Weekly Roundup, Friday 14 November 2014

The lovely little fishing town of Tobermory on the Island of Mull, one of the seven islands our Scottish tour visits next June.
The lovely little fishing town of Tobermory on the Island of Mull, one of the seven islands our Scottish tour visits next June.

Good morning

I returned home from New Zealand on Saturday evening, and have been enjoying a productive week filled with good things.

Our June 2014 Scotland tour received a very positive response, and we already have six people signed up, with more people expected to confirm their attendance shortly.  If you missed the announcement last week, please do check it out now.

This will be the third time the tour has been offered (although the first time in five years), so if you want to enjoy a tour that has been three times refined and enhanced, and don’t want to wait another five years for the next opportunity, please do consider joining us in June next year.

As is often the case, we already have one single lady coming, and she would be interested in sharing with another traveler (our friendly groups are always very welcoming of singles).  She is best described as a non-smoking active senior, and is a travel blogger herself.  She’d enjoy sharing with another lady or even a well-behaved gentleman as an alternative.  Please let me know if you’d like to be introduced to her so you can decide if you’d travel well together (and, to date, it seems all the share arrangements on previous tours have worked well).

There are not one or two but three additional items included below with this week’s newsletter.  Two are updates on the best way to travel internationally with a cell phone these days.  A lot has changed from the earlier days of ‘international SIMs’ and special phones being needed to avoid the otherwise outrageous charges for phone calls and data use; these days if you are careful, costs vary from fully free to not much more than that.  The two articles tell you what you need to know – perhaps in preparation for your trip to Scotland!

The other article is very different to what you normally see here, although it has a strong tie-in to travel.  Its headline is accurate – the best tourism business opportunity I’ve ever seen.  If there’s a way you can respond and/or participate, I’d love to hear back from you (and thanks to the two readers who have already communicated).

Before moving on, it is time to repeat my regular praise for Hawaiian Airlines.

Their nearly new A330 flights from the US, via Honolulu, and down to either New Zealand or Australia are a hidden treasure that few people know about (as evidenced by the sometimes very empty flights from Honolulu on down) but are wonderful in every respect.

I love their baggage allowance (two free bags, each weighing up to 70lbs!), they have a moderately priced premium economy cabin, reasonable in-flight entertainment, and astonishingly good food.  Indeed, one of the breakfasts was like a first class breakfast – served on china, with real glasses to drink from, and with metal knives, forks and spoons and linen napkins – and the flight attendants are friendly rather than surly.  Best of all, all four flights left on time and arrived early.  Amazing.

Do keep them in mind the next time you’re traveling to NZ or Australia.

Please continue reading for :

  • Those Fees Sure Add Up
  • A350 Gains FAA Certification
  • BA Expanding A380 Service to the US
  • Is There a Worldwide Pilot Shortage?
  • Is the US Making Visas Easier to Obtain for Chinese Visitors?
  • New Products for the Meetings and Conventions Industry
  • Travel Agents in a Changing World
  • 15 Months in Prison for Air Rage
  • Happy Birthday to Eurostar
  • And Lastly This Week….

Those Fees Sure Add Up

According to airline consultancy IdeaWorksCompany, airlines will bag $50 billion in what is politely referred to as ‘ancillary revenues’ this year, up from $43 billion last year and $36 billion the year before.  After taking out income from selling frequent flier miles, the airlines should get about $28.5 billion from baggage fees, seating pre-assignments, meals on board, Wi-Fi, and all their other fees, strongly up from $23.7 billion last year.  Details here.

To put these numbers into perspective, in 2013 airlines around the world reported a total of $13 billion profit for the year, and are expected to net about $18 billion this year.  It could be said that these days, the airfares are loss-leaders and it is the fees that generate the airlines’ profits.

Airfares are loss leaders?  Hmmmm……  Overall, in the US, it isn’t just fees that are skyrocketing.  The underlying airfares have also gone up by 11% over the last five years – after adjusting for inflation, and before adding in the ever-higher fees charged too.  This reverses the steady trend pretty much ever since deregulation in 1979 that saw airfares decreasing in real dollar terms.  Next time you see the airlines and their shills in the press pleading poverty (notwithstanding their present record profits) and telling us we should appreciate everything they do for us and embrace the bargains their fares and fees represent – usually accompanied by with a chart showing the decline in airfares since deregulation; note the most recent year in the chart’s time series.  Chances are it will be several years out of date so as to obscure the massive increases in airfares that have been occurring.

