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Mar 152018
 

Not your typical hotel corridors. Our featured hotel in Lille on our Christmas Markets tour is a former convent; these are the restored cloisters.

Good morning

As mentioned, I’ve been traveling for most of this week and will be continuing into next week too.  But I’ve had time to finally get all the details of our first ever ‘Christmas Land Cruise’ written down – and what a lot of details there are, due to so many inclusions and places we visit.

I am really excited about this concept – spending a week in one hotel while radiating out to different parts of the region each day for touring.  It works well in dense parts of Europe where there are so many lovely places, all very close to each other, but of course wouldn’t work so well in the US, China, or Australia, where travel distances are necessarily much greater.

I think you too will love the flexibility and freedom this tour allows.  Because we never check in and out of hotels for the entire week, there are no ‘traveling days’ where you have to get on the coach, even if you don’t want to, because the tour is moving to another city.  Every activity on every day is optional, and you can mix and match and modify what you do to suit your wishes.  This also means that you never have to worry about being back on board the ship before it sails, because our lovely Lille hotel isn’t going anywhere.  The worst that could happen is you simply take a train or bus back to Lille after extending a stop at one of the towns we visit.

More details in the article after the roundup, and full details on the website (see links in the article).

There’s another article that I could barely contain my mirth while writing it.  One of the airlines I increasingly dislike, primarily due to the dishonesty/unfairness of their frequent flier awards program and the ridiculous fees they charge for supposedly free tickets, is British Airways.  Except that the name British Airways is no longer accurate, because the airline is no longer majority owned in Britain; indeed its largest shareholder is Qatar Airways, with a 20% holding in the Spanish company IAG that now owns BA.

This means that when the UK and US negotiate a new openskies agreement after Britain leaves the EU next year, it is very likely, according to leaked details of the proposed agreement, that BA will not be allowed to fly between Britain and the US, due to being neither a British nor an American airline!

I’ve also written a third piece, but this time sadly rather than with mirth, about the now acknowledged latest round of delays to and cost overruns for California’s High Speed Rail plans.  I must repeat that I love trains and especially fast trains.  But perhaps that is one of the problems – people who love trains run the risk of being blinded to ugly practicalities and realities that detract from their commercial viability, and argue for trains more on emotion than in business terms, while trying to create a veneer of business justification for their passion.

Whatever the reason, California’s project is shaping up to be a disaster and a disgrace, as my article details.

A few more items to fill your Friday morning read, too :

  • United’s Several Dog Problems
  • How Much Would You Pay for Slightly Earlier Boarding?
  • Is South African Airways About to Collapse?
  • More on the Future of Air Fares
  • Researching Room Rates and Ripoffs
  • Lyft Penalizes Riders If They Don’t Rate Their Drivers Highly
  • Elon Musk’s Good and Bad News
  • And Lastly This Week….

United’s Several Dog Problems

It wasn’t even a ‘comfort’ dog.  It was a ‘regular’ dog, a French bulldog puppy, and traveling with its owners, on a United flight.  It was in an officially approved carrier, and per United’s stated policies, was placed, in its carrier, on the floor underneath the seat in front of the mother and young daughter who were traveling with the puppy.

For reasons that are unclear, a flight attendant demanded that the dog, in its carrier, be placed in the overhead.  The owner tried to dissuade the flight attendant, but to no avail, so up the dog went.

The dog barked for two hours, then went quiet for the rest of the flight from Houston to LaGuardia.  Alas, upon arriving at LGA, the reason for the dog’s silence became apparent.  It had died (French bulldogs are known to have breathing problems).

To give United credit, it first abjectly apologized.  But, after having time to think about it some more, the airline then tried to claim that the flight attendant did not know there was a dog in the bag.  Apparently the flight attendant somehow failed to comprehend the agitated passengers had a dog in the dog carrier – and by some of the commentaries, it seems it was the flight attendant herself who placed the bag in the overhead.  How can you not realize that the bag you’re lifting up contains a live dog inside it?

And equally apparently, it seems none of the flight attendants thought it unusual to hear barking coming from the overhead compartments.

It would seem that United’s excuse is even stranger than the flight attendant’s demand in the first place.

United says that it will change its procedures so that all pet carriers with pets inside will be given a brightly colored tag to indicate the presence of a pet inside.  One has to wonder that if a flight attendant can be so dead to the world as to not realize that there is a barking dog in the bag she just placed in the overhead; will the flight attendant even notice the bag tag?  The answer to this outrage is not fancy colored tags, it is common sense and awareness to what passengers are trying to say and share.

Details here, and United’s subsequent shameful excuse, here.

Unfortunately for United – or, perhaps better to say, unfortunately for another dog and its owners, no sooner had this story come out than another United dog story broke..  The dog’s owners were flying with the dog (who was in the cargo hold) to Kansas, but when they were reunited with their dog in Kansas, instead of the family German Shepherd pet, they were presented with a Great Dane!

United then determined that the correct dog had been misrouted and sent to Japan rather than to Kansas.  Did someone really think that the family would accept a Great Dane instead?  Details here.

