Weekly Roundup, Friday 23 March, 2018

We visit beautiful Bruges, and almost as beautiful Ghent, during our Dec 2018 Christmas Markets “Land Cruise”.

Good morning

You may have seen the story of the woman killed by a self-driving car in Tempe, AZ on Sunday.  Any unnecessary death is of course regrettable, but the biggest tragedy of this unfortunate incident may be that this accident slows down and delays the continued development and deployment of self-driving vehicle capabilities.

With 40,000 traffic fatalities every year in the US (and another 4.6 million reported injuries) there are few things more urgent and more potentially beneficial than improving the safety of our roads and the vehicles on them, and there is no more promising way of doing this than by replacing us – the flawed human drivers – with technology.

I discuss this in a lengthy feature article this week, appended to the newsletter.

On a very much happier note, and as I’d hoped, our December 2018 Christmas ‘Land Cruise’, formally released last week, is already proving popular.  We had three people sign up this week, and what a wonderful collection of people they are – one person on her seventh Travel Insider tour, and the other two on their sixth and fifth tours.

Clearly, people who know are choosing to come on this tour, and hopefully you’ll join us too.

I’ve had a bunch more people write and even phone to discuss the tour further; one point of clarification is that I’m limiting the tour to 24 participants, so as to preserve its boutique nature.

I’ve also had some people calling about the Triple K tour, too.  Yes, we’ll still accept more people for this tour, even though it is now a mere two months out.

Also, the usual pot pourri of other things, so please keep reading for :

  • United’s Inconsistent Approach to Firing Flight Attendants
  • United Gives Up on Dogs
  • Kayak Does Something the Airlines Say is Impossible
  • Talking About Consumer Protection
  • The Risk of Catching an Infection on a Flight
  • Why You Don’t Want the Government as an Airline Owner
  • A Strange Thing about Delta’s In-Flight Entertainment
  • The Annoying Tyranny of Credit Card Fraud Controls
  • Sonarworks True-Fi 30% Spring Discount
  • Essential Travel Skill – Sleeping
  • And Lastly This Week….

United’s Inconsistent Approach to Firing Flight Attendants

One of the most frustrating things when interacting with flight attendants is the knowledge that no matter what happens, we – the passengers – will be the losers, while the flight attendants will experience no negative consequence whatsoever.  In any case where there is a disagreement about what happened, the flight attendants will unite as one, the captain will unquestioningly support them, and invariably, we the passenger will be the loser.

Take the case last week of the UA flight attendant who insisted on a dog being placed in an overhead compartment, and then the entire planeload of flight attendants managed to not hear the dog barking for two hours, before it then died.  United rushed to make excuses that strain our credibility beyond breaking point for their flight attendant – ‘she must have misunderstood’.

But, that’s not to say that UA’s flight attendants are unfireable.  It seems that while customer-facing failures are not deemed at all important, other things are indeed important and can be career threatening.  And it was perhaps this inconsistency that contributed to United being slapped with $800,000 in damages as a result of a claim by two former flight attendants who said the airline was unfair to fire them.

The two senior flight attendants were fired back in 2013.  Their sin was watching a video on an iPad for 15 minutes during the quiet part of a flight.  Not only that, but they also – steady yourselves for the shock of this – neglected to wear aprons while serving passengers on a flight between Denver and San Francisco.  So, notwithstanding a combined 70 years of excellent service between the two of them, free of any earlier disciplinary actions or customer complaints, United decided to summarily fire them both.

When asked at trial as to exactly how severe a transgression it was to watch an iPad when there was nothing else needing to be done, a United supervisor was asked if he considered watching an iPad for a few minutes to be as extreme an action as ‘lighting a campfire in the bathroom’.  His answer was to agree, yes, the two actions were similarly extreme.

The court clearly disagreed, and found for the two flight attendants.  While I didn’t expect to be cheering the non-firing of flight attendants, this is clearly a case where we all should.

United is considering appealing.  If they do, can I suggest that an even better question to ask the supervisor would be to rank three things in severity – setting a fire in a toilet, watching an iPad for a few minutes, and causing a dog to die of suffocation after demanding it be placed in an overhead locker.

Details here.

United Gives Up on Dogs

We wrote about United’s several problems conveying dogs last week.

This week they continued to have problems, but showed a degree of sensitivity to the issue.  After realizing they’d loaded a dog onto the wrong plane going to the wrong destination, the plane diverted and made an unscheduled landing to drop the dog off, allowing it to be more speedily redirected to where it should have been going.

