Weekly Roundup, Friday 5 May, 2017

We have a chance to visit the gardens at Giverny, made famous in Money’s paintings, as part of our Paris-Normandy cruise.

Good morning

In just over a month, 26 Travel Insiders and I will be heading off to Scotland for our lovely Islands and Highlands tour.  We’re all looking forward to it immensely, and although it is the fourth time I’ve done the tour, it remains one of my favorites.

No, this isn’t a precursor to advising of a last-minute cancellation and a sudden super discount, as sometimes happens.  Everyone is proving very resolute in their plans to come along!  But it is an introduction to the two other tours we’re offering this year – you might have missed out on the Scotland tour, but you’ve a full fair chance to join the other two, if you quickly respond :

Paris-Normandy Cruise, August :  The middle of summer.  The middle of France.  No matter who wins the French Presidential election on Sunday, this will be a wonderful experience of France, old and not-so-old.  See the Normandy Beaches where our troops landed in 1944.  See medieval towns, villages and chateaus.  See how many of the somewhere between 630 and 1500 different types of cheese made in France you can eat, and how many of the even more varieties of French wine you can pair with the cheeses!

This is a wonderful tour through a beautiful part of France, with bicycles for the more active (ie my daughter), and beautiful countryside and relaxation for those choosing a more relaxing pace of touring (ie me).  And it is also with a $1000 per person discount, or, if traveling alone, with no single supplement.  A great price for a great tour.

Full details here.

December Danube Christmas Markets :  Our trusty favorite tour, the Danube cruise from Budapest to Nuremberg, with options in Slovakia, Germany and the Czech Republic before and after the cruise to round out the experience.

Enjoy the true spirit of Christmas, far away from congested malls and harried shoppers back home, while touring along the Danube, seeing such places as Vienna and Salzburg (we include a free concert in Vienna) and my favorite of all the Christmas Markets, the private market at the Thurn und Taxis Palace in Regensburg.

This is our most popular of all the different tours we offer, and it too is offered with a $1000 per person discount or no single supplement.  Another great price, for another great tour.

Full details here.

And, one more point – one person asked about a discount if they did both cruises.  Yes, absolutely.  Twist my arm.  Deals are to be had!  So come for one or come for both, and enjoy some wonderful European experiences with a great group of fellow Travel Insiders.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • This Week’s United Story
  • Another Alitalia Bankruptcy
  • AA’s New Slogan?  “Less Room Throughout Coach”
  • WestJet Hints at International Aspirations
  • World’s Airlines by Winners and Losers
  • Australian Arrested for Overstaying US Visa by 90 Minutes
  • Trains Unlike Amtrak
  • And Lastly This Week….

This Week’s United Story

Not long ago, we had a series of articles, week after week, of people going to the wrong destination.  But the mistake was an obscure mistake – they’d go to Melbourne, FL, instead of Melbourne Australia, for example.  They booked their travel to the wrong city with the same name.  You can’t really blame the airline for transporting them to the destination on their ticket.

But how to explain this week’s United story?  It flew a woman from Newark to San Francisco instead of to Paris.  The woman, who speaks no English, made it correctly to the gate where the Paris flight was departing from, waited until boarding commenced, then boarded the plane.

But, unbeknownst to her, United swapped gates, and the flight at her gate was no longer going to Paris, it was going to San Francisco.  This is understandable – the most helpless experience I ever have when traveling in a country where I don’t speak the language is while waiting for a plane or train and suddenly there’s an unintelligible announcement over the public address system.  What did they say?  Was it just a routine reminder ‘no smoking inside the passenger terminal and don’t leave luggage unattended’ or was it something relevant to the journey?  Had it been cancelled, delayed, or the gate/platform changed?

Now, for the three points of inexplicable failure.  When the lady went to go down the jetway, her boarding pass was scanned, the same as happens for us all.  The machine happily beeped, and she was waved on through.  How did the boarding computer system allow a person on a flight to Paris to board the flight to San Francisco?

Secondly, when boarding the plane, she was presumably required to show her ticket again.  But if that was the case, no-one gave it more than a perfunctory glance, and again she was allowed to continue.

Thirdly, when she got to her seat, someone else was in it.  Unsurprising, of course, because it wasn’t her seat on her flight at all.  A flight attendant came to help, looked at her ticket, and still failed to note the lady was on the wrong flight, and simply directed her to an empty seat.

So, off she went to San Francisco.  Ooops.  United says it is sorry and is working with their team in Newark to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Details here.

Another Alitalia Bankruptcy

There’s something Sisyphean about Alitalia’s journeys to the bankruptcy court and back again.  This is its third bankruptcy filing, coming after earlier filings in 2008 and 2014.

