Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Aircell Hits 1,000-Aircraft Mark, But Who's Paying?

Aircell said today that it has installed its branded Gogo Inflight Internet service on its 1,000th aircraft, a Delta Air Lines DC-9 that will fly today from Detroit.

This is a landmark in inflight Wi Fi service by Aircell, which is by far the industry leader. Congratulations to Aircell. So far, airlines that have installed the system on domestic aircraft are American, Virgin America, Delta, AirTran, US Airways, United, Air Canada and Alaska.

But I have a few questions, which will be pursued here in the near future.

--Is this in fact a viable business? Aircell and individual airlines that have installed the ground-based system insist that it is, but no one has yet shown me any evidence that more than a small percentage of passengers on any given flight actually have been opting to pay the $9-$12 on average that a connection costs. Airlines, Aircell and third-party marketing interests have been offering copious discounts and frequent promotions for the service, but eventually the numbers have to add up to more than the current average of about 7 percent "take rate," that is, passengers who pay.

--Aircell has been impressively funded by venture capital. But who is actually paying -- Aircell or the airlines themselves -- to have the Aircell Gogo system installed on those airplanes? Aircell has told me that it costs an average of $100,000 per plane to install the system, and has said that in the initial growth phase it was subsidizing airlines. But I haven't yet got a straight answer about who's paying for how much of the installation-per-plane costs.

--Companies that supply inflight Wi Fi -- primarily Aircell in the U.S., and primarily OnAir, a satellite-based system, in Europe -- have found that passengers who do use the service mostly use it for e-mail and texting. The fuller range of Internet-browsing functions seems to be less in demand. If that is true, do limited systems like the one Continental Airlines is looking at, which will essentially just provide e-mail connections as part of the inflight-entertainment hookup, make more market sense?

As I said, questions that so far have not been answered.

Meanwhile, Aircell rolls along. Aircell's Gogo is now available on more than 3,800 flights daily, up from just 2,100 at this time last year. Roughly one-third of all mainline domestic aircraft now have the service.

Two weeks ago, incidentally, Aircell rebranded its Internet service for the business aviation market, formerly called Aircell High Speed Internet, as Gogo Biz Inflight Internet.

Aircell markets this system as being compact and lightweight enough to be used on almost any business aircraft. The system has been adopted by major business and private aircraft manufacturers including Cessna Aircraft Company, Dassault Falcon Jet, and Hawker Beechcraft, as well as major fractional and charter operators including Clay Lacy Aviation, Flight Options, XOJET and NetJets.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Mexicana Airlines Shuts Down 'Indefinitely' ... Aeromexico Selling Alternate Flights on Standby Basis to Stranded Mexicana Passengers

All Mexicana Airlines flights are suspended indefinitely because of its, ahem, "delicate financial situation."

Mexicana Airlines had hubs at Mexico City, Cancun and Guadalajara. Here's some background on the company.

It isn't a matter of hasta la vista, baby -- because that term, despite Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous movie misuse, actually loosely connotes see ya later. By the sounds of it, Mexicana ain't going to be seeing ya any time now or later.

Meanwhile, Aeromexico has reacted by selling what it calls a Passenger Protection Program for stranded or otherwise out-of-luck customers of Mexicana Airlines, Mexicana Link and Mexicana Click. The policy applies for domestic flights within Mexico and international flights where Aeromexico currently operates scheduled air service. Aeromexico, which has struggled through its own recent financial challenges, operates a fleet of only 44 -- mostly 737s, but including four 777s and five 767s.

As Aeromexico describes the "protection plan" for Mexicana strandees and not at all entirely reassuringly, in my opinion):

"This protection program provides fare assistance to passengers based on a wait-list system to be conducted at airports. This policy is valid from August 27 through September 20.

Program Conditions:

The program applies to passengers with Mexicana tickets that were issued as follows:

--Only passengers with tickets issued through August 27.
--Loyalty program issued tickets.
--Mexicana employee tickets.

Protection Procedure:

--Passengers must be present at the airport at least 4 hours prior to flight departure with issued ticket and/or ticket receipt issued by Mexicana.
--Only original bearer of ticket will be considered for protection program.
--All ticket receipts must display itinerary with routes, flights and dates, as confirmed by Mexicana.
--On their original departure date with Mexicana, passengers must purchase tickets at Aeromexico airport ticket counters.
--Once the new Aeromexico ticket is purchased, passengers must proceed to check in at Aeromexico ticket counters in order to be placed on a waitlist for the requested itinerary.

