Weekly Roundup, Friday 19 August 2016

With a stunningly beautiful setting on one of the world's finest natural harbors, New Zealand's capital city of Wellington is where our NZ tour this Oct/Nov
With a stunningly beautiful setting on one of the world’s finest natural harbors, this is New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington.  I spent my ‘formative’ years here, and love it very much.  It is where our NZ tour this Oct/Nov concludes, prior to an optional extension over to Australia.

Good morning

Let’s start off this week with the most exciting thing, first.

To my disappointment, and his too, a good friend and multiple Travel Insider Tour participant has had to cancel out of the New Zealand tour this coming late Oct/early Nov.  He’s already paid his $500 non-refundable deposit.  Unlike airlines, we allow ‘name changes’ so there’s $500 up for grabs for some lucky individual or couple who can quickly make space in their schedule to come join us on our lovely New Zealand Epicurean Extravaganza this late October and repurpose this deposit.

The first to ask for it can have it, of course.  So please let me know as soon as possible if you can take advantage of this great deal.

We’ve had a very slow start to this year’s Christmas Cruise.  Please check out our great new itinerary and inclusions and special deals for this year, and let me know if you’d like to join us.

Please now continue reading for :

  • Earth to Air France – Read Your Own Contract of Carriage
  • Delta to Introduce ‘Suites’
  • Uber Launching Self-Driving Cars – Complete with, ummm, Drivers
  • Airbus Wants to Test a Self-Flying Taxi
  • Hotels vs Online Travel Agencies, Round 2
  • And Lastly This Week….

Earth to Air France – Read Your Own Contract of Carriage

In Air France’s Contract of Carriage, it has this to say about delays and cancellations.

12.1. The Carrier will take all steps required to carry the Passenger and their Baggage without delay. In this respect, and with the aim of avoiding cancelling the carriage, the Carrier may be led to offer the Passenger carriage in another aircraft or the possibility of making the journey on another Carrier’s flights and/or by any other means of carriage.

12.2. In the event of a flight cancellation or delay, and if the Passenger has a single Contract of Carriage (as defined by the Convention), the Carrier will implement all the provisions of the relevant applicable regulations.

That is actually surprisingly clear and easy to understand, isn’t it, and also transparently fair.  Good for Air France.  If a flight is cancelled, Air France will take all steps required to carry passengers and their baggage without delay, including offering the passenger the chance of flying with a different airline or indeed, traveling by any other means.

With this in mind, let me tell you what happened to a couple on our French cruise and who chose Air France for their flights.  A flight attendant strike on Air France saw the airline cancel this couple’s return flight from Bordeaux to Paris, while still offering the connecting flight on from Paris back to Washington, DC.  About 12 hours before the flight was scheduled to depart Bordeaux, the couple learned that it was definitely cancelled and they were on their own to get to Paris in time for their flight back home from there.  Air France had made no alternate arrangements.

So much for ‘take all steps required’.  The flight attendants’ strike had been known well in advance, and Air France had plenty of opportunities and lead time to sort such matters out.

But this is just the start of the story.  The couple bought train tickets back to Paris and then took a taxi to the airport from the train station, and are now asking Air France to refund them these extra costs, and/or at the very least, to refund them some fair sum for the non-used flights between Bordeaux and Paris.  This is in line with the other part of the AF contract – ‘traveling by any other means’.  Taking the train/taxi was prudent and, at that late notice, the only possible means to get to Paris short of hiring a car and driving one way.

The good news, as far as AF is concerned, of course, is that it didn’t operate the flight from Bordeaux to Paris and saved itself some money that way.  But that’s not really a central consideration – fairness and Air France’s own chosen contract obliges it to ‘take all steps required’.  If the couple had chartered a private jet, that would be a dubious claim, but particularly in the circumstance where AF itself did nothing to help, buying a couple of train tickets was sensible and appropriate.

So guess what Air France’s response to a request for reimbursement now is?  Through Amawaterways, who issued the tickets, I am told they have refused to refund or reimburse a single solitary penny.  No money back for the unavailed flight, and no money back for the extra cost incurred by the couple to travel to Paris to get their flight on home.

There is however one rather delightful fact that I hope will become known to Air France.  One of the couple has a fairly senior position in the Department of Transportation.  I’ve urged him to share his surprise and disappointment about this with his colleagues in the DoT’s Enforcement Division.

Delta to Introduce ‘Suites’

Remember when lie-flat seats were ‘the next big thing’ in first class, and then subsequently in business class too?  That was, gosh, about 25 years ago.  There’s not been a lot of similar transformational changes since then, although you could possibly point to the evolution of In Flight Entertainment, video on demand, and Wi-Fi as being definitely good things.  But they are evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The next revolutionary thing might possibly be the concept of personal ‘suites’ – instead of just a seat alongside another passenger, or, worse, in the middle between two other passengers, and instead of having a central dividing partition that could be raised or lowered between you and your neighbor, the new concept, in its most extravagant form, has floor to ceiling walls and a sliding door, and in its less extravagant form, has half height partitions that extend up to and just above your eye level while in your seat.

