Weekly Roundup Friday 24 August 2012

This image was on a passenger’s t-shirt, and resulted in multiple airport interrogations, repeated security screenings, the pilot refusing to transport him, and a forced overnight stay until being able to fly home the next day.

Good morning

Thanks for the various suggestions on hard drive backup/recovery strategies.  I’ve been tied up with, ahem, completing the recovery of my hard drive, so haven’t replied to them all yet, but will try and catch up some more this coming week.  And then, next week, I’m off with 35 readers to South and North Korea, plus a bit of China too.

The highlight of this week is another review in my longstanding series of noise cancelling headphone reviews.

These are an air traveler’s best friend, helping you avoid some of the physical stress otherwise caused by the surprisingly high levels of ambient noise on planes.  A teaser for the review follows this week’s news roundup.  And in our roundup this week, we have items on :

  • Delta to Cut Back on Frequent Flier Mileage Earnings
  • An Updated Value for Frequent Flier Miles
  • The Qantas Self-Immolation Continues
  • Passenger Sleeps Through Her Stop, Ends up Flying Half Way Round the World Back Home Again
  • What a Waste of Space (in the WSJ)
  • Another Train Failure in the Making
  • Rick Steves Lists Places to Avoid in Europe
  • Class Action Against Hotels in US – Attorney Insider Explains Who Will Benefit
  • Another Silly Lawsuit?
  • Flagrantly Un-American Behavior by Delta and Airport Police
  • TSA Mission Creep Continues
  • And Lastly This Week….

 Delta to Cut Back on Frequent Flier Mileage Earnings

When AA and shortly thereafter UA introduced frequent flier programs way back in 1981, the concept was wonderfully simple and straightforward.  From memory, after flying 20,000 miles, you’d get a free ticket for a roundtrip domestic flight.

The great thing about this was that the programs should have been inflation-proof.  If the value of an award ticket went up due to inflation or whatever, that was matched by increases in the prices of the regular tickets people had to buy to earn the miles for the free ticket.  The formula should have been able to withstand any and all changes in fare levels and market conditions.

Well, when was the last time you got a frequent flier free ticket for 20,000 miles?  I’ve paid over 50,000 miles for a free ticket – oh, yes.  They’re no longer called free tickets, because, ummm, they’re no longer free.  They’re now award tickets, and in particular, if you’re wishing to exchange miles for a BA award, you can find yourself paying almost as much in ‘fuel surcharges’ as you’d pay for a regular discounted ticket.  Some deal, that – not!

Just about all the frequent flier programs have not only increased the miles needed to get a ticket, but have added charges on to the redemption process as well.

Some airlines have also sniped at the other side of the equation.  Not only do you have to fly more miles to get a ticket that is no longer free, but airlines are now keen to require you to fly more than a mile in order to earn one ‘mile’ into your account.  Delta has just announced changes to its program that can see you reduced from earning one mile per mile flown to only earning one mile per four flown miles.  The same reduction also applies to how miles are used to qualify you for premium levels of frequent flier membership.

At present, this only applies to ‘unpublished’ fares such as those offered by consolidators, fares included in a cruise or tour package, student and group fares.  If you’re buying regular published fares such as you’d see on Delta’s website, you still get the normal mileage earnings.  Details here and elsewhere.

The airlines love to try to curtail the miles we earn, and this is far from the first time that an airline has acted to take mileage earning out of discounted or unpublished fares.  It always pays to check what level of mileage accrual your fare will entitle you to.

An Updated Value for Frequent Flier Miles

It is very hard to accurately say how much frequent flier miles are worth these days, but it is handy to know, so that when you find yourself faced with a choice between two tickets, one which is more expensive but includes frequent flier miles, and one which is less expensive but with fewer or no frequent flier miles, you can accurately equate the net cost/benefit of both tickets.

The value of frequent flier miles depends in largest part on how you plan to redeem them.  Formerly a rule of thumb was that they were worth about 2c each; but this has always been a very ‘rough and ready’ equivalence, and certainly for domestic travel these days, miles are often worth much less.

For example, if you are getting a free ticket at a cost of 50,000 miles that you could pay $400 to buy normally, the miles are clearly worth only 0.8c a mile.  If you also have to pay a $25 redemption fee, then the value of the miles has dropped down to 0.75c a mile.

