Weekly Roundup Friday 15 April 2011

Titanicsinkingb Good morning

And happy Tax Day for another year.

Other interesting anniversaries this week are the 50th anniversary of the first man in space and the 99th anniversary of the Titanic sinking.  The more we learn about both events, the more it seems the outcomes should have been transposed.

The Soviet launch of Yuri Gargarin was fearsomely risky and had been preceded by earlier failures – indeed, the Soviets didn't announce the launch until after its successful completion (his flight lasted just 1 hr 48 mins on 12 April 1961), whereas the Titanic's fate (on 15 April 1912) was unlikely and unexpected.

Oh yes – one other anniversary too.  United Airlines celebrated 85 years of flying last week, with their first flight being traced back to an antecedent airline, Varney Air Service, which first flew on April 6, 1926.  In all of 1926, there were an estimated 6,000 airline passengers in the US.  By 1930, this had already grown to 170,000.

There's an interesting postscript to this.  Walter Varney, founder of Varney Air Service and the pilot of the official first flight, formed another airline after selling his first airline to United.  This second airline, named Varney Speed Lines, was in turn sold and renamed as Continental Airlines (in 1937).

And now, after all these years, the two airlines with common roots are merged into the same company.  Funny how these things turn out, isn't it.

As mentioned two weeks ago, there was no newsletter last week.  I spent six days in Nevada together with seventeen readers, attending the second Travel Insider Group Shoot at Front Sight.  We comprised a broad mix of people with a broad range of skills, ranging from three ladies (and several men too) who had never held a gun before, to a former Deputy Sheriff who trains police departments professionally in the use of firearms.

As always, the most invaluable part of the training was learning about conflict avoidance – how to avoid getting into situations where your gun is the only way out of a problem, and the underlying situational awareness that can help you to keep out of such nightmarish situations.

Also stressed was the massive downside and negative consequences of even the most 100% perfectly justified use of deadly force.  Rather than emerging as a group of rabid gun nutters, I think we have all emerged with a much more sober realization of the responsibilities that must constrain our use of deadly force.

On the other hand, if push does come to shove, even those who had never touched a gun before are now able to draw a concealed weapon and send two reasonably accurate rounds downrange in 1.8 seconds.

I've updated my review on the Front Sight course and may offer another Travel Insider 'Group Shoot' event later in the year when the desert temperatures cool down from their summer excesses.

A couple of weeks ago I'd advised about an amazing deal with Capital One, giving a 110,000 mile signup bonus if you get one of their Visa cards.  Apparently that deal is no longer available, although if you were like me and acted quickly, you will now be the beneficiary of the 110,000 mile bonus.

Happily, there is a replacement deal now on offer.  The new deal is between Chase Card Services and British Airways.  There are several special things about this offer.

First, you get 50,000 miles into a BA frequent flier account as soon as you charge anything to your new Chase Visa card.  Second, if you charge $2500 or more to the card within the first three months, you get a second 50,000 mile credit, giving you 100,000 miles, enough for two roundtrips between the US and Europe.

But wait, there's more.  Any year you charge over $30,000 to the card, you get a 'companion flies free' certificate, good for two years.  To redeem it, you need to use the miles you've earned to get one free ticket on BA, and the certificate then gets you a second one.  The companion flies in the same class of service as you.

You get 1.25 miles for every $1 spent, so after spending $40,000 you have 50,000 miles, good for a free ticket for yourself and also a companion ticket for someone traveling with you.

Whether you use the card only for the first 100,000 miles or whether you continue to use it for the free companion certificates, this too seems like a great deal.

The card also waives foreign transaction fees when you're charging items in foreign currencies.  Details here.

In related credit card news, there is – at last – some good news for international travelers.  As you know, on (happily rare) occasion we can suffer problems when using our old fashioned low-tech credit cards in just about any other country in the world, because most other countries have switched to a more secure advanced type of credit card with a built in encrypted computer chip, rather than an old fashioned magnetic stripe.