Passenger Protection Pricing List


Total one-way fares

Flights with duration of 1 hour or less

$128 US

Between 1 and 2 hours

$144 US

Between 2 and 3 hours


Over 3 hours




Total one-way fares

ORIGIN AND DESTINATION: Bogota, Colombia / San José, Costa Rica / Havana. $299

ORIGIN AND DESTINATION: Madrid, Spain / Sao Paulo, Brazil / Buenos Aires, Argentina. $599.

ORIGIN AND DESTINATION: United States, flights with duration of 4 hours or less. $269.

ORIGIN AND DESTINATION: United Status, over 4 hours of flight time. $289.

Fares shown are one-way and include local taxes, fuel surcharges, value added taxes and other fees.

These fares apply on direct flights, To and From destinations / routes operated by Aeromexico and/or Aeromexico Connect. In case a connection is required, an additional charge of $500 MXN for Mexico domestic flights and $50 USD for international routes (on one-way basis segment) will apply.

Aeromexico is reinforcing its domestic connectivity with the following routes:

Cancún – México / 2 additional daily flights

México – Monterrey / 6 additional daily flights

Guadalajara – México / 1 additional daily flight

México – Tijuana / 1 additional daily flight

Guadalajara – Tijuana / 1 additional daily flight

México – Tuxtla Gutiérrez / New service starting October 1st, 2010

Acapulco – México / 1 daily flight

México – Veracruz / 1 daily flight

Tijuana – Zacatecas / 1 daily fligh


Meanwhile, here is the official statement on the shutdown from Mexicana's parent company:

"Nuevo Grupo Aeronáutico, S.A. de C.V. ("Grupo Mexicana") announced that as a result of the group's delicate financial situation when it changed owners a week ago, compounded by failure to reach agreements that would allow for the capitalization of its three airlines, Mexicana Airlines, MexicanaClick and MexicanaLink flights will suspend operations until further notice as of midday (12:00 p.m.) on Saturday, August 28, 2010.

Among the factors that have contributed to this announcement are:

--Grupo Mexicana's fragile financial situation, which has deteriorated further over the last four weeks due to the previous management's decision to suspend ticket sales, forcing the company to continue operating in the interests of passengers without receiving any revenue.

--No substantial agreements were reached to give companies in the Group long-term viability.

--Lack of effectiveness in the insolvency (Concurso Mercantil) process intended to protect additional financial resources available to the company so it could to continue operating.

--Given the uncertainty of the situation, certain suppliers have begun demanding advanced payment of services that are essential to the airlines' operations.

Today's decision is a painful one for the 8,000-strong Grupo Mexicana family, but we will continue seeking out ways of securing the company's long-term financial viability, so our passengers can once again enjoy the quality services they are accustomed to. We hope to be back in the air soon and would like to thank everyone involved in this process for their support and understanding.

If you have bookings or/and have paid for a Grupo Mexicana flight and have a reservation code, we would like to inform you that:

--All Mexicana, MexicanaLink and MexicanaClick flights will be suspended until further notice as of midday on Saturday, August 28, 2010. All flights programmed to depart after this hour will be canceled.

--Grupo Mexicana deeply regrets any inconvenience this decision may cause and will continue to assist passengers to the full extent of its abilities. Passengers who have already flown a leg of their journey and who are scheduled to fly with a Grupo Mexicana airline after Saturday, August 28, 2010 are advised to consult the websites or contact us at the numbers listed below. Priority will be given to minors traveling unaccompanied, passengers traveling with children under age 3 and special needs passengers.

--If you have not yet begun your journey, we recommend you make alternative travel arrangements.

--For information on how to apply for a refund, visit www.mexicana.com or www.cmainforma.com."

By the way, you will be irritated, but probably but no means surprised, to see that the above Web sites (I deliberately avoided hyperlinking them) lead you into a blind alley. I'll update when I get reliable information for anyone stuck holding a Mexicana ticket or, worse, stuck by Mexicana without a way home.

This stuff, on TripAdvisor.com, is all anecdotal, and of limited value.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Southwest Expanding Into Newark

The big airline news of the day isn't the U.S. regulatory approval of the merger between Continental and United, which was fully expected. Instead, it's a provision in the deal that requires Continental to part with 36 slots at the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport -- and lease them to Southwest Airlines.

Whoa! All of a sudden a huge part of the New York market will open to competition from Southwest, which had resisted moving into that delay-prone, open-slot-scarce market until last year, when it began a small amount of service from and to La Guardia.

Southwest says it plans to begin Newark service in March and have "a full schedule in place by June 2011." The 36 takeoff and landing slots are spread throughout the day and will "allow Southwest the ability to integrate Newark service conveniently into its extensive national route network," the airline says.

