Weekly Roundup, Friday 27 January 2012

The new Insight 100 device will screen liquids, even in sealed opaque bottles, hopefully allowing the end of restrictions on the amount of liquids we take on planes.

Good morning

I spent last week in and around Las Vegas.

I’d quickly booked a ‘generic’ hotel on the strip for my stay, choosing based on convenient location (close to a monorail station) and price, and it was only as I was walking through the casino to their lobby that I started to get a terrible feeling of deja vue.  Then I realized – oh no, I’m back at the Flamingo.

The last time I visited, I had suffered major problems and had vowed never to return, but there I was, approaching the long line of people waiting to check in with a ‘no changes, no refunds’ type booking.

I crossed my fingers and told myself that things couldn’t be possibly as bad this time.  Indeed, things weren’t as bad this time – they were worse.  The hotel seems to have a new guest amenity – prostitutes aggressively touting for business adjacent to the elevators up to the rooms.

Once inside the room, I discovered one of the light fixtures had no light bulb.  Would you believe it took five phone calls over a 25 hour period to get the light bulb replaced?  I even offered to come down to the front desk or anywhere else in the hotel to collect one myself, but that was not allowed.  Needless to say, each phone call promised a fast response and gave a different excuse as to the delays suffered to date.

I woke up at about 3.45am one morning, after having had a fitful restless sleep for some time prior to that; full of dreams about fire alarms, police cars, and things like that.  When I finally properly woke up, I realized that the problem was the way-too-loud beeping from the alarm clock – but not the one in my room.  The one in the room next to me.  Getting them to send someone up to turn the alarm off took ‘only’ two calls and 30 minutes; getting back to sleep again took considerably longer.

As always, Las Vegas is a curious mix of experiences.  The traffic jams on the strip have shifted from the road to the sidewalk – cars seem to now move freely, but the sidewalks are, in places, appallingly jam packed.  I guess the casinos want people inside, not walking around outside.

Prices are higher than ever before.  An ordinary shirt emblazoned with ‘Margaritaville’ was being sold for $110!  (Wouldn’t you love to have a business where people pay huge sums to buy your advertising and then wear your brand name/message!)  A downmarket buffet dinner at the Flamingo was $22.  A three scoop serving of sorbet was $10, a beer was $8, and even at McDonalds, a plain Filet-o-Fish cost $4.  A half liter bottle of Coke was $3.

On the other hand, at another bar (in the Flamingo) a lovely micro-brew IPA was $6 for a single glass, or $15 for two pitchers (which between them contained six times as much beer as a single glass – yes, I did subsequently measure!).  Strange pricing.

Alas, my single wager on a slot machine failed to win me the mega millions I’d hoped for, so here I am back again with this week’s newsletter, inside of which you’ll find :

  • 31 Travel Insiders Have Joined our North Korean Tour
  • American Airlines to Merge?  But With Whom?
  • Airline Profits (and Losses)
  • New DoT Ticket Price Rules in Effect
  • The US Becomes Slightly Less Christian
  • First and Last
  • Boeing Can’t Win for Losing
  • Liquids Restriction Closer to Being Liquidated
  • Possibly Another Travel Insider Tour – Downton Abbey?
  • Don’t Tell the TSA

31 Travel Insiders Have Joined our North Korean Tour

Never let it be said that Travel Insiders are not adventurous travelers.  We now have received confirming deposits from 28 people for our September 2012 tour to North Korea, with another three deposits ‘in the mail’.  This is an overwhelming response, and of course means the tour is guaranteed to operate, and with a great group of fellow Travel Insiders to share fellowship and the literally unique experiences we’ll be given.

When you consider that a busy year of tourism for North Korea sees maybe 2000 foreigners in total, our Travel Insider group already represents 1.5% of all tourists who will get to visit the country in 2012.  I’m not sure at what point North Korea will become alarmed by the size of our Travel Insider invasion, but can probably manage to get another few people accepted.  So if you’ve been wondering about this, now is the time to decide.

It goes without saying that North Korea is currently facing some potential transitions and changes, and this may be one of the last opportunities to see the country as it was and has been.  Is a rapprochement with the South and the rest of the world just around the corner?  Or will the country close its borders even more tightly and become still more isolated?  No-one can guess, and most of the people who don’t let their lack of true knowledge interfere with their public prognostications do so merely to advance their own agenda and viewpoint, rather than to express a valid unbiased projection.