Wells Fargo has just announced a pilot program to trial this 'new' technology – well, it is actually more than ten years old, but new to the US.  They will allow 15,000 of their international traveling card members to get new cards in the middle of this year.

I'm not quite sure what they need to 'trial'.  It is a stable mature technology in almost universal use everywhere else in the world.  But let's see our glass as half full on this, and the sooner all US credit card issuers adopt this technology, the better it will be for all of us.

Details here.  Oh – in case you are wondering about why the US has been so slow to adopt this newer and more secure technology, it seems the reason is that the newer type of credit card costs a little bit more to make than the old fashioned ones, and the banks have been shamefully reluctant to spend extra money on issuing these safer more globally accepted cards.

My brother and his girlfriend flew up from New Zealand to spend a week in Seattle last Saturday.  They got as far as San Francisco, where they missed their connecting flight on United up to Seattle.

They then spent the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening standing by, with no success, for subsequent flights, and were told that all the Saturday and Sunday flights were fully booked, and that Monday's flights were problematic.  With 17 people ahead of them already on the waiting list, it was far from certain if they'd get to Seattle even on Monday, with Tuesday too being uncertain.

They ended up flying to Eugene OR; overnighting there at their own cost, and then buying a separate ticket on Alaska Airlines to fly up to Seattle on Sunday morning.

This is the not-so-obvious downside to airlines operating full flights.  Back in the days prior to deregulation, airlines even accepted an obligation to leave a fair number of seats empty on their flights to accommodate passengers with emergency travel needs or missed connections or cancelled flights.

But these days, with flights averaging eighty-something percent full, and many flights being 100% full (when was the last time you had a spare seat next to you?) the ability of the airlines to accommodate unexpected extra passengers is severely diminished.  This sometimes becomes apparent when weather cancellations result in many days of catchup until affected passengers on canceled flights finally get to travel, but more often, it is non-newsworthy events such as my brother and his girlfriend ending up wasting an extra travel day and spending hundreds of dollars to make other arrangements to get where they wished/needed to be.

The other part of this issue is when you find yourself at risk of being involuntarily bumped off a full flight because the airline overbooked it too aggressively and to their surprise, all ticketed passengers turned up for the flight.  Whereas in the past, being bumped off a flight was as often as not a happy making event, resulting in generous compensation and 

The NY Times had an interesting article on being bumped off flights earlier this week – both how to minimize and/or how to maximize the possibility of being bumped.  Alternatively, for a much more detailed treatment on the topic, I have an eight part series that tells you hopefully everything you'd ever need to know about overbooked flights.

Talking about being bumped and flying standby, in the early 1990s the cruise industry realized it had created a monster.  Whereas airlines typically will charge more and more for people wishing to book a flight closer and closer to the date of travel, cruise lines had been increasingly discounting their cabins the closer it got to sailing date as they became increasingly desperate to fill empty cabins.

Eventually word got around and most cruise passengers knew not to book in advance, and to wait for the last minute specials, and so the cruise lines found themselves in the terrible situation of having no advance (and full price) bookings, only last minute (discounted bookings).

In time, they responded by nixing all last minute discounts and flipped their discount schedule around, so that the further in advance you booked, the greater your discount.  Since then, the cruise lines have been generally good at sticking to this policy, with only a few exceptions.

I was accordingly surprised to read about Crystal Cruises announcing a new policy of offering last minute standby fares of up to 75% off regular brochure prices on some of their May and June sailings in Alaska, the Baltic, and the North Cape.  This is a dangerous return to the previous system for the cruise line, but potentially a positive development for us as passengers.

Bad luck occurs in threes, or so the old saying says.  The greater truth is that when one specific or unusual event occurs, it sensitizes us to the issue, and causes us to notice similar events, creating the appearance of a sudden rush of related things.

