Weekly Roundup Friday 16 September 2011

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Good morning

It has been a busy week and there’s now a wealth of things for you to enjoy reading.  But I now find myself asking, in turn, for your help in two different areas.  The first involves hopefully reaching into your back pocket, the second simply asks you to help support an issue that I think we can all unite and agree about, no matter where on the political spectrum we are to be found, or what our views on global warming or anything else may be.

First, the monetary issue.  Yes, we have once more reached a vital time of year for me – our annual fundraising drive.

If you have joined in the last year, I should tell you that The Travel Insider operates on a ‘public broadcasting’ type of model.  We rely on you to voluntarily help meet our costs, and once every year have a hopefully short appeal.

The next item down this week’s newsletter compilation tells you more.  Please do choose to help out.  Your help is needed more this year than ever before, and is greatly appreciated in any amount at all.

I am delighted – and massively appreciative – to report that from the small group of readers who get the instant or nightly updates and so who have already seen the mention of this year’s fundraising, we have already had nineteen people respond, including four for the first time.  Special thanks in particular to Bryan, Lila and Mike for becoming ‘super supporters’ (contributing in the three figure levels).

By the way, if you’d like to enhance your regular weekly updates, there is (of course!) no charge to add instant or nightly updates to your weekly newsletter.  If you’d like to get faster updates, simply click the ‘here to change your preferences’ link at the very bottom of this newsletter, then choose the ‘subscription preference center’ link at the bottom of the web page that opens, check off as many more of the mailing options as you wish and click the ‘Update Subscriptions’ button.

So – first request.  Please become an active supporter of The Travel Insider.

Which brings me to the second request.  The Travel Insider has always been part news, part views, part advice and ‘how to’, and part advocacy.  In the past, we got behind the Passenger Rights issue, and maybe in some very small way helped to mobilize enough awareness and support to get the Department of Transportation to come up with first one and subsequently a second set of regulations, each materially adding to our rights as airline passengers.

Over the last few months, I’ve been increasingly aware of another issue out there; an issue that crosses all political barriers, and one which is easy to understand and easy to solve.  Wow – how rare is that!

I’m talking about our country’s extraordinarily negative attitude towards allowing foreign visitors to come and spend their money here.  In the decade of the 2000s (ie as we became increasingly restrictive about allowing visitors to come to ‘Fortress USA’) our share of international tourism has declined from 18% to 12%.  If we simply restored our visitor policies back to what they were, and if our foreign visitor numbers returned to the former 18% market share, the US Travel Association estimates the net result would be a boost of $859 billion to our economy and the creation of 1.3 million new jobs for Americans..  If we were to liberalize our policies further, these numbers would all increase further.

Stop and think about this.  We’ve just had the President proposing to spend $447 billion, and all he can offer us in return is a vague statement that this expenditure will ‘support’ (not create!) a vague and uncertain number of jobs, for an unclear amount of time.  His last $800 billion of expenditure has very little to show for it and unemployment has increased rather than decreased.  I say this not so much to criticize him, as to acknowledge the difficult times we are in at present and how hard it is to improve our economy.

 But if we do nothing more than simply liberalize our visa issuing policies, we can create (rather than support) 1.3 million jobs, and these are 1.3 million sustainable new jobs that will be ongoing into the futureThe cost of this is zero!

There’s no cost, but there is a lot of benefit.  There is the obvious financial benefit.  A subtle additional benefit is that increased tourism to the US will help us repair our battered image in world opinion.  We have a lovely country to visit and we’re generally a lovely people to mix with, and if we switch from offending and upsetting people who’d like to visit our country to instead positively accepting and welcoming them, these people – typically opinion leaders in the communities they live in back home – will no longer nurse negative attitudes towards us, but will instead feel much more positive towards the United States, its people, its government, its way of life, and its role in world events.  Who knows – they might even buy more American goods in their stores, too.

