A short newsletter this week, for obvious festive reasons.
But it is worthy to note that this last year has again been a prolific one, with newsletters almost every week, 233 blog entries, over 150 new web pages, two Travel Insider tours, and our first ever Travel Insider firearms training.
While quantity alone is a poor measure, in round figures, another half million words of content have been given to you over the year. Phew!
A couple of things this week are worthy of note, including the passing of Alfred E Kahn on Monday 27 December, at the ripe old age of 93.
Who was Fred Kahn? In 1977 President Carter appointed Professor (of Economics) Alfred E Kahn to head up the Civil Aeronautics Board as its chairman. This was the body that regulated the airlines, and Kahn's task, with broad bi-partisan support from both Democrats and Republicans, was to oversee its dismantling and the end of airline regulation.
It is hard to give credit to any one person for the deregulation of the airlines, because there were many supporters, including even some airlines. But there is no doubt that Professor Kahn played a valuable role in both advocating and overseeing the dismantling of 45 years of accumulated regulation, and we are all the beneficiaries of his efforts.
Please see my multipart series for a comprehensive history on airline regulation and deregulation for more on this topic. Here is a biography of Professor Kahn (1917-2010).
A few hours only remain if you wish to get a top 'Diamond' level lifetime membership at Front Sight for (less than) pennies on the dollar – you'll need to email me as soon as you read this on Friday for details, and be able to make payment immediately thereafter. They've proven very popular with 29 of these already grabbed by bargain hunting Travel Insiders.
The last couple of weeks have been full of problems with the world's transportation system due to unusually bad/cold weather, and I know of many readers who have been affected.
My earlier article about the shameful problems at Heathrow has proven popular with an interesting ongoing series of updates and comments.
Problems extended far beyond Heathrow, and in the US, more than twice as many travelers have so far been affected as those who were affected in Britain with Heathrow's extended closure. Hopefully none of you were on the flights stranded on the tarmac at JFK for up to 13 hours earlier this week.
What's that, you say? Isn't there supposed to be a new rule preventing the airlines from doing that? Yes, there is, but it only applies to domestic flights. These were international flights.
This appalling mistreatment of passengers clearly illustrates the essential need for international flights to be covered by the same regulation. Why should international flights be exempted? They have to comply with just about all other FAA and DoT regulations, and if they're going to trap passengers on planes for up to 13 hours, they clearly can not be trusted to display any evidence of care for or competence in treating their passengers.
On the other hand, the international airlines say it is the fault of the airports (and of US Immigration) variously for not having 'secure' holding areas for deplaned passengers and/or not having Immigration and Customs staff on duty.
But you can bet, for sure, that if the airlines were threatened with fines of $27,500 per passenger (as is the case now for domestic flights), then with a tarmac delayed plane holding, say, 350 passengers, they'd quickly find a solution to the problem well before the $9.63 million fine was incurred.
And, on the basis of counting one's blessings, let's hope none of us encountered any of these – what are claimed to be the worst disasters of 2010.
Looking forward rather than back, here's an interesting list of predictions covering the next five years of developments, as perceived by researchers at IBM, a company not nearly as prominent as it once was, but which is still one of the world leaders in terms of annual research budgets.
And here's a more certain and less speculative list of new enhancements to Android powered phones and tablets for 2011. Android now has over 200,000 different apps in their online store and is growing at a faster rate than Apple's app count such that some time in 2011 it is expected there will be more Android apps than Apple apps – amazing when you realize that Apple currently has 300,000 apps in its online store.
By comparison, Microsoft proudly announced it now has 5,000 apps in its Windows Phone 7 store, and Blackberry has – well, who cares how many apps Blackberry has in its online store.
I make a point of always asking people, when I see them with a newish Blackberry – 'Why did you buy that instead of an iPhone or an Android phone?' Their answer provides another insight into Blackberry's market weakness. Not a single person chose a Blackberry as a deliberate decision because they thought it was the best phone for their needs. Instead, they chose a Blackberry based not on knowledge but on a lack of knowledge – they accepted a store person's recommendation, or because it was the cheapest phone for what they were looking for.
The support of retailers is something that is bought and sold to the top bidder rather than anything based on loyalty or true appreciation of the very best products, and building a business plan based on being the cheapest is hardly a fast track to great financial success.
In Phil Baker's predictions for 2011, he sees Blackberry falling from the largest market share of new smart phones sold world wide to third place. I can't disagree. And RIM's peculiar tablet device, with the even stranger name of 'Playbook' (this is a device being aimed primarily at businesses, but with a name Playbook?) – seems unlikely to threaten Apple's dominance in the tablet marketplace.
The iPad currently has an estimated 95% market share, but look for this number to steadily drop during 2011, particularly subsequent to the new Honeycomb version of Android which is designed to cater for tablet devices – always assuming, of course, that the new iPad 2 doesn't contain anything truly revolutionary.
The current rumors for the iPad 2 seem to revolve around it being a device that will have a front facing camera for video conferencing, possibly a rear facing camera, perhaps an improved built in speaker for sound, and being slightly thinner in cross-section with a flatter back panel. It is believed to have the same screen size as current iPads, but there may be a very very slight reduction in the bezel around the screen, so as to make new iPads very slightly smaller overall. In other words, nothing too game changing in those aspects.
It is not known if there will be changes to battery life (which is acceptably good currently), weight (a lighter unit would be wonderful) or price (Apple currently enjoys very broad profit margins on the current generation of iPad devices and could certainly afford to drop the price some). Another big unknown is whether the screen resolution will increase; it would be a definite enhancement if it were to increase so as to allow for full 1080p video to be played on it.
