Weekly Roundup, Friday 28 July, 2017

Great news. We might be seeing less of this man and his underwear in the future.

Good morning

The last week has seen an exciting increase of people joining our Grand Expedition of Great Britain next June.  Astonishingly, nine of the 11 people who have joined have been on one of the earlier Scotland tours, which is a much appreciated endorsement and indication that we must be doing something right.

We’ve also had another couple join the Christmas Cruise (and they too are former Scotland tourers).  In related good news, I’ve prevailed upon Amawaterways to extend the special $1500 per couple/no single supplement discount on this year’s Christmas cruise, so happily you’ve a bit more time to join this cruise with maximum discounts applying, although please note that only a few cabins remain available.

One saving that doesn’t appear and can’t be guaranteed, but which has proven very substantial for some of us, is that Amawaterways seems to have some great deals on airfares at present; so good that I bought the air for Anna and me through them, and saved an easy $500 each in the process.

So if you’ve been put off by what looks to be an expensive airfare to Europe to join the cruise, have me get an airfare quote for you, too.  The result, while not guaranteed, might save you as massively as it has me.

I’ve a lengthy feature article added to the newsletter this week.  It was suggested I should write a reminiscence of my time in North Korea to mark the State Department’s new blanket ban forbidding American citizens from traveling there.  Well, I already have one of those, sprawling over many pages and dozens of photos (a link to it is in the article I did write), and I found myself yet again backed into a corner where I felt obliged to uncomfortably defend some aspects of North Korea.  More to the point, I felt the need to correct the prevailing misapprehensions about that much misunderstood country, and most of all, to wonder why the US seeks to uniquely impose a (probably unconstitutional) ban on travel to only that country and none other in the entire world (due to ostensible concerns about the danger of traveling there), even though there are lots of countries much more dangerous.

Please do read the article that follows, or even better, click this link so you can read both the article and the reader replies and discussion that has already been added to it.

Also this week :

  • Reader Poll :  The Right to Film on Planes?
  • Another Discount Carrier Across the Atlantic – $99 Roundtrips
  • Sir Richard Branson Cedes Control of Virgin Atlantic
  • Pilot vs Flight Attendant
  • Do We Need More Pilots?
  • Let Me Guess – We Shouldn’t Blame the Pilot
  • More Flight Fees
  • To Better Assist You, We Will No Longer Offer Telephone Support
  • The Most Successful Online Travel Agency Is?
  • The Ugly Secret of Disappearing Cruise Passengers <splash>
  • Cruise Ships They Wish Would Disappear
  • This Year’s Best Cruise Destination Isn’t On the Sea
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Poll :  The Right to Film on Planes?

I wrote last week about whether or not we should be allowed to film whatever we see and wish on planes.  As you know, there’s an automatic assumption, in any case of conflict between flight crew and passengers, that the passengers are in the wrong – quite the opposite of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, a volte-face all the more unfortunate because the penalties we risk incurring can be extreme, up to and including imprisonment.

Just about the only way we can successfully prove our innocence is if someone has filmed the disputed interaction.  It was only the presence of video that created a credible contradiction to no less an authority figure than the CEO of United personally assuring us that the Dr Dao incident was all Dao’s fault.

But airlines are – surprise, surprise – not so keen on allowing passengers to film, and some claim they have the right to forbid any filming, under any circumstance at all.  Airline employees may also claim that this violates their right to personal privacy (even though neither police, anywhere public, nor TSA workers, have a similar right).  There are also vague suggestions that a video record of flight events may endanger airline and airplane security.

What do you think?  Should we be allowed to film while on a plane, or should we be respectful of the privacy of the airline employees and not risk security compromises?  Please click the response that best matches your thoughts.  This will send an empty email with your answer coded into the subject line.

As always, I’ll tabulate the responses and report back to you next week.

Another Discount Carrier Across the Atlantic – $99 Roundtrips

Good news.  A new discount carrier announced plans to start service between Newark and Boston in the US and Paris, London (unusually to Stansted Airport) and Birmingham, with introductory low fares of $99 – apparently roundtrip according to some reports, and four flights, each way across the Atlantic, every day.  They say they will announce two more routes later this summer.