For air travel, and especially business travel, the New York market is the big enchilada. Also, "this service also will provide a needed injection of low fares and competition into the New York/Newark market," Southwest said.

Certainly there will be domestic fare wars with Continental and United as Southwest establishes itself in Newark. On the other hand, I don't drink the Southwest Kool Aid. I live in Arizona, and when I travel west of the Mississippi, I don't always find Southwest fares to be dependably competitive. For instance, I recently went to Seattle on a business trip, and the US Airways fare was about one-third cheaper than the Southwest fare. On the other hand, there are times when Southwest beats the competition hands-down.

As to Newark, where Continental has a hub and is the dominant carrier: As is well-known by anyone who lives in the sprawling northern New Jersey portion of the New York market, and who wants the option of Southwest, getting to La Guardia is a real chore, as opposed to getting to nearby Newark. A drive to La Guardia from most areas in New Jersey that are in proximity to New York City can take an hour -- or three, depending on utterly unpredictable traffic. Yes, public transportation is available: By train or bus into Manhattan, and then on to La Guardia up in Queens. A hire-car service ride is in the $120 range one way.

So this is major air-travel news for the New York market and for a national network of connecting markets that Southwest will link to from Newark. Southwest is the largest domestic carrier in terms of passengers carried, by the way. (Delta is the world's largest carrier, but that includes its international market.]

The Newark move explains why Southwest recently said it was considering buying a bunch of Boeing 737-800 airplanes, which seat a lot more passengers than the current Boeing 737 models in the airline's fleet. To fly profitably to and from the congested New York market requires more per-plane capacity that Southwest currently has.

Southwest would configure new 737-800s with 175 seats (all in one class, as usual) -- as opposed to 137 or 122 seats in its existing fleet of 541 Boeing 737-700s, 737-300s and 737-500s. [See my post of Aug. 16 for more on this]. Southwest's pilots and flight attendants would, of course, need to sign off on arrangements to fly the bigger 737s.

Of the total 541 Boeing 737s now flown by Southwest, 343 of them are 737-700s (with 137 seats each), 25 are -500s (122 seats) and 173 are -300s (137 seats). The 737-800s are basically a stretched version of the -700s.


Friday, August 27, 2010

What's Not Black and White Or Read All Over

[Doubletree Hotel Seattle, this morning]


USA Today, that traveler's insistent, gaudy would-be road companion, is deemphasizing its printed newspaper and betting on better fortunes in online-digital forms, including with iPhone and Android apps.

An era is ending.

Once derided as "Useless Today," the compact and colorful 28-year-old Gannett national paper has kind of insisted its way into our routine on the road, sometimes with very good journalism, though it chooses its shots selectively. But always, always, it has simply been there for us, usually for free, right outside our hotel room door. Gannett has always been very coy about how much of the "paid" circulation claimed for USA Today is acounted for by those free papers in hotels and airports.

USA Today, which likes to call itself the nation's second largest newspaper (though it publishes only five days a week and though I have always been very skeptical of its paid-circulation claims), said yesterday that it is cutting back at the print paper and focusing more on the online product.

That will mean about 130 layoffs, says the the paper, which employs a mere 1,500 total. USA Today didn't say how many of those 130 layoffs would be in the newsroom, which has a relatively small staff compared with the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. The Gannett newspaper empire, which owns 83 dailies, has always provided logistical and other resources to USA Today through its numerous local newspapers, often to the irritation of those local papers.)

The official line is that fewer people are paying for a newspaper because news is available for free online -- but that kind of covers up a well-known fact about USA Today. That is, most of us never paid for it in the first place. I myself have not once ever actually purchased a USA Today, and look at it only when a hotel gives it to me. Then I spend maybe 5 minutes on it.

And this from a lifelong print newspaper junkie.

Now, increasingly, I just leave USA Today outside the door. and I'm not the only one. I'm in a hotel in Seattle right now, and up and down the long corridor lie USA Todays untouched outside doors.

In fact, this tendency for hotel guests not even to pick up the free newspapers so annoyed J.W. Marriott Jr., the CEO of the Marriott hotel company, that he ordered Marriott's 2,600 U.S. hotels to stop leaving USA Today outside rooms last year. Bill Marriott thought the clutter in the corridors distracted from appearances. That decision contributed to a sharp drop in USA Today's claimed paid print circulation.

And here's a little secret about newspaper circulation. Thanks mostly to the forceful personality and lobbying of the flashy USA Today founder, longtime Gannett CEO and journalism buckaneer Al Neuharth, the industry audit organization that certifies print circulation went along with a new formula that greatly relaxed the rules under which newspapers could count so-called "bulk sales" as paid circulation.