The most recent bankruptcy resulted in Etihad buying into the airline, taking the maximum 49% share that it was allowed to as a non-European entity.  All the usual platitudes about Alitalia’s proud and assured future were ritualistically offered up to the world’s press.

Perhaps the airline’s biggest problem is that it has greedy employees.  This latest bankruptcy was the outcome of a vote by its 12,500 employees not to accept a re-organization plan that would see them taking pay cuts.  As foolish as this death-wish is, two comments in reply.

First, in Europe, it seems far from impossible that the government will continue to help preserve an airline which, if one dispassionately analyzes its business fundamentals, probably deserves to die.  The Italian government has already given €400 million to keep the airline running for the next six months.  The unions are simply playing a game of chicken with the airline, its management, and the Italian government.  So far, they’re winning.

Second, we’ve seen airlines in the US too killed off by unions who refused to compromise, preferring to see their airline destroyed (and their jobs along with it).  Eastern Airlines in particular suffered fatal blows as a result of strikes by its union employees.  As you may or may not recall, part of its system was eventually sold to a NY real estate developer, who operated it very briefly from June 1989 until September 1990 when the airline defaulted on loans and the banks took it over.  But this short-lived airline hasn’t been completely forgotten, unlike so many others that have started and stopped almost as quickly.  Its name?  Trump Shuttle.

Details (about Alitalia, that is) here.

AA’s New Slogan?  “Less Room Throughout Coach”

Do you remember, back in 2000, American Airlines proudly announced it was taking two rows of seats out of the coach cabins of all its planes, resulting in a 34″ seat pitch.  They estimated this reduced their total fleet capacity by 6.4% (7,200 seats) but said that tight seating was the most frequent complaint they received from their passengers.

They hoped this would have encouraged more people to preferentially choose to fly with them rather than other airlines.  It was a clever move, because at that time, their average flight loadings were low and so the seats they took out were almost guaranteed not to be needed.  They promoted this with the slogan ‘More Room Throughout Coach’.

But, three years later, they reversed themselves and said they were putting the seats back in again.  They’d discovered that no matter how hard they promoted the fact that their coach cabin was more spacious than any other airline’s, no-one cared (even though the extra space was being offered at the same price).  It didn’t win them any measurable increase in passenger numbers at all, indeed, for the three months prior to their decision to put the seats back, their planes, even with fewer seats, had lower passenger loads than the other major carriers.  Here’s the article I wrote, way back in May 2003.

This was a stunning example of how, no matter how much we complain about things like cramped seating, when a leading carrier offers us better seating at no extra cost, we refuse to change airlines.  One can only blame ourselves for AA’s decision to add the seats back into the plane.

But now, AA have decided to go the other way, and they will be adding extra seats to their new 737s, due to start arriving later this year.  The result will be seat pitches of 29″ and 30″, making them some of the tightest in the industry.  Only Spirit is worse.  Details here.

American Airlines is clearly betting that if we won’t shift to fly with them when they gave us extra seat space, we won’t now shift to leave them when they give us less seat space.  Suggestion – why not prove them wrong and avoid AA – even if it involves flying United, instead.

The worry of course, in our not even slightly competitive airline marketplace, is that the other two major airlines will now copy AA and squeeze more seats into their planes, too.  One thing I can’t help noticing when I look at my 2003 article – back then I listed six major airlines.  Three have now vanished.

WestJet Hints at International Aspirations

WestJet is an excellent Canadian airline that flies extensively in Canada, plus to/from the US, a bit around Central America and the Caribbean, and to Ireland and the UK.

It has just announced an order for ten 787 planes, plus options for ten more, creating some excited speculation at what the airline’s plans might be for future long-haul international routes.  WestJet has mentioned the possibility of Europe, South America and Asia – which really only leaves Africa and the South Pacific unmentioned (and some commentators in Australia are already expressing hopes WestJet will fly there).  So we don’t yet have any idea at all where the flights will go.  The planes will start being delivered from the first quarter of 2019.

We wish them well, and encourage you to use them the next time you’re flying somewhere they operate.  Details here.

World’s Airlines by Winners and Losers

Here’s an article ostensibly about Turkish Airlines, an airline I’ve never had much interest in.  What I find fascinating though is its first table, which shows global market share changes over a 15 year time series for a large collection of airlines.  During that time three airlines saw their market shares plunge, some airlines stayed more or less the same, and a few sharply increased.

Guess which the three airlines with the steady year after year drops in global market share are.  Answers in the linked article.

Australian Arrested for Overstaying US Visa by 90 Minutes

The newspaper headlines sound outrageous, but the details are actually slightly different.

