Weekly Roundup Friday 18 March 2011

Stpatricksday Good morning

I hope you are waking up this morning without too much of a sore head subsequent to an overly enthusiastic celebration of St Patrick's Day yesterday.

And, talking about waking up, I also hope you remembered about daylight saving on Saturday night/Sunday morning.  I was perilously close to forgetting it myself, and reportedly, many people's iPhones got it wrong, too.

If you do have any type of smart phone, it is a very good idea to regularly check for updates.  Android phones will generally automatically self-update through an 'Over the air' update process, but iPhones are not as user friendly.  They need to be connected to your iTunes program on your computer and only then will they check for updates and, if available, offer you the opportunity to update the phone (you always should unless your phone has been unlocked).

Please do read on down to a reader survey this week.

What a lot has happened in the last week.  To the west, Japan's earthquake and tsunami were terrible, but (excuse my selfishness) happily confined to Japan.

The same can not be said for the subsequent problems with the nuclear reactors at Fukushima, where as yet unresolved and almost certainly not fully described problems could either get better or extremely worse, with the prevailing winds and jet stream threatening to carry any explosive radioactivity releases (ie not ground level releases but events that propel radioactive materials way up, miles into the sky, and into the jet streams) all the way to the US.

A significant part of the pollution that appears on our west coast already travels here from China, so radiation from Japan is a almost a certainty, with the only unknown being how much.

The jet streams are what makes it generally faster to fly from the US to Europe than vice versa.  They can be found at altitudes from about 23,000 ft up to about 52,000 ft, and flow at speeds from a low of about 50 mph up to occasionally as much as 200 – 250 mph.  The first measurable radiation carried from Japan to the US is expected to reach the west coast today (Friday).

Should we be concerned?  Probably not – at least, not yet.  But if the releases of radioactive material in Japan escalate, and if the material is explosively propelled up into the jet stream, then clearly we will start to get measurable amounts of extra radiation in our own environment.

The good news about radiation is that the materials that give off the strongest radiation do so for the shortest amounts of time; whereas the longest lived radioactive materials give off much lower amounts of radiation per unit of time.  The iodine isotope 131I that is of particular concern because (unlike strontium which is water soluble and therefore excreted out of the body) it accumulates in the thyroid gland, has a half life of only eight days.

So what with the better part of a week to get to the US from Japan, the dilution that occurs on the way, and so on, the amount that would arrive here is low, and the long term effects drop measurably, week by week.  In a couple of months, there would only be 3% of the radioactivity there was when the material was first released in Japan, whether it remains in Japan or makes its way to the US.

For us as travelers, the key issue is one of disruption to travel to/from Japan, including travel that involves changes planes in Japan.  And if you have been considering travel to Japan any time soon, you should rethink that – both selfishly from a point of view of concern about radiation issues, and selflessly from a point of view of allowing the Japanese to get about rebuilding their country and infrastructure without foreigners getting in the way.  There is a US State Department alert in effect at present urging all US citizens to avoid tourism and non-essential travel to Japan.

Why not come to Scotland on our June tour of Scotland's Islands and Highlands instead (or is that too crass a segue?).

There have certainly been some irrational and panicky reactions – most notably in almost earthquake-free Germany which shut down seven of its nuclear reactors, 'just in case'.  The strongest earthquake in Germany in the last 700 years was about 6 – 6.5; which means it was 250 – 1000 times less strong than the Japanese quake.  And the chances of a tsunami in Germany?  Nil for most of the country.

 But perhaps the strangest reaction was in China, with locals buying up salt, both in the mistaken belief that the iodine in salt would work the same was as Potassium Iodide tablets, and also because – well, it just gets crazier and crazier.

As for matters to our east, I wrote last week about every day bringing fresh surprises in the middle east.  The last week has been dominated by events in Bahrain and Libya, and to probably just about everyone's astonishment, after weeks of virtual silence and inactivity, the US stirred itself on Thursday (yesterday) and helped get a UN resolution passed without China or Russia's veto, authorizing not just a no-fly zone over Libya but possibly ground action too – the applicable term being 'all necessary measures' which is a polite way of allowing open unrestricted warfare any which way.

One is reminded of the saying 'A stitch in time saves nine' – earlier positive action to support the Libyan rebels could have been of material assistance at a time when the fate of their protests hung in the balance and Gaddafi's future seemed uncertain and insecure, and could have been provided at little risk to western personnel, but with the passing of time, Gaddafi has managed to regain the upper hand and has almost completed his actions to regain control of Libya.

