecological carbon-neutral footprints, comfort,
travel time, or anything else.
So I was delighted to see that leaders of the House
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from both parties have
introduced legislation that would allocate more than $14 billion to expanding Amtrak and funding high-speed rail
corridors to compete with airlines. The Passenger Rail Investment and
Improvement Act of 2008 was introduced May 8th. Over the next five
years, it would give Amtrak $9.7 billion in capital and operating
grants, provide $2.5 billion for grants to states to develop new or
improved passenger rail corridors, and another $1.75 billion for grants
to states and/or Amtrak to develop 11 'authorized high-speed rail
Amtrak's naysayers are already speaking up against this concept.
But this proposed investment is very different to the annual 'life support' grant given to
Amtrak - not quite enough to keep it operating at present levels, and
nothing to allow it to expand and improve service. Amtrak's
chronic poor quality and unprofitability is destined to continue and get
someone is willing to invest heavily in giving it the capital-intensive
infrastructure it needs to be able to offer a reliable sensible service
to potential customers.
Here's an interesting example of lies, damn lies, and statistics.
In terms of net federal subsidies per thousand passenger miles, Amtrak
gets the highest level of government support at present. For the
period 1990-2002, the levels of subsidy were
Amtrak : $186
Urban transit : $118
Airline travel : $ 6
Highway travel : -$ 2
Amtrak's opponents are using this as a
reason why we shouldn't spend more on Amtrak.
But why is this not a valid measure? Because Amtrak has a vanishingly
small number of passenger miles at present, which inflates the subsidy
per passenger mile. Some capital investment to double Amtrak's
ridership would then see the subsidy level enormously deflate for two
reasons - more passengers to spread the subsidy over, and more
passengers would mean more revenue and less need for government subsidy.
Think of Amtrak like a plane, lumbering clumsily and awkwardly on the
ground around an airport. Until Amtrak can 'take off' it is doomed
to be a failure. $14 billion is woefully inadequate to get Amtrak
airborne and profitable, but it is a good step in the right direction,
and is to be commended.
Talking about planes taking off, how about
planes taking off in the wrong direction? So reads the headline
this article, although the reality, buried in the story, is not
quite so frightening (but still far from reassuring). Apparently there
is some confusion at Newark about whether planes should turn left or
right after taking off, with controllers sometimes telling a pilot to
turn one way but he actually turns the other way. Ooops.
I spent three nights in London at the Lancaster Gate Suites. I'd
booked this through lastminute.com and had complained about the apparent
bait and switch tactics I encountered during the booking process in the
Lastminute described this hotel as a four star hotel, and due to the
good value price initially offered, I selected it. While generally
it is fair to say 'you get what you pay for' the concept of last minute
bargains upsets that analysis, and so I assumed (!) that the bargain
price meant a last minute bargain, rather than a low quality hotel room.
The reality of the experience was
entirely different from the promise on Lastminute's website. Although described as a 'spacious room ensuite',
the small room is no larger than an average hotel room, with no room to
walk around the bed on three of the four sides, and lacks many basic
amenities. The closet is so narrow you can't fit clothes hangars
in other than on an angle. There is no phone in the unit, and the
Wi-Fi access was unreliable and intermittent. There's nowhere to
put soap or shampoo in the miniature shower, and the rooms don't get
There is no elevator, and neither is there any porter service, and it
68 increasingly steep and narrow steps up to my room. The last
flight of steps is so narrow that it is not easy to walk up or down them
with a suitcase alongside. One more bad thing - there is no
reception desk at the hotel (even though Lastminute says there is) - you
have to go a half mile away to find the reception area at an affiliated
property, and - get this - there was no mention of this anywhere on the
Lastminute booking confirmation.
So, I had the taxi take me to the hotel's address, only to find an
anonymous locked door with no information about how to check in or even
the name of the hotel visible anywhere. Worse still, the
Lastminute booking confirmation didn't have a phone number, either -
neither for themselves nor for the hotel. It was, ahem, a
non-trivial problem to resolve.
Moral of the story - always ensure you have phone numbers both for the
hotel you're staying at and the booking service you've booked with.
I'm going to ask Lastminute to defend their four star rating for this
hotel and will let you know their reply - it is not the first time I've
had a hotel from Lastminute that was clearly nowhere near the
standard alleged by them.
Cell phones are dangerous to your health,
continued : Here's
a study that looks at a different dimension of the danger of mobile
phones - that associated with pregnant women and their children. A
study of 13,000 children showed a clear link between their mother's
mobile phone use while pregnant and subsequent behavioral problems in
How many more studies will it take until we
finally realize that the life-changing convenience of mobile phones
carries with it other life-changing consequences, of a negative medical
nature? Just like cigarette smokers, addicted to their cigarettes,
can ignore the consequences of their actions, so too can all of us (me
included) ignore the dangers of the phones we love so much.