Flights will start in May next year.  But, don’t be astonished to learn that $99 doesn’t buy you much.  No checked bags, and only one carry-one weighing less than 22 lbs.  No meals, either, but maybe free Wi-Fi will be included (an interesting example of the changing priorities in terms of what we expect for free and what we’re willing to pay for).

The airline is an Icelandic/Danish carrier, Primera Air.  It has been flying since 2003, originally as JetX and then since 2008 as Primera Air.  It is small, with only nine single-aisle planes, but another 19 on order.  Service will be on new A321 planes, with coach and business class seating.

The extra 800 seats a day this adds is of little overall impact to total capacity across the Atlantic, and therefore, its low fares will have little market impact either.  But it is a step in the right direction, hopefully bringing us closer to the Nirvana of aggressive low fare international competition.

To put the four A321 flights a day into perspective, the Virgin/Delta/Air France/KLM alliance (see next item) operates more than 300 daily flights across the Atlantic, and usually in very much larger planes.

Sir Richard Branson Cedes Control of Virgin Atlantic

In among his many other ventures, with varying degrees of success, Sir Richard Branson’s original airline, Virgin Atlantic, has always been his highest visibility project and ‘success’ of sorts.

Sure, he ended up selling much of it to Singapore Airlines, and then sold 49% – the maximum allowed – to Delta in 2012.  But he still had 51% (the SQ investment ended) until now, with him having this week sold 31% of the company to Air France, leaving him now with a 20% minority interest.

Delta bought 49% in 2012 for £224 million.  Air France is buying 31% for £220 million.  An unkind interpretation would be that it was worth paying a massive premium for this second tranche of shares so as to wrest control away from Sir Richard, and to therefore curtail his propensity for photo-ops such as the one displayed above (when he was launching a short-lived failure of an utterly quixotic domestic UK airline, ‘Little Red’).

At the same time that Air France bought its Virgin shares, Delta bought a 10% share of Air France.  Noting not only its investment but also Delta’s close partnership with Air France, this would seem to strengthen Delta’s say in the newly structured Virgin Atlantic airline, and see the end of any pretense that Virgin Atlantic was still an independent ‘maverick’ airline competing against the big three alliances across the Atlantic.

Details here.

Pilot vs Flight Attendant

Unfortunately, there’s no video to show what happened or why, but an altercation between a pilot and a flight attendant on an Endeavor Air (a Delta subsidiary) flight prior to its departure from LaGuardia resulted in both the pilot and the flight attendant being offloaded after police were called onto the plane.

The result was a two-hour delay in the flight’s departure.  No news about any consequences to either the pilot or the flight attendant, however.  Which is interesting – have you noticed how the airlines rush to triumphantly tell us how passengers they offload are arrested and charged with assorted crimes?  So why aren’t they telling us what happened when it is their own staff who are at fault.

Do We Need More Pilots?

Talking about pilots, almost exactly to the day, seven years ago, I warned that a ridiculous new government rule would do more harm than good.  In response to a particularly egregious pilot error caused crash, the government decided the best solution to the problem of incompetent pilots killing their passengers (and themselves) was to increase the number of hours of flying time a pilot must have before he was allowed to fly a commercial airplane.  The government increased the minimum from 250 to 1500 hours.

That might sound sensible to some people, particularly politicians, who never allow themselves be sidetracked by facts.  In this case, the facts were that the pilot in the Colgan Air crash had 3263 hours of flying time (and the co-pilot 2244 hours).  The immediately previous crash – another dreadful pilot error – saw the pilot with 4710 hours of flying time.  The accidents before that, all probably primarily pilot errors except as noted, happened to pilots with 2830 hours (not a pilot error in this case – the wing fell off), 8500 hours, 4234 hours, 2790 hours, 8050 hours (probably not pilot error) and a massive 13,043 hours.

So can you see, from these statistics, how increasing the time to qualify from 250 hours to 1500 hours would make any difference at all to air safety?  I sure couldn’t – here’s the article I wrote in 2010, with more details and comments.