It is hard to think of a more win-win policy than encouraging tourism.  There’s no secret or surprise about this.  Other countries spend tens of millions of dollars a year to encourage and promote international tourism.  The United States instead spends similar amounts – maybe even more – to create and sustain a bureaucracy designed to make it as difficult as possible for international visitors to come and enjoy our country, experience our way of life, and spend their money with us.

Further down today’s compilation of material is an open letter to Hilary Clinton, our Secretary of State, calling on her to bring our visa issuing policies in line with world norms, and quoting the latest extraordinary example of a would-be visitor – someone who surely exceeds any sane and sensible series of requirements and tests to qualify for a visa, but who was summarily refused permission to spend her money in our country.  She has visited the UK and other countries before, and she already has a visa to travel to Canada, so she’ll simply spend more time and money in Canada, and no time and no money with us; instead, she now has a feeling of embarrassed ill-will towards our country and us.

We need to change these dysfunctional policies.  They are harming our international standing and our domestic economy.  The changes are simple and easy to implement at the stroke of Ms Clinton’s pen.

So – and here’s where I’m asking for your help.  Please send the open letter to your friends, and, most of all, to your politicians.  It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or Republican, a ‘tax and spend’ advocate or a Tea Partier.  It doesn’t matter what your opinion is on illegal immigration.  This truly is a completely non-partisan issue (and to be fair, the current problems have evolved over many years and many administrations).

Now – at a time when our nation is focused on job creation and the economy – is an excellent time to bring this issue front and center, because it is all about job creation and boosting our economy.  Please can you help give this issue the exposure and importance it needs.

Many thanks to Rudy Maxa, well known travel commentator, who has already agreed to interview me on this topic on his radio show – the most widely syndicated travel talk radio show in the country.  There will be a six minute discussion at 11.43am Saturday (Eastern time).  Other media are invited to pick up the story too.

And now, let me see.  What else for the week.  Yes, lots more to share.

There’s another classic contrast between the new low cost carriers and the old dinosaurs.  Jetblue reported August traffic was up 5.8% compared to last year, with 87.3% (up from 86.4%) of all seats sold and what it described as ‘strong demand’.  It has increased capacity by 4.6% in the last month.

But while things are looking good at Jetblue, dinosaurs aren’t feeling so positive.  American Airlines announced plans to cut its capacity on its slow days (Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday) by about 4%.  Delta expects a drop of 2% – 3% in its capacity in 2012.  United will struggle to stay at the same capacity, with reductions in domestic capacity being more or less matched by increases in international capacity.

Are the dinosaurs giving up on the US?

I wrote last week about pilot training and some puzzling deficiencies.  In a happily benign but definitely embarrassing mistake, this week we learned of a Colgan/Continental flight where the pilots landed at the wrong airport.  Instead of landing at the Lake Charles Airport in Louisiana, they landed at the smaller private airport, Southland Field, almost fifteen miles to the west.

Visual and locational clues to their error include the fact that there is a river and lake system to the west of the one airport but to the east of the other, and that Lake Charles Airport has two runways in an “L” configuration whereas Southland Field has only a single runway.  Ooops!

Interestingly, this is the third time in 20 years that pilots have mistaken Southland Field for Lake Charles Airport – the station controller at Southland Field explained that pilots flying at night on instruments from eg Houston are flying over largely dark territory underneath, then suddenly see the lights for Southland Field and in their eagerness, assume it to be Lake Charles Airport instead.

This very sympathetic article about the mistake obviously sourced its material from pilot unions.  It chooses to compare the lowest starting pay of a regional pilot with the average pay of a typical New York city cabbie.  Not only is this an unfair comparison, it is also a meaningless one, unless the article is suggesting that if the pilots were paid more, they’d navigate better (or perhaps suggesting that pilots should be replaced by cab drivers).

Perhaps that’s one of the good things about taking a train.  A train could never get lost.  Or could it?  Read this story for the surprising truth.

Talking about landing at airports, I wrote last week about a study on airport ‘slots‘ – the time slots allocated by airports that are operating at capacity and so need to ration the number of flights in and out, to airlines.  The study asked who should own and control the slots?  Airlines, airports, or the ‘general public’ (which probably means the government?  And are we generally benefitted by or penalized by the current airline control/ownership of slots?