There is now a possibility that the airline might face criminal charges in two different states due to the dog it doomed to die in an overhead bin last week.  USA Today published an Op-Ed piece that suggested the appropriate response to United’s inability to care for pets would be to allow foreign airlines to operate within the US – an idea that while extremely unlikely to be adopted, is certainly one which would give us as passengers an enormous boost in choices for fares, carriers, service levels and values.

And, sensing a ‘safe’ vote-winning issue, a couple of senators introduced a bill to create new regulations relating to the carriage of animals on planes, specifically prohibiting the carriage of pets in overhead compartments.  They gleefully pointed out that 18 of the most recent pet deaths on planes were on United flights.

So, what does an airline do when confronted with controversy about its inability to do a simple thing right?  You might think that the rational appropriate American response to that is to fix the problem and start offering an excellent service that complies with all best practices and expectations.

But if you think that, you’re clearly not destined to high office at United.  United has instead decided to ‘indefinitely suspend’ its transportation of animals in its cargo holds.

That is an interesting strategy.  We wonder how long it will be before United decided to indefinitely suspend its transportation of passengers as well, due to recurring service problems it seems to suffer with passengers.  And/or, due to, perhaps, the weather problems that seem to throw it for a loop, maybe United will simply suspend all flights indefinitely, too.

Kayak Does Something the Airlines Say is Impossible

The airlines told the Department of Transportation and anyone else gullible enough to listen that it was either impossible or prohibitively expensive to conveniently show airfare costs including the cost of the bags that a passenger might want to either check or carry on to the plane.

And, a bit like a double flush, the airlines also said, with a perfectly straight face, that customers aren’t interested in knowing about things such as fees, surcharges, etc, so there’s no point in doing so.

These unsupported statements were of course enough to convince the Department of Transportation, which is why you don’t see such things prominently displayed when trying to work out how much it costs to fly somewhere.

But kayak.com (the site I usually go to first whenever researching or booking flights) apparently disagrees.  Now when you ask it to find fares for a given itinerary, it gives you the option to also specify how many bags you want to carry on and/or check.  It adjusts the displayed fares to show the total amount you’ll end up paying.

Well done, Kayak.  Thank you.

Talking About Consumer Protection

The airlines think (hope) that the current Washington administration might be supportive of their tireless efforts to roll back the scant little consumer protection that exists.

It is certainly true that their friends at the DoT are never fast to do anything that threatens the airlines, and last year the DoT happily announced a freeze on pending airline regulations under the guise of conforming to the new administration’s desire to cut back on obsessive and unnecessary regulation.  (Can you actually cite any consumer protection regulations imposed on the airlines that are obsessive or unnecessary?)

The DoT has also asked for public and industry comment on present regulations that could be removed.  Needless to say, the airlines have rushed to recommend the rescission of most of the regulations that have impacted on them – for example, the landmark requirement that was hard-fought and which remains seldom deployed to limit how long airlines can allow passengers to be trapped on planes.

Another target is the rule that requires airlines to actually show, in their promotional material, the true full fare you pay for a ticket, including all the surcharges, fees, taxes, and other creatively described additional cost items.  Delta even had the gall to suggest to the DoT that requiring the airlines to show the full amount payable would distort the public view of what they pay for air travel and cause consumer confusion.

They also wish to no longer be required to promptly provide wheelchairs to passengers who need them, because they say it is too confusing due to not knowing what ‘promptly’ means.

This would all be funny if it weren’t for the dismaying tendency of the DoT to be hypersensitive to airline submissions and dismissive of consumer petitions.

Some more details here.

The Risk of Catching an Infection on a Flight

A study released this week finds that you have a reassuringly very low chance of catching any sort of bug from other people on the same flight as you.

This study is remarkably upbeat, unlike some others I’ve read (and also at odds with my own personal experiences).  It suggests that only one person out of 150 might catch a bug from a hypothetical infectious passenger sitting in the middle of a plane.

It also says the safest place on a plane is a window seat, so as to avoid possible contamination from people walking up and down the aisle.

Oh – the remarkably upbeat nature of this study and the equally remarkably low risk it finds as being present?  We are assured that this has nothing to do with the study being initiated and funding by Boeing.  Neither, we are assured, does it have anything to do with Boeing participating in writing up the results of the study.  That is reassuring, isn’t it.

A few more details, here.