The LA Times also blew the dust off an older story about United’s past problems with pets and attempts to avoid accepting responsibility for pet deaths while in the airline’s care.  It also seems that United has many more pet deaths each year than the other airlines, although if we are to believe United, this is just a coincidence and absolutely not the airline’s fault.

How Much Would You Pay for Slightly Earlier Boarding?

So, how much would you pay to board the plane a bit sooner than you’re otherwise entitled to?

United hopes you’d pay $9 to be moved up to what they term their second boarding group (but, like so much else, United gets this wrong – their second boarding group is actually the third group of passengers they allow onto the plane).

The implied benefit associated with the $9 fee is of course that you’re somewhat more likely to find space in an overhead if you get earlier boarding, and that leads to a concept that you don’t want to think about too much – United is therefore motivated to make overhead space insufficient for everyone so as to encourage people to pay $9 to be able to get some overhead space before it is all used up.

That is one of the problems of course – a carry-on policy that still remains largely unenforced and willfully abused by shameless passengers dragging multiple enormous bags on board with them.  If United (and other airlines) would actually enforce their “one carryon and one small personal item” policies, and also enforce the size limits on both items, there’s be much more overhead space for everyone.

The other problem is that, as best I can tell, zone/group boarding is largely unenforced.  I see it every time I wait for a flight.  Whenever a zone is called, there is a rush of people crowding to get on board as part of that zone, and then, when the line gets smaller, there is a steady trickle of people who look around guiltily, stare at the dwindling line for a while, then move up to join the tail end of the line.  Many of such people show no sign at all of being elite level frequent fliers, but I’ve never, ever, seen anyone turned away from boarding at any time (have you?).

Why don’t the airlines program their boarding pass scanners to refuse to accept ‘cheaters’ – people presenting out of sequence boarding passes, trying to get ahead of their priority?  Why don’t airline staff enforce the clear and obvious boarding policies of their airline employers?

The interesting thing about this $9 charge is that the more people who buy it, the less valuable it becomes.  I often find myself boarding in zone/group two on flights, with who only knows how many more zones behind me (I guess another two or more) and when I get on board, I find the zone one and zone ‘unnumbered’ passengers have already filled almost half the plane.  The overheads are already getting perilously full.

And while $9 to board a bit early, on a plane that is going to depart at the same time, no matter when you board, might seem like a lot, in reality it isn’t.  ‘Low cost’ airline Southwest charges $50 for people wishing to be one of the first 15 to board its planes.  $50!

More details here.  And, a further observation.  United is describing this fee as being ‘from $9′.  Might it increase still further?

Lastly, I was reminded of United valuing early boarding at $9 (or more) when hearing a Delta gate announcement earlier this week, imploring passengers not to crowd the gate area, because everyone would get on the plane, and everyone would arrive at the same time.

Delta apparently thinks there is no value to early boarding at all.

Is South African Airways About to Collapse?

Six years in a row of losses, a net worth a year ago of minus $1.5 billion, accounting irregularities, and banks not extending their loans.

No part of that sounds good for South African Airways.  The good news, from the airline’s perspective, is that it is owned by the South African government, and as a national ‘flag carrier’ clearly the airline is hoping that national pride will prove more important than fiscal success.

But, really, the last six years included some of the best and most profitable years ever in the airline industry.  How can an airline lose money even during the boom years?

The answer seems to be persistent management ineptness and sometimes even outright corruption, combined with poor choices of routes and planes.

This brief article wonders if the airline is in danger of being closed.  I doubt that will happen, because the South African government doubtless considers keeping the airline flying to be a matter of national pride.

But I can’t clearly see an easy way forward for the airline as it currently is, and the downside to being owned by a government is that it is necessary to compromise between hard and unpopular business decisions on the one hand, and pandering to the government and country as a whole on the other hand.

More on the Future of Air Fares

Currently, as ‘common carriers’, airlines are required to offer the same fares to everyone, equally.

For the longest time, this ‘restriction’ was actually one the airlines wanted.  It kept things simple, and reassured them that no clever groups of travelers might be out-negotiating them.

Of course, the ‘everyone pays the same’ requirement is shot full of loopholes, as is evidenced by any company with a corporate rate contract, or any passenger who has been given a ‘waiver or favor’ allowing them access to a fare that in theory they don’t qualify for.

But these current exceptions are vaguely positive in the market – they are discounts off the published prices, given for commercial or compassionate reasons.

However, as the airlines find out more and more about us (last week’s newsletter discussed this) the airlines are getting increasingly keen to use the extra information they know about us so as to start offering us individually tailored fares.  The airfare you are quoted might be different to the fare your partner or child or parent is quoted for the exact same flights on the exact same day.

Why are the airlines so keen to be able to do this?  Well, if you ask an airline executive, they’ll probably tell you it is so they can stimulate growth by encouraging more people to fly more often – you know, a ‘good’ thing that is to our advantage.  But the more likely real reason is so they can increase fares to people who they believe will pay more, rather than decrease fares to people who are more price sensitive.  With most flights currently departing as close to full as is possible, the airlines don’t need to and don’t want to discount anything – they want to maximize the yield they get from their now full planes.