Bulk sales are papers that go to places like hotels, which get them at a great discount off the cover price. It used to be that a bulk sale of 50 percent of cover price counted as paid circulation, but hotels and other businesses that distribute newspapers to guests have often concocted advertising barter deals that essentially mean no real money actually changes hands.

And the definition has also changed for bulk sales, which now fall under the category of "third-party sales," as defined by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the main circulation-audit firm. To wit:

"(b) All copies purchased by hotels, restaurants, airlines and rental car agencies for free distribution to their guests and by sponsors for free distribution to hospital patients and nursing home residents, regardless of the number of copies, will be reported as Third-Party Sales when at least one cent is paid, either in cash or by applicable barter. Evidence of this payment must be recorded and made available to ABC auditors."

And by the way, the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper that is now generally called the nation's number one paper in circulation (though it publishes just 6 days a week), also is almost handing it out almost for free at times. I recently decided to renew both my print and online subscriptions to the Journal. What a deal I got! For $139, I got a whole year of print delivery to my home, as well as online access. The Journal, also, gets to claim its online paid subscribers as if they were full paid subscribers to the print paper.

So my $139 a year somehow counts as paid print circulation -- just the same as the $2 per copy I pay daily and $5 Sunday for the New York Times, which does not base its circulation of almost one million daily on giving the paper away in a hotel.

Just sayin'.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On Miracles ...

Patrick Smith, an international pilot for a major airline who writes the "Ask the Pilot" column and blog in Salon.com, has been writing about a bête noire of his, the way the media rush to gush that anyone who survives an airplane accident is the beneficiary of a "miracle."

He's singing my tune, or hymn. As someone who survived a horrible airplane crash -- but while 154 others did not -- I was amazed immediately afterward by the piety I encountered in some media that went on about me being the lucky guy who was awarded a "miracle."

Under the circumstances at the time, it would have been inappropriate to point out, in TV and print interviews, what I was really thinking. Which is, if unworthy I, wretched sinner that I am, had this miracle handed me from some divine providence, how do we describe what the 154 innocent men, women and children who perished in the same accident received? How come the Divine Benefactor gets credit for my miracle, but no blame for the hideous carnage that was concurrently wrought? (And please, do not go all Jesuit on me. Been there.)

Anyway, Patrick says it better and with more grace, and makes the added point about training, skill and excellent engineering behind these occasional "miracles" in the aviation realm. Essentially, media who toss around this "miracle" word that way infantalize the public discourse and do a disservice to the scientific disciplines of safety and training. Not to mention the very respectable concept of dumb luck.

See Patrick's Salon piece here and, as he followed up today (and kindly quoted me) another Salon piece here.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

T.S.A. Again: An Outrage in Philly

A Maryland woman was humiliated earlier this month by TSA screeners at the Philadelphia airport who went through her wallet, examined some checks and a deposit slip, and had police call her husband on the suspicion, she says, that she might be clearing out the joint checking account.

Here's a column on that incident in the Philadelphia Inquirer today by Daniel Rubin, who has been doing excellent work on the blundering TSA.

In the Philly incident, Rubin reports that a Philadelphia police spokesman said that TSA personnel had called his officers, "who found the checks in the woman's possession to be 'almost sequential.' They were 'just checking to make sure there was nothing fraudulent,' he said. 'They were wondering what the story was. The officer got it cleared up.'"

Yo, I got a news flash for you, Philadelphia police (this, remember, is the same police department that actually bombed and destroyed a city neighborhood to roust some crazy radicals in 1985): You are not the Secret Service. And even if you were, possessing some checks in 'almost sequential' order is not probable cause for a search. It is probable cause to think that someone has personal financial business papers in her possession.

Meanwhile, reports Rubin, "TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said the reason Parker was selected for in-depth screening was that her actions at the airport had aroused the suspicion of a behavior detection officer, and that she continued to act 'as if she feared discovery.'"


Last year the TSA got hammered plenty for this kind of stunt.

In March of 2009, for example, screeners at the St. Louis airport hauled a young man into a room for a nasty Third Degree because he was carrying $4,700 in cash -- a perfectly legal amount of cash to be carrying, but nevertheless none of the TSA's business in any event. The man, Steve Bierfeldt, politely declined to answer insistent questions about the dough, infuriating TSA screeners and the police officers they called in, who threatened him with imprisonment. The money actually was cash receipts from campaign sales at a political rally for Ron Paul, for whom Bierfeldt is a campaign worker. And oh, Bierfeldt cleverly managed to surreptitiously record the whole ugly incident on his iPhone.