Of course, the growth in airfares and fees over the last five years is surely just a coincidence and unrelated to the collapse in the number of different airlines still trading independently in the US.  After all, we were assured, and both the Dept of Justice and Dept of Transportation accepted, that each airline merger would be good for competition…..

While it is good to see some incumbents now voted out of Congress, one wonders if there’s a way to vote some of the more egregious enablers and fools out of the DoJ and DoT!

A350 Gains FAA Certification

The entry into service of the new Airbus A350 seems to be proceeding as smoothly as was the 787’s path bumpy and delayed.

This week saw another major hurdle passed, with the plane being certified by the FAA on Wednesday, six weeks after the plane received European certification.  The approval process involved five test planes flying, between them, more than 2,600 test flight hours over a 15 month period.  No battery fires have been reported – an unsurprising situation because Airbus decided not to risk their planes by using Lithium-ion type batteries (although plans to do so from 2016, by which time hopefully any remaining battery bugs will have been worked out).

To date, Airbus is sitting on 750 orders for A350 airplanes, with 39 customers having ordered them.  It expects to deliver the first plane to launch airline customer Qatar Airways, and depending on how quickly the airline becomes familiar with operating the new type of plane, the expectation is the plane may have its first commercial flight by the end of the year.

BA Expanding A380 Service to the US

We continue to be puzzled at the slow rate of acceptance of the A380 by the world’s airlines.  There are many heavily traveled routes and congested airports (and, according to the next article, maybe a pilot shortage too) where the A380 seems to make compelling economic and operational sense for airlines, but the plane receives very few orders from airlines.

However it seems that BA is starting to like its A380s, and in addition to upgrading its LHR-SFO service to A380s next summer, it will now be upgrading its LHR-MIA service to double-daily A380s next October.

In other A380 news, the airplane’s largest operator, Emirates (which operates 53 of the delivered 144 delivered planes, and in total has ordered 140 of the 318 planes altogether ordered) announced a new fourth flight every day between Dubai and JFK, to be operated by an A380, starting in March next year.  Two of the current three flights are also operated by A380s.

While the 787 remains an airplane I’ll change flights to avoid, the A380 is definitely an airplane I’ll shift my travel plans around to include.

Is There a Worldwide Pilot Shortage?

We know that air travel continues to steadily increase.  After years of decreasing employment, airlines are now hiring again in most employment categories.

Something few of us consider is the possibility that an airline might have too few essential staff.  Well, okay, they could probably operate perfectly well without their highest paid staff – the senior execs in their corporate office.  But what about pilots?

Sometimes in the past there have been rumors of airlines being forced to cancel flights due to a temporary shortage of pilots (especially towards the end of a month when all their pilots have worked the maximum hours allowed), and we know that sometimes pilots have even strategically chosen to retire or absent themselves from work in a way that is coincidentally most inconvenient to the airline they work for.  And there are also regular chants from pilots groups claiming that unless pilot salaries are raised, no-one will choose to work as a pilot any more in the future.

It is true that starting salaries for co-pilots at regional airlines are very low, although it is also true that there isn’t a pilot in the country who works anything close to what the rest of us would recognize as a regular 40 hour working week, indeed most are limited to no more than 100 hours a month.  Notwithstanding that the most exhausting part of their job is little more than the struggle to stay awake, the pilots have convinced regulators the world over that they can only work limited hours before their performance will be impaired to dangerous levels.

Here’s a curious article that manages to simultaneously trot out the statistic about low-earning regional pilots and their starting salaries while not noticing the total disconnect when only a paragraph or two later talking about senior major-airline pilots earning over a quarter million dollars a year (and not commenting at all about the generous perks and benefits pilots get).

Most of all, I have a question to the writers of the article :  If there’s truly such a desperate worldwide pilot shortage, how is it that the son of a friend of mine, fully qualified with good grades as a commercial pilot, can’t get a flying job anywhere in the world and is working as a barman on a cruise ship instead?