This is not something we should eagerly look forward to.  Here’s a rather lightweight article on the topic.

Researching Room Rates and Ripoffs

Inexplicable, Google has lowered the ranking it gives to lower priced sellers of hotel rooms.  When you search for a hotel on Google, it will often helpfully include a box on the page of search results that lists a number of websites selling the hotel, and showing the rates they charge.

That is a moderately interesting feature, particularly for (mainly foreign) hotels that don’t aggressively enforce a requirement that everyone sell their hotel at the same rate.  But Google has changed the ranking priority for the websites it shows in that search box – perhaps based on the willingness of websites to pay to be listed.  Now, instead of giving extra priority to low-priced sources, Google generally shows highest priced sources in the box, and merely includes a subtle mention that you can click to get more listings at lower prices.  Details here.

And a note for all you consumer activists.  Only a very few New York hotels charge a ‘resort fee’ at present, but more are considering it, and it seems there is very little consumer resistance to the move.  This is the point where you need to make your voice heard.  Next time you book a NYC hotel, ask if there’s a resort fee.  If there isn’t, thank them and tell them you are refusing to pay resort fees, and ask for the reservationist to pass your thanks on to the hotel’s Sales & Marketing Director.  If there is a fee, refuse to pay it and tell the hotel you’ll cancel your booking unless the fee is waived, and ask for that to be passed to the S&M Director too.

Lyft Penalizes Riders If They Don’t Rate Their Drivers Highly

I was upset when my Lyft driver earlier this week took a lengthy detour that extended the distance, time, and cost of my journey to the airport.  Indeed, I was a bit out of sorts before he even arrived.  After being told to expect a car in three minutes, I was then told that a car was due to arrive in seven minutes, but after several minutes, that car disappeared and then a new car was substituted, with a fresh eight minute wait for it to arrive.

Of course, those problems were not the fault of the driver who did turn up, and I was pleased to see him.  After getting in the car, I buried my head in my phone, and so didn’t immediately realize that he had driven past the usual turn to the nearest freeway onramp.

When I realized we’d not taken the correct turning, I asked where he was going, and he said he was detouring to avoid traffic problems.  I was unaware of any road works, and am intimately familiar with traffic flow patterns, none of which posed potential problems, and checking on Waze confirmed no slowdowns on the regular route.  So I disagreed with him about that, although to no avail as each passing minute of debate saw us heading obstinately north, with the airport directly to the south.

When we finally got to the airport, and I got Lyft’s cheery message inviting me to tip and rate the driver, I didn’t tip and decided rather than giving him the usual four or five (out of five) stars, I’d drop it down to two.  There were some other issues to do with his driving that I didn’t much like either, so I felt two out of five was somewhere between a fair and generous rating.

Lyft thanked me and then told me that because I didn’t give the driver four or five stars, I’d never be matched with him again.  That’s an interesting concept.

While, for sure, I’d prefer not to ride with him again in the future, if I had a choice as between waiting an additional five or ten minutes for a different driver, or taking him again, I’d almost surely choose to accept a ride with him in the interests of expediency.

Lyft’s cheery advice that I’ll never be matched with that driver again is as much a way of stilling complaint as it is a gracious way of accepting user feedback.

And my attempts to now communicate my concern about the route have not been very successful, either.  There’s no phone number to be found on their site, nor even a direct email address.  Instead, one is forced to follow a series of steps to describe one’s problem, with no easy way of doing so.  I persevered and after sending in a detailed explanation of why I felt the route was wrong, quickly got a response back.  The response :

We reviewed your ride cost and found that the cost was correctly calculated. No change was made to your final total. If you have questions, please contact us.

But I wasn’t complaining about the cost of the ride, other than as an outcome of the ride being indirect and longer than it should have been.  I’m sure the charge calculation was correct, it was the route which was wrong.  How can their customer service people be so inattentive to the simple story I sent them?

I sent them another note, and now over a day later and they’ve not replied any further.

Increasingly it seems there’s a lot to be said for good old-fashioned taxis.

Elon Musk’s Good and Bad News

The good news?  At the SXSW conference this week, he announced that he expects ‘short flights’ of his Mars rocket to commence next year (no, I’ve no idea what a ‘short flight’ is).

The bad news?  He also warned that the first people flying to Mars will likely die (and not happily at home, of old age).

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s another of the perennial daylight saving type stories that appear at the start and end of every daylight saving season.  But this one is better than most, with some interesting history and examples.

And here’s another of the ‘top ten’ (or any other) travel lists that some websites like offering up as clickbait.  This one offers you the twenty best places to visit this year in terms of offering the best experiences and at the best values; ten in the US and ten internationally.

At least this article avoids some of the really strange destination suggestions that often appear in such articles, but on the other hand, while Chicago or Tokyo are absolutely not strange, are they really must-visit and great-value destinations?

And well done for it not offering Cancun as one of its recommendations.  Here’s why that might be a bad choice.

And truly lastly this week, an interesting article about why NASA still operates three airplanes that were developed for the RAF in the mid/late 1940s.  Compared to these Canberra bombers, our B-52s are veritable spring chickens!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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