Weekly Roundup Friday 9 December 2011

The Danube, overflowing its banks in glorious Melk, Austria. But that's not the problem at present - quite the opposite...

Good morning

There’s a huge amount of stuff for you this week, both in this main part of the newsletter and in the various articles written earlier in the week and added on to the end of this compilation.

So without further ado, please keep reading, or skip on down to your choices of topics –

  • Reader Challenge Results
  • Travel Insider Group Shoot IV
  • Deals and Timely Newsletter Options
  • Electronics on Planes – Please Sign the White House Petition
  • Southwest ‘studies’ its Flight Attendant’s Misbehavior
  • The Real Reason Airlines Fail
  • Airline Traffic Statistics
  • Why is Sir Richard Branson So Keen on Eco-Fuels?
  • Airline Alliances and Competition
  • Delta’s New Indignity
  • Google vs the Airlines?  Airlines Win.  We Lose.
  • The Possibly Illegal High Price of eBooks
  • The Beautiful Blue Dry Danube
  • Naughty Skycaps
  • Best and Worst Airlines
  • And, lastly…..

Reader Challenge Results

The $2500 reader challenge – the offer by a Travel Insider reader/supporter to match donations up to $2500 in total had been looking very difficult to meet this time last week.  At the end of its first week, 19 readers had sent in $525.

Well, the stars must have been magically aligned, because another 28 readers rallied to the cause last Friday, sending in an additional $1185, making for a grand total of $1710.

While this did not come up to the $2500 amount offered in matching funds, in a way that was sort of a good thing, because everyone who chose to help out can have the knowledge that every penny of their support was matched.  None of it was ‘wasted’!

Special thanks to Ken and Jim, both of who were already Super Supporters, and who are now doubly so Super Supporters.  Special thanks also to new Super Supporters Skipp and Hank.

And a ‘words fail me’ type thank you to Bill for a second round of extraordinary generosity on his part.

Travel Insider Group Shoot IV

Talking about ‘Travel Insider Challenges’, we have another Travel Insider Group Shoot – our fourth – scheduled for late January 2012.

Will I have another epic gun fail on the morning of Day 2, and if so, what will my replacement gun be this time?  How many of us will graduate?  Will any of us earn the accolade of Distinguished Graduate?  And, ahem, what will the weather be like in the NV desert in January!  Lots of questions, for sure.

For answers to some of your questions, but probably not these specific questions, please see the details following later in this collection of items.

Deals and Timely Newsletter Options

It has been an interesting week and full of deals.  Earlier in the week I sent out news about how to get half off some Virgin America flights, plus an amazing deal giving you completely free travel on Megabus with no strings attached, and some massively discounted business class travel on British Airways.

These deals are naturally of limited availability and/or duration, which probably makes it relevant to remind you that in addition to the weekly newsletter, you also have two other options – to get copies of new articles either immediately after they have been written, or collated on a daily basis.

To add or change the method in which you receive newsletters, simply click the link at the very bottom of any newsletter mailing (including, of course, this one) that says ‘here to change your preferences’, then from the web page that opens up, click the link under the ‘Subscription Audit Information’ heading that says ‘via’ with a link to its right.

That opens up a page that lists all the different subscription options.  Please ignore (and uncheck!) anything below the first six, but choose as many of the first six options as you may wish.

You’re welcome to choose any – or all – of these three different ways of getting new Travel Insider information, and with some of the articles during each week being time sensitive, if you only get the weekly newsletter you might sometimes miss out on these short term super-specials.

Electronics on Planes – Please Sign the White House Petition

Also sent out earlier this week was a request to add your support to a public petition being hosted on the official White House website requesting the FAA rescind its restrictions on electronics use onboard planes while on the ground or at low altitude.  This is hapily still a timely issue you can respond to.  It is an important item I hope you’ll choose to add your support to.

The matter of unnecessary restrictions on electronics usage seems to be growing in public awareness during this week, with a couple of good articles being published elsewhere (start with this one, which links to the other one) and USA Today are rumored to be researching a story on the topic as well.

Also adding to public awareness of the issue was the much commented upon forcible deplaning of Alec Baldwin after he apparently got into an altercation on an American Airlines flight over the issue of premature orders to turn his phone off.