Perhaps the ultimate slot driven airport is Heathrow, all the more so as the ‘green friendly’ UK government is steadfastly refusing to allow any airport expansion around greater London at all, and risking massive economic harm to the UK economy in the process.  So Heathrow slots are valuable and becoming even more valuable, with the current major owner of slots being (no surprise here, of course) British Airways, with about 42% of the airport’s capacity.  Iberia (now merged with BA) has another 2%, and AA (BA’s trans-Atlantic partner) has 3%.  Between them, BA controls 47% of Heathrow’s slots.

Another semi-UK airline, BMI (currently owned by Lufthansa) has another 11%, and BA is rumored to be interested in buying BMI – not so much for any operational aspect of the airline, but simply to secure its slots and make its new 58% position at Heathrow more dominant.

There are dangers to all of this, both to the UK, and to any airline investing in Heathrow slots at mega-premium prices.

While the UK continues to cap its air traffic capacity, other European countries are much more welcoming of new flights.  In addition, new planes such as the 787 and A350 provide airlines with new opportunities to fly direct to destination cities rather than through mega-hubs (such as has been Heathrow’s traditional role).

Not only might other European airports take over from Heathrow’s current role as a leading European hub, but those explosively growing airlines such as Emirates and Etihad are displacing the hubs out of Europe entirely, using smaller 777 (and soon 787 and A50) planes to fly from their middle eastern hubs and direct from there to many European cities.

Over a third of Heathrow’s passenger traffic is in the form of people hubbing through Heathrow and transferring on to another flight.  Much of that business has to be considered somewhat vulnerable, and if Heathrow were to lose even half its transfer business, then – just like how it only takes a small tweak in car numbers for a freeway to be either clogged or free flowing – Heathrow’s slots would open up.  Furthermore, if Heathrow lost its iconic status as the world’s busiest international airport, people who were merely flying to and from London would no longer be so fixated on flying through Heathrow (which, for London and UK in general based passengers, really offers no major advantage over other area airports) and so Heathrow’s traffic could reduce still further.

None of this is certain.  But equally uncertain is any guarantee that the value of Heathrow slots will remain at their present premium prices.

A couple of days after the latest unsurprising news about BA’s interest in BMI’s slots, Virgin Atlantic plaintively piped up that it too would be interested in buying BMI.  But it is hard to view its interest as serious or a deal as likely to occur, as this article points out.  Virgin Atlantic is, itself, sort of for sale – Singapore Airlines makes no secret of wishing to sell its 49% share, and Sir Richard Branson has indicated interest in selling, on some basis, and to some extent, his 51% share.  There have even been mutterings about the independent carrier joining one of the big three airline alliances, but if it were to do that, it is extremely unlikely that it would join Oneworld due to British Airways already belonging to Oneworld.

On the other hand, while BA would find it difficult to partner alongside VS, it might be interested in buying the airline so as to add Virgin’s mere 3% share of Heathrow’s slots to its own accumulation, as this article earlier in the year reports.

One more thing about slots.  If there’s one thing more frustrating than being delayed at an airport that is maxed out in terms of its ability to handle takeoffs and landings, it is being delayed at an airport solely because it has been artificially restricted by politicians to a low number of aircraft movements per hour.

One such airport is Sydney, Australia (I refer to it as ‘Sydney’ airport because not only is the airport straining at its artificial capacity constraints, but there’s only one airport to serve the region).  Here’s an interesting report on the problems air travelers in and out of Sydney – and by direct implication, pretty much all of Australia – are being faced with.

Airplane manufacturers continue to optimistically and hopefully project a surge of new plane orders.  But every silver lining is wrapped in a cloud, and an unexpected problem looms threateningly on the horizon – there may be insufficient ability for airplane seat manufacturers to build enough new seats to fit into all the new planes projected to be delivered in the next some years.  A similar shortage also applies to airplane galleys, too.

More details here.

Perhaps the seat shortage goes part-way to explaining a very disappointing aspect of the new 787 being delivered to ANA.