But what I did see, quite clearly back then, was that this would make it harder for people to qualify as pilots and less desirable for them to do so, leading to a pilot shortage, and therefore also leading to the remaining pilots being able to demand higher salaries.

Although Congress passed the law in 2010, it took until August 2013 for the FAA to implement it (no, I don’t know what the reason for three years of delay was).

Guess what…..  We are told the world, and in particular the US, is now facing a pilot shortage crisis.  There’s a need for 87 more pilots a day to be certified.  Meanwhile, foreign countries are luring away our trained pilots – China is offering $300,000+ a year tax-free to pilots who will fly their planes.  The solution, it is suggested, is to pay pilots more.

Call me cynical, but I don’t see anything too crisis-inducing with a need for 87 new pilots every day, especially when you consider that is spread out over the entire world.  How many new lawyers do we get every day?  (Answer – apparently 40,000 every year, in the US alone.  That is 110 a day, just in the US.)

Here’s another solution :  How about allowing more planes to fly themselves, and with the increased automation, reducing the need for two pilots per plane down to one (a cynic might suggest there is less chance for pilot error when there is only one pilot in the cockpit), and possibly even having pilots fly more than 80 or so hours every month.

Let Me Guess – We Shouldn’t Blame the Pilot

Look carefully at this picture. Can you see an airport runway anywhere? If you can, you’re better than two Air Canada pilots.

Talking about 80 hours a month, more information is being released about the terribly close shave that almost saw an Air Canada flight land, late at night in the dark, on a taxi-way full of planes rather than on the runway at SFO.

This is of course an extraordinarily basic error that is supposed to be almost impossible to make, due to the prominent way in which runways are marked, and also due to the visible strobe lights of the planes lined up on the taxi-way.  One can’t start to guess how both the pilot and co-pilot failed to notice they were not lined up for the runway but instead were approaching the taxi-way full of stationary planes waiting in line to take-off.

We do now know, however, that the pilot was doing the landing visually only, and had not activated his more automatic Instrument Landing System.  That’s not an error, per se, but it does mean that you’re abandoning one of the several safety systems that are supposed to ensure you go to the correct runway and not to a taxi-way, and would also presumably make most pilots slightly more visually alert.  Apparently, activating the ILS would have required some effort to program it for the approach, and both pilots decided not to bother, doubtless thinking to themselves ‘It is a clear night, an easy approach to a major airport, what could possibly go wrong’.

Excuse my cynicism, but have you too noticed that whenever pilots commit egregious acts of inexplicable stupidity, the inevitable response by their union is that such an act merely proves the need for pilots to get more rest and not work such stressful long hours.  An average of 20 hours a week in the cockpit is apparently way too much.

More Flight Fees

Bad news for all of us who fly.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved the 2018 Transportation Appropriation, which sees the ‘Passenger Facility Charge’ (PFC) that airports can levy on passengers who fly in, out, or through their airports, increase from $4.50 to a massive $8.50.

Airports the world over – at least the privately owned ones – are very profitable operations.  For example, Heathrow Airport reported a £169 million net profit in 2015, and Sydney Airport reported an A$321 million net profit for 2016.

But the generally publicly owned airports in the US instead seem to need ever-increasing helpings of our cash in order to struggle to stay open.  That is astonishing, especially when you consider how many different ways airports get money from us.

Well, let’s start off with parking (is there anywhere in any city more expensive to park in than an on-airport parking lot?), or perhaps an airport fee charged by a taxi company or rental car company (where else in town do they charge a hefty fee for a taxi to come and pick you up, or a rental car company to allow them and you access to a rental car, over and above the rental the company is also paying for their space?).

Then, maybe you’ll buy some food, drink, or something else in an airport shop, with perhaps 20% of that payment going to the airport – that’s the real reason why everything is outrageously expensive at an airport – not because of greedy merchants, but because of the greedy airport authority.  (The airport is also charging rent for the space as well as a cut of all the store’s takings.)

Maybe you are also being charged a PFC which is about to double, but even that’s not all.  The airline that is flying you has to pay gate rental fees, landing fees, and a plethora of other potential charges too – probably thousands of dollars per flight, all of which end up being reflected in the size of the fare you pay for your flights.