If you are using your miles to get international premium cabin tickets, then it is arguably the case the miles are worth more – for example, a $5000 fare that costs you 100,000 miles would imply a value of 5c a mile.  But on the other hand, most of us would not have bought the business or first class ticket if we couldn’t get it for free – we’d have either not traveled or have bought a coach class ticket, so that justification is not 100% fair.  If we’d otherwise buy a $700 coach class ticket, the miles can more fairly be considered as being worth something like 0.7c a mile, plus coming with an intangible benefit worth a little bit more (a ‘free upgrade’ to business class).

Another issue is to consider the ‘drawing you in deeper’ element of each frequent flier mile – the way they help you to qualify for premium levels of frequent flier membership for the following year.

If you fly 75,000 miles a year with an airline (say it is earned as a result 40 journeys), and if your augmented status both gets you 50% more miles and also first class upgrades on half your flights, then clearly each mile has a greater value to you, because in addition to its redemption value, it clearly is now worth 50% more (due to getting extra miles) plus also an extra amount to reflect the first class upgrades.  By flying 75,000 miles you get 20 first class upgrades – maybe each of those is worth $100 to you?  That’s another 2.67c a mile of value in the upgrades alone, plus also having another value in terms of helping you qualify for the same status for next year.

Oh, don’t forget that being a premium level frequent flier also gets you a saving on luggage costs and other harder to quantify benefits such as early boarding, premium seat availability, and so on.  Maybe these were worth another $50 for each of your 40 flights – in other words, another 2.67c.

If we say that for a frequent flier, each mile starts off being worth 1.4c, then gets another 0.7c from the 50% extra accrual, and another 2.67c from the upgrades, and another 2.67c from the other benefits, that means each mile is worth 7.44c.

So, for the more frequent travelers, mileage earnings are still somewhere between valuable and very valuable.  No wonder some of us go out of our way to protect and enhance our frequent flier membership status.

Now, to circle back to the previous topic – Delta’s reduction of mileage earning on ‘unpublished’ fares.  What say the published fare on a route is $500 and the discounted unpublished fare is $400.  On the face of it, that is a great saving.  But if the $500 fare includes mileage earning and the $400 fare does not, if the roundtrip is more than 2100 miles, you are better off to pay the $500 fare and take the miles too.

This can be particularly relevant on longhaul international flights.  A simple roundtrip LAX-Sydney is almost 15,000 miles.  At 7.44c a mile, the value of the miles earned on that roundtrip is $1116 – almost as much as you might pay for the ticket.  Even at the traditional 2c/mile rule of thumb, it is $300.  You’d have to get an improbably large discount off a published fare to justify missing out on the miles for long haul international travel.

This points out one other relevant factor.  Although miles might end up being worth as much as 7c a mile to you, they cost the airlines massively less.  So don’t get too overawed by the airlines’ seeming generosity!

The Qantas Self-Immolation Continues

For some airlines, an annual loss is no big deal, but instead is business as usual.

But when the airline is Qantas, an airline that only a few years ago was reporting some of the largest profits in the world; to see them now reporting their first ever annual loss since being privatized in 1995, and of a hefty A$244 million (US$257 million), is a significant event.

Oh sure, Qantas trots out the same well-worn excuses for its loss other airlines do – high fuel costs and industrial action (albeit of its own making).

Still, what is done is done.  How does Qantas now plan to turn itself around?  The answer is worrying to anyone who loves (loved?) Qantas, particularly when viewed alongside a history over the last year or so of some extra-ordinary miss-steps and claims never made good about strange new alliances and subsidiaries in Asia.  The last year or two has seen a serious absence of management competence, while the airline’s splendid safety reputation is getting stretched thinner and thinner.

The airline is cancelling most of its orders for new 787 planes, which means – apart from some 787s that will be used by its Jetstar subsidiary, Qantas now has no new longhaul planes on order for delivery in the near future.  Not from Boeing and not from Airbus (the balance of its A380 order having been pushed back).  While profitable competitors such as Singapore Airlines and Emirates are gleefully deploying A380s all around the world in competition with Qantas, poor old Qantas has chosen to make do with aged and no longer route-appropriate planes with higher operating costs and less consumer lure.