I interviewed Bierfeldt at length last year and posted the transcript of his encounter with the agents at the airport. And here's a report by Bierfeldt via the Huffington Post.

The Philly incident adds another rap on the sheet on the TSA, an agency that is badly in need of adult supervision -- and from outside the TSA, if necessary.

Here's a news flash, TSA screeners: Your authority is to make sure weapons do not get onto aircraft and to check identities against the terrorist watch lists. You are not cops, customs agents, DEA agents, or marriage counselors.

And, also, you are not the Taliban. So stop harassing the unescorted women.


More 'Grabby-Grabby' From the TSA

Mission creep again at the TSA, which confirms to the Boston Herald newspaper that it is testing aggressive "enhanced patdown" procedures that allow screeeners to more intimately feel up passengers who get selected for a patdown inspection. Here's the link.

Boston and Las Vegas are the two lucky places where this is being tried out.

Pat attention to this, because patdowns are going to become more common as these body-scanner machines, described by critics as strip-search machines, come on line at U.S. airports. Trigger those machines with, say, a handkerchief in your pocket, and off you go to feel-up land.

This cannot work out well. Women especially are vulnerable to this, and especially women who are breast cancer survivors and who wear prosthetic bras, which did not trigger the metal detectors but which will trigger the body scanners. Step over here, ma'm ...


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Anticipating International Growth, Delta to Re-Hire Flight Attendants

Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson said the airline will re-hire flight attendants from its furlough pool as it anticipates growth on its international routes.

In a message to employees, Anderson said the number of flight attendants who would be re-hired isn't yet known. He added that the airline, which is now the world's largest after the assimilation of Northwest Airlines, needed "a lot of folks with language skills." He said training would start in January. Here's a link.

Delta waited till Wall Street mostly went off to the Hamptons on Friday to drop this announcement.

That's because the pitiful souls who trade in airline stocks tend to get the heebie-jeebies whenever an airline indicates that it will not continue shrinking seating capacity and might even be considering growth.

On Monday, Delta posted a better-than-expected profit of $467 million for the second quarter -- compared with a loss of $257 million in the second quarter of 2009. Delta's revenues rose 19 percent, but Wall.Street.Demands.More.

So shares fell this week. Delta shares closed Friday at $10.53, down from $11.50 at the beginning of the week.


Gunmen Invade Intercontinental Hotel in Rio

[Photos: Left, the Rocinha favela where gunmen were fleeing to when they took refuge in the Intercontinental Hotel, shown after the siege today.]

Armed men believed to be part of a drug gang from a nearby favela, or slum, took refuge in the Intercontinental Hotel in Rio de Janeiro and held 30 hostages till police overwhelmed the gang a few hours later.

According to the AP report: "The upscale, beachside neighborhood where the Intercontinental Hotel is located was transformed into a virtual war zone as the 10 suspects, armed with high-caliber rifles, grenades and pistols, exchanged fire with police in a shootout that killed a bystander as she was getting out of a taxi.

Here's a link via the Huffington Post.

Here's the report -- in Portuguese, though with pictures, in Globo, the Brazilian newspaper.

As always, tourists are advised to exercise care when visiting crime-ridden Rio. Authorities there are working hard to try to combat the crime problem as Rio prepares to host the 2014 World Cup games and the 2016 Olympics.

The Intercontinental, in Sao Conrado, is being widely described in news accounts today as a "luxury" hotel, but I'm not sure it quite fits that description. It's more of a convention hotel.

On the always useful hotel reviews at TripAdvisor.com, it generally gets good reviews but is also described as being less than 5-star in quality. And more than a third of the reviews are not so good. I've always found the bad reviews on TripAdvisor to be more useful than the raves, because some of the raves are suspect. Anyway, some excerpts from TripAdvisor reader-generated reviews of the Rio Intercontinental:

"I cannot recommend this hotel to anyone. The staff is very unfriendly and the rooms are not very good. The view from my hotel room was the only good thing that I can say of this hotel. The hotel is very expensive, so you would expect some quality. Anyway, the hot water was there only occasionally, the room was very simple, the service was non-existing... Also, they try to rip-off your money in every occasion. And the hotel is very far from everything else except for the largest Favela (Rocinha) of Rio. The city is lovely, but I recommend to take another hotel."