One of the challenges of traveling is of
course keeping connected on the internet. On the positive side, internet access in hotels these days is very much better than it was,
even only a couple of years ago, with most hotels offering either Wi-Fi
or regular Ethernet connections to fast broadband internet. But
there are still quirks and inconveniences, not the least of which are
the terrible desk/chair combinations that seem common in at least two
out of every three hotel rooms (typically desk too high/chair too low,
although today I'm at a chair too high/desk too low hotel where I can't
get my legs under the desk).
However, for true stupidity, one needs to look to France, and the Scribe
Hotel in Paris, where I spent a couple of days after the river cruise. The first surprise was noticing that while the
cost for Wi-Fi is €8.50 per 24hr period,
the price for wired internet is more than twice as much - €19.90 per 24
hours. In what way is Ethernet superior to Wi-Fi? None
But this pricing incongruity is nothing
compared to how access is granted to Wi-Fi. When one first buys a
24 hour access pass, one gets access immediately the credit card has
been charged. Wonderful. But if you log off and log on again later, you're then required to either buy another 24 hours,
or, if your past 24 hours has not yet expired, you enter your username
and password. Which sounds simple enough, except for the fact you
were never given a username and password when you first bought your 24hr
Never mind. It turns out you
were sent an email that was a combination receipt and also
username/password advice. So simply open the email you received to
get your username and password to access the internet. Simple?
Not if your email is held on the internet
on, eg, a Yahoo, Gmail, or Hotmail type email account. Yes, the
French require you to access the internet to get the information you
need in order to access the internet. Catch-22 is alive and well
at the Scribe Hotel in Paris.
This hotel is also a close contender for 'seller
of the most expensive drink' award - €22 - ie, $35 - for a simple
Bacardi and Coke.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
An increasingly common theme, when I talk to people in other countries,
is their sad expression of regret that they don't feel comfortable
visiting the United States due to concerns at the randomness of being
allowed entry to the US. Even people from the so-called 'Visa
Waiver' countries - those countries where citizens don't need to get a
visa prior to traveling to the US - are not exempt from worry, because
they never know what will happen upon arriving into the US and going to
the Immigration booth.
Here's an appalling horrifying story of a
young Italian attorney who ended up spending more than ten days in jail
when he recently arrived into the US, due to the fevered imaginings of
an Immigration officer who thought - well, who knows what. Suffice
it to say that the official excuse - that the man was going to seek
asylum in the US - is so ridiculously a lie as not to be worthy of
Surely nothing can excuse being held,
without charge, and with no legal recourse, for ten days, and I
understand, from sources close to the man, that he was only released
after the Immigration people learned the NY Times as about to write
about his problems.
What has gone wrong with our country when we
happily abuse foreign visitors this way? Read the
full story here, and share my horror at the monster we have created.
But while we're security obsessed in some
limited dimensions, in other respects we continue to display complete
blindness. Like, for example,
this story whereby people were able to drive onto the airport
runway in Seattle, without showing ID, without having their vehicle
inspected, or anything.
As one who relies on written English
heavily, I find the following particularly amusing. Hopefully you
Every year, English teachers from across the
USA can submit their
collections of actual analogies and metaphors found in high school
essays in order to have them published and sent out for the amusement of
other teachers across the country. Recent winners :
1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides
gently compressed by a Thigh Master.
2. His thoughts tumbled around inside his head, making and breaking
alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.
3. He spoke with the kind of wisdom that can only come from experience,
like a guy who goes blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without
one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country
speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse
without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.
4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was
room-temperature Canadian beef.
5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like the sound a dog makes
just before it throws up.
6. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as
if she were a garbage truck backing up.
7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.
8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated
his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a
formerly surcharge-free ATM machine.
9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a
bowling ball wouldn't.
10. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie,
surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and
Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.
11. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.
12. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across
the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having
Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling west at 55 mph, the other from Topeka
at 4:19 p.m. traveling east at a speed of 35 mph.
13. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences
that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.
14. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had
also never met.
15. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the
16. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only
one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.
17. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil,
this plan just might work.
18. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not
eating for a while.
19. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either,
but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from
stepping on a land mine or something.
20. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
Lastly this week, what to make of
this curious event in my home
country of New Zealand?
All the very best for the Memorial Day
weekend. I return to Seattle on Monday and next week should see a
normal newsletter and new feature article.
please enjoy safe travels