Qantas – the airline that used to boast of having one of the youngest fleets in the air is now content to let its old and costly to operate planes age further than further.  And those fuel costs which it is partially blaming for its loss – they’ll only get worse and worse while its competitors delight in new more economical planes giving them cost advantages over Qantas and its ‘gas guzzlers’.

In a bit of irony for which the incestuous and often hypocritical airline world is much too full of, Qantas has recently been beating the drum loudly in Australia, complaining about an alliance between its competitor Virgin Australia and UAE super-airline Etihad.  This, Qantas claimed, was terribly unfair and shouldn’t be allowed.

Word has now leaked out of Qantas’ parallel negotiations with Etihad-analog, Emirates.  Rumor had earlier been swirling that Emirates might wish to buy some of Qantas, although one wonders why it would.  Much of Qantas’ current problems has been due to its inept inability to compete with Emirates; it is hard to see how owning part of an inferior competitor would appeal to Emirates at all.

The current expectation is that the two airlines will codeshare on some routes and services.  What with Qantas’ codeshares with BA saving it the ‘bother’ of having to fly its own planes to London as much as it used to do, at this rate, and with no new fleet acquisitions planned, one wonders if Qantas plans to fully implode and end up as a brand name, bereft of all planes.

For no-holds barred commentary on the disaster that Qantas has become, read through any of the articles on Australian aviation journalist Ben Sandilands’ site.

In this article he opens with the strident statement

The consequences of the Qantas decision to strip firm orders for new airliners off its long haul international operations could cause its collapse or sale to predators in the near future.

Some critics of its current management and board have already said this is ‘the plot,’ and it may well be.

I couldn’t put it better myself.

Passenger Sleeps Through Her Stop, Ends up Flying Half Way Round the World Back Home Again

Commuters all have stories, variously of having dozed through their stop on the train or bus, or of having an uncanny knack to wake up seconds before it is time to get off.

And we’ve seen people who have had to be shaken awake at the end of the line.

But how about a passenger flying from Lahore in Pakistan to Paris, who does not wake for the entire time the plane is in Paris (the schedule suggests the stop is for 1 hr 55 minutes) and doesn’t wake again until the flight is back in the air and on the way back to Lahore?

How is it possible that everyone got off the plane in Paris, the cabin was cleared, cleaned, checked, and then the new flight load of passengers boarded, and so on, with no-one noticing the sleeping woman?  And, at least according to this article, there’s a suggestion the woman herself didn’t realize that when she finally got off the plane back in Lahore that she was back in Pakistan rather than arriving in to Paris.

What a Waste of Space (in the WSJ)

I know, as well as any journalist, that it can sometimes be hard when you’ve got a commitment to churn out columns on a set schedule, no matter whether news is happening or not.  But sometimes the greeny-eco-sensitive-soul in me gets excited and wishes that journalists and their editors would save some trees and carbon emissions by just not printing columns that appear to be nothing more than a waste of trees and energy and emissions.

For example, here’s an article from the sometimes excellent Wall St Journal with the attention grabbing headline ‘Burning Question :  Do Germs Spread on Airport Security Lines?’.

Unfortunately, if you waste your time to read the story, you’ll not only notice that apparently no-one has been asking the ‘burning question’ to start with, but, in any case and happily, the answer is ‘No’.  But it took 495 words to say so (it seems a safe guess the writer is contracted to product regular 500 word articles).

Another Train Failure in the Making

We wrote last week about the disappointment that the Californian high speed rail project has become.

Time for another disappointment this week.  For years – probably decades – there have been attempts at creating a high speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  The distance is only about 260 miles by road – an ideal distance that is too far to conveniently drive, but where the hassles and time costs of taking a plane make a plane journey slower than an ‘easy on, easy off’ high speed train journey.  An existing rail line that goes to within a block of The Strip, easy topography, and lots of low cost land combine to make the concept seem much easier than having to buy entirely new right of way and start from scratch.  Add to that the popularity of Vegas as a destination, and it seems an ideal route to develop high speed rail.

Amtrak formerly operated standard rail service but cancelled it in 1997.