I’ve little time for Baldwin or his prima donna antics on the plane, but I do find myself agreeing with his subsequent contention that the airlines have used 9/11 as an excuse for degrading the quality of the air travel experience we all must suffer.

Southwest ‘studies’ its Flight Attendant’s Misbehavior

And talking about being booted off planes, do be sure to read the outrageous story, further down, of an Airtran/Southwest flight attendant who booted not just one or two but three passengers off a plane for no reason at all.

Unusually, the airline subsequently apologized to the three passengers.  But what negative consequence has been visited upon the shoulders of the aggressive flight attendant?  The airline says it is ‘studying the matter’.

Get with it, Southwest.  There’s nothing to study here, except possibly to decide how many of your flight crew on that flight you should fire, starting with the useless captain – supposedly the only one with authority to deplane passengers – who meekly allowed this flight attendant to take over the management of his flight, and the other flight attendants on board who failed to control their colleague.

The Real Reason Airlines Fail

Here’s an ‘interesting’ article about why airlines fail.  There’s one big weakness with the article – the airline executives it gets quotes from all are from airlines that have failed.  How about some quotes from airlines that have succeeded – because, in reality, some airlines do succeed.

Look at some of the nonsense excuses that are being offered up for airline failures.  Planes are expensive, the article tells us.  No kidding!  So are cruise ships and hotels and many other things.  So what.

Indeed, play with the numbers – the article says it costs about $300,000 a month to lease a 737.  But is that really a lot of money?  If the plane is flying 10 hours a day, 30 days a month, the cost per hour drops down to a mere $1000; and if the plane has 160 passengers on board, that means each passenger is paying $6.25 an hour for the cost of the plane.  On a roundtrip flight with 2.5 hours flying time each way, and a ticket cost of, say, $312.50, only 10% – $31.25 – of the total ticket price is needed to pay for the plane.  That leaves a lot left over to pay for the fuel, the crew, and whatever else.

I could do the same for each of the other excuses listed.  Because they are primarily excuses why some airlines fail, not reasons why all airlines fail.

The article was written in response to AA’s bankruptcy filing (not quite the same as failing).  But if you’d like to know one of the real reasons why American Airlines filed for bankruptcy, here’s an interesting article which has as its center theme the suggestion that the best way for US airlines to make money is by shrinking in size.

That’s not a very American approach to business optimization, for sure.  However, the interesting point in the article is the claim that AA loses $1 billion a year from ‘flying too much in losing markets’.  Or, to put it another way – bad route planning.  And what should we blame bad route planning on?  Which of the excuses in the previous article can be claimed to be at fault?

Actually, bad route planning is surely the fault of bad management.  And where on the list of reasons airlines fail do you see that reason – bad management?

Talking about bad management, here’s an interesting article pointing out the disproportionate presence of Irish airline executives.   No, I’m not suggesting this pre-disposes them to bad management at all, but I’m more than a little doubtful that the opposite is true – the suggestion in the article that being Irish destines you for airline management greatness.

Airline Traffic Statistics

If shrinking in size is a good thing, Delta must be feeling pleased with itself.  Their November traffic dropped 1.9% compared to the same month last year, with capacity reducing even more (by 4.1%).  The greater reduction in capacity meant that all flights were even more full than before, with an average 81.4% load factor.

AA also had a drop in traffic for November, of 1.7%, and with a 4% reduction in capacity.  Their size reductions don’t seem to have helped, though.

On the other hand, the management at US Airways, Southwest and Allegiant must all be feeling anxious.  Their November traffic increased, by 3.1%, 2.5% and 8.8%.

Of course, what this shows is that growing or shrinking is reasonably unrelated to profitability.  That’s another airline excuse – ‘if we get small enough, somehow we’ll become profitable’ that is nonsense.  Airline success or failure is surely about management rather than these external factors.

Why is Sir Richard Branson So Keen on Eco-Fuels?

Talking about airline management, one of the most visible airline managers/owners is surely Virgin Atlantic’s Sir Richard Branson, the self-aggrandizer extraordinaire.  In this article he talks up some outrageous nonsense again this week when he predicts that airlines will switch to non-oil based jet fuels sooner than generally anticipated.

