Weekly Roundup, Friday 18 March 2016

Picture yourself relaxing at a streetside cafe in the town of Cadillac after your tour to the famous Sauternes wine region on the Sunday afternoon of our Bordeaux cruise this July.
Picture yourself relaxing at a streetside cafe in the town of Cadillac after your tour to the famous Sauternes wine region on the Sunday afternoon of our Bordeaux cruise this July.

Good morning

The spring or vernal equinox is Sunday and not only do we already have daylight saving but certainly here in the PNW, spring is in the air, blossom is on the trees, and it is hard not to feel a bit of extra vigor in one’s stride.

Last week saw a sad event – the death of a man who made The Travel Insider possible – Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email (in 1971).  See here and here.

Email and electronic communications in general have come a long way – to the point that email is now having to take second place while new products such as Slack attempt to displace office communications and Twitter/Facebook seek to do the same for personal communications.

Talking about the evolution of our electronic world, I wrote a heartfelt editorial a couple of weeks ago about the threat of robotics and AI.  To my surprise, and to my greater disappointment, it generated not a single comment in response – whether that was because I had said everything that needed to be said, or because no-one cared, I don’t know!

But now I read this item and suspect the latter reason was at play.  While two-thirds of Americans agree that robots will take over most human jobs within the next 50 years, 80% of Americans simultaneously believe that their own job is secure and safe from being lost to robots.

That’s reminiscent of studies that show, for example, that 94% of college professors believe their teaching skills to be above average (and 87% of Stanford MBA students who thought they were in the top half of their class), 93% of drivers who think they are better than the average driver, and so on.  Clearly, 44% of the college professors have to be wrong, and so on for the other groups of over-optimistic people.

So, if you’re in the 80% who feel unchallenged by robotics and AI, why not think about that a second time…..

Electronics of a less threatening nature are the subject of the article attached to today’s roundup.  Perhaps completing my now three part series on lighting is an article about ‘how do you measure light and how much is enough’.

So there you are, in your dim hotel room.  You call down to reception and say ‘it is too dark’.  They reply back ‘no, this is normal light, and no-one else has ever complained about it’.  How would you like to then be able to respond to their stonewalling with science, and even cite OSHA safety standards.  Read the article for more.

Now, still on the ‘how would you like’ front, how would you like to enjoy a week in summer on a luxury river cruiser, gliding along the rivers and enjoying included shore excursions to the lovely towns and famous wineries in France’s Bordeaux region this July?  Would you like it even more with a $750 per person discount, gratuities pre-paid, and a $100 shipboard credit for anything else you might spend money on (oh, did I mention that unlimited wine and beer is included with every dinner?).

I’ve just described our Travel Insider Bordeaux Cruise/Tour, with optional time in Paris before the cruise and the Loire valley and its extraordinary chateaus after the tour.  We’ve a small group of Travel Insiders already coming on this tour, why not join us?

What else this week?  Please continue reading for :

  • Frontier Replies About its New Flight Attendant Tipping Policy
  • United to Make Seats Narrower on International 777s
  • Government Decides Not to Regulate Airline Fees
  • TSA Reduces Front Line Screeners While Airport Passenger Numbers Increase
  • More Passengers Forgetting About Guns in Their Bags?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Frontier Replies About its New Flight Attendant Tipping Policy

I received a detailed response to my questions about the new option when buying on-board items on Frontier Airlines flights, allowing you to leave a 15%, a 20%, or a 25% tip.  Spokesman Jim Faulkner wrote to explain this was introduced as part of upgrading all their ‘point of sale’ onboard charging devices, and

we also found a way to address the awkward position flight attendants have been placed in for decades where customers want to show their appreciation by tipping, but policies did not allow. We realized we were simply not mainstream enough in the service industry and were not congruent with social norms found in the customer/hospitality relationship.

Yes, folks, Frontier Airlines introduced the new tip prompts on the charge screen because we wanted them to!

Jim also explained that 100% of the tips are passed on to the flight attendants with no deductions, and the flight attendants on each flight pool and share the tips among them.  Apparently pilots don’t get a share.  Best of all – for the flight attendants, that is – and in a manner incongruent ‘with social norms found in the customer/hospitality relationship’ there was no adjustment to the FA’s base rates of pay.