When the US gives a foreigner a visa, they place a visa travel permit in their passport that typically says ‘This visa is good for one (or multiple) visits to the US.  You can stay for up to 6 months per visit.  This visa expires in xx years.’

It is important to understand the difference between the visa form’s expiry date in the passport, which probably allows multiple visits over many years, and the maximum length per each visit to the US.  When you actually arrive into the US, the Immigration officer decides how long your actual stay can be – usually he automatically gives most people a six month stay.

So the Australian guy came to the US, and was granted a six month stay.  Reading between the lines, it seems he had no intention of leaving after six months, and instead was enjoying an open-ended stay with his US girlfriend.

There are two ways to extend a visitor visa type stay (as well as, of course, applying for a fiance visa).  The correct way is to apply for an extension of the stay granted.  You fill out a form shortly before your approved stay expires, probably pay a fee, mail it off to the Immigration Service, and wait to hear back.  Usually you’ll get a notice of an approved extension, some months later.  Easy, simple, and straightforward.

Urban legend says there’s another easier way to do the same thing.  Simply leave the country and then come back the next day, and, hey presto, you automatically get another six months.

That probably used to be the case, particularly if you had a passport full of entry/exit stamps from all around the world, and the Immigration Officer didn’t want to try and hunt through the stamps to work out when you last visited the US.  These days, of course, it is all on their computer screen in front of them, and if they see someone who spent the full six months in the US, then left the country to go to Mexico or Canada for a day, and now is back again, they’re going to wonder about the bona fides of the 26-year-old man in front of them and how it is he can enjoy a 6+ month non-working holiday in the US.  Is he really a temporary visitor?  How can he afford so long off work?

So this Australian decides to bounce across the border in and out of Canada for the purpose of getting a new six month stay in the US.  Except that these days, the Canadians are aware about such things, too.  They ended up refusing to admit him, because they felt that the US would refuse to allow him back into the US a day or two later.  The ‘clever’ Australian (some Kiwis might consider that an oxymoron!) had left it until late on his last day in the US to do his run across the border, and by the time the Canadians had decided to not admit him, it was after midnight, his visa had expired, and when he went back to the US entry point, they refused to give him a new visa.  They couldn’t leave him in ‘no man’s land’ between the Canadian and US Immigration points, so they took him into custody prior to deporting him back to Australia.

It isn’t quite as extreme as the headline suggests.  Details here.

Trains Unlike Amtrak

A couple of ‘Amtrak, eat your heart out’ stories.  First is the journey completion of the first train to travel all the way from London to Yiwu in Eastern China, a 7,500 mile journey.  This is now the second longest train route in the world – the longest being about 8150 miles, from Yiwu to Madrid.

It is scheduled to be an 18 day journey, which suggests a slow 18 mph average speed, but when you consider the assortment of borders the train has to stop at, and indeed, even a need to change bogeys twice due to different width train tracks, it isn’t too terribly slow and most of all, it is said to be 30 days faster than by sea, the previous way of conveying goods.

On the other hand, even a long train carries at best 100 or so containers, and a ship carries up to 20,000 – the same as 200 trains!

Details here.

This was a freight train.  For news of a different type of train, how about the new ultra-luxury tourist train in Japan.  Tickets for the four-day journey?  $10,000 a piece.  You might think that expensive, but the train is fully booked for the next twelve months.  Details here.

Talking about expensive things, here’s a fascinating sneak peek at a ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ element – the private VIP terminal at LAX.  Something for us all to aspire to – the terminal, and of course, the private plane awaiting us on the other side of it.

And Lastly This Week….

Chicken Little has been busy worrying about the sky falling this week.  The State Dept has issued another travel advisory, warning that it is dangerous to travel to anywhere/everywhere in Europe for the entire summer season through September.  Seasonal terrorism?  Apparently so.

This would all be slightly alarming if things were so safe back at home, but alas, that’s not the case either.  The TSA has realized that, all around the world, terrorists are using cars and trucks to drive into crowds of people.  After considering the matter carefully, they’ve evaluated that the same thing could happen here, too.  Hmmm – would that be like the car ramming attack back in last November, in Columbus, OH?

So is it really measurably more dangerous to go to Europe than to stay at home?

Truly lastly this week, you’ve all heard of the Mile High Club, no doubt.  Indeed, statistically, at least one in 12 of you belong to it – maybe more than one in 12, because we tend to fly more often than most (but I’m not sure if being a frequently flier directly increases one’s eligibility for membership).

However, did you know there’s a less exclusive and more popular club?  The ‘I did it in the terminal’ club, which apparently one in ten of us unashamedly belong to?  Details here.

To close as I opened, please do consider joining us; in France in August, or along the Danube in December.  Or both.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and remember Groucho Marx’s admonition that he’d never join any club that would accept him as a member





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