Furthermore, even the notion that airports should be profitable isn’t a universally accepted one.  They have traditionally been viewed as an essential service/amenity for the local region they serve.  A city with an airport is much more attractive for businesses, property prices are higher, and business can more efficiently be conducted.  Everyone in the region benefits from an airport, and the thought that only people traveling through the airport should pay for it, while not ridiculously wrong, is one that has to be balanced with the broader benefit enjoyed by all in the region.

Airports are usually semi-monopolies.  While happily in the US (unlike, for example, the UK and its utterly dysfunctional approach to airports), there is probably no law that prevents someone else from setting up another airport adjacent to a large population center, the reality is that the enormous cost of creating a new airport, to say nothing of the difficulty in then attracting new airlines and flights, tends to discourage people from doing so, as do zoning restrictions.  On the other hand, most current airports have enormous ‘grandfathered’ benefits as a result of having purchased hundreds of acres of land that, decades ago, were close to valueless, but which now are probably very valuable and much closer in to the city they serve than would now be possible for new airports.  Even an ‘outlying’ airport like, for example, O’Hare is these days surrounded on all sides by development, any extra airport to serve Chicago would have to be at least twice as far out of town.

Couldn’t we at least hope that airports adopt prudent business practices and be careful with our money?  Instead, there seem to be competitions between them to see who can spend the most of our money on some extravagant new design of airport and terminal buildings, when the truth is that as we make our hurried and harried way in and out of airports, we neither notice nor care if there’s a spectacular soaring ceiling, or fancy artwork, or anything.  Just get us to the gate as quickly as possible, give us somewhere to sit while we wait for the flight, and could we have a charging outlet and some Wi-Fi, too.

On the other hand, we also must note that US airports are lagging behind the rest of the world, much like US airlines.  Here’s an interesting article, with the most relevant point being that scheduled/planned airport developments in the US total about $3.6 billion (this seems low, but that’s what the article says, perhaps it is a question of defining new expenditures rather than airport renewals).  In Asia, the spending comes to about $125 billion, and worldwide, $1.1 trillion.  Which makes the US share about one-third of one percent of total expenditure on airports.

Maybe we shouldn’t begrudge airports their new $8.50 fees!

To Better Assist You, We Will No Longer Offer Telephone Support

Only an airline would have the gall to tell its clients that as part of its desire to provide better service, it will no longer take phone calls, and to demand not only that all future communication be emailed, but also that emails have a complicated coding system.

That’s the claim being made by Portuguese airline TAP.  Do they think we’re total fools; do they think we believe email support, with an unspecified response time, and an almost certain requirement for at least one further exchange of emails before a (quite possibly time critical) matter is resolved, is better than a conversation on the phone and instant resolution together with complete understanding?

Here’s the full text of the email they sent.  Read it and weep.  And consider yourself warned – if you fly on TAP and have a problem, don’t expect any kind of fast resolution.

Dear Valued Partner,

As part of our ongoing effort to improve our service to our customers we are implementing a Customer Relationship Management program to better assist you.

As of Thursday, July 27th, all Agency Help Desk assistance will be handled through email only. Telephone assistance will no longer be available so we ask that you submit all requests to [email protected].

In order to provide quick and efficient responses we are providing a list of Keywords which must be included in the Subject Line of your emails. These keywords will help us to quickly identify the problem/question in order to expedite the reply. The keywords may be placed in any part of the subject line.

TKT–For assistance with Ticketing  PNR–For Booking assistance
CKIN–For assistance with Check-in   
SSR–For assistance with Requests of Special Services
GENERAL–For assistance with all other subjects not here defined

WAIVE–For name corrections, special refund situations, other requests for exceptions
IRREG–For assistance with Schedule Changes

TKT-24H–For assistance with Issuances or Reissuance within 24-hours of Departure
IRREG-24H–For assistance with Schedule Changes within 24-hours of Departure

When submitting an email to the Agency Help Desk [email protected], you will receive an automatic response acknowledging receipt of your email and providing you with a Case Number. All correspondence related to a specific Case Number must continue on the same email thread. If you generate a new email about the same subject/problem it will be identified as a new case and will delay the process.