While Boeing has boasted its new plane will offer a vastly improved passenger experience (due to such ridiculous things as colored LED lighting), in one respect, the passenger experience will be anything but new and improved.  The plane has been outfitted with old style seats that eat into what is potentially leg-room, and which offer an In Flight Entertainment system which looks as though it was specified more than three years ago (for when the planes were originally expected to be delivered) and which hasn’t been updated since.

This is of course as much the ‘fault’ of ANA as it is of Boeing, but the net result for the first ever 787 looks to be average and disappointing – unlike, for example, the first A380s which dazzled with their new IFE options.

More details here.

Talking about IFE, here’s an article which pans the IFE offering provided by Virgin Atlantic to its coach class passengers.  How extraordinary that Virgin Atlantic – so self conscious and proud of its ‘hip’ image – has such dated passenger entertainment systems on its long haul flights.

The planes may be the same, but air travel continues to get slower.  While the good news is that on time arrival statistics show the industry is working reasonably well at present, the bad news is that airlines are extending their scheduled times for flights.  Some of this time extension is simply to accept the reality of delays in the system, and part may be due to planes actually flying  slightly slower these days (to save a bit of jet fuel).

During the last jet fuel crisis, some airlines admitted to slightly slowing down their flights to save a few gallons of jet fuel.  It is very hard for us as passengers to know if a plane is flying at optimum cruise speed, slightly slower, or – for that matter – slightly faster, so this is a great way for airlines to surreptitiously save a few dollars.

Here’s an article that comments some on this continuing tendency.

There’s a new player in the online airfare/flight field.  After buying one of the key ‘behind the scenes’ information providers (ITA) earlier this year, Google has now released its first tool to help you research flights and fares at www.google.com/flights .

As a first release product it is, I guess, okay, albeit in an underwhelming sort of way, and for now I’ll stick to kayak.com for my own researches.  But there was one thing I liked, albeit purely for its nerdiness rather than for any underlying value or use at all – the ability of the Google page to display a chart matching travel time to airfare.  A reduced picture is the featured image for this week.

I’ve written regularly about TripAdvisor and the duality of its service – on the one hand, it can sometimes be very useful and helpful; on the other hand, it is being exploited by hotels, trying to simultaneously stack their own profile with fake positive reviews and also to stack competitors with fake negative reviews.

TripAdvisor claims to have all sorts of ways to detect and prevent such fictitious reviews, but doubts remain.  And even if all fake reviews were removed, there’s a lot of rubbish written by ‘normal’ people.  People who stay at a budget three star hotel and complain about it not having five star amenities, and people who stay at a five star deluxe property in the center of the city and complain about it being more expensive than the Holiday Inn out by the airport, and so on and so on.

In the latest interesting twist in the saga of TripAdvisor’s battle, particularly against hoteliers in the UK for some reason, it seems they have changed their slogan from ‘Reviews You Can Trust’ to ‘Reviews from Our Community’.  That’s a significant change.  TripAdvisor denies that the change in slogan is due to any of the current litigation or controversy it is battling, and says instead it was simply changed as part of the site’s evolution.

If that’s the case, someone is incompetent in their marketing department.  Which would you prefer – which is the more appealing product promise :  A trustworthy review, or a review from a member of an unqualified community of people you know nothing about?

Talking about hotels, here’s an alarming Youtube video w which demonstrates a surprising vulnerability with many hotel room safes.  Make sure you test your in-room safe before trusting anything to it.

One more hotel item.  The worst hotels in Europe are to be found in which major city?  The answer may surprise you.  Let’s hope the guilty city gets their act together prior to hosting the Olympic Games next year.

What do the United States, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, possibly Libya all have in common?  According to Rep John Mica (R-FL), someone who was closely involved in the initial establishment of the TSA back in 2001 & 2002, they are the only countries following the US’s approach to aviation security (presumably he means with a government agency responsible for airport security).