It is thought the new iPad 2 will start shipping in April, and if Apple works to the same timetable as for the original iPad release this year, look for details to be announced in January. On the other hand, whereas it suited Apple's purpose to pre-announce the first iPad so as to start getting pre-orders as soon as possible, Apple might decide not to confirm the iPad 2 until it is able to immediately supply, so as to keep original iPad sales as buoyant as possible as long as possible.
Naughty Air France : The Department of Transportation has fined Air France $100,000 for improperly advising passengers that it was not responsible for valuable or fragile items in checked baggage.
The Montreal Convention prohibits airlines from denying liability for any class or category of items in checked baggage, including those items deemed fragile or valuable. Air France said they were inadvertently using outdated form letters and had not updated its customer service procedures.
Apparently the DoT believed this excuse, because Air France has been required to only pay one-half of the fine and the balance will be waived if there are no similar violations for one year.
But, really – outdated form letters? Hmmmm – the Montreal Convention that established this new provision was enacted in 1999, the United States subsequently adopted it to take effect from April 11, 2003, and in France, it took effect from June 28, 2003. Air France must have printed up a huge batch of form letters if after 7 1/2 years it still is using ones that are wrong.
Note – domestic airlines can and do claim they are not liable for damage to expensive or fragile items in checked luggage. The Montreal Convention applies to international flights, not domestic ones.
If you ever have delayed or lost baggage (and who doesn't!), you should refer to my pages on 'Your Rights if Your Bags are Delayed' and 'Your Rights if Your Bags are Lost'. It might save you some heartache and help you substantially in getting fair compensation back from the airlines.
Talking about Air France and outdated baggage policies that are not in our favor, I had a huge and unnecessary problem returning back from Amsterdam on a Delta flight to Seattle in December. I offer it as an illustration – should one be needed – of why we all hate the airlines so much.
The first bit of strangeness was when I tried to checkin online for the flight, I was told on the Delta website that I had to check in for this flight on the KLM website, and was given a link to click on to take me to a KLM checkin page. I clicked the link, and the KLM page opened up, pre-populated with almost all my information from the Delta record.
If Delta could send the information over to KLM, why was it making me click on a series of 'confirm' steps to confirm my name was still the same as it was two weeks earlier when flying from Seattle to Amsterdam, my passport number unchanged, etc etc?
Anyway, I worked through this bit of online inefficiency, and duly arrived at Schiphol the next morning for my flight. Now, although this was a Delta flight and with a Delta ticket and a Delta flight number, and on a plane belonging to and operated by Delta, there was no Delta presence at Schiphol – I had to checkin with KLM (their Skyteam partner).
While slightly surprising, this wasn't a big deal either, or so I thought. I was flying coach class, but by virtue of my being an Alaska Airlines MVP frequent flier, I could both check in through the business class line and also get two pieces of luggage checked for free. So I turn up at the business check in counter with my two pieces of luggage, but the girl behind the counter asks me to pay some massive sum of money to check them.
I point out to her that my AS MVP status allows me to check them for free, and wondered why I even had to tell her that. When I flew from SEA – AMS, one of the automated kiosks printed out my two bag tags without asking for money automatically – it knew that I was entitled to the two free bags. So why didn't she know it, too?
She disputed my entitlement and said Alaska Airlines was not a member of Skyteam (correct) and so had no rights (incorrect).
I asked her to please check. After some minutes on the computer, she confirmed, to herself, her belief I had to pay for the two bags. I asked her why it was I could take them over to AMS for free if I had to pay to fly back with them. She acted dumb at this point.
I asked her to phone the Delta Duty Airport Manager to get his/her confirmation of my entitlement, and stressed I wanted her to talk to a real Delta employee, not a contractor. She reluctantly called someone, waited on hold, then spoke in Dutch for a brief while, inbetween times looking at me hatefully, then announced that Delta confirmed that I had no entitlement to free bags.
I said 'So you actually spoke to the Delta Duty Airport Manager?' and she said yes, looking me straight in the eye as she said it. This was a bald faced lie, because when I followed that question up with a request for the name of this person, she then indicated she actually spoke to a nameless KLM employee in their call center. She refused to call anyone else, refused to give me any phone numbers for me to call myself, and told me either to pay the money or get lost.
Fortunately, not 20 ft away from her was a Customer Service counter. I went there, they made a quick phone call, confirmed that I could take the bags for free and put an entry in the record for the benefit of the inept woman.
I went back to the inept woman and pointed out that the Customer Service people told me she should have been able to work this out for herself. She called by phone to the woman 20 ft away in a fury, and then after making some Dutch jokes that I'm sure were to do with me, told me that she was doing her job perfectly correctly (but deigned to accept my bags without continuing to demand a fee).
No apology, nor any admission she had ever been wrong; just a surly statement that she was doing her job perfectly correctly.
And so, this is why we hate the airlines. Rude inept staff lie to our face to cover up their inadequacies and laziness, safe and secure in the knowledge that they will never be held accountable for their actions, because their managers either completely don't care at all, or alternatively, will automatically side with their staff, no matter how egregious the sin.
New recruiting slogan for the airlines : 'Come work with our airline, where you never need to say sorry in your customer service position'.
Lastly for 2010, have you made a New Year's resolution? Mine is to become a stage hand at the Lincoln Center, New York, and earn almost a cool half million a year in the process.
For the truly last word, let's hope we can all disprove this finding that new year resolutions typically last little more than a single week.
Until next year, please enjoy safe travels