This truly is a country where we need to see it for ourselves and form our own opinions about its past, present and future.  More tour details here :  http://thetravelinsider.info/travel/northkoreatour.htm

American Airlines to Merge?  But With Whom?

US Airways’ CEO, Doug Parker, said on Wednesday that it is studying a merger with American, but at present, such an arrangement is not very likely because AA has the exclusive rights to file a Chapter 11 reorganization plan for almost another year.

The airline currently known as US Airways is itself the result of a merger when America West bought up and merged with US Airways, choosing to keep the US Airways name and discard its more regional America West name.  Other airlines have been folded into the US Airways brand over the years as well, including some reasonably well known names (in their time) such as PSA and Piedmont, as well as other airlines long since been forgotten (Empire and Mohawk) and some that should be forgotten – such as the short-lived Trump Shuttle operation, an operation that lasted only slightly longer than the Donald’s Republican affiliation and dalliance with the Republican presidential nomination last year.

US Airways tried to grab Delta during that airline’s Chapter 11 proceedings (but failed), and since that time has been casting suggestive glances at any and all other airline potential partners.  The rumor mill delights in dreaming up the stories suggesting US Airways might merge with other airlines, but this time, the story seems to be more than a rumor.

When AA’s exclusivity period ends (and assuming no exit from Chapter 11 by that time), US Airways may find itself in a bidding war, with both Delta and private equity firm TPG Capital both believed to be interested in grabbing AA.

There’s an amusing side to this – US Airways has long been an unsuccessful suitor of some sort of relationship with British Airways.  If US should succeed in acquiring AA, it will automatically become BA’s new ‘best friend’ due to AA’s current joint venture across the Atlantic with BA.

Airline Profits (and Losses)

US Airways posted a fourth quarter profit of $21 million, slightly down on last year’s $28 million.  Its full year profit was $111 million, down on the 2010 profit of $447 million.

Southwest reported $152 million in profit for its fourth quarter, up from $131 million the year before.  Its full year profit was $178 million, making for the 39th year in a row of profitability for the carrier (which has been operating for 40 years).  Last year it earned $292 million in profit.

Delta had a $158 million net profit for Q4, compared to $19 million a year ago.  Its annual profit came to $1.4 billion, up from $1.02 billion last year, and said its 2011 result was one of the best in its history.

United Airlines has also reported in.  They had a $109 million profit for the quarter, excluding special items and adjustments.  If those were to be included, their result becomes a $138 million loss.  For the full year, the airline (including merged Continental) had a $1.3 billion profit before special items, which dropped the profit down to a net $840 million profit.

Their adjusted $138 million loss is however better than 2010, when they lost $325 million in the fourth quarter.  But their adjusted $840 million profit for the full year is down on 2010’s $955 million profit.

Jetblue was very pleased with its last quarter.  Although the $23 million profit they reported is small compared to the dinosaur giants, it is nearly three times their $8 million profit a year before.  Their full year profit however was down on last year – $86 million compared to 97 million in 2010.

New DoT Ticket Price Rules in Effect

Most of the DoT’s new passenger protection/airline rules have now gone into effect.  The one that will most directly impact on us is probably the requirement that the advertised ticket price for an airfare must now include all taxes and fees.

You might think this to be a good thing – the biggest price we see in an advertisement is now the actual price we’d pay, not the base price with an asterisk that leads us to a confusing list of add-on fees.  And, from that perspective, it is a good thing to now require.

But there’s a hidden sting in the tail of this requirement.  It hides and obscures how much of an airline ticket goes to the government and other third parties, and how little goes to the airlines.  This removes a thin element of accountability and awareness for how much of the ticket price is taken by the government and airports.

Other new rules include one which allows you to hold a reservation for 24 hours without payment and to cancel it without any fee or penalty if you decide not to purchase it – although note this only applies for travel that will take place at least a week into the future.

Another requirement is that you can’t be quoted tour prices that include optional items such as travel insurance that you have to opt out of.  All such things must be extras that you must opt into, not opt out of.

The US Becomes Slightly Less Christian

No matter your own personal religious orientation, you’ll surely agree that the US is a nation built on Christian values; but for the last fifty years or so we’ve been sadly becoming increasingly uncomfortable in espousing and embracing those values.

The latest tiny shift away is a decision by Alaska Airlines to discontinue its long-time practice of including little business card sized prayer cards with meals.  The cards began as a marketing ploy to differentiate the regional airline from its competitors, and offer a rotating message excerpted from Old Testament psalms.  They tend to be more attitudinal and lifestyle oriented than specifically focused on God.