Although involved in the establishment of the TSA in response to 9/11, Mica now calls for its main role – airport screening – to be passed to private enterprise.  Mica says he never intended the TSA to be involved in front line screening; believing its role to be more in ‘behind the scenes’ security, and points to a study by the House Transportation Committee, released in June this year, that indicated savings of 40% in the multi-billion dollar a year cost of the TSA that could be created if airport screening was passed to private companies.

Okay – so we all like to denigrate the ‘rent a cop’ screening that was common at airports prior to 9/11.  But three things need to be appreciated to put such denigration into perspective.

First, the private contractor screening was adequate and in compliance with the aviation security standards of the day back then.  The box cutters that the 9/11 terrorists smuggled onto the four planes were allowable items.  The ‘security failures’ of 9/11 did not relate to airport screening.  They related to the inability of our security agencies to detect the 9/11 plot prior to it being carried out, and the inadequate standards created by governmental oversight of airport security screening standards.

Second, although the TSA pays its screeners vastly more than private industry ever did, and although the TSA employs vastly more screeners than private industry ever did, and although the new security requirements are vastly more onerous than ever before, and although the technologies for screening us and our belongings are vastly more sophisticated (and expensive) than ever before, and – most of all – although the inconvenience to us as passengers is overwhelmingly greater, there is utterly abjectly and completely no indication whatsoever that all this flim flam fuss has measurably improved security at all.

Third, private security company screening works in apparently nearly every other country in the world.  There is no reason why private enterprise could not provide an acceptable level of service in the US too, and in the very few airports where non-TSA screening still remains in place, their screening procedures are in full compliance with TSA requirements.

More details here.

Here’s an article that struggles too hard to try and link the airline industry’s past, present and future to the events of 9/11.  That’s not to say that 9/11 didn’t have a major impact on the industry, but it was ten years ago and as major as it was, it has been eclipsed by many other issues since then – economic issues and fuel price issues.

Although the article is full of tales of past woe and misery, its conclusion is that things are looking up for the airline industry into the future.  As evidence, here’s the teaser opening of a pay article which takes that point and runs further with it, predicting a more than $1 billion net profit for the US airlines this current quarter, notwithstanding a 40% increase in jet fuel prices year on year.

And, of course, the latest fare increase, last week, which did prevail and now is in place, won’t hurt the airlines either.

The last weekend saw no real acts of terrorism (thank goodness) but an outbreak of paranoid panic gripped much of the country.  In New York city, the police were kept busy responding to not just one or two but 342 different reports of suspicious packages around the city, while flights were being diverted, given fighter ‘escorts’, and countless passengers harassed for imaginary reasons.

The terrorists were probably too busy laughing so hard they lacked the energy to attack us; perceiving our own actions against ourselves to be much more effective than anything further they could do.

What are the most important things in your life?  The London Science Museum asked 3,000 adults about the most important items and services in their lives.  Coming in as the most important thing was sunshine.  Fresh water came in at number three, being beaten for second place by?  No, not food.  The best ranking food got in the list was 16th position for fresh vegetables.  Number two was an internet connection.

The fourth place went to a refrigerator, and the sixth place went to Britain’s National Health Service.  So what was number five?

Facebook came in at the fifth position.  Yes, people would rather have access to Facebook than email (which was number eight); they’d even prefer it to a flush toilet (number ten) or a mobile phone (number eleven).

Here’s the list in its surprising totality..

Alas, The Travel Insider doesn’t feature on that list.  Maybe next year?  Actually, we’d be content to have a much more moderate place in your life, and if you do ascribe some value to your weekly Travel Insider read, please do respond positively to our impassioned plea to help support The Travel Insider.

 Lastly this week, would it be heaven or hell?  As a contrast to the item further on, below, introducing a new feature article about traveling internationally and using data on your cell phone, did you even know that there is a 13,000 sq mile ‘National Radio Quiet Zone’ in the US – an area where almost all radio transmitters are banned?  This means no cell phones or many other devices, although some lower frequency radio transmitters are allowed.

Here’s an interesting article about this zone, and how it is proving to be a haven for people who are ‘allergic’ to cell phone radiation.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.


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