Why You Don’t Want the Government as an Airline Owner

I wrote last week about the struggles South African Airways is suffering and its perennial losses, and pointed out the problems airlines have when they are partially or wholly owned by their country’s government.

A clear example of this was shown in my own home country of New Zealand, where the government was forced to bail out Air New Zealand some years ago and still owns 51% of the airlines shares.  Air NZ operates both domestic services within NZ and international services around the world.

Within New Zealand, the subject of having flights to/from small towns and the major cities of Auckland and Wellington is a matter of intense regional pride.  In years past, with Air New Zealand (or as it formerly was, NAC) as the only domestic airline and entirely government operated, it operated a lot of regional flights and one can only guess at the size of the losses such flights suffered each year.  But now it is a for profit corporation, and now that airline competition is reasonably open and unhindered, even to the extent of allowing Australian airlines to operate domestically in NZ, Air NZ is less willing to operate routes that are chronically unprofitable.

But if it cuts such a route, it then risks being vilified in the press and by politicians who should know better.  As, for example, happened last week, when a government minister accused Air NZ of treating a region worse than a second hand car dealer.

Having the government as a major shareholder creates an impossible-to-win scenario for an airline.

A Strange Thing about Delta’s In-Flight Entertainment

I was on a Delta flight this week, in the exit row, and after browsing through their selection of free movies, decided I’d watch one, using my own tablet rather than their seat-back screen which was quite a long way in front of me.

So I connected to their in-flight free Wi-Fi/movie service, and scrolled through the list of movies to find the movie I had already selected from the seatback screen.  This was difficult, not only because there were lots of movies to choose from, but also because they were not in alphabetical order.

But – here’s the thing.  The movie that was offered on the seat-back screen was not also offered on their Wi-Fi service!  As best I could tell, most of all the other movies were available to view both ways, but not this movie.  Why not?

I ended up watching it on the seat back screen.  “The Foreigner” starring Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan – a surprisingly thoughtful and very well acted movie.  Recommended.

I watched another movie on an earlier Delta flight too.  It included a quick shot of an airplane landing at an airport to convey the sense of one of the characters traveling to another location.  Clearly the plane being shown wasn’t a Delta plane, but I can’t tell you which airline it was that was blessed with the two second ‘establishing scene’.  Because the airline logo on the plane was specifically blurred out for the Delta version of the movie.

Apparently Delta thinks that none of us realize there are other airlines in the world, and if we were to discover the presence of another carrier through a movie, we’d all rush to leave Delta and fly the other carrier instead.

Well, they might not be entirely wrong about the last part of that, but really – blurring out another airline’s logo in a two second shot?  Isn’t that a bit obsessive?

The Annoying Tyranny of Credit Card Fraud Controls

One of the most common and most objectionable lies that we’re dished out is the one “For your security/safety/convenience/protection” followed by a description of something that is none of any such thing.

I’ve been encountering it too much recently in the context of my Bank of America Visa card.  On a flight a few weeks ago, my excess baggage fee charge at the airport was declined (a mere $60).  Even though the actual ticket had been charged to the same Visa card a few weeks prior, and my ride from home to the airport in an Uber car had also just been charged, the artificial (un)intelligence was worried that maybe someone else was now using my card (it was of course a card-present transaction) to charge a $60 baggage fee at my home Seatac airport.  That was both embarrassing and inconvenient.

The representative of course explained this was for my protection, but equally of course couldn’t tell me what the risk was I was being protected from, because in truth, if my card was being fraudulently used, the only person at risk was the bank, not me.  I did express that point to him, forcefully, and so he became super ‘polite’, said I seemed upset, and offered to call back when I was calmer – translation, he threatened to refuse to turn my card back on because I dared to call out his insulting lie that declining a legitimate charge was for my protection.

That was however a pinprick of annoyance compared to the most recent decline – when I was hoping to fill my rental car’s tank with gas on the way back to the airport.  This was particularly puzzling, because I’d charged the rental car to my credit card, the airline tickets to the destination, the hotel, and assorted local charges at restaurants and other retailers.  And I’d been at the exact same gas station a week earlier too, and when I swiped my card for this latest transaction, correctly entered my zip code.

No part of that transaction was unusual.  Other than of course ‘being for my protection’, I’ve no idea why the charge was declined.

Such experiences are why you should always have at least two credit cards, from two different banks, and not both Visa or Mastercard.  That way either card might end up blocking your account for any ridiculous reason, and you’ve a second card at the ready to deploy in its place.