Earlier this week Delta announced plans to add the half-high partitions to its new A350 fleet when they start to enter service from late next year, and subsequently back-fitted to its 777s as well.  Puzzlingly, Delta refers to the suites and their doors as being ‘full height’, which I guess means ‘it goes all the way up to where it stops’.  The pictures make it abundantly clear that in layman’s language, they would be described as half height, not full height.

As best I can tell from the pictures (and you’ll notice in Delta’s press release they are careful not to show any people in the pictures, so you have to guess about heights, but there are clues like the top of the seat back and the height of the windows and the clear gap between the top of the partitions and the airplane ceiling), and from what I’ve seen with similar suites on other airlines, anyone walking past can look down and into your ‘private space’ with no problems whatsoever.  Although the partitions are slightly above the eye level of a person seated in the ‘suite’, they’re well below eye level for anyone standing up and walking past.

And therein is the two-fold problem.  What is the purpose of a fully enclosed shut-off suite?  Privacy, presumably.  And what is the downside?  A tiny claustrophobic space where the walls crush in on you.

You might think the claustrophobia issue is a canard.  But I’ve seen a man who paid for a first class ticket and who was given seat 1C on a Qantas 747 ask to be downgraded to business class because he found the bulkhead, way way in front of him, to be too claustrophobic, even with a broad aisle to his left and several windows to his right.  From my position in seat 1B, way the other side of the cabin, with tons of open space every which way, his concern was incomprehensible, but it caused him to downgrade his seat on a 15 hour flight, so for him, it was obviously real.

Now for the real kicker.  You’re getting yourself your own little ‘private’ space and accepting some mild claustrophobia as the price you pay for it – except that it isn’t really private at all!

It is true that some business class cabins and their on-angle seat alignments cause you to be staring directly at someone else, but Delta’s regular new ‘One class’ seating (ie on its A330s) has perfectly obscured/private sight lines already.  My sense is that all the ‘suites’ will do is create the illusion of privacy and the reality of confinement.  Sure, you don’t have to close the sliding door, and it would be interesting to know how many people leave their doors open vs closed on present similar half-height partitioned ‘suites’.

In other words, do the ‘suites’ actually improve our travel experience at all, or might they even detract from it?

Uber Launching Self-Driving Cars – Complete with, ummm, Drivers

Even though Uber only pays a pittance to its drivers, it is salivating at the thought of eliminating them entirely with self-driving cars.  You may wonder – will saving on the cost of a driver mean a lower fare for us or a larger profit for Uber, but that’s another point entirely, I guess, although of course, at this early stage, we’re being promised a Utopian future whereby hiring an Uber self-driving car will be cheaper than driving our own car.

This item reveals Uber’s plans to launch self-driving car service in Pittsburgh later this month.  That’s an amazing achievement and seemingly years ahead of the rest of the automotive industry.  It is marred only by the fact that each self-driving car will also have a specially trained engineer seated in the driver’s seat and with ‘their fingertips on the steering wheel’, and a second observer in the front passenger seat observing and making notes.

Self-driving car?  Not really, not with a team of two per car.  But an exciting step forward towards true self-driving autonomous cars?  Definitely.  The future is approaching us, at an ever faster rate.

Airbus Wants to Test a Self-Flying Taxi

Although Airbus is best known for full-size (and huge size) passenger jets, it is also pursuing small self-flying ‘taxi’ planes, and apparently has made sufficient progress as to want to start testing a prototype next year.

Hopefully the 15 months or so between now and its prototype testing will be enough time to get one or two bugs ironed out before the planes take to the air.  Minor details, like, for example, the inability to detect buildings and a propensity to therefore fly straight into them.  Ooops.

Let’s hope they copy Uber’s example and have a pair of trained pilots standing by, ‘just in case’, too.  Details here.

Hotels vs Online Travel Agencies, Round 2

One of the most difficult challenges hotels and internet/online travel companies have is how to ‘play nice’ and work together.  They each need the other, while simultaneously wrestling with some win/lose zero-sum issues.

Hotels generally pay companies such as Expedia in the order of 15% commissions, and sometimes a great deal more.  But the hotels would also massively prefer you to book direct with them, so as to save the 15%+ commission, and also so as to get a direct customer and hopefully some loyalty from that customer.  The OTAs would much prefer to be the ‘gatekeeper’ and the guest as their loyal customer.

To a certain extent, hotels and OTAs are generic.  If you want a room for a couple of nights, and you have a Hilton, Hyatt, Crown Plaza and Intercontinental on the four corners of a city intersection, and they are all four star and they are all about the same price, do you really care which one you stay at (other than possibly hotel loyalty programs)?

Similarly, do you really care if you book your hotel through Expedia or Travelocity or Orbitz or whatever other company?