We are counting on your cooperation as we implement this new procedure and we will do our best to make this transition as smooth as possible.

Thank you.

The Most Successful Online Travel Agency Is?

Which do you think to be the most successful online travel agency, as measured by size, profit and growth, reporting in excess of a $2 billion net profit last year?  I guessed wrong, and perhaps you might, too.

Hint – its share price plunged 99% when the dotcom boom became the dotcom bomb, but for those investors who wisely bought at its low, its price has increased by 30,000% subsequently.  This interesting article tells you the company, and gives a fascinating profile of its success and growth.

The Ugly Secret of Disappearing Cruise Passengers <splash>

A cruise passenger, traveling by herself on a cruise to Alaska, mysteriously disappeared on the voyage.  When advised of this by her cabin steward, instead of notifying the authorities, the cruise line pretended she had never been on board, emptying out the cabin she had been staying in and disposing of most of her belongings.  It was only weeks later that the woman’s family found a credit card charge that suggested she had gone on the cruise and started an unsuccessful process to try and find out what happened.  That was in 2004; and even now, 13 years later, it remains an unsolved mystery.

Sounds like a great opening to a murder mystery, doesn’t it.  But it is actually a mundane and commonplace scenario.  By one count, 300 passengers have gone overboard on cruises and ferries between 2000 and now, and another 49 are just entirely unaccounted for.  So far this year, 13 people have gone overboard; only three have been rescued alive.

Jurisdictional grey-areas as between the countries cruise ships are registered in, and the ports/countries they are sailing between, and the waters they are sailing in, seem to have been exploited to minimize any obligations or liabilities on the part of cruise lines.  About the only good thing that can be said about this is it isn’t a worry on a river cruise – if you fall in, you’re only a few feet from the bank!  Details here.

Cruise Ships They Wish Would Disappear

Venice’s full-on hate of tourists continues unabated.  Never mind that the city is dying, with its population having dropped from 175,000 shortly after WW2 to a mere 55,000 now, and that tourism is really the only industry keeping Venice on life-support.

The most visible sign of the booming tourist industry are the mega-ships that sail into the city center, but only about 5% of tourists arrive on cruise ships, and whereas cruise ship passengers tend to just be in port for a day, other tourists more commonly spend several days per visit, becoming much more obtrusive – to say nothing of necessarily wheeling their suitcases through the narrow streets to get to and from their hotels.  This is another element of tourism the Venetians hate – the noise of suitcase wheels on their narrow streets.  But – what is the alternative.  There are no taxis.

Here’s an interesting article about Venice’s hating of its lifeblood tourists and cruise ships.

This Year’s Best Cruise Destination Isn’t On the Sea

Cruise Critic has just announced a whole raft of “the year’s best” awards.  The world’s top cruise port was named, based on its reader/member reports and reviews, as being Budapest, nowhere near any ocean.  It is a river port on the Danube River (and not entirely coincidentally, where our 2017 Christmas Markets cruise departs from).

In terms of European river ports, Wurzburg was second, Vienna third, Paris fourth and Regensburg (my favorite Christmas market is in Regensburg) fifth.  Our cruise also stops in Vienna and Regensburg.

And Lastly This Week…..

Heard on a tour of Windsor Castle, after the guide was regaling his group of American visitors with stories about how Prince Philip would get upset about all the planes flying overhead (Windsor Castle is in the main flight path to/from Heathrow) and would eventually erupt and phone the Heathrow traffic control center and demand the change the ‘bloody’ flight path.

One of the tourists, after thinking about this, asked ‘Why were they so stupid as to build their castle so close to Heathrow Airport?’.

The Guinness Book of Records is famous for awarding titles for all manner of unusual achievements, so perhaps it is not altogether surprising that it is now anointing Mr Blackman with the title of the longest career as an airline mechanic.  Still working, after 75 years on the job, Mr Azriel Blackman works for AA at JFK.  He is obviously no spring chicken – he is 92.  Our best wishes to him and his continued record-breaking career.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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