Weekly Roundup Friday 14 October 2011

My Visa card, now cut up due to credit card fraud

Good morning

Please read on to enjoy in this week’s roundup, or click a link to be taken directly to the section of interest.

(Note :  If you are getting the SUMMARY version of the newsletter, these links won’t work, because you don’t have the full newsletter downloaded to link to.  You should either convert to (or add) the full text version of the newsletter, or click over to read the full article on the internet.)

  1. Annual Fundraising Appeal Enters Its Last Week
  2. Reader Survey Results
  3. Southwest :  ‘We’ll get more (revenue) from less (flights)’
  4. Airlines vs Passengers :  Good News and Bad News
  5. Thanksgiving Travel Costs and Availability
  6. An Unthinkable Loss?  Taj Mahal Future Uncertain
  7. Verizon’s Catch-22 Phone System Costs it $328.50
  8. Three Security Horror Stories This Week
  9. More Toilet Talk from Ryanair
  10. And Even Worse from Dutch Railways

Annual Fundraising Drive – Last Week

Our annual fundraising drive suffered a much lower response last week.  Maybe that was due to me not being quite so much in your face last week, or maybe we are simply coming to the natural limit of the people who will choose to help out.

Either which way, all good things must come to an end, and so let’s consider this the final week of the formal fundraising drive for 2011.  After amassing 310 supporters at the end of last week, this most recent week brought in only 42 more.  At 352, we’re still some distance from last year’s total of 421 – please help us bridge the gap and get to at least 422.

While total numbers responding this last week were sharply down, the number of super supporters remained wonderfully positive.  That just makes them all that more special, and so my particular thanks this week to Al, Alex, Bill, Linda, Janet, Jamie, Dudley, Chrystin, and John.

In case you’ve missed the last few weeks of commentary on this point, The Travel Insider provides all its content free to all readers, using a PBS type reader support model.  You get hundreds of thousands of words of new content free every year, and have an archive of millions of words of past commentary on the website and blog archives.  This is an extraordinary resource on an enormous range of travel and travel related technology topics, and is yours for free.

But you are gently asked to respond in some small way in return.  If you enjoy the newsletter, if you’ve received value from our recommendations and suggestions, please play your part in ensuring our continued survival and presence.  Please now contribute some fair amount – we’ve had people contribute as little as $5,  and occasionally have readers send in extraordinary sums as much as $500.  Every dollar helps, and every dollar is needed.  Please do choose to help.

Reader Survey Results

Many thanks to everyone who replied to last week’s reader survey, in which I asked if you felt the current mix as between travel themed and technology themed articles was about right, or skewed too much in one direction or the other.

The results are interesting, and happily positive.  The most important result is that the greatest number of responses were from people describing themselves as happy with the current mix of articles.  69% of supporters and 79% of non-supporters are happy with the current mix; as for the others, the numbers are reasonably balanced between preferring more tech or more travel among supporters, and skewed more to preferring additional travel articles among non-supporters.

It was also interesting to see a significant number of people describing themselves as supporters, but who have not yet chosen to help out this year.  Truly, it only takes a minute to quickly click the link and either do a Paypal type transaction or send me your credit card details for a direct charge, so if in your mind you are a supporter, but in reality, you’ve yet to do so, please choose to do so now while the thought is fresh in your mind.

It seems that on balance I should slightly skew to a bit more on travel, and I’ll endeavour to do so, probably in the form of simply offering more content in total.

Thanks for everyone’s feedback.  It does help.

Southwest :  ‘We’ll get more (revenue) from less (flights)’

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly gave some indicators in a recent interview about how he expects Southwest to integrate the service formerly operated by Airtran out of Atlanta.

Basically, he plans to change Airtran’s former hub model for Atlanta, and instead use the more common Southwest approach which is to offer direct, point to point flights, rather than hub and spoke flights.  In other words, you usually fly on a single flight to get from Point A to Point B on Southwest, compared to two flights, traveling from Point A to Point B via Point C if using an airline’s hub system.

This has clear advantages to any airline that can adopt it – it is better to have a fare represent a single flight, take-off, landing, and set of baggage handling, etc, than to have it represent two of everything.  It also has clear advantages to passengers – as long as the timetable/frequency of nonstop point to point flights is acceptable, who wouldn’t prefer to take a single flight instead of two – it massively reduces the total travel time, it halves the number of things that can go wrong, you have less concern about missing flights at the connecting hub, and you even pay less in the way of security fees and airport PFC charges.

The net result, he claims, will be a reduction in daily departures out of Atlanta – down to about 173 (a 13% drop), but a $1 billion increase in revenue from the smaller number of flights.