Perhaps the most extreme part of the problem is the new requirement that all commercial pilots in the US have a minimum of 1500 flying hours before being allowed into the cockpit (up six-fold from the earlier requirement of 250 hours).  This unquestionably elevates the cost of training and reduces the number of pilots getting qualified.

As I pointed out in this 2010 article when the new qualification requirement was first mooted, there is no supportable correlation at all between pilot experience and flying hours and pilot performance, skill, and likelihood of crashing.  But it seems ‘safe’ to respond to a spate of pilot errors leading to fatal crashes by saying ‘pilots need more training’ – even if the pilots at fault in the fatal crashes all had more than 1500 hours experience (six of the eight pilots involved in recent crashes all had more than 3000 hours of experience and all had more than 2500 hours)!  Note also my suggestion of a reason why the pilots themselves might be supporting this draconian requirement.

This requirement for 1500 hours experience is utter lunacy with no science to support it.

If there’s a shortage of pilots, let’s partially address that by re-assessing the decision to require 1500 hours of experience, and let’s also either allow pilots to work more than 100 hours a month or perhaps not count the hours they spend in the cockpit or in crew rest areas but asleep.

Is the US Making Visas Easier to Obtain for Chinese Visitors?

The Chinese spent almost 50% more on international travel in 2013 than any other nation, and the gap between them and the second most traveling nation (the US) is growing by the day (in 2013 Chinese expenditure grew by 24%, US international travel spending grew by only 3%).

It is an ongoing scandal that the US is not aggressively chasing as much of the Chinese tourist expenditures as possible, particularly because much of China’s new-found wealth is as a result of US purchases of their manufactured goods.  Getting more Chinese visitors here would not only boost our economy but also go partway to restoring our currently totally unbalanced net trade with China.

Instead, grey bureaucrats who have yet to realize that China has transitioned over the last decade or so from being a poor nation to now being the world’s largest single economy (by some measures) view Chinese visitors with xenophobic suspicion, fearing that these visitors might inexplicably decide to illegally overstay in the US, even though most of them are more wealthy than most US residents, while also not having skills or language competency that would enable them to conveniently live permanently in the US.

So we force wealthy potential Chinese tourists to endure indignities and uncertainties before reluctantly issuing visas to some but not all applicants (while welcoming penniless illegals across our southern border).

The US State Department regularly announces ‘reforms’ to make it ‘easier’ for Chinese people to get visas.  But like so many official claims, they seldom stand up to scrutiny.  While it is indeed true that the waiting time between applying for a visa and getting an interview has dropped from a month or more, and now is more commonly around a week or so, this positive point obscures the fact that potential tourists still need to turn up at a US Consular office, of which there are only six for the entire country, and be ‘interviewed’ in person (the interview is usually derisively short, superficial and entirely unnecessary).

The latest ‘positive development’ is that Chinese citizens can sometimes now be issued ten year multiple entry visas for repeated visits to China.  But that also obscures the fact that multi-entry visas, albeit for fewer years, have already been on offer, and in no way makes it easier for any applicant to get a visa – especially people applying for their first US visa.

The State Dept proudly says they ‘processed’ nearly two million applications from prospective Chinese visitors in 2014, but does not tell us how many were capriciously refused, and we can only guess at how many more potential visitors chose not to apply at all.  Chinese people who choose to travel to Canada, Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and pretty much anywhere else in the world, while still requiring a visa, do not need to attend a personal interview, and perceive themselves as having a much greater probability of having their visa application approved.

In 2013, tourist numbers to places as varied as Spain, Russia and Thailand all rose by appreciably greater amounts than to the US.  It would be easy for the US to become the world’s most popular and successful tourist destination (a position currently enjoyed by France) but to do so, it needs to make it easier for people to come, visit, and spend money here.

New Products for the Meetings and Conventions Industry

An interesting part of the overall travel market is what is termed MICE travel – that which relates to Meetings, Incentive travel, Conventions and conferences, and Exhibitions.  It is a great acronym, if nothing else.