A private company, now known as Xpress West, has been planning to introduce high speed rail service, and back in 2010 said its proposed line would be fully financed by private investors.  That plan has been delayed and changed some, and in its present form, proposes high speed rail between Victorville and Los Angeles, and now requires an almost $6.5 billion subsidized loan from the federal government for it to proceed.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Victorville, it is about 90 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.  In other words, the current concept is that you have to struggle through the greater Los Angeles traffic all the way to Victorville, in your own car.  Only after you’ve done the hard part of the drive can you then change to a train for the easy and largely empty balance of the journey along I-15.

I’ve done the drive before, and – depending on traffic – it takes about as long to drive the 90 miles to Victorville as it does the 170 miles from there on to Vegas.

Does this really sound like a good idea?  (Answer – it is not even close to a good idea.)  And how did a privately funded concept evolve and now require almost $6.5 billion in federal subsidized loans?

Here’s a very caustic analysis of the project which, among other points, suggests that ridership levels could be as much as 97% below the current projected levels (well, when I say ‘current’ the projection was done more than seven years ago).  Instead of full carriages, the train might have only a single couple in each carriage.

Rick Steves Lists Places to Avoid in Europe

Travel guru Rick Steves has made a name for himself by finding great places to go and see and stay at in Europe (and subsequently in much of the rest of the world too).

In this interesting article, however, he focuses instead primarily on places to avoid rather than places to visit.  There’s some good sense in his comments.

Class Action Against Hotels in US – Attorney Insider Explains Who Will Benefit

I wrote a few weeks back about regulatory action being brought against hotels in Britain, with the complaint being they were enforcing minimum selling price agreements with their various resellers.

This week we learned of a class action now being brought against hotels and online travel agencies in the US by class action specialists Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, alleging similar action in the US.

An attorney who specializes in travel industry law, and the veteran of a few class actions himself, writes an unusually frank opinion piece on the likely outcome of the case.  He says

As one of the attorneys representing ARTA when they brought the largest settled carrier price fixing cases, and as one of the lead attorneys defending a number of the major Hawaiian hotel chains for alleged price fixing and price manipulation, I feel that I can make an informed prediction as to the likely “real” outcome of the current California suit.

As opposed to benefiting consumers, any recovery in the matter will likely become the retirement fund for the winning attorneys while the ultimate consumers, whose damages will be too speculative, will merely receive coupons towards hotel rooms valid for only one night for leisure travel, which will actually generate more money for the hotels than cause them harm.

That’s a shame for all of us who stay in hotels.  But it is also almost certainly a fair appraisal of the probable outcome.  I’m sure you occasionally get notices in the mail of being eligible for some sort of class action settlement  that promises you some appallingly pathetic return that is seldom worth the effort of filling out the claim form and submitting the required paperwork.  It looks like this will be another such situation.

Another Silly Lawsuit?

A female passenger is suing the cruise line, P&O Australia, for $1 million after she took part in a contest on a cruise and one of the judges joked about seeing her underwear under her dress.

A video suggests the woman actually enjoyed the attention at the time.  But now, in her lawsuit, she says she is so stressed by the event that she is unable to work.

Her lawsuit is not very likely to work, either.  Not only is it unlikely that the case could be considered in an Australian court because the events took place outside Australian waters, but the ship she was on is registered in Britain and the cruise lines are great at shifting their liability around the world to avoid lawsuits.

More details here.

Flagrantly Un-American Behavior by Delta and Airport Police

A would be passenger on a Delta flight was wearing a t-shirt that made fun of TSA procedures and paranoia (pictured at the top of the newsletter).

But there’s a twist to this story.  It isn’t a simple and common case of a flight attendant ordering him off the plane.  Oh no, that’s just the start of this story.  He didn’t even get onto the plane.  A Delta supervisor in the gate area claimed the t-shirt was making numerous employees and passengers very uncomfortable – a statement that may or may not have any truth to it at all, and a statement not backed up by anyone overtly indicating any degree of discomfort.

That was merely the start.  Although the passenger had already passed through TSA screening, TSA officers appeared and proceeded to question the passenger about what the t-shirt meant, then seemed to accept the explanation and left.  So far, so good, perhaps.

But then the Delta supervisor was back, saying the passenger (and his wife) would only be allowed on the flight if they agreed to be rescreened, and then to board only after all the other passengers (why?) and furthermore, requiring the passenger change his shirt.

Rather than make a point any further, the passenger, who apparently was cooperative all the way through with everyone, agreed.  He and his wife were rescreened.