Remember that one of the biggest complaints/excuses all airlines come out with is the high cost of jet fuel.  Now ask yourself – what airline, anywhere in the world, would choose to pay any more for jet fuel than the lowest price possible?

The acceptance of non-oil based jet fuel will have nothing to do with the ease (or lack thereof) involved with deploying alternate fuels to airports.  It will all be to do with the cost per gallon, and secondarily the ‘energy density’ per pound and gallon of fuel.

Until such time as there is a financial incentive to burn fuel sourced from agricultural production or algae or whatever else, airlines will do little more than conduct showy ‘trials’ of alternative fuels.  The very presence of these trials has a subtle unstated message – the airlines make a big fuss about being environmentally sensitive and having an occasional trivial trial, while doing nothing more than conducting these very short minimal trials of alternative fuels that could be immediately adopted, if the airlines so chose.

Here’s a rather wishy-washy article from Scientific American that sort of confirms that point, and also points out that many of the non-oil based fuels still have major carbon impacts (assuming, of course, that anyone in the real world really cares about such things).

But – maybe Branson has some method to his ‘madness’.  Note also this report showing Branson claiming that airlines should get a break on fuel taxes if they burn ‘clean’ fuel.  All other things being equal, these alternative fuels are currently more expensive; but if the massive taxes imposed on oil based fuels were waived for alternative fuels (and all the government subsidies maintained, the cost to the airlines might drop below what they currently pay for jet fuel.

Which would make a nice win-win for the airlines, wouldn’t it.  They could wrap themselves up in an ecologically green politically correct mantle, while paying less for an alternative fuel than they otherwise would for regular fuel.  The only losers would be our governments, and therefore ourselves, due to the loss of billions of dollars in jet fuel taxes each year.

Airline Alliances and Competition

Here’s an interesting article about the evolution of airline alliances, but it tells the story mainly from the airline perspective, and doesn’t quite state the most obvious and important fact for us as consumers.  Sure, alliances might have lots of benefits to airlines in terms of managing their fleets and routes, but the biggest benefit to them is that it soaks up the competition, reducing meaningful competition on most routes down to only two other competitors (the other two alliances).

And that is far from good for us as passengers.

Talking about airline competition (or the lack thereof), would you care to guess how much competition impacts on airfare prices?  Or, to ask the question a different way, if an airline could charge any price it liked for tickets, how much more would it charge than at present?

It seems reasonable to infer that on competitive routes, airlines have to keep prices lower than they’d ideally like.  On the other hand, on a non-competitive route, at some point or another, prices would go just way too high and the airline would lose more business than it would gain by further increases in fares.

But where does that point lie?  That’s an interesting question, with nothing other than vague guess-work to support any type of answer.  Here’s an interesting article about how people in the Minneapolis/St Paul area are disadvantaged by Delta’s stranglehold on the airport there – an even tighter stranglehold than it has on Atlanta.

The article calculates that fares on non-competitive routes to/from MSP are 27% higher than on competitive routes, which implies that in an ideal world (for Delta) it would like to hike its fares everywhere by 27%.

Delta’s New Indignity

Talking about Delta, reader Bill comments/complains about a new way Delta has found to make money from him when he flies :

Delta is now force-feeding everyone on the plane three commercials before the safety brief … and a couple afterward.  The audio goes through the PA system so there is no way to shut it off.

I expect these messages in commercial programming where I have the choice to watch or not, and maybe I could accept a brief promotional message for Delta itself.   But these are for other companies (Fairfield Inn, Mazda, and a third that escapes me at the present) and that is inappropriate when I am not given a choice.   I understand there are economic issues at play, I just don’t understand how assaulting your passengers cam be a responsible long-term policy.

I was irritated by the practice as were the passengers around me.  When I mentioned it to the flight attendant she said she gets a lot of complaints and had the same reaction herself (“But nobody listens to me.”).

I have 2.5 million miles with Delta so I am not a rookie at this, but if this practice continues or (gasp!) expands, I will seriously reconsider if flying is worth it.  I shudder to think what might be next.

Google vs the Airlines?  Airlines Win.  We Lose.

You want more airline perfidy?  Here’s an interesting story about how the airlines are successfully bullying Google, and have forced Google only to show direct airline airfares in its new airfare search service; and have prevented Google from showing airfares available through online travel agencies (OTAs).