"I am an airline pilot primarily flying an international schedule. I spend as many as 180 days in hotels throughout Europe, and Central, South, and North America. I also vacation and cruise in various parts of the world. The Intercontinental is similar in quality to the Sheraton up the street towards Impanema in terms of service, bar, and restaurant amenities. The pool area is nice, but not nearly as nice as the Sheraton. It is situated next to the Fashion Mall, perhaps the most overpriced in all of Rio. Food in the hotel is ridiculous in price. $48R/ US$28 for breakfast. The beach across the street is pretty, but completely unused by the rich clientele that live in the area, as they don’t seem to mingle too well with the massive population of the favela (slum) that hovers over the beach and hotel. You have to go 15 minutes south or 15 minutes north to get to a beach where you would want to spend much time at. There are very few reasonable restaurant options in the immediate area.


"As a member of my company's International Development team, I spend many nights on the road around the world. My stay in this hotel was shockingly bad. Several employees in this hotel have very bad attitudes as reflected in their job performance. It was as if these hotel employees were doing you a favor by helping you! Also, someone in housekeeping stole my credit card numbers while I was downstairs at the gym. I had to file a claim with my credit card companies and have all my cards replaced. The hotel promised to look into this issue and said they would call me back with in one week (this was 3 weeks ago) and still nothing. My very humble opinion is that you are much better off finding another place to stay."


And a French visitor had a veeeery bad impression:

"Chambre petite avec salle de bain sale (paroi de baignoire pleine de moisi!). personnel peu aimable qu'il ne faut surtout pas déranger si on a une question! petit déjeuner assez léger pour un 5étoiles! piscine peu avenante. Internet dans les chambre hors de prix pour une connexion qui ne marche pas! à éviter!!"


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Luxury Hotels in U.S. Continue Rebound; Meanwhile, in Paris, the Grand Hotels Face Great Competition

Somebody's spending money on the road.

The luxury hotel segment reported the largest average-daily-rate (ADR) and revenue-per-available-room (RevPAR) increases among chain hotels in July, according to Smith Travel research. Luxury ADR increased 6.6 percent to $234.48 and RevPAR jumped 14.5 percent to $169.07.

"The U.S. hotel industry’s performance recovery continued very nicely in July," said Mark Lomanno, president of STR. [Overall] "the demand for rooms continued to be well above 2009 levels, and we are finally beginning to see signs of room-rate recovery, especially in the higher end of the market."

New York City, as usual, led the charge in luxury spending increases in the U.S.

And outside the country, among the other major gateway cities, Paris seems to be on a roll.

There's so much new luxury-hotel competition coming online in Paris that the six legacy deluxe hotels, the so-called "palace" properties, are having to spend lots of money on refurbishment and get their acts more together, because of the influx of very aggressive competitors in the highest-end segment.

Those six are Hôtel Le Bristol Paris, Hôtel de Crillon, Four Seasons Hotel George V Paris, Le Meurice, Hôtel Plaza Athénée and the Hôtel Paris Ritz.

Here is a very interesting story today, in HotelNewsNow.com, about the current state of the Paris luxury market, and the way the six venerable grand hotels are scrambling to meet the new competition and stay abreast of some of the high-end luxury properties that have opened in the last 10 years, not least of which is the boutique-like Park Hyatt Paris Vendôme, boldly staked out just around the corner from the Ritz.

(The Park Hyatt Paris Vendôme's general manager, Michel Jauslin, tells HotelNewsNow's Tamara Thiessen: "Since the opening of the hotel, we have never had such high occupancies and average room prices.")

Meanwhile, I love the bold quote in the HotelNewsNow.com article from François Delahaye, director of operations for the Dorchester Collection, which in Paris manages the Plaza Athénée and Le Meurice.

"It is essential to invest and to innovate non-stop," he said. "We are investing huge sums of money. We are not going to just stand by and have our star status stolen from us … We have the most beautiful spa in Paris. The Asians do not have such savoir-faire." His disdain is directed, obviously, at new competition coming to town from the great Asia-based chains such as Shangri-La, Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula.

Uh, François: You wanna make ze bet about zis alleged lack of Asian savoir-faire?


2009 Was A Year to Forget in the Airline Industry, But Fares Are Now Up After Carriers Shrank Seat Supply

How bad was 2009 for the airline industry, which has begun to dig out (at least for now: watch oil prices, though), and which posted generally robust earnings in the second quarter of this year?

Very bad, according to the comprehensive annual report for 2009 released today by the Air Transport Association, the airline trade group.

On the other hand, now that airlines have shrunk supply, in terms of the number of seats in the air, and demand is rising, so are fares. The ATA also reported today that on the top seven U.S. airlines, domestic yields (yields are defined as the price paid to fly one mile, exclusive of taxes and ancillary fees) shot up 14.9 percent in July compared with July 2009. In June, domestic yields were up 17.7 over June 2009).