While leisure travel is likely to continue to steadily increase, I’ve often wondered how long regular ‘one on one’ type business travel can continue in its historic form, due to the twin factors of the increasing cost and hassle and general inconvenience of travel on the one hand, and the increasing convenience and functional value of electronic communication aids such as Skype and other video-conferencing and sharing programs, clearly the larger group-type special events are less vulnerable to these challenges.

Or are they?  Here’s an interesting list of this year’s designated top ten innovations impacting on MICE travel.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an industry association that is all about promoting this type of travel is reluctant to honor new products that reduce the need for such travel, and while some of the products mentioned are interesting new ways to make one’s time at a meeting/convention more productive, some also have clear and obvious extensions to allowing meetings to become more ‘virtual’.

Travel Agents in a Changing World

Talking about new products, here’s an interesting article about a new ‘artificial intelligence’ booking engine that, it is claimed, will replace travel agents.

Actually, such things aren’t really very new at all.  Voice recognition systems, and artificial speech generators, have been serving an increasingly sophisticated range of traveler enquiries already, ranging from responding to simple requests for things such as flight information through to much more complex queries; indeed, sometimes people don’t even realize they are talking to a computer rather than a person.

Of course, the biggest change in travel booking patterns over the last decade or so has been even simpler and starker.  Somehow, travel providers have managed to trick us into thinking that we are our own best travel agents, and so now get us to happily do all our own ‘legwork’ in both researching and booking our travels.  The suppliers save themselves the cost of travel agent commissions, and the hassle of having to deal with people directly, leaving it primarily to their online booking services.

But does that mean travel agents are now obsolete, and should we anticipate that the vastly smaller remaining number of agencies and agents will soon also disappear?  No, quite the opposite.

Even after allowing for the somewhat negotiable fees that many agents charge for their services these days, studies consistently suggest that travel agents do a better job (than booking directly yourself) of finding and booking either lower cost travel options and/or more convenient/appropriate travel options.  Furthermore, and particularly now that travel agents increasingly earn their revenue not from the suppliers they book travel products for you with, but rather directly from you, their customer, they are finding it easier to become more aggressive at being your advocate when you confront problems.

Here’s an article (written by two agents) that lists five reasons why a travel agent remains relevant and appropriate in this changing world.  I don’t entirely agree with all the points, and roll my eyes at the suggestion that travel agents travel extensively and know ‘the right people’ and hotels, etc.  That can be true, but only if you carefully select bona fide specialists in the destinations and styles of travel you are considering, which is probably an obscured but important part of the evolution of travel agency services – the growth of true specialists, who can now viably provide niche market services – and likely through the internet – focused on only selected types of travel and destinations.

No matter how much they claim to the contrary, generalists have never been able to give true depth of knowledge when it comes to all 200+ countries and 2,000 major cities around the world, to all the hundreds of different airlines and cruise ship operators, etc.

One other point about travel agents.  It continues to be my feeling that the US travel agency community continues to shoot itself in the foot by arguing against the need for formal travel agent training as a pre-requisite for a person being allowed to sell travel.  Other countries do require formal training, and such countries have a much more consistently positive resulting service standard and experience to customers.  In the US, the ‘anyone can call themselves a travel agent’ situation means that we all have either had, or know of someone who did have, a terrible experience with a grossly incompetent travel agent, and for many people, that bad experience has now encouraged them to avoid all travel agents in the future.

I’m often asked ‘How can I find a good travel agent?’  The short answer is ‘I don’t know’.  Sure, there are articles with suggested checklists you can use to deem if an agent is good or bad, but most of the things on such checklists are nonsensical, meaningless, and totally unrelated to each individual agent’s competency.  Using personal recommendations is a great start, and it also makes sense to trial an agent with some easy stuff before giving them harder stuff.

Three more thoughts on choosing a travel agent.  The first one is don’t shop around to find the cheapest agent.  You probably don’t seek out the cheapest doctor, and neither do you buy the cheapest meat in the supermarket (although at today’s prices…..).  The cheapest of anything is seldom the best.  You want the best value, not the lowest ‘cost’.