He also, predictably enough, said

Overall we have received very positive feedback about the new devices and the customer experience. Additionally, we have received no specific complaints about this since implemented last year, and we’ve carried millions of passengers since introducing this.

There’s only one small thing about his bold claim of unanimous universal acclaim.  I’ve seen a copy of both a complaint to Frontier by a passenger writing to complain about the new tipping, and the airline’s response, making it problematic to offer the claim that they’ve not received any complaints.

But that is such a traditional thing, isn’t it.  ‘We introduced this [new feature which everyone hates] in response to requests to do so from our valued customers, to give them a better experience, and to do the same thing everyone else is doing, and now we’ve done it, everyone loves it and no-one has complained at all’.  How many times have you seen that response to any sort of contentious change in services?

My favorite example of that was the company that reduced the warranty on their products from five years to one year, explaining ‘Now that our products are so reliable, no-one was having any warranty claims in the 2 – 5 year time frame, and so there was no longer any need for such a long warranty’.

United to Make Seats Narrower on International 777s

The 777 was originally designed with nine abreast seating in a 2-5-2 arrangement in coach class.  But the airlines realized that if they slightly trimmed the two aisles, and shaved a bit of the width off each seat, they could actually squeeze in ten seats rather than nine, which would allow them to carry in the order of 20 more coach class passengers (in a 3-4-3- configuration).

To be fair to United, it is relatively late making this change, and is now only introducing it primarily on domestic routes.  You might be surprised to learn that one of the first airlines to squeeze ten people per row, and on long-haul flights, was Emirates – an airline generally lauded for the high standards of its service.  In truth, the Emirates experience, while wonderful in their premium cabins, reduces down to something similar to the others in ‘the back of the bus’.

So – passengers are getting wider.  Seats are getting narrower.  Are we having fun, yet?  Details here.

In other United news, it has announced it is accelerating the retirement of its 747 fleet, now due to be gone for good by the end of 2018.  No, it isn’t replacing them with A380s, an airplane that none of the US carriers have chosen to embrace, while complaining bitterly about being outfought for market share by airlines such as Emirates who have made the A380 a central part of their service offering.

Government Decides Not to Regulate Airline Fees

There’s something wrong when it can cost more to fly your bag with you than for your own ticket.  That is the ridiculous situation that can sometimes happen if you’re traveling with an overweight and oversized bag – even though the bag is only half your weight, half your size, and doesn’t get frequent flier miles or a drink of soda, it can cost considerably more to transport than your own ticket.

Or what about a fee to change your flight from one flight to the other, in a case where you’re also going from an overbooked flight to a mainly empty flight.  Does the airline thank you for freeing up space on the overbooked flight?  Nope.  It charges you probably $200-$300 for a change fee, even thought there was no cost to them, only a benefit.  (If you were changing the other way to an overbooked flight, you’d probably have to pay both a change fee and a fare upgrade.)

The examples of egregious airline fees that are totally disconnected from the reality of the costs of providing the charged for services are many.

A group of doubtless well-intentioned senators attempted to introduce some rather vague and muddled language about airline fees to an FAA bill.  The intention was seeking the right to review some airline fees, and require them to be somewhat connected to the underlying reality of the costs to provide the services, and in this day and age where the packaging is more important than the package, it was given a cutesy name – the Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous (ie FAIR) Fees Act.

You’ll not be surprised to learn the airlines objected.  And you’ll again not be surprised to learn that the FAIR Fees bill didn’t last very long at all before being dropped like the hot potato it sadly was.

Probably this is not the sort of thing the government should be interfering with.  Instead of trying to add more regulations, it should be removing the remaining regulations that still prevent full fair competition in the airline industry, the lack of which is causing such egregious pricing to appear.

If you want an example, think of the gratuitous extra years it took for Virgin America to be given a license to start operating.  Think of the Department of Transportation’s flat-out refusal to even consider the perfectly valid application from Norwegian Air to operate flights between Ireland and the US.  How about our senators doing something about this?  That’s where they should most effectively be focusing their attention.