Some highlights from the ATA's 2009 report (the italics are my annotations):

--Operating revenues for the domestic airline industry dropped 16.9 percent to $155 billion in 2009, marking the deepest two-year contraction in the industry’s history -- and extending industry losses to $58 billion over a nine-year period beginning in 2001. [And yes, you read that right. Airlines in the U.S. have lost $58 billion in the last nine years. It might be useful to factor that in the next time we holler about checked-baggage fees, though do note that Southwest Airlines maintained profitability and does not charge bag fees.]

--Passenger traffic declined by 5.3 percent to the lowest total in five years in 2009. Air cargo traffic decreased 12 percent, the largest year-over-year drop in industry history. [Still, says the ATA, the value of U.S. exports transported by air in 2009 was 145 times the value of exports transported by sea.]

--Domestic seat capacity dropped 7 percent in 2009, the sharpest decline in 67 years. The cuts in 2008 and 2009 effectively erased 10 years of industry growth, leaving domestic seating capacity 1.3 percent below 1999 levels, but helped set the stage for the start of a recovery. [Which is one reason all the planes are full: Airlines have reduced supply while demand has started to rise.]

--Flight operations costs, which constituted 35 percent of industry costs, declined 33 percent on a $26 billion year-over-year drop in fuel expense to $32 billion. The average price paid for a gallon of jet fuel dropped to $1.90 from the 2008 all-time high of $3.07. [But nobody is breathing easy on this count. See above: Watch oil prices]


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

American Airlines Adds Fees for the Slightly Less-Crummy Seats in Coach: The Annotated Version

[Meanwhile, Pentagon announces that any soldier who re-ups for another combat tour gets priority access to bulkhead seating on transport aircraft]

American Airlines said today it would begin charging extra to reserve "choice" coach seats, which I define as the somewhat-less-horrible seats, including those on the aisle toward the front of the plane and the bulkhead seats.

You can read that move several ways. If you're an American Airlines elite status flier, meaning you already supposedly have free dibs on those seats, you can read it that your "status," such as it was, is worth less now. [Ha-ha. Thank you for your loyalty, please understand we need that seat for someone willing to pay extra for it.]

American says that its elite fliers still have dibs on the less-horrible seats. [Especially if they fly full fare coach!] But at the same time, American is selling those seats to anyone who wishes to pay for them. [Guess who's going to really get priority where the rubber meets the road, or the leading-edge meets the wind?].

Still, we are now entering a new era in air travel. And I have news for some who write about travel but seldom actually get on a plane: I will, in fact, pay a reasonable amount for a choice seat, and my definition of "choice" is pretty lax.

The idea that a coach seat on the aisle at the front of the plane isn't worth much to a frequent traveler is silly. My current lowest-level elite status with Continental gives me two dependable, if small, perks: One, I get priority boarding, along with the dozens and dozens of other elite-status passengers lined up at the gate. That means, mostly, I am assured that I can stash my regulation-sized carry-on in a bin that has room for it, a bin roughly in the vicinity of my seat. And two, I usually get to select the seat I want, if not an exit row seat any more (they're selling those).

It means I get to sit where I choose, in the front of coach, on the aisle. In a regional jet, it means I usually get to select a single row seat up front, and not worry about being wedged into a torture device in the back. When my plane lands, I get off quickly. Those in the back do not get off quickly. They stand and stand, shifting against the turgid current flowing toward the unseen exit door up front.

Now, this perk is no longer worth the effort to maintain elite status on Continental and besides, now that I no longer live in New Jersey, where Continental has a major hub at Newark, I tend to fly other airlines more often, especially Southwest (no hassles, no asinine fees, no jive) and US Airways.

I have no status on US Air. Instead, I willingly pay the $15 US Air charges for priority seating. That's the deal I buy into. You pays your money and takes your seat. Fine. Screw elite status. Who needs it?

However, unlike US Air and some others, which have a set price for choice seats, American -- which incidentally was the only domestic airline that did not make a profit in the 2nd quarter of this year -- is selling its "choice" seats in the style of a Final Four scapler. Yet it is announcing this scheme as if it were a major customer service improvement. Airlines, as I have said here repeatedly, are evidently constitutionally unable to simply state facts in a forthright manner.

Here's the American press release today -- as annotated by me in italics:

"FORT WORTH, Texas – American Airlines is introducing Express Seats SM, the newest product offering under its Your ChoiceSM line of products and services that provide customers a way to purchase special services they value. [MY NOTE: What the hell does 'SM' mean? Just a guess: sadomasochist?]

