My goodness, what extraordinary times we are living in at present. It seems every day bring fresh surprises from the middle east, and who only knows what the longer term ramifications of the developments there will be. In a struggle to put as positive a spin on these unsettling events, I guess one day we can tell our grandchildren about how we remember when these events were actually occurring.
It has always been a fascination to me how small groups of people can overthrow governments. I've never understood how a small group of people can prevail against a government that is equipped with all the tools of government – police, security systems, and armed forces – and I can't really pretend to be gaining any insight from these recent events either.
However, one thing is for sure. I'm yet again so very appreciative to live in a country that, for all its faults, is still one of the very best places in the world to reside.
And I'm also very appreciative to live in a day and age where it is more convenient, comfortable and affordable than ever before to selectively travel the world and experience other nations and other cultures. And so (warning – clumsy segue follows) may I remind you of our upcoming Scotland tour this June, which gives you an excellent opportunity to sample deeply of the Scottish country and culture as we travel off the beaten tourist track and go places few tourists ever see.
We had another person decide to join us this last week, and still have space for several more individuals or couples.
To give you a little taste of what the tour will include, I've added a couple of pages on the Loch Ness region to the website (described in a subsequent item in tonight's compendium). This is one of the areas we'll be visiting during the tour. While the tour does not guarantee you'll see Nessie (the Loch Ness monster) it does offer you a varied experience of Scotland that you're sure to enjoy, with or without the bonus of a monster sighting.
Still talking about the modern convenience and comfort of travel, I should mention again the new Solitude X noise cancelling headphones, and in particular, the amazing special deal offered only to Travel Insider readers (detailed on the web page). I know many readers rushed to take advantage of this offer after it was revealed last week, and it is still open this week, so if you've been thinking about treating yourself to a set of noise cancelling headphones, or if you've been thinking about upgrading/replacing your current headphones, now would be a very good time to do so.
There's good news for US Airways employees this week. The company is celebrating its second most profitable year (net income of $502 million, compared to a loss of $205 million in 2009) by distributing $47 million of this to its employees in a profit sharing scheme.
With 23,000 eligible employees, that works out to about $2000 per employee, although the amounts vary depending on base salary levels and collective agreements.
US Airways has already distributed an additional $25 million to its employees in 2010 for meeting operational goals such as ontime performance, baggage handling and – hmmm – customer service. And it has already started distributing more for 2011 with a $1.8 million bonus for being rated the best major airline when it comes to baggage handling.
Talking about employee benefits, cruise lines are pushing up their 'recommended' tip guidelines. Royal Caribbean has increased the amount you should pay up from $9.75/day to $11.65 – a 20% increase.
In case you wondered, the money gets distributed :
$3.75 – waiter
$2.15 – assistant waiter
$0.75 – head waiter
$5.00 – housekeeping
Norwegian Cruise Line has also increased their rates 20%, from $10 up to $12.
Would I be churlish if I wondered whether the cruise lines are increasing the base wages they pay their crew by similar amounts, or if they're relying on increased tips to compensate for insufficient increases in base rates of pay?
All of which somehow makes me think of Virgin Atlantic Airways (VS), which is currently sort of for sale, or at least the half owned by Sir Richard Branson. It seems Sir Richard has decided that the AA/BA alliance has made it just too difficult to compete successfully as a standalone airline any more.
I wonder which part of the 'giving customers more choices' claimed benefit of the AA/BA alliance the loss of the major other airline with service between Heathrow and the US will be?
The main reason for mentioning VS is to comment on their massages and masseuses. They formerly offered in flight massages to people traveling in their 'Upper Class' cabin, with a masseuse traveling as part of the crew on their longhaul flights. This was quietly discontinued some time back – I didn't actually see Sir Richard rushing to create any headlines on that change. I'd assumed it was simply a cost cutting measure, but maybe there's another issue.
News this week reports that Virgin lost a court case brought by two former masseuses, claiming they developed RSI injuries from doing too many Shiatsu massages at the airline's Heathrow lounge. The two ladies asked for £562,000 between them, and were awarded £300,00.
Apparently, performing these types of massages to fully clothed overweight businessmen requires greater application of pressure than doing the same thing to naked fit teenagers, giving the two ladies RSI injuries. VS had earlier paid £100,000 to another masseuse (or, as they style themselves, 'beauty therapist') in 2005.
Maybe we'll see the loss of free massages on the ground too? But hopefully they'll continue to give free haircuts and great food and drink in their lounges.
Good news for those of us who don't like to be flying on planes older than ourselves. Delta has announced plans to retire the last of its ancient DC-9s that it acquired from Northwest.
The planes have an average age of 34.3 years, and will be replaced with MD-90s that the airline is buying, used, from Japan Airlines.
There's an interesting item from the TSA. They are complaining that people carry more items on board planes with them than previously, presumably to avoid checked luggage fees.
The TSA says this requires them to add extra staff to check all the carry-on items that go through security, and claim this to be costing $260 million a year. At a cost of, say, $52,000 per employee, this represents 5,000 additional employees the TSA has had to hire to screen carry-on items.
The TSA wants the per flight security fee that we pay (included in our total ticket price) to be increased to cover these extra costs.