The thing that affects many of us is which site and/or which hotel has the best price/value.  Particularly when you go somewhere like Kayak.com, it first shows you the hotels to choose from, then the different places you can book it through and their respective rates.  Why would you choose one booking service over another, other than if it had a $5 or $10 difference in net rate?

But, while price is clearly a tool, the hotels demand that all OTAs sell their rooms at the same price.  They might give some OTAs bigger or smaller commissions, but those differences in rates can’t be passed on to the customers.  Instead, OTAs will give more prominent placement to the hotels with which it gets the biggest commissions.  Those ‘special deal’ hotels prominently featured at the top of their listings?  The ‘special deal’ as often as not translates to ‘we get a special deal from the hotel’ rather than ‘you get a special deal via us for this hotel’.

Now it seems some hotels are ‘cheating’ by offering lower rates to people who book direct than to those who book through OTAs.  So the OTAs are fighting back, not only by reducing the position in their listings for such hotels (and, let’s face it, when was the last time you went all the way through to page 12 or 54 or whatever of the hotel listings) or by making the listings more skeletal with less information, or apparently even by distorting the hotel’s apparent rating and quality assessment.

This article exposes some of the murky ethical issues associated with this.  Not commented on though is the fairness of the hotel saying ‘We have an official rate of $200/night (or whatever), and we’ll give Brand X travel site a net rate of $160 and Brand Y a net rate of $150, but you both have to sell it at $200/night; oh, and we will be selling it for $190 ourselves, directly’.  How can a hotel demand a reseller should sell its rooms for more than the hotel sells them for, directly?

I can understand the quandary of the hotels – and of the OTAs.  What I can’t understand though is the idiocy when the opposite situation applies – when an OTA offers a hotel at a room rate lower than the hotel does directly and the hotel refuses to match or beat it.

I recently encountered that when booking 30 room nights for my NZ group, and a hotel offered a ‘special group rate’ that was higher than the rate on Expedia!  Yes, that truly is a ‘special’ rate, but not in the sense I was hoping for.

I pointed this out to the hotel, and their response was ‘So go book us on Expedia then’.  To use illustrative numbers, say the hotel’s direct rate was $200/night and the Expedia rate was $190/night.  I said to the hotel ‘give it to me for $180 and I’ll be happy to book direct.  The hotel said ‘No, buy it through Expedia’, but probably they only net $160/nt or less by my booking through Expedia.  How does it benefit the hotel to pass over a chance of creating a new direct client and selling 30 room nights at $180, and instead to prefer to sell the rooms, through an intermediary, and get only $160/nt!

And Lastly This Week….

Okay, so perhaps I’m envious, and perhaps I’m elitist, but sometimes I come across such empty headed mindless dreck on YouTube that masquerades as – well, I’m not sure what; but which attract vast numbers of followers and viewers and of course, make the presenters apparently quite wealthy.  I’m filled with horror simultaneously at the people who unselfconsciously offer up such stuff and the people who eagerly consume it.

A benchmark for good vs bad travel commentaries is undoubtedly North Korea.  How to write about and report a North Korean travel experience is very difficult, because visitors only get to see a carefully selected series of somewhat staged vignettes of an idealized country that, by all other accounts, seems to bear very little resemblance to the broader reality.  When my Travel Insider group explored DPRK in 2013, we would sometimes get glimpses of the ‘other’ Korea – images that quickly passed by, far down successively smaller side streets off from the main thoroughfares we’d drive, occasional indications of extraordinary thriftiness, and so on, but even after our five days there, none of us really felt able to offer up any definitive opinions about what we’d seen or learned.

Some journalists have chosen to paint a very biased picture of the country, overwhelmingly negative and unfair.  Others of course do quite the opposite.  And then there are the ones who simply sleep on the bus all day, but don’t let that prevent them from still producing a series of video commentaries, presumably on ‘what I saw while I was sleeping’.

Here is an article about one such person, on a mission to bring about international understanding and cross-cultural exchanges with North Korea, via surfing.  No, not web surfing.  Beach surfing – that not-so-well known tool of international rapprochement.  You can see one of the series of videos he has published on his DPRK experiences featured in the link.  It was so awful that I found myself compelled to watch it all the way through.

Truly lastly this week, there are times when people do crazy/stupid things while traveling, and as an occasional tour leader of sorts, I’ve sometimes seen acts of thoughtlessness and rudeness (but never from Travel Insider travelers, of course!).  It is easy as a guide/leader to sometimes get frustrated when one’s group members behave poorly, but in reality, there’s not a great deal that can be done.

Or is there?  A Chinese guide in Kenya adopted a surprising – and very final – solution when a couple in his group refused to change seats in a restaurant.

I’ll be freshly arrived in Bucharest next week, so no newsletter next week, and depending on internet access, we’ll see what can be done the week after.

Until, well, not next week, please enjoy safe travels






1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 19 August 2016”

  1. Are any tours for 2017 planned yet? I use FF miles and make reservations about 8-10 months out because of limited availability.

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