The latest example of this has to be the new hysteria over air traffic controllers sleeping on the job.  By all accounts, this has been happening for as long as anyone can remember, and there's never been any accident or mishap as a result – indeed, quite the opposite.  It could be cogently argued that by 'power napping' when there is an hour or two between flights, the controllers are better refreshed and better able to handle the needs of the flights when they do occur.

But reason and common sense are seldom considered in an emotional rush to judgment by an assorted group of ignorant and/or hypocritical administrators, commentators, pressure groups, and politicians.  So after several more high visibility sleeping air controller reports, we have the FAA now announcing it will be double manning control towers at 27 airports for the night shift, even though there's not enough work for one controller, let alone two.

Assigning a second controller, at an annual cost in the order of $160,000, merely as a companion to the first controller (and/or perhaps to now allow one controller to safely sleep while the other struggles to stay awake) is the most expensive possible solution.

As I'd earlier written, the best solution would involve consolidating the control functions into regional centers where say two controllers could manage five or even ten airports during the slow periods.  When you consider that these controllers often work in windowless offices, there's no reason for them to be on-airport (particularly with the ease of adding webcams to provide visual feedback if needed).  But instead of two controllers working five or ten airports, we now have two controllers for every airport.

In addition, a sacrificial lamb has now been lead to the slaughter – or, in this case,  an FAA manager has resigned over the recent reports of sleeping controllers.  Details here.

Here's a very sensible article that dispassionately looks at the overall issue of air traffic controllers – and pilots too – sleeping during quiet periods.

It is currently unclear if any blame should flow through to the ground traffic controllers after the 'fender bender' incident between an A380 and a CRJ700 at JFK earlier this week, however.  Currently it seems probable that the small regional jet, operated by Comair, stopped a bit short of where it was directed to go due to some congestion in front of it.

Stopping a bit short would have usually been safe, and A380s are very seldom seen at JFK (so far).  Unfortunately the A380's width – a massive 262' wide, which is 50' more than a 747-400 – makes it extremely unforgiving if other planes don't meticulously position themselves exactly where they should be, and as a result, the outer edge of its wing clipped the tail of the CRJ700, as was recorded by chance on amateur video here.

This page has some good close up pictures of the damage plus a link near the bottom to the video footage.  This is the second time an Air France A380 has collided with another plane on the ground.

Here's an interesting item about another runway incident – this time involving an arrogant US senator who felt that 'runway closed' signs shouldn't apply to him.

Is there another airline merger in our future?  Doug Parker, CEO of US Airways, hopes so, and figures to be part of it.  US Airways is currently the fifth largest carrier, and it seems they would wish to merge with either United/Continental, Delta, or American, rather than with a smaller carrier.  This would still further concentrate market share into an even smaller number of major players.

Here's an interesting item full of apparent inconsistencies between the comments offered by various US Airways executives.

On the other hand, while US Airways is keen to lose itself into a merger with another larger carrier, Canada's dominant airline, Air Canada, is looking at splitting itself another way, to create a new discount leisure airline that would operate on leisure routes, primarily to Europe, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

The new airline, as yet unnamed, would start with ten planes and could conceivably grow to 50, with a mix of coach and premium economy seating (but no business or first class).  Pilots have agreed to negotiate a new pay structure in keeping with the discount airline ethos.

I'm always skeptical of 'airline within an airline' concepts, and they have a poor track record of succeeding, but if AC can secure productivity improvements from its unions (which has often been one of the big problems in the past), that is a major positive factor in its favor.  Fingers crossed, eh? 

Some airline fee good news?  As astonishing as it seems, an airline has announced reductions to the fees it charges.  Frontier Airlines is reducing its change fee on economy tickets from $100 down to $50, assuming you make the itinerary change prior to day of travel.  If there's an applicable increase in fare, that too is payable (of course).

They are also trimming back some of their baggage fees, and will allow you to change the name of the person on a ticket for $50 (or, for higher level fares, for free).

Way to go, Frontier!