But, do you really believe this? 5,000 staff = 10 million man hours. If we say it takes a team of three to run an X-ray machine, and if we say they can inspect one item every 15 seconds, that is 800 million extra pieces of carry-on luggage that the TSA is now inspecting, compared to some baseline number. With about 700 million people on flights in 2010, and with, let's say, the average person taking 1.3 flights per TSA inspection, that is 540 million inspections.
So the TSA is trying to tell us that – in round figures and giving them the benefit of the doubt – every person they inspect is now carrying one more piece of carryon baggage than before. Does that sound reasonable?
Isn't the TSA also saving money by not needing as many people to screen checked luggage?
Anyway, if the TSA is indeed incurring all these costs, could I make a suggestion to them. How about no longer requiring us to put our shoes through the X-ray machine. That would save you two items per passenger, and so would allow you to – by your own reasoning – lay off 5000 employees and reduce the fee we pay.
Here's another suggestion. Stop tuning your metal detectors so ridiculously sensitively that even a minimum amount of metal in a belt buckle will set off an alarm. If we don't have to take our belts off as well, not only are you saving another item that goes through the X-ray machine, but you're also speeding up the lines because we no longer have to stop and take off our belt and our shoes.
And don't get me started about removing computers, or 'all liquids and gels'…..
Talking about carry-on luggage costs, you may recall that Spirit Airlines outraged a lot of people when it started charging a fee for large sized carry-on items that had to be stowed in the overheads rather than placed under the seat in front. For some reason, people get more outraged at being charged a fee for carry-on luggage than when charged a fee for checked luggage.
Well, until now, none of the other airlines had matched Spirit's fee, but this interesting article reports that Allegiant is now considering adding such a fee.
Talking about fees, did you know the airlines are currently in the midst of what is the seventh hike in airfares this year. That's a rate of almost one rise every two weeks. So while fuel is getting undoubtedly more expensive, the airlines seem determined to keep ahead of their costs this time round, and are also ready to cut back on flights the minute they start becoming less than horrifically full (when was the last time you were on a flight that wasn't close to completely full?).
Here's an interesting set of opposite items in respect of capacity. United has said it will reduce its capacity by 1% in May and by 4% in September. This is both in anticipation of future challenges and in response to a 1.1% drop of passenger numbers in February.
But Southwest reported a 13% rise in passenger numbers for February. Their capacity increased by a smaller 8.5%, meaning the average load on flights increased up to 76.9%.
So what does Southwest have that United does not? Ummm – how about no fee for checked bags. And fair policies on changes and cancels.
We can also expect international airfares to just up at the end of the year when the EU starts charging airlines for their carbon emissions. Apparently any harmful effects caused by carbon emissions can be nullified by paying money to the EU.
The EU hasn't yet decided how much it will charge per tonne of carbon emitted – currently it charges about €15, but it is thought when they rope in the airlines, rather than charging less (over a broader base of carbon emissions) they'll instead charge more. Wonderful logic.
It is thought they'll double the fee up to €30, and some people are forecasting it will reach €75/tonne by 2020.
Let's just hope the airlines content themselves with fairly passing this extra cost on to us, rather than with unfairly doubling or trebling the cost. A fair pass-through could end up costing as much as $56 extra on a ticket.
Okay, so it is 'only' another $56 on what is probably already an expensive European vacation costing maybe 100 times more than this in total. But when will it end. Another couple of dollars here, another $56 there, and so on and so on. Governments all around the world increasingly look to profit from the travel of their citizens and their visitors, and the results add up to sometimes hundreds of dollars in extra fees on top of the base airfare; indeed it is far from uncommon these days to find a discounted international ticket where the taxes and fees exceed the cost of the ticket itself.
There's a slightly creepy new form of advertising appearing on 150 bathroom mirrors at O'Hare. When you look in the mirror over the hand basins, an ad fills the mirror, then moves up into a corner after a few seconds of prominent placement.
Sensors monitor when someone looks at the mirror so they know when to display an ad. They also monitor how long ads are looked at for future fine-tuning.
Sensors monitoring us in airport bathrooms? And just so there's no mistake, the polite and neutral word 'sensor' in this case means video camera. I bet the TSA wished they'd thought of that first (or maybe they have…..).
Not yet offered is a feature that flashes 'Wash Your Hands!' messages at people who attempt to sneak out, hands unwashed, or large displays in the public gate areas featuring pictures of people who leave without washing their hands. But maybe in the future?
More details here.
Cuba is moving more centrally onto the US tourism radar. Following a further relaxation in travel restrictions to Cuba, eight new airports have been approved to operate charter flights to Cuba. Until now, charter flights could only depart from Miami, JFK and LAX.
The eight new airports are DFW, ATL, ORD, BWI, MSY, PIT, TPA and SJU.
Plans are also underway for a ferry service between Cuba and three Florida ports – Port Everglades, Tampa and Miami. It is about 250 miles between Havana and Miami (say 12 hours), and 350 miles (about 18 hrs) between Havana and Tampa (but only 100 miles to Key West). Fares are estimated to be in the region of $150 – $300 roundtrip.
More details here.
Lastly this week, do be sure to scroll down to see the final item about how New Zealanders in Christchurch are managing, after their big earthquake, and with no water.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels