Weekly Roundup Friday 15 July 2011

Good morning

Carmaggedon looms large in the thoughts of Los Angeles drivers this weekend.  What is being termed ‘carmageddon’ is the closing of 10 miles of I-405 for construction, with grim predictions of massive traffic disruptions as a result.

Various outlying resorts and hotels have been offering weekend stay specials to encourage people away from the morass of snarled traffic, with top prize for creativity going not to a hotel but to an airline.  Jetblue announced a series of shuttle flights between Long Beach and Burbank airports on Saturday, and sold them for $4 each way- including taxes and fees.

The flights – which are scheduled to take 20 minutes to travel the 35 miles between airports – quickly sold out.

Short flights will become more common on Jetblue with their soon to start new flights from San Juan to St Thomas (75 miles), St Croix (100 miles) and St Maarten (200 miles).  But rather than $4 inclusive of all taxes and fees, fares start at $39 each way plus taxes and fees and increase at the end of a short launch sale, later today.

Air travel is showing mixed numbers.  As always some airlines show significant increases in year on year traffic (most notably Southwest) while others struggle to maintain their volumes and are even slightly declining (many of the dinosaurs).

The biggest changes however are in airfares, which continue their unbroken record for more than a year of rises every month over the previous month.  Now, in truth, the airlines need to raise their fares some to recognize the terrible increases in the cost of jetfuel, which is up about 30% year on year.  Airlines were paying $3.03/gallon for jetfuel in May this year, compared to $2.32 last year.

However, when do airfare increases become unaffordable, and start to cause appreciable cut-backs in passenger numbers?  When do the airlines find themselves entering another vicious spiral of reducing passenger numbers requiring higher airfares to cover their semi-fixed costs, which cause further reductions in passenger numbers, and so on?  Are we getting close to that point again?

A suggestion that we are nearly at our limit on what we’ll pay for air travel (and I’ve seen some truly horrendous airfares recently, even for travel booked way in advance) might come from across the border in Canada.  This article reports that Air Canada and Westjet seem to be easing back from the highest highs of the fares they’ve been recently charging, albeit after some horrific increases in the months preceding.

These air fare reductions are in response to a recent drop of about 2% in future air travel bookings for travel in Canada.

Talking about Air Canada, one has to occasionally feel a flash of pity for the airline.  They are being stalked by a relentless professional victim, a Mr Michel Thibodeau, who delights in tricking the airline by ordering a 7-Up in French and then suing them if they misunderstand his French and give him Sprite instead.

Mr Thibodeau has a history of doing such things (see this website and his winning of a ‘special’ award in 2003), and most recently he and his wife were awarded C$12,000 for Air Canada’s inability to speak to them in French (even though he apparently also speaks perfect English) by a federal court judge, Madame Justice Marie-Josee Bedard (hopefully her own very self-evident Francophone background didn’t influence her decision).  See this report.

Back to airfares.  Let’s hope for reductions in the US too, although exactly how the airlines will be able to ease back on airfares at the same time that fuel costs are relentlessly increasing is unclear.  Oh – wait…. maybe they could sneak in some more obscured fees, or increase the cost of traveling with a suitcase yet again.

Or perhaps they could continue to penalize people who attempt to redeem frequent flier ‘free’ travel awards.  For example, American Airlines is increasing the fee it charges to issue a frequent flier award ticket within three weeks of departure up from $50 to $75.  And there’s a more subtle sting in the tail of this fee increase – whereas in the past, the fee was $50 for the first ticket and $25 for any additional tickets issued at the same time, the fee is now $75 per ticket with no reduction for a second and subsequent ticket.

So two of you traveling would now pay $150 for your ‘free’ tickets instead of $75.  You might say that a solution is to book your travel more than three weeks in advance, but as you probably also know, there are only limited seats available far in advance of travel, with more seats being released close to departure.  With a $75 bonus per ‘free’ seat released close to departure, it becomes more clear now why airlines often release additional seats closer to departure date.

Mind you, the outrageous $75 fee for something that costs AA nothing at all to do is mild compared to the problems encountered by Qantas frequent fliers in Australia.  A lifetime Gold elite level Qantas frequent flier wished to use some of his accumulated miles to get roundtrip tickets for himself and his wife to fly from Darwin in Australia to Bali.

In addition to the frequent flier miles needed to get the ‘free’ tickets, the person was surprised to note that he would have to pay A$760.84 (US$815) in taxes and and other fees.

But, wait, the story is just starting.  He then discovered he could buy two tickets on the exact same flights and it would cost him only $494, inclusive of all taxes and charges.  Yes, it was almost $300 cheaper to buy tickets (and to earn more frequent flier miles, of course) than it was to redeem frequent flier miles to get ‘free’ tickets.

How can that be?  Since when does ‘free’ mean ‘well, actually, you pay $300 extra and get fewer benefits to boot’?

When questioned, Qantas first replied with nonsense boilerplate responses, and then with confusing and similarly nonsensical answers, then lapsed into a moody silence and volunteered no further explanation.

Details of this outrageous ripoff hereShame on Qantas.

A rose by any other name?  Atlantic Southeast and ExpressJet, now both owned by SkyWest, said that when the two airlines’ operations are combined later this year, they will be renamed as SureJet.

When the merger is complete, SureJet will be the country’s largest regional carrier, with 412 planes and 10,000 employees.  They primarily operate flights on behalf of United/Continental and Delta.

There’s nothing to worry about.  Well, okay, so maybe there are ‘a few production areas in the supply chain that are experiencing temporary challenges’, but nothing to break a sweat over.  So Boeing assures an increasingly nervous airline industry when announcing another delay to their 787 production schedules.  They have again frozen production, this time for another month, which means their earlier target to deliver between 12 – 20 787s this year is now down to possibly as few as one or two.  Details here.

Although I’m still a little skeptical about Boeing getting its first 787 certified and operational with ANA in September as currently promised, I am certain they will do everything they possibly can to meet that date, even if only for one single plane, and even if every other plane is then massively delayed, and possibly even if the officially first delivered plane is quietly returned back to Boeing for more reworking at a subsequent date when Boeing’s 787 program is no longer under such close daily scrutiny.

Talking about delays, still no word from Boeing as to how it will counter Airbus’ new A320neo.

Look at this compilation of sales data for June for a vivid indication of the extraordinary way that Airbus is wiping Boeing off the sales chart.  In June, Airbus took orders for 535 of their A320neo family, plus a further 133 of the earlier generation A320 family – in total, 668 single aisle planes.  Compare that to Boeing, which took orders for 17 737s.  Airbus outsold Boeing by a factor of 39 to 1.

Boeing’s performance was so dismal that it was outsold by the struggling new Bombardier C Series jet, which sold almost twice as many (33 orders).  Even the Russians outsold Boeing, with 24 Sukhoi Superjets ordered (although admittedly not a direct 737 competitor).

The Economist Magazine’s Economic Intelligence Unit has announced this year’s list of most livable cities.  No big surprises or changes in the top ten, with the rankings being based on 30 factors taken from five general categories (stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infranstructure).  Top of the list (of 140 different cities) was Vancouver BC, followed by Melbourne Australia, Vienna Austia, Toronto, Calgary, Helsinki, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide (tying for 8th place) and Auckland, New Zealand.

This was the fifth year in a row Vancouver came top, although only the slimmest of margins (probably within evaluation error tolerances) separated all of the top ten cities.

The best ranking US city was Pittsburgh, which came 29th, followed by Honolulu (30th) and Los Angeles which came in at 44.  New York came next at 56th.

At the other end, Harare (Zimbabwe) came last, with Dhaka (Bangladesh) second last, followed by Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea), Lagos (Nigeria), Algiers (Algeria), Karachi (Pakistan), Douala (Cameroon), Tehran (Iran), Dakar (Senegal) and Colombo (Sri Lanka) to complete the bottom ten cities.

Here’s an interesting discussion thread about TSA document checking officers asking travelers to pronounce their name, and asking children where they are traveling to.  As you can see, the commenters are almost unanimously (and very vociferously) opposed to such things.

Just for a change, I’d like to try out a new role and support the TSA in this activity.  First, let’s consider asking questions of children.  I’ve traveled a number of times with my daughter, variously aged five and six, and she of course usually has no identification of any sort with her.  Rather than object to the TSA document checker asking her questions, I very much appreciate it, because it is a valuable protection and safeguard to protect children from being abducted.

Typical questions Anna (my daughter) has been asked include ‘What is your name’, ‘Who is the person you are traveling with’ and ‘Where are you going to’.  If I was tricking her by saying we were going somewhere when in truth we were going somewhere else, the TSA officer would pick up on that.  If I was not her father, the officer would pick up on that.  And if she was traveling on a false name, the officer would pick up on that too.

When the TSA officer asks such questions, I stand back quietly and allow Anna to answer all questions unprompted, and afterwards make a point of sincerely thanking the officer for taking a bit of extra trouble to check that all is as it should be.

Now for the other issue – asking adult passengers how their name is pronounced.  In this scenario, the TSA officer has the passenger’s boarding pass and ID, and perhaps even shields them from the passenger.  This is a very clever question.  You and I of course know exactly how our name is pronounced, and can answer without hesitation (although perhaps with a degree of puzzlement if our name is John or Jane Smith).

But if we are traveling under an assumed name, we might well have a touch of panic and hesitation, and might even start to say our real name before catching ourselves and then saying our false name.  Or maybe in the stress of the moment, we forget which of possibly a dozen different fake IDs we are traveling on that day and give entirely the wrong name.

This is a great question, and I wholeheartedly approve of the TSA asking it.  I’d much rather they ask a few quick and clever questions than put me through a possibly cancer-causing X-ray machine.

To give further credit to the TSA, they are starting to make some welcome noises about possible shifts in their screening procedures, and maybe – just barely possibly maybe – they might be going to start adjusting the level and inconvenience of security screening foisted on travelers, based on some prior risk-assessments to determine who are less likely to be terrorists.

Here’s a press release issued this Thursday that refers to a very limited size test sometime this fall, whereby some passengers may be offered ‘expedited screening’.  If you have a Global Entry, Sentri or Nexus card, and if you are an elite frequent flier with a participating airline and if you are flying out of a particular airport, you might quality for this ‘expedited screening’.

But – what exactly is expedited screening?  The TSA are silent on that point (why?).  Is it simply like the first class line in some airports – a shorter wait but the same shoes off, computer out, etc etc procedure?  If so, it is almost valueless.  But if it means you don’t have to half undress, and if it means you can skip a possibly life-shortening dose of X-rays, then it would be a wonderful thing indeed.

Stay tuned for more details.  Hopefully.

I quite liked that.  Saying nice things about the TSA felt good.  So I’ll do it again – well, sort of.  I’m sorry, but I have zero sympathy for this woman, who – to use her own words – ‘played the race card‘ when objecting to being selected for secondary screening while passing through security at Seattle Airport.  She has a voluminous hair bun and the TSA agents wished to check there was nothing concealed in her hair.

But, on the other hand, she had just gone through through an X-ray whole body imaging machine.  Why did the TSA need to then run their fingers through her hair after dosing her with X-rays?  If the potentially dangerous X-rays aren’t working in people’s hair, shouldn’t we know about that, and shouldn’t the TSA stop using these X-ray machines if they aren’t fully functional?

Whatever the merits or lack thereof in this woman’s situation, how can anyone explain or excuse the TSA’s decision to put Donald Rumsfeld through secondary screening (he has two titanium hips and a titanium shoulder).

Like him or love him, but who in their right mind would think for a microsecond that Donald Rumsfeld might be a terrorist?

An amusing aside – a reader and trusted friend showed me his boarding pass for a recent international flight he took.  I instantly saw that his last name, as shown on the boarding pass, had three different spelling mistakes in it.

But he managed to fly from the US to Europe and back to the US again with a ticket and boarding passes with three spelling errors in them, with no-one picking up the inconsistency between his true name (as shown in his passport) and the name on his ticket.

This is all the more surprising when you keep in mind that the airline swipes your passport when you travel internationally, and reads from the swiped data your name and other data.  How did the system not ring an alarm bell at the mismatch?  And also keep in mind that the US Homeland Security people get a passenger list prior to the plane leaving the foreign city so they can scrutinize it for people of interest.  How did their scrutiny also overlook this discrepancy?

There have been 25,000 security breaches – an average of about seven day – at US airports since 9/11.

The TSA and their apologists say this is only a very tiny percentage of all people traveling.  And that is true.  But it is still 25,000 security breaches; it is still seven every day.  And this is security breaches that we know about – who knows how many more go undetected (best estimates suggest as many as one third or more of illegal objects pass through TSA screening undetected).  More details here.

An often offered suggestion/question by readers is ‘Why doesn’t the TSA use more bomb detection dogs?’ – animals with noses so sensitive they can detect the smell of the smallest amount of explosive, even from some distance away.

In actuality, the TSA already has about 800 such dogs (termed ‘vapor-wake canines’), and of course an equal number of handlers, deployed in 80 different airports across the country.  But unfortunately, the dogs can only work short spells at a time before they become bored and lose concentration (although after a break they can come back and work some more) and the 800 dogs currently deployed are not nearly enough to provide any type of reasonable coverage (for one thing, the TSA provides screening services at 450 airports throughout the US, for another, the 800 dogs currently deployed are insufficient even for the 80 airports they are based at).

A bill currently being proposed in Congress would require the TSA to increase the number of dogs used to check for explosives, but even if it were to be passed, it would take 6 – 10 years to get sufficient dogs to cover all airports in the country (just in time for dog retirements and the need to start replacing them).

Talking about smells, I’ve commented in the past about hotels will sometimes arrange for artificial odors to waft across the reception area to greet you upon arrival.  Other artificial smells are used in other situations, even on Disney rides where they add to the immersive experience.

The latest example of odorous nonsense comes from MSC Cruises.  Under a project codenamed ‘Aroma Diffusion’ they have developed a signature and unique smell that can only be experienced on their ships.  In flowery phrases they explain how ‘the scent delicately permeates an entire ship, diffused through the air conditioning ducts in walkways and collective rooms but also integrated in laundry products, such as table linens, bedding, towels and dressing gowns, right through to the soap dispensers in the washrooms’.

But – if you’re one of those people who object to yet another gratuitous attack on yet another of our senses, don’t panic.  They hasten to add that ‘the fragrance dosage is carefully controlled, and guests only experience a hint or small ‘bursts’ of scent’, which is not directly piped into the cabins or restaurants (well, other than that carried in on linen from being processed in the laundry, etc).

Now, what sort of stink should you expect upon arriving on an MSC ship (now deployed across their entire fleet except for the MSC Melody)?  Who better to describe it than MSC, of course.  They explain ‘The MED by MSC fragrance itself is fresh and fruity, with warm notes of fig, almond and vetiver combining to create a welcoming and inviting ambiance and an enhanced sense of well-being and luxury.’

Scents are usually based in an alcohol substrate.  Seems to me that MSC have been sniffing too deeply and are suffering from some type of intoxication.

And in case you’re wondering what vetiver is, there’s a picture of it at the top of this week’s newsletter.  It is a type of grass closely related to sorghum, and is used as a fixative in perfumes, much as ambergris was in days of yore.

In other cruise line nonsense, ‘There is no limit to commercial greed’ – or at least, so says Arthur Frommer, in a ringing condemnation of Royal Caribbean Cruises’ decision to charge $150 per passenger for a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of their ships.  Like him, I’ve been on cruises where such things were offered for free.  Shame indeed on RCI.

Lastly this week, a man in Austria scored a small victory against bureaucracy (and the strange way that members of some religions get special exemptions when having ID pictures taken) by getting the Austrian authorities to allow him to provide a driver’s license photo while wearing a pasta strainer on his head.

He claimed that wearing this headgear was part of his religion (he is a ‘pastafarian’); the authorities balked and demanded he undergo a psychiatric examination before agreeing to consider any type of photo for a driver’s license at all (I wonder if they require that of members of other religions when submitting photos with headgear?).

After passing the psychological testing with flying colors, the authorities issued him a license (it took three years for this to transpire) and then backpedaled, denying they had objected to the pasta strainer on his head at all.  Details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.


2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 15 July 2011”

  1. Re: Mr Michel Thibodeau, I’m Canadian. Hopefully this will prove to the rest of the world why the official languages act does not work.
    This sort of stuidity just brings out all the negative aspects of it

  2. Hi David,
    I completely agree with you about TSA asking children a few questions, as well as asking passengers how to pronounce their names.
    I’ve had TSA ask our son his name several times. The only glitch is that his boarding pass says Alexander, and he goes by Alex. I think had one screener ask if the long version is Alexander, but every other screener has accepted the answer.
    When my wife use to travel to Atlanta with our son, but without me, TSA always asked Alex for his name and where he was going. I seem to remember that, rather than saying Atlanta, he would say, “To see Papa and Grandma!” That worked for TSA.
    When we were going through security at Sea-Tac, I handed the screener all three passports with a boarding pass tucked inside each one. He said that while we didn’t need to have ID for our son, it did speed up the process. Obviously, he didn’t have to ask Alex for his name or why he was flying.
    Considering that there is a news story in Chicago at least every other week about a child who has either gone missing or is taken by a friend of relative, I think its a great idea for TSA to be proactive in ensuring that children getting on airplanes aren’t being abducted.
    I haven’t been asked to pronounce my last name, but I can see that such a question is actually an effective tool. My last name can be pronounced with two syllables or three. I pronounce it with two, the way my father and grandfather pronounced it. But, if two people traveling together, say as husband and wife or siblings, can’t agree on the pronunciation, that would be a red flag for the screener.

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