Alaska says that it received passenger complaints from people saying they prefer not to mix religion with air travel and so ‘out of respect for all passengers’ they decided to end the practice.

The part that really toasts my wheaties is the insulting lie Alaska Airlines offers to us :  ‘Out of respect for all passengers’.  This is nonsense.  What they mean to say is ‘Maybe 0.01% of passengers have complained about these prayer cards.  And so we are going to let this micro-minority pressure group of God-haters change our company policy and impact on the lives and travel experiences of the vast majority of our passengers, the majority of which are Christian, and the balance of whom either don’t care or who positively appreciate the cards we distribute with meals’.

Yet again, a vociferous minority successfully assails the passive majority and chips another piece off the founding values of the United States.

First and Last

Talking about Christian values, I write in one of the other articles about the Costa Concordia incident, and include a quote from Churchill.  Apropos his quote, it is interesting to note that rather than women and children first, the first passengers to reach shore in lifeboats were reportedly wealthy Russian adults in evening gowns and suits who had apparently bribed their way onto lifeboats first.

The last person to leave?  We all know it wasn’t the captain – he was one of the first off and refused to return.  It was, instead, a hairdresser, who left the ship after spending the preceding seven hours helping passengers to evacuate.

Boeing Can’t Win for Losing

Boeing excitedly announced what it termed the largest single airplane order in European history earlier this week.  Norwegian Air Shuttle ordered 100 of its new 737 Max airplanes, plus another 22 current version 737s.  This was definitely a good thing for Boeing.

But then the next day, the other shoe dropped.  It turned out that Norwegian Air Shuttle – up until now an all-Boeing operator – hedged its bets and also ordered 100 of the A320neo planes from Airbus, too.

While it is true that Boeing got the slightly larger share of the order, it is also true that an all-Boeing airline has now evenly divided its order for the next version of single aisle jets between Airbus and Boeing, much in the same manner that American Airlines did last year, too.

In case you don’t know about Norwegian Air Shuttle, it is a more substantial airline than its name implies.  Rather than just shuttling people around Norway, it is Europe’s third largest discount airline (Ryanair and Easyjet being the two largest).

Also in today’s compendium of articles is a separate article analyzing the airplane sales and deliveries reported by Boeing and Airbus last year.

Liquids Restriction Closer to Being Liquidated

A new UK developed technology that can scan liquids in sealed containers and test for any explosives present has been approved by the EU as suitable for use at airport security.

The Insight 100 device (pictured at the top of this article) allows liquids, even in tinted or opaque bottles, to be scanned for explosives, and takes five seconds to do its analysis.  Assuming the system proves practical in airports the current liquid restrictions could be lifted late this year or sometime next year – in Europe, that is.  Nothing is known about US plans to adopt this or similar technology.

More details here.

Possibly Another Travel Insider Tour – Downton Abbey?

An incredibly popular television series in Britain is Downton Abbey.  It is understandably a little less popular in the US, but if you’ve been watching it and are a devotee, you could possibly be interested in visiting Highclere Castle, the location that is presented as Downton Abbey in the series.

A tour of the castle and gardens costs a mere £9.50 – about $15.

But perhaps you’d like a slightly more extended experience?  Then how about a day tour that starts with coffee in the Countess of Carnarvon’s private morning room, a tour of the castle’s State Rooms personally conducted by either the Countess or her husband, the Earl of Carnarvon.  By this time you’ll be ready for a bite of lunch, so enjoy lunch in the State Dining Room with fine wines personally chosen by the Earl himself.

After lunch, enjoy a tour of the estate, or in the event of bad weather, a tour of the castle’s Egyptology Exhibition (the fifth Earl financed and participated in the expedition that found the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922).  Lastly, partake of High Tea with the Countess.

Okay, so if the basic tour is $15, and this tour includes lunch and two snacks, how much do you think it costs?  Well, the good news is that the tour is offered for the one amount, whether you be by yourself or with up to three friends.

And the cost?  $12,000.

More details about the castle are here.  The tour is being offered by Noteworthy Events.

Don’t Tell the TSA

Lastly this week, we like to joke about the logical progression of TSA impositions on us and the clothing we may have to remove as a result of former failed airline attacks.  Every time we remove our shoes, we are silently experiencing the result of the ‘Shoe Bomber’, and every time we suffer an extremely intimate pat-down, we are enjoying the outcome of the ‘Crotch Bomber’.

So, please, whatever you do, don’t tell the TSA about this.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels








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