Talking about Norwegian, they have announced ambitious plans for expansion at Gatwick Airport.  If they could get into the US, they could start to become a measurable market force.  And, gosh – there’s a thought for the senators keen to help us.  Why not allow foreign airlines to fly domestically in the US?  The same way we allow foreign just-about-everything-else to operate in the US, give us the Easyjets and Ryanairs of this world and their crazy low fares and frequent schedules.

The solution is seldom more regulation.  The overlooked ugly truth is that our ‘deregulated’ airline industry still remains constrained by too much remaining regulation that encourages inefficiencies and raises the barrier for entry by new competitors.

TSA Reduces Front Line Screeners While Airport Passenger Numbers Increase

If you were a customer service business, and already were having problems serving your customers quickly enough (each one of whom was paying you good money and who you’d recently increased your fees to), and if you were experiencing a 10% growth in customer numbers, would you :

(a)  Increase your front-line staff by slightly more than 15% to not only maintain current service levels but slightly improve them due to current unhappiness with the wait times and the greater fees you were collecting
(b)  Leave your front-line staff the same
(c)  Reduce your front-line staff by 15%

Well, that’s sort of a no-brainer in any business environment at all, isn’t it.  But – our government and its TSA?  I’m afraid they’re choosing option (c) – although they’re quick to tell us it isn’t their fault.

The rocket scientists masquerading as Members of Congress have capped the number of front-line screeners the TSA can deploy, an inexplicable action when you consider that less than two years ago, the fee we pay for the TSA’s ‘services’ massively increased from $2.50 per flight and a maximum of $10 per roundtrip, and now is $5.60 each way/$11.60 roundtrip, which for people flying a simple roundtrip means the former $5 cost has jumped to $11.60, for people with three flights it has gone up from $7.50 to $11.60, and for people with four or more, from $10 to $11.60.

Things are actually even worse than the 10% increase in passengers/15% decrease in screeners would suggest.  Screeners are taking longer per passenger due to renewed awareness of just how useless their screening is, forcing them to go slow and be more conspicuously ‘thorough’.

And while Congress surely has earned itself no kudos for the headcount cap, the other part of that story is that the TSA itself isn’t aggressively asking Congress to raise the headcount by the 25% or greater amount that is actually needed to bring service back to previous levels.  Why not?

Observers are gloomily predicting very long lines this summer at many major US airports.  The best thing you can do is to quickly join the TSA PREcheck program, or one of the other Global Traveler/trusted traveler type programs, so as to be able to speed through the wonderfully low hassle easy PREcheck lane.

Details here.

More Passengers Forgetting About Guns in Their Bags?

The TSA loves to trumpet its occasional finds of firearms in passenger carry on bags.  For example, as reported at the end of this article, ‘a record number of passengers tried to smuggle weapons onto planes last year’.

That is almost certainly a deliberate misstatement.  The phrase ‘trying to smuggle’ implies a considered and volitional act by the passenger, who decides ‘I’m going to hide a firearm in my carryon bag and take it onto the plane with me’.  But, 99 times out of 100 (and probably the entire 100 times) that is not what happened at all.  Instead, what happens is simply that the passenger forgot he had left a firearm in that bag, and there was no intent at all, it was a mistake, an accident.  You’ll note there’s never any suggestion that any of the found firearms were intended to be used feloniously on the flight, or that the owner of the weapon was deemed to be a terrorist.

I know this because, ahem, I once got within one or two places of going through the metal detector before suddenly realizing that if I did so, I had an embarrassing metal object on my person that could cause me great problems when the detector went ‘beep’ as it surely would.  I had forgotten all about it, too; and thank goodness I realized in the nick of time.

So, are more passengers forgetting about guns in their bags?  Maybe, at long last, all we are seeing is the TSA starting to find more than one in every six or so guns that are inadvertently left in bags.  The TSA could double or treble the number of firearms they stumble across and still be missing most of them – there’s plenty of room for improvement on that front, and the statistics they like to boast about, in terms of how many they find, begs the question ‘if you’ve found 100 firearms, and you only find one in every six, does that mean another 500 firearms slipped through unnoticed’.

Perhaps the TSA needs to more carefully consider how it boasts about this ‘achievement’.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Hopefully you don’t recognize yourself in any of these stories.  And very good news if you’re thinking of traveling to China in the future.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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