I'll avoid commenting on the rights or wrongs of the issues here (for a change).  But I will point out that in choosing to do something that is closely akin to declaring war on Col Gaddafi and his forces, we have chosen a bad person to have as an enemy.  In the past, he has not hesitated to wage low intensity terrorist war against the west (from our perspective as travelers, perhaps most notoriously the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988) and it is only recently that he has been 'rehabilitated' and Libya welcomed back into the international community at large.

Gaddafi has shown himself to have no hesitation at all in taking on the west, and if he feels he is losing, there's every reason to fear extreme actions on his part.  His Defense Ministry has already made threats about what it would do in retaliation :  "Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger and civilian and military (facilities) will become targets of Libya's counter-attack."

What does that mean?  It doesn't seem that Libya has much in the way of long range missiles (200 mile max distance for both surface to air and surface to surface missiles, which is equivalent to from Tripoli to Malta, or from Albayda to Crete, and the surface to surface missiles (Scud-B's) are not accurate enough to threaten a ship.  It would be a very risky mission for one of its frigates to sail out of port – the NATO forces dominate the Mediterranean – and it would be similarly ill advised for any planes to take to the skies once the no-fly zone is in place.

That tends to suggest (but who really knows for sure) that any activities are more likely to be covert rather than overt, involving small teams going to launch attacks at first hand or to plant explosives etc, surreptitiously.  In other words, what we commonly refer to as terrorists.

This will hopefully be matched by an increase in appropriate and effective security measures across Europe, particularly when it comes to carrying baggage and freight on flights.

This is the last chance to consider joining our Travel Insider Front Sight group doing the Four Day Defensive Handgun course in Pahrump in early April.  If you want to join the 16 of us currently attending, you'd need to coordinate a sign-up with me by the end of the weekend.

Reader Survey

We may be witnessing a classic anti-competition move by Delta at present, whereby Delta may have resolved to teach Frontier Airlines a lesson and beat it down.  I'll tell you the story as I see it, and then would appreciate you responding with your opinion about what Delta is doing.

Frontier Airlines decided to start flights from Kansas City to Minneapolis St Paul on 6 June.

Delta views MSP as its own (dating back to when it was a Northwest fortress hub) and wasn't about to take this unwelcome intrusion lying down.  And so, on the same day, 6 June, Delta plans to start operating flights from Kansas City (MCI) to Boston, Columbus, Austin and New Orleans – which, by some incredible coincidence, all happen to be cities that Frontier currently serve.  To put this in clear context, MCI was previously  at the end of spokes from Delta's various hubs rather than a mini hub or a city with significant direct point to point routes, so this is a significant change, with completely new routes rather than simply adding frequencies to existing routes.  Delta will closely match Frontier's schedule as well.  And to make sure Frontier gets the message, Delta is also adding service to compete against Frontier between Omaha and Reagan National Airport in DC.

This isn't just overscheduling flights on the now competitive MCI-MSP route which would be a typical proportionate response to a new competitor appearing.  This is sending Frontier a very clear message – 'Get off my turf, or I'll squash you all over your route map' – the meaning of the message being underscored by choosing exactly the same date to start these other flights.  It seems Delta is immediately 'going nuclear' by broadcasting a threat to eviscerate a disproportionate amount of Frontier's network if Frontier doesn't abjectly retreat from its new planned service to MSP.

Delta's actions do a second thing, too.  Delta is blasting a warning to any other potential competitors, anywhere else on its route system – 'Don't you dare try anything, because the blood on the floor will be yours if you do'.

Only a couple of weeks ago Delta was saying it was reducing its growth plans for 2011, and now it seems to have suddenly uncovered a mother lode of new routes, all improbably coming from Kansas City (apologies to those who live in the fair metropolis of Kansas City, but I'm sure you know what I mean – and enjoy your new cheap airfares while they last!).

So, how do you interpret these moves by Delta?  Do you see this as probably merely a coincidence?  Or do you acknowledge it as an example of an airline trying to bully another airline?  And, if you do see this as Delta trying to 'teach Frontier a lesson' do you think it is fair and unavoidable in the free market economy that we sort of live in, or is this an abuse of market power by the world's second largest airline against one of the US's smaller and weaker carriers?

Please click the link that best matches your opinion to generate an automatic email back to me with your answer coded in the subject line.  I'll tabulate the responses and report back to you next week.

This is perfectly innocent and purely a coincidence
Delta is probably trying to put the squeeze on Frontier, but that's part of the price of a free economy
Delta is definitely trying to beat up Frontier and force it out of MSP, and that's a bad thing, but it can't be helped or prevented
Delta's actions are outrageous and the DoT, Justice Department, someone, anyone, should stop Delta, fine Delta, and make sure it never happens again

My feature story this week is about airline perfidy of a different type.  Airline perfidy is, of course, hardly a new topic, is it.  But I was disappointed when responding to a British Airways sale, to find on their website a confusing mess of different fare offers, but none of them had any available seats, notwithstanding a clear promise on the webpages that seats were available.

We've all had this sort of thing happen – you find the offer of a discounted fare, but when you then go to book it, you discover it no longer exists, and there's even a rational explanation for why this sometimes happens – see my article on how and why airfares change when you go to book them.

But this was a different type of scenario.  I wasn't first calling up airfares through some sort of third party website, then going from there to BA's site to go and book.  I was calling up fare availability pages directly on BA's site, and getting real time 'dynamic' fare display information, complete with a little box in the top right hand corner showing the lowest available fare for that month.  Except that, the lowest available fare was not available.  I checked for the remains of March and then did the exercise for the entire month of April and couldn't find the promised lowest fares in either month.

I write about it in the following article, and follow that up with a series of pages showing screen shots of all the availability pages to confirm I wasn't misunderstanding something.

So how can BA offer a fare that doesn't exist?  That's a very good question.  I've written to the Department of Transportation asking them how this is possible/permissible, and await their reply with interest.

One person has commented, saying it isn't fair for me to compare BA's lead price offer 'airfares to London from $288 each way based on roundtrip purchase plus taxes and fees' with the lowest amount of money it would actually cost to buy a ticket (airfare of $804, and with taxes, a total of $1000).  Of course I disagree – what I think unfair is BA quoting a non-existent price that you can never actually buy anything for.

Although US airlines may now allow you to buy a 'half a roundtrip' fare – a complicated way of saying a one way fare – for no more than the lowest price you can find, BA won't do that.  You must buy a roundtrip ticket (or pay a massive price premium for a one way ticket), and the cost of each half is dependent not only on the lowest fares available for that day's travel, but – amazingly – also on when you travel in the other direction, too (some of the lowest fares have more restrictive minimum stays, forcing you to stay at least a week, for example).  So even if the promised one way fare is available, you mightn't be allowed to buy it, depending on when you want to fly back.

That's of course nothing more than a twist on the two classic airline tricks – if you buy a fare from Los Angeles to New York which stops in Chicago, you can't get off the plane in Chicago, you must fly all the way to New York; and if you buy a roundtrip ticket, you must fly both to your destination and back again, you can't fly one way then throw away the other half of the ticket.

Airlines shouldn't be allowed to quote a non-existent fare price that you can't buy.

Airlines are becoming obsessive about saving weight any which way they can.  They justified removing pillows and blankets (hardly heavy items to start with) on weight saving grounds (as well as, ahem, cost saving grounds too).  The same justification has applied to serving fewer drinks and carrying less variety of drink types, and to no longer providing in-flight magazines.

The latest example of this is AA deciding to replace its beverage carts with ones that will weigh about 12 lbs less.  With 19,000 carts in their fleet (not all of which are flying at any time, of course – many are on the ground being rotated off planes, restocked, and then reloaded onto new planes) the airline calculates this will save them about $5 million a year in fuel costs.

It amazes me that with the airlines becoming so hyper-sensitive to every avoidable pound of weight, two issues remain sacrosanct and off-limits.  The first is charging passengers for their tickets by the pound of their personal weight (or at least charging extra to passengers above a certain weight – or, if you prefer, the more politically correct concept of giving discounts to passengers below a certain weight).

Another twist on this would be to charge us a fare based on the total weight of ourselves and our suitcases – how unfair is it that the 90lb teenage girl with a 55lb suitcase has to pay maybe $100 more, roundtrip, than the 250lb business executive with a 45lb suitcase.  The airlines are carrying twice the weight for the man than for the girl, but she has to pay more, based on the weight of her suitcase alone.

The second off-limit issue is even more contentious.  That is a return to a now distant past era when air hostesses were required to be slim and trim.  Now instead we get flight attendants rather than air hostesses, and airlines must pretend that all flight attendants weigh the same.

If AA can save $5 million a year by slimming down its beverage carts by 12 lbs each, how much would it save on slimming down its flight crew (pilots included)?  I'm speaking for myself as well when I say this, so feel I fairly can observe that most of their flight crew could stand to lose 12 lbs and be all the healthier for it.  Alternatively, if AA set a target weight for passengers, how much more would it earn by charging, say, $5 per 10 lbs extra on each flight we take?

How strange that all the airlines are sensitive to public opinion on this one, and only this one issue.  I'd actually quite like to be charged extra for being overweight; because maybe that would give me a bit of impetus to do a bit of exercise and lose some of the weight which seems to have come from nowhere and settled unpleasantly around my middle.  The one thing the airlines could do for us that might actually be, sort of, a good thing, and they refuse to do it.

The part of a plane where airlines at least still go through the motion of pulling out all the stops for their passengers is first class, and for sure, the fares are way more over the top than the service.  But in at least some respects, the first class flying experience has improved over the last decade or two.  The food hasn't improved at all (and possibly even gone downhill) and neither has the drinks menu, but the invention of seats that convert to lie-flat beds has been considered by most to be a big enhancement.

I've never much liked the lie flat sleeper bed/seats for two reasons.  The first is they tend to be too short and too narrow (and I'm neither unduly tall nor unduly wide).  The second is that what is comfortable as a seat is rarely comfortable as a bed, in terms of upholstery and firmness.

Virgin Atlantic came out with an approach that deserved kudos for originality – a flip over seat/bed, with one side upholstered for a bed type firmness and the other side for a seat type firmness, but it still remained an unfortunate compromise that didn't really fit the bill.

But now Lufthansa has announced a wonderful new first class product, to be fitted on ten of their 747s.  They are providing semi private spaces that comprise a regular seat plus a separate bed alongside.  That way, they can offer you a seat designed for sitting in, and a bed designed for sleeping in that is described as being over 6'7" in length, with no need to compromise on the comfort of either.  This also means they are reducing the number of seats in their 747s down to only eight (currently they have 16 – in both cases the first class is located upstairs).

Sounds like an excellent idea to me.

Here's an interesting new product – a new company plans to open up a series of airport lounges across the country.  The company – Airspace Lounge – will start with a lounge at Baltimore, and plans to open more lounges across the country and world as time, space availability and funding allows.

There is no annual membership fee, merely an admission fee per visit.  Admission fees start at $17.50, but if the lounge is starting to fill up, the admission fee will rise, up to a maximum of $45, ostensibly to keep the lounge uncongested, but if you were a cynic, you might think it so as to allow for a 'loss leader' price up front, but much of the day to be charging very much more.

At $17.50, it is a great deal, but at $45, not so much.  I wrote a two part article 'How to Access Airline Lounges for Less' that sets out the current airline lounge plans and policies, and the best way to get lounge access as/when needed.

You do get quite a lot for your admission fee, however, much of which shows a great deal of sense and sensitivity to the needs of travelers.  Free Wi-fi, access to some computer workstations and a color printer (extra fee for printing color pages), power outlets at every seat, a single item of free food or a snack, and free beverages (alcohol is available but not free).

If you buy a pass at one airport, you can use it at other airports you are flying through on the same day, and if you bought the pass at a low price initially, it can still be used for admission to other lounges even if the price is higher.  But because you only get one food item per entry purchase, you would have to pay for additional snacks.

Perhaps the biggest potential problem will be the lounge locations.  The good thing about airline lounges is that they are usually close to the gates served by the airline in question.  While this new company promises lounges will be on the secure side of airport terminals, the bigger the airport, the less chance there is of your flight departing from a gate close to their lounge.

When they get a measurable 'footprint' of multiple lounges, I'll add an analysis of their product to my current two page report, but until they get a dozen or more lounges, they're not really relevant across the board.  On the other hand, BWI has lost all its previous lounges, so for people flying from BWI, the lounge may well be a blessing, and because there's no annual fee or other commitment, it is worth considering if/when we are at an airport with time to kill and one of their lounges conveniently close to our gate.

More details on their website.

Lastly this week, the Russian security forces discovered that not everything in a package which makes a 'strange ticking noise' is actually a bomb, even though some people might hope it causes them to visualize fireworks and explosions.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.

1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 18 March 2011”

  1. Airspace Lounge should start out in major Southwest concourses as WN has no lounges, yet has lots of gates concentrated in a number of airports. Also most of their gates are very congested with 25-30 minute plane turns. Sure, Southwest passengers are frugal, but with people arrive at airports 2 hrs ahead of flights these days (not so pre TSA), so have more time on their hands. Not to mention, delays, longer connections, etc.

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