The second thought restates an earlier comment.  Just because an agent did a brilliant job arranging your last vacation to Rome does not mean they can also do an excellent job this year taking you to Africa.  Maybe they are familiar with Italy but know nothing about Africa.  And the agent who books your business travel around the US and knows all about how the hotel and airline loyalty programs and upgrades work is not necessarily the best person to help you with tiny boutique B&B hotels in other countries.  Just as you don’t go to your oncologist when you have a sore throat, it pays to use the appropriate travel agent specialists for your various different travel needs.

The third thought points out the need for reciprocity.  Every agent has a wide amount of discretion in how much time they’ll spend on each booking request.  Do they keep searching still further for obscured special deals, or do they just quickly present you with something fast and easy?  Their decision is based in large part on how good a customer you are in turn for them.  If they know that you are a loyal repeat customer, and if they know the time they spend is sure to result in them earning fees and commissions, they will probably do a better job than if they think you are a speculative shopper, uncommitted to any agent, agency, or even to the special travel plans you are seeking quotes for.

15 Months in Prison for Air Rage

We’re uncomfortable with many of the accusations (and subsequent convictions) of air rage that are often made by flight crew against their passengers.

We know that sometimes flight crew deliberately bait passengers and/or threaten them with being accused of air rage, and we sense that in an altercation with a passenger, other flight crew instinctively side with their fellow employees, giving them sometimes a too-generous benefit of the doubt.  We also know that the authorities invariably accept the statements of flight crew over that of the accused air rager.

So with that as background, we’re surprised and dismayed to see a person accused of air rage being sentenced to 15 months in prison, particularly when it seems that the ‘raging’ he did was all verbal, to flight crew rather than to passengers, and not at all physical, other than of course that perennial favorite of police departments the world over, ‘resisting arrest’.

Even if he did everything he was accused of, one has to wonder whether the flight crew didn’t play a significant part in creating the disturbance in the first place.  Rather than being conciliatory and trying to calm the guy down, is it possible they may have delighted in needling the guy and goading him into bad behavior?  We probably all have experience of ‘customer service’ agents who know exactly how far they can go in being rude and offensive and getting under our skin, while appearing blameless when recounting their actions subsequently, of staffers who can make the word ‘sir’ into an insultingly rude term of abuse rather than a polite term of respect, and so on.

As seems to so often be the case, there’s no indication that any of the other passengers on the flight were called to give evidence.  As we’ve observed before, by its very nature, real bona fide air rage is surely something that is highly visible to a number of passengers around the accused person, and courts should insist on corroborative evidence from other passengers to confirm that the air rage alleged did indeed occur, was all the fault of the passenger, and that there was nothing on the part of the flight crew that might have escalated an otherwise avoidable situation.

Happy Birthday to Eurostar

Twenty years ago, in November 1994, Eurostar commenced service between London and Paris and Brussels.  When it started, there were two trains a day to Paris, and the journey time was 2 hours 50 minutes.  Now there are 15 – 17 trains a day, and the journey time has reduced down to 2 hours 15 minutes.

Over ten million passengers traveled on the trains last year, giving them an 80% share of the cross-channel market, with a few percent still going to sea services and the balance to airlines.

New larger faster trains to be introduced from next year will go even faster, carrying up to 900 passengers at speeds up to 200 mph, and taking barely two hours to complete the journey.

More details here.

Eurostar also has just reported a record profit for its last year’s operations – $86 million.  New trains, faster trains, and healthy profits. Not bad for a government owned entity (55% by French railroad SNCF, 5% by the Belgian SNCB, and 40% by the UK government).  Amtrak, eat your heart out!

And Lastly This Week….

Talking about eating your heart out, we’re not exactly sure what it literally means.  But here’s a list of 25 foods that you might hesitate before trying.

You’re about to read, below, how to minimize your phone data costs when traveling internationally.  But have you ever thought of the potential to incur runaway Wi-Fi costs when on a flight?  Here’s a sad story of a passenger who ended their SQ flight with a $1200 Wi-Fi bill.

Truly lastly this week, one of the more objectionable of the arbitrary restrictions airlines impose on the tickets we buy is a refusal to allow us to change the name of the person on the ticket.  Here’s a guy with an interesting solution.  It works best in big cities.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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