About the politest thing that can be said is that this is a very optimistic projection.  It will be interesting to see just how close Southwest’s projection ends up matching reality, particularly with Delta looking to sweep up some of the business class travelers who had formerly used Airtran.  Many of these high yielding passengers are now wondering how they feel about the prospect of flying Southwest, with only one cabin and a strange semi-seat selection process, etc, and for whom the offsetting benefit of being able to check a bag or two for free is of little meaning, because either their baggage fees will be reimbursed by their employer or waived by Delta due to their priority frequent flier status.

Airlines vs Passengers :  Good News and Bad News

Talking about Southwest, it is hard to think of them these days without thinking also of their ridiculous ‘fashion police’ actions where they arbitrarily refuse to transport passengers because some crew member feels their clothing to be too immodest or whatever.

Here’s an interesting article that offers both good news and bad news.  The bad news first – basically, the airlines and their staff have extraordinary leeway to do very much as they choose, and we have very little ability to successfully protest or sue them, no matter how stupid or far out their actions may be.

The good news?  Although we may have little recourse in a court of law, we have increasing recourse in the ‘court of public opinion’, with social media giving us a voice – and a very immediate voice – that we never had before.  The particularly surprising part of this is that the airlines seem to even display the very slightest element of awareness about and sensitivity to being assailed in social media.

So for those of us (myself included) who have been wondering why on earth we’d choose to get involved with Facebook (I keep expecting the Facebook craze to fade, although probably it will be replaced by something even more strange), perhaps this is the reason!

So are we net winners or losers in the battle we unfortunately find ourselves waging against the airlines?  I guess that depends on if you see your glass half full or half empty.

Thanksgiving Travel Costs and Availability

Here’s a fascinating chart from the good folks at Farecompare.com.  It shows the reduction in airline capacity for Thanksgiving travel this year compared to last year; and also provides a good perspective on the overall reduction in airline capacity that has been occurring in the last few years.

Capacity reduction details for Thanksgiving 2011

There are two things to keep in mind when looking at the average 3% reduction in capacity in this table.  The first is that while the number of airline seats is reducing, the population as a whole is increasing.  The US population increases by about 1% a year, so a 3% reduction is actually more like a 4% reduction.

Secondly, those missing seats aren’t spread proportionately over all fare types.  The first seats to disappear at at the lowest fares.  The last ones to disappear are at the highest fares.  This is why the airlines are so keen to reduce capacity – they figure they can make as much or more money by selling fewer seats at higher prices, than by selling more seats at lower prices; and they have to do less work in the process.

It is very hard to parlay these hard facts about fewer seats into matching facts about what has happened to airfares.  Farecompare estimates a $40 increase in fares this Thanksgiving compared to last Thanksgiving – that’s an estimate that is open to interpretation and vulnerable to critique.  But the bottom line is that whatever you paid last year, you’ll be paying more this year, and if you haven’t already bought your tickets, you should rush to do so.  Farecompare also estimate that each extra day of delay is now going to start costing you $5/day in terms of extra ticket cost.

An Unthinkable Loss?  Taj Mahal Future Uncertain

Britain’s  Daily Mail claimed last week that the Taj Mahal could collapse within five years, due to rot in its foundations.  But Indian authorities have been quick to deny the claims of its country’s own specialists, and insist there is no danger.

The Taj Mahal was built between 1632 – 1653 as a monument to the Mogul emperor’s wife who died in childbirth.  It is deservedly a World Heritage Site and considered as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  It brings about four million visitors annually to Agra.

Perhaps it might be a place to consider visiting sooner rather than later. Shall I put together a Travel Insider tour to India?  🙂

More details here.

Verizon’s Catch-22 Phone System Costs it $328.50

I fell victim to a credit card fraud last week, an experience that reveals a couple of interesting things.

On 7 October, three $109.50 charges were made against my Visa card, for Verizon prepaid phone service.  The first interesting thing is that I only discovered this by chance – I had logged on to my electronic banking to pay the last month’s credit card bill, and purely by chance saw the three identical charges from last Friday on the statement display.

If I’d not noticed that, it could have been very much longer before I noticed them – I use the credit card for business and personal charges and there are a lot of entries each month.  And if it was only a single charge, I’d probably not have paid it much attention right off the get-go.

The interesting thing about this?  Did you know that some credit card companies have a service whereby they’ll send you a text message every time your credit card is charged, giving you the details of each charge?  I’ve been with people and they have shown me how within a couple of minutes of, eg, paying a restaurant bill, their phone will beep and there’s the text message telling them of the charge.

That’s a great service, it means that if something does go wrong, you get immediate instant notification, and can act similarly quickly to stop further abuse of your card.  Ask if your credit card issuer offers such a service.

The second interesting thing?  I tried to be a responsible citizen and thought I’d call Verizon to see what the charges were – maybe it was an innocent mistake or something.  So I dialed the 888 number shown alongside the charge, but get this :  Verizon’s Catch-22 automated phone system started off by saying ‘Please enter your ten digit Verizon phone number’.  I don’t have a Verizon phone number.  I tried doing nothing, and I tried entering zero, and/or a # or * key, but nothing would break me out of the automated system, which in every case ended up saying ‘We’re sorry you’re having trouble.  Goodbye.  <click>’

What idiots!!!  They put an 888 number alongside their charges for people to use to query any mystery charges, but then the Catch-22 – they’ll only answer queries if you already have an account with them.  There is no provision for people like me who don’t have an account to query a charge on an account they don’t have.

If they’d had an easy way for me to talk to them, they could have zeroed out and disabled the $330 of airtime they had allowed to be charged to my credit card.  But they failed to do so, and my only remaining option was to dispute the charges with my card issuer, which I of course did.

Alas, the card issuer insisted on cancelling my card and issuing me a new one, which is a huge hassle for all the services that have auto-charges set up on the card.  But by the time they get around to sending a dispute notice to Verizon (first they send me a form, by mail, for me to fill out and then mail back to them, then they send that form on to Verizon, so figure at least two weeks) the $328.50 of airtime that Verizon sold will have been long since used up.

I hate to see the fraudsters profit from Verizon’s stupidity, but there are bigger battles in life than that, and at least there’s no downside cost to me, other than the hassle factors.

This Week’s Security Horror Stories

Here are three to set you on edge for the week.

1.  The new whole body imaging scanners that fill us full of debatably safe/dangerous X-rays are exactly that.  They dose us, front, back, and sides, from head to toe, in X-rays which the TSA tells us are perfectly safe, but which they refuse to allow their own staff to wear dosimeters to monitor the doses they themselves are soaking up.

So, if these machines are radiating us all over, how to understand or explain reader Sandra’s recent experience.  She writes :

We came thru MSP last Friday and even though we came thru the full-body scanner, my husband and I, plus everyone I could hear behind us, were asked if we had anything in our back pockets…no…then our backs were patted down and because (?) we were patted down, our hands were swabbed.

Was this just another opportunity for them to see our reaction and determine that way whether we were terrorists, or did they just have nothing more interesting to do and want to hold up the line (which it did)?  I think the TSA folks really enjoy this part of their jobs.

2.  One of the strange twists of fate that I regularly comment on is how modern day independent Russia has become like the US used to be, perhaps 30+ years ago, whereas modern day USA has become more like the Soviet Union used to be, also perhaps 30+ years ago.

The latest example is to do with secret laws.  Do you remember how we were taught, and struggled to believe, that in Soviet Russia they had secret laws?  People would be prosecuted for breaking laws but they were never told exactly what the laws were.  Unbelievable, right?

Well, these days the US is awash in secret regulations, although its laws remain public.  But what about the enforcement process, the guidelines and interpretations the US authorities attach to the laws that empower them? According to this article, and based on the NY Times and its unsuccessful Freedom of Information Act attempts to get information on such things, those are now sometimes secret.

But wait – there’s more.  Much more.  When inanities are not being justified in the name of ‘security’, they are being justified in the name of personal privacy (including regularly in cases where the people so affected are willing and keen to have all details of a matter made public).  And for the possibly most extreme example of a mis-applied concept of privacy, read this article about how the Department of Homeland Security refused to make the phone number for its – wait for it! – for its Public Affairs Department – public!

Yes, an entire department, charged with communicating with and informing the public, wishes to keep its contact details secret.

3.  A man took a picture of his young daughter sitting on a novelty seat at a local mall in Glasgow, Scotland.  A security guard accosted him, telling he was forbidden from taking pictures in the mall for security reasons, and the police subsequently said the UK Prevention of Terrorism Act empowered them to confiscate his mobile phone/camera.

A mall spokesman subsequently issued a statement that seemed to contradict itself.  First, the spokesman uttered platitudes such as :

Our priority is always to maintain a safe and enjoyable environment for all of our shoppers and retailers. The member of our security staff acted in good faith.  We have a ‘no photography’ policy in the centre to protect the privacy of staff and shoppers and to have a legitimate opportunity to challenge suspicious behaviour if required.

But then said

However, it is not our intention to – and we do not – stop innocent family members taking pictures.

So I wonder exactly how they describe the unpleasant experience suffered by an innocent family member, taking innocent pictures of his daughter.  For more details, and to see the photo at the center of the row, click here.

More Toilet Talk from Ryanair

Ryanair – and its CEO, Michael O’Leary – a man who delights in upsetting the traveling public and the free publicity it always generates him (including perhaps this item here!) have long since discovered that a sure way to get some free column inches about their airline is to threaten charging for access to toilets.  He has repeatedly made claims about putting pay slots on the toilet doors, but nothing has ever eventuated.

Maybe O’Leary has decided that the threat of pay toilets is no longer guaranteed to generate publicity, because he has now come up with a new twist.  Instead of pay toilets, he is suggesting he’ll simply take two of the three toilets out of his fleet of 737-800s.

In case math was never your strong suit, that would leave just one toilet for a planeload of up to 189 passengers and six crew.  Now imagine what happens if the person in the toilet is unwell and spending an undue amount of time in there – how long would the line be, and how many ‘accidents’ might occur?

O’Leary says that taking out two toilets would enable Ryanair to put another row of six seats into the place.  He says this would allow them to drop their prices by about 5%.

There is one saving grace.  Currently the 737-800 is certified for a maximum of 189 passengers, so by law he can not currently add extra seats. He says he has asked Boeing to apply for re-certification to allow the plane to carry 195 passengers.

More details here.

Dutch Railways Offers Plastic Bags Instead Of Bathrooms

If you think Ryanair is bad, wait till you read this…..

After removing bathrooms from a new model of train, the Dutch national railway has shown it is not completely insensitive to the needs of its passengers.

Does that mean it has now added bathrooms to the bathroomless trains?  No.  Instead, it has a different solution – plastic bags.

The rail operator underlined that the bags, introduced last Friday, are for use in emergencies only, such as when a train has experienced an unscheduled stop and passengers can’t be evacuated.

The plastic bags contain an absorbent material that turns to a gel when mixed with liquid and ….. okay, I’ll stop.  Too much information already!  But if you really want to know more, here’s an article (complete with picture)

Lastly, can I mention one final time our annual fundraising drive.  Please do help us get to the same number of supporters as last year – it truly is needed, and truly does help.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels



5 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 14 October 2011”

  1. Talking about Southwest, it is hard to think of them these days without thinking also of their ridiculous ‘fashion police’ actions where they arbitrarily refuse to transport passengers because some crew member feels their clothing to be too immodest or whatever.

    Sorry David-

    I agree with WN completely. I guess you flying in First and Business classes have not been faced with the person who hasn’t bathed or changed clothes since doing a triathlon in Panama the week before, nor the 40ish woman who weighs 250 wearing a spandex miniskirt and tube top.

    And yes, while not as bad as that, I have seen similar persons in first class. While I am not saying we should go back to mandatory suit for men and ‘Jackie’ fashion for women, common sense not to bring your fried stink fish with onions and garlic onto the plane is more and more rare these days.

    I salute WN for having the guts to stand up to those who either lack common sense or are looking for their 15 minutes of fame.

    Remember, flying is a privilege, not a right.


  2. Hi, Walter

    Thanks for your comments.

    To be fair, none of the situations where Southwest’s fashion police have struck out at passengers have involved the extremes you postulate. And also to be fair, while I avoid flying Southwest, I sadly am almost always in the back, and way too often in a middle seat, so I’m very familiar indeed with the coach class flying experience.

    I also don’t agree that flying is a privilege at all. The airlines are ‘common carriers’ and are required by law and their status to offer flights to all. You pay your money, and you have a right to the carriage you have contracted for.


  3. David – as one like myself that flies AS a majority of the time, I thought you might be interested in hearing of this most recent experience with them and their customer service department. Having had zero reason to ever contact them in the past, last week I did.

    I was traveling from San Diego to Spokane, through Seattle on the 6th of October. When I checked in mid-afternoon for my Horizon flight to Spokane, we were told that Spokane was experiencing low fog and that because the main ILS runway was under construction, there was a possibility we might have to return to Seattle. However, when we boarded, the captain came on the radio and said things were good, the weather and ceiling had improved and off we went.

    As I was in 1A, it was clear that from 12,000 down to the ground, GEG was socked in. We got a bit below the assigned minimums of 400 ft. for the QX-400 (I talked to a Southwest pilot who was in the jump seat) when it was clear that no one could see the ground. Up we went, wheels back up and for a few minutes, it appeared we were going to make another attempt but alas, we returned to Seattle.