During the rescreening they were ‘interviewed’ a second time by TSA officers and airport police as well.

After having successfully gone through the rescreening and the interviews, and after having changed his shirt, the passenger was then told by the DL supervisor that the kind gentle and very timid soul who was also captain of the flight had decided to refuse to allow him to board the flight because he would be uncomfortable with the passenger on his plane.

Why the rescreening if the pilot was not going to allow him on?

Oh – that’s not the end of the story.  That’s just the beginning of it.  It gets worse.  Please go read the rest of this appalling abuse of our freedoms by the airport police and Delta here.

What is happening to our country and our freedoms?  If our freedoms are now abridged to ‘you are free only to conform to the lowest common denominator opinions about what is acceptable’ then we are no longer free.  The most precious of our freedoms is the freedom to be offensive and stupid and inappropriate.  Because once we start to restrict that type of behavior, we subject ourselves to increasingly oppressive definitions of what may be inappropriate, and also – as clearly evident here – increasingly draconian abuses when authority figures unilaterally deem our behavior to be inappropriate.

The thing is that by inflicting such unofficial ‘penalties’ and ‘punishment’ on people, the ‘system’ starts to grind down on us.  People stop behaving significantly out of the norm, whereupon the concept of normalcy gets more tightly defined, and people who were formerly halfway between normal and extreme now find they are the new frontier of unacceptable/extreme, and are also told ‘It is only you, no-one else is doing this’ – not because other people don’t want to, but because they are scared of the consequences.

Note also the way that the offenders in this transaction – the airport police and the pilot – are 100% unaccountable for their abuses of their authority.  Delta’s reply is merely to parrot their stock phrase about safety and security being their primary concern, and the police aren’t saying anything at all.

Unaccountable police.  In banana republics and dictatorial states, yes.  But who’d have thought it, in the United States of all countries.

TSA Mission Creep Continues

Many of us have succeeded at accepting that the Transportation Security Administration might possibly be able to extend its activities to non aviation forms of transportation, even though that was not what they were initially formed to do.

It pays to occasionally remember the TSA was a rushed response to the 9/11 attacks, even though the 9/11 attacks involved/exposed no weakness or shortcomings in the previous private airport screening arrangements (boxcutters being permitted carry-on items).

But how to justify the TSA’s appearance at a Paul Ryan campaign stop this week, checking people’s belongings before they could proceed to hear the Republican VP candidate speak?  What part of transportation security is a political campaign speech?

Please also appreciate this latest bit of mission creep in the context of the TSA complaining it has insufficient funding to be able to maintain current airport manning levels, and warning that security line wait times may extend as a result.  While they have insufficient staff to hassle us in the airports, the TSA has spare staff to now go hassle people wishing to hear candidates speak on the hustings?

Don’t we have local police and secret service for such tasks?

And Lastly This Week….

Something that all of us who publish on the internet welcome are reader comments.  Sometimes we’ll all even notice that on some sites, the reader comments are more valuable than the articles the readers are commenting on.

Here’s an amusing story of an article where the reader comments seem to be of at least equal value as the original article.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 24 August 2012”

  1. David, there is a new train start-up that even you could love. It is called All Aboard Florida. The new service, which is owner by Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC), will begin running between Miami and Orlando in 2014. The travel time is about 3 hours which is faster than driving time and much faster than Amtrak’s 5.5 hour scheduled service. All Aboard Florida is privately financed with FEC is investing about $1 billion in new or improved right-of-way, station construction, rolling stock acquisition, etc. More details are available at their web site: http://www.allaboardflorida.com/

  2. David, it seems Lufthansa Miles and More miles now have a negative value, ie, it will cost you more to use them than buying a full price ticket.

    I tried to book a return flight from Heathrow to Munich of Lufthansa and was quoted 30k miles + £132 “taxes”. The exact same flight can be fully purchased on the Lufthansa website for £123 including taxes.

    This means the Lufthansa miles are not only worthless, they actually cost you to use them!!!

    Lufthansa must have the most useless frequent flyer scheme out of all airlines. Can any other airline top this?

  3. On the passenger t-shirt: I support free speech and I have a sense of humor but we’ve lived many years with the warning to not joke about bombs, explosives and weapons at the airport.

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