I’m almost tempted to revive my Amex, which I let lapse after Costco stopped only taking Amex cards. Almost.  But – for most people – I really don’t see any need or value to have an Amex at all these days.

Sonarworks True-Fi 30% Spring Discount

We wrote about and reviewed the interesting True-Fi program a couple of months ago.  It is an interesting way of custom-tuning your computer’s sound card to reflect the individual characteristics of various different types of headphones, resulting in a much clearer and superior sound quality.

We stumbled a bit on the $79 cost, but were encouraged by the promise of upcoming apps to be released for Android and iOS devices too, all to be included in the same $79 fee.  Most of the time, the music (or movie soundtracks) we listen to comes from a portable Android or iOS device rather than from our computer, and so adding the True-Fi service to these devices will greatly add to the value of the product.

This is expected some time probably late spring or early summer.

We’ve also been encouraged to note two new releases of the software since early February, each adding more headphone makes and models that the software will work with.  Clearly the product continues to be actively developed.

The reason for writing about this today is due to their spring promotion, lasting only through Saturday, with a 30% discount.  That drops the $80 price down to $56.  We’d suggest downloading a free trial copy of the software now, and if you like it, almost immediately purchasing it while the 30% offer remains open.

On a related topic, I noticed that the top of the line Bose QC25 headphones are currently priced at $199 rather than $299 on Amazon.  This probably hints at the future discontinuance, just as happened when the QC15 headphones were replaced by the QC25.  But the latest QC35 headphones are not appreciably better, just appreciably more expensive, and offer Bluetooth connectivity, a ‘feature’ that is anathema to anyone who prefers high quality sound.  The QC25 headphones are supported by the True-Fi software.  (I reviewed the QC25 headphones here.)

Essential Travel Skill – Sleeping

One of the seemingly unavoidable parts of frequent travel is sleep deprivation.  A few of us are blessed with the ability to fall asleep anywhere at any time, but for most of us, that is not the case.

Many thanks to reader Bill for sending in this fascinating article that reports on a WW2 study that developed a method for enabling pilots to fall asleep within two minutes.  While the first part of the process – getting comfortable – might not completely apply to those of us in the back of the plane, the article is helpful and gives a simple approach to falling asleep in unfamiliar hotel beds and other places as well as on planes.

However, a cautionary note.  The article suggests that even a five-minute nap can be refreshing.  That may be so, but for most of us, the best results come if we can complete an entire sleep cycle, which is about 90 minutes.

And Lastly This Week….

I wrote about the latest cost overruns and delays to the California High Speed Rail project a couple of weeks ago, and pondered the inevitability and venality of how public works projects invariably go enormously over budget and behind schedule.

I’m not the only one to have noticed and bemoaned this.  Here’s a good article about some of the similar shortfalls in Washington state, all the more topical for us in Wash, because there are currently calls to build a high speed rail line through Washington, running from Portland on our southern border to Vancouver on the northern side.  There’s no point in even mentioning the cost projection for this unrealistic project (hint – about $100 – 150 million per mile) because who would ever trust it.

Once again, I find myself, although a lover of fast rail transportation, being forced to call BS on this project.

The most overrated travel attraction in every state?  A fairly sensible list.  Or, if you prefer, the world’s best airports, also a fairly sensible list.  And, for lovers of lists, one more – the world’s best and worst cities in terms of quality of life.

One of the advantages of our Christmas land cruise is that it avoids the increasingly congested rivers, something that is even starting to become noticeable at Christmastime.  This article reports that Viking are planning on adding another 24 ships to their fleet over the next few years.  It already has 65 river cruise boats.

Winning a prize for most improbable answer to whatever happened to the disappeared flight MH370 is the guy who claims to have found it on Google Earth, riddled with bullet holes.

Never mind the fact that Google Earth, as amazing as it is, lacks the resolution to show details of anything to include such tiny details as bullet holes.  A more major objection is that the image in question was apparently photographed in 2009.  MH370 disappeared in 2014.   Details here.

And truly lastly this week, I wondered, above, what it takes to get a flight attendant fired.  How about this?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 23 March, 2018”

  1. Regarding your Visa problem – I have found BofA Visa to be more problematic in this regard than other Visa cards. Also, traveling as much as you do, I would think you are a perfect candidate for a Chase Sapphire Reserve card; which happens to be a Visa.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Roundup, Friday 30 March, 2018 - The Travel Insider

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