    We arrived back in Seattle, I got on the phone with my wife who was frantic because until she had found a baggage claim agent that was able to tell her we went back, she had no information and thought we were in a field somewhere. Alaska.com as well as the airport all showed we arrived on time at 4:58. Even when I got back to Seattle, the iPhone application showed us as landed in Spokane. Funny thing about that since we were all in Seattle.

    I’m sure you know what the Horizon gate area is like in terminal C so when we got upstairs and looked at the line at Customer Service, it was clear that the rest of the evening’s flights were likely canceled too.
    A few of us then went to the Boardroom where we were members and inquired with the staff there what flight(s) we were re-booked on.
    Nada. Nothing in the system. I called the MVP Gold line and talked to a very nice Julia who stated that the earliest she could re-book me was the 8pm flight on Friday, the following day. Clearly, all the others that were on the later canceled flights had re-booked ahead of us, despite the fact we were in the air for about an hour before we came back. There was clearly plenty of time to accommodate all of us, especially MVP’s, before we got back to Seattle but that was not to be.
    All Julia could do was refund my fare which I asked her to do.

    While in the Boardroom, I asked the staff there if they could give me a hotel and meal voucher for this event and they mentioned that they are not allowed to do that and only the customer service staff outside (with the 200 person line) was entitled to do this. So I went ahead, called the Doubletree at the airport, got a room, called Hertz and booked a car for the next day should the fog still be there so I could drive as a backup. As I had a conference call at 6am on Friday, I wasn’t going to drive all night anyway so I called it a day. The vouchers were not that important.

    On Friday, after my call, I logged into Alaska.com and found that indeed, the 12pm mainline flight to Spokane had 7 empty seats. I grabbed one, paid about the same as the refunded amount from the day before, canceled my Hertz car and left for Sea-Tac and got to Spokane by 1pm.

    I’ve been talking to AS Customer Service (Jay) to relate to them my experience and mentioned that for example, DL has a system that I personally have seen work quite well where if you mis-connect or your flight is canceled or whatever irregular situation occurs, all you do is scan you boarding pass at any of the well placed airport stations and it spits out a new boarding pass for your re-booked flight, a meal and hotel voucher. You can choose to accept these choices made for you or you can get in line, change it or call someone. Either way, AS was surprised that this was something they DIDN’T have. They clearly agreed that certain situations, such as when the customer is in the air, not on the ground, when a flight is canceled, needed special attention.

    Also, due to what is apparently a labor issue, only the customer service desk can issue vouchers and not the Boardroom. Both situations, as Jay agreed, could easily be solved by software and systems, thus lowering the labor costs overall to the company. He wrote it up and sent my suggestion along to what I hope is a real person and not the garbage bin. The manual process that AS has is at least 3 years behind their competition.

    Anyway, enough on the issue at hand. I just thought you’d be interested to see how this is operates from one that is a big AS fan. Any comments would be appreciated especially if you’ve experienced similar situations.

    Steve G

  4. Hello, David.

    FYI, it wasn’t just you that fell victim to card hacking at Visa! Indeed, on the same date you mentioned, I only found out my card had been “compromised” by attempting to order something online at Barnes & Noble! I finally called Visa-they knew all about the compromise-BUT had no plans to tell me! “Oh, sorry this happened and we have mailed you a new card”. No explanation, no offer to send a card sooner (I use is for EVERYTHING-to get the miles, of course). Luckily I didn’t even find any weird charges on my account. But this has happened to me twice before in the past 6 years, and each time it happened, I got a personal phone call with an apology and an offer to overnight a new card to me. Visa claims they never know the exact reason for the “incident” anymore, and besides they just can’t make phones calls to thousands of customers about such a “hack”. I hate that I am so addicted to my card! I, too, have many auto-pay accounts set up, and HATE having to do it all over again. I even use their Shop Safe “fake” numbers, but obviously that isn’t foolproof either.

    When I called Visa back, I did insist on an overnight delivery of a new card, to which they agreed. Oh, and when the ORIGINAL new card arrived, a full week later, there was no explanation in the cover letter of the hack at all. I’m wondering if one of your future columns might be about various credit card disasters people are having, and what we All can do to avoid the pitfalls.

    But I was glad to know I wasn’t the only “victim”!

    Good luck to us both with our new cards!

    Jenny N

  5. David,
    I read your paragraph about Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and I can imagine him sitting on his throne envisioning ways to make life difficult for his customers. He’s probably thinking, we will do it because we can. At least his thoughts are flushed out and we are made privy to what’s in his head.
    Frank L.

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