As you may know, I'm a great rail enthusiast.  But unlike some rail enthusiasts, I don't suggest that we should have high speed rail, whatever the cost.  There comes a point where it truly does become just plain too expensive to build and too expensive to maintain and operate high speed rail.  I'm not alone in my thinking.

Several of the states who were promised generous high speed rail funding by the federal government have refused it, because even after the 'free' money from the federal government, the massively reduced remaining share required to be put into the project by the states in question have just not made financial sense.

But some states continue to allow themselves to be propelled forwards on schemes that appear to be a mix of wishful thinking, deliberate misstatement of costs and passenger projections, and a round-robin of 'let's pretend' engaged in by all who stand to benefit from the expenditures involved.

Here's a damning article on California's high speed rail project, full of facts and figures.

If you click the link on the article to an opposing view by a high speed rail supporter, what do you see?  Empty statements, unrelated facts that by implication are tied in to support California's rail project but which in reality do no such thing, excuses that projections may be wrong, and a suggestion that because private companies see much money to be made from the building contracts and anticipated ongoing operational subsidies, the project should continue.

I'm still open to the concept of high speed rail, even if at high cost.  But I'd feel much better at supporting something when its advocates had the moral integrity to openly admit, up front 'This will be extraordinarily expensive to build and to operate' rather than trying to obfuscate the truth until it is too late to back away from the project.

If we are to talk about lies, damn lies, and statistics, how about the claim from someone who apparently relies on airlines for his business income in this article.  It quotes John Thomas, head of global aviation at LEK Consulting as claiming it costs the airlines $15 to $20 per checked bag to cover fuel and handling costs (presumably per flight).

How can that be true?  Let's think it through.

First of all, the costs to check a bag involve maybe two minutes of a check in agent's time (and getting less with increasingly automated self checkin of bags); then the bag gets whisked into the airport's baggage handling system, to reappear at a point where a person places it into a container or onto a tram/trolley cart (less than one minute to do this).  The cart or container is then taken to the plane, where it is either loaded individually onto the plane (say two minutes total time) or as part of a container load of many bags (say 0.1 minutes of time).

Flying the bag on the plane costs 3% of the bag's weight in jet fuel per hour of flying time.  Let's say a total flight time of 2.5 hours, and jet fuel at $2.50/gallon.  A 45 lb bag would therefore cost $1.13 in fuel.

At the other end, more or less the reverse occurs – 0.1 or 2 minutes to unload, and less than 1 minute to transfer onto a conveyor to the carousel.

So, in total, we have eight minutes (or less if containerized) of person-time at say $30/hr – $4, plus $1.13 for fuel.  Total cost of the bag is therefore somewhere between a low of perhaps $4 to a high of perhaps $6.

I'm not seeing $15 – $20 in costs per checked bag.  No way, no how.  I challenge John Thomas to stand up proudly in front of his claim and publicly show us the naked truth of how he erected this cost.  (Sorry….)

The more significant point in the article is the suggestion that in return for charging us extra for checked bags, the airlines should accept some responsibility for actually providing the service we pay for, and in particular, if a bag is delayed or lost, the checked bag fee should be returned to us.

Sounds like a good – and perfectly fair – idea to me, akin to Fedex's delivery guarantee.  Airline industry lobbying group, the ATA, trots out their ultra-traditional response which they use in all cases – if the airlines were obliged to actually deliver the service they charge us so outrageously for, then – according to ATA – they'd have to charge even more.

Let's close this part of the newsletter with a couple of videos.

First, my creative and slightly hyper-active fellow Kiwis continue to seek new ways of injecting some interest into the in-flight passenger safety video.  Here's their latest effort – at least this time the crew and other actors are somewhat clothed.

I guess it is fun to watch once, but I'm not sure I'd like to be subjected to it on every flight.  My preferred flight safety announcements are the ones I can ignore or sleep through.  Does anyone really need to be told how to buckle and unbuckle a safety belt?

And here's an amazing time lapse video of an Air France flight and what was seen outside the window during a flight from SFO to CDG.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.


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