I seldom see a lower fare through an OTA than direct from an airline, but it is the principle of the thing that irks me.  The airlines want to do everything they can to keep us away from third party booking services, whether it be a good ‘old-fashioned’ travel agent or a ‘modern’ OTA.  Why do the airlines want to keep us away from these other parties?

Simple – they want to control us and our access to airfares.  Once we are conditioned to simply going direct to an airline’s website, the key benefit to that airline is we are no longer going to other airline websites, and we become more a captive customer of that one airline.

Knowledge is power, whether it is in terms of booking travel or anything else.  The airlines wish to restrict the knowledge and keep the power for themselves.  Your needs are better served by claiming the power for yourself, and continuing to use travel agents (or OTAs).

The Possibly Illegal High Price of eBooks

Talking about trying to control a marketplace, here’s a heartwarming article about how the UK is investigating allegations that Apple and some major book publishers conspired together to artificially inflate the price of eBooks. A similar investigation is underway in the US.

But – investigate?  There’s nothing to investigate.  It is an open and shut situation.  Amazon would formerly limit the price it sold eBooks to a maximum of $9.99; and was so insistent on this that it would sometimes even sell titles at a loss, just to keep the price to a fair maximum.  After Apple came along with its iPad alternative to the Kindle, all of a sudden, the publishers got pushy and refused to allow Amazon to choose what price it would sell eBooks for, demanding instead that Amazon observe whatever prices the publishers set on eBooks.

Which means you’ll now regularly see on Amazon the ridiculous scenario where you can buy a traditional, printed book, and have it shipped to you, all for less than the cost of the eBook version of the same title.

What needs to be investigated here?  Nothing – the perfidy of the publishers – empowered by a new market presence that wanted to nullify Amazon’s market lead without having to compete on price – is as plain as the nose on the end of our face.

What is needed is enforcement, not investigation.  Get with it, guys.

Talking about Amazon and pricing, they’ve a special deal for this Saturday (10 Dec) only.  Use their price comparison service on your phone, and you can get up to a $5 discount on up to three products if you then buy the product from Amazon.  Details here.

This is an interesting concept, because the apparent big benefit to Amazon is that if you are scanning products being sold at bricks and mortar retailers and telling them the price, that ‘automates’ their process of price checking and helps them know exactly how much they can sell the same products for online.

This is unlikely to help us, longer term, but short term, you’ve a chance to save up to $15 on Saturday.

The Beautiful Blue Dry Danube

I’ve been feeling a bit morose the last few days.  This is the time that every year for the last six or seven I’ve been enjoying a magical marvelous Christmas Markets Cruise along the Danube.

But for various reasons, I held off on offering one this year, and now I’m beginning to think it may have been the smartest move I’ve made in a long time.

Amazingly, it is only a few years ago that some of the Danube cruises were disrupted in December due to the water levels being too high.

Naughty Skycaps

Skycaps will help you check an extra bag without needing to pay the airline its outrageous bag fee?  Who’d have thought it.  I’m shocked, absolutely shocked!

According to this article, AA discovered, to its astonishment, that this was happening at MIA.  A bunch of skycaps were charged with fraud.  Most have entered guilty pleas, and none are going to prison.

Best and Worst Airlines

The best and the worst?  The best airlines, according to Global Traveler, can be found on their annual listing here.  No real surprises, with Singapore Airlines scoring top honors, and American airlines scoring in none of the categories, except the ‘best North American airline’ categories (Air Canada overall, and AA for domestic first class).

The worst country in the world to fly – or, to be more exact, the most dangerous?  Well, it was formerly the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but this year the Wall St Journal is proclaiming the world’s most dangerous country to fly in, as a result of ‘gross violations and errors’ leading to nine plane crashes, is Russia.

And, lastly…..

Two final thoughts.  First, here’s an interesting collection of the world’s strangest vending machines.

Secondly, does your cell phone have an ‘auto-correct’ or ‘predictive typing’ feature on it, so that when you’re sending a text message (or possibly email too) it ‘helpfully’ changes words in your message, sometimes without you even realizing it?

This can sometimes have hilarious results, and sometimes tragic ones.  Here’s a compilation of some situations where this ‘service’ has lead to unintended results.  Well worth viewing.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels – and accurate texting






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