With Express Seats [that is, seats you pay extra for] travelers can purchase seats in the first few rows of Coach, including bulkhead seats in that cabin. Additionally, customers who purchase an Express Seat are able to board with Group 1 of General Boarding for their flight, providing them the convenience of being among the first Coach customers on and off the plane. [And making it even more crowded for elite-status passengers boarding at the same time]

Express Seats are available to all American Airlines customers and can be purchased exclusively via airport Self-Service Check-In machines [did any of these people pay attention to the capitalization part of elementary school grammar?] anytime from 24 hours to 50 minutes prior to scheduled flight departure for travel wholly within the United States, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Introductory pricing [oh God, they're hoping to jack it up even higher if they get away with this] for Express Seats begins at $19 per flight, with pricing based on distance. [The more you pay, the less you get tortured. However, we are not yet charging based on altitude.] Here are some examples of introductory prices for Express Seats on popular American Airlines routes:

--$19 for St. Louis to Chicago O’Hare

--$29 for San Francisco to Dallas/Fort Worth

--$29 for Boston to Chicago O’Hare

--$39 for New York JFK to Los Angeles [that means, add about $80 to the RT coast-to-coast fare]

--$39 for Chicago O’Hare to Honolulu [we're really trying to gin up demand on that sorry route]

"Express Seats highlights American’s focus on offering customers what they value most," said Virasb Vahidi, Chief Commercial Officer for American Airlines. [Wait: Customers "value" paying to avoid crummy seats, is that what you're saying?] "This is another great product under the Your Choice program that puts more travel choices in the customer’s hands." [And more ancillary fee revenue into the airline's mitts]

American still provides travelers with the option to pre-reserve other seats ["pre-reserve" is evidently the new-hype way of saying "reserve," and the reference seems to include the dreaded seats back by the toilets] in the Coach Cabin [that capitalization problem again!] at no charge. [yet] In addition, AAdvantage® elite status members, oneworld® elite status members and customers purchasing full-fare tickets will continue to have exclusive access to preferred seating, separate from Express Seats, on a complimentary basis."



Who Wants to See a Daytime Ballgame in a Roofed Stadium Named After Orange Juice?

When I'm on a business trip, as I was last week in Houston, I try to break away from the grind and find something local to do. In London, it's the theater, if I have the time. I've also been able on short notice to arrange an occasional horseback ride. You can do that even in Los Angeles, where stables in Burbank will put you on a horse and escort you on a blast into the Hollywood Hills. Same in London, where you can rent a horse (the original Hobson's Choice) near Hyde Park, and enjoy a morning ride on the wonderfully named turf promenade called Rotten Row.

And sometimes it's just a baseball game. In Houston last week, I had an afternoon free. I checked the (alarmingly anemic) local paper and saw that the local team was playing a day game. Wonderful! I dislike night baseball and mourn the modern scarcity of day games, which is still another insult to the American culture perpetrated by television.

So on a sunny, hot afternoon -- classic baseball weather -- I walked from my downtown hotel to the ball park. But as I approached the ticket window I looked inside and did not see daylight.

The damn place, which is called Minute Maid Field (a name that would make Babe Ruth weep tears the size of 50-ounce bats), has a retractable roof. And on a sunny summer day, that roof was closed.

"Why do they have the roof shut over the field?" I asked a guy with a kid.

He looked at me oddly. "It's hot and humid," he said as if speaking to a foreign person.

That was it. No baseball for me. I will not watch a live baseball game from inside a building. Baseball, to me, is a game that helps to define summer.

Houston, you are a city of baseball sissies.

But back to Babe Ruth and Minute Maid. Now, as a lifelong baseball fan, I know from asinine names and bad ballparks. I grew up with the Philadelphia Phillies, after all. I was there when the weirdly decrepit but still glorious Connie Mack Stadium (nee Shibe Park) was shut down in favor of a hideous new corporate bowl with plastic grass that the city insisted on calling 'Veterans Stadium," that insistence led by its thuggish mayor, the self-styled tough guy Frank Rizzo, who, incidentally, had mysteriously been discharged from the military as a young man after only a few months in uniform, records subsequently sealed.

Hey, I'm a veteran. But who wants a cheesy ballpark (all-too-readily convertible into a football stadium for the Eagles) named "Veterans Stadium?"

Little did I know how worse this "naming" trend would subsequently get.

Back to my point about taking some time off on a business trip and doing something locally. You have to swallow some pretty awful names of "venues" -- which, of course, is itself another irritating term. (Not to mention "artists" as a reference to singers and guitar players, but I digress.)

There is a story in the Times this morning that starts out being about the renaming of a Times Square "venue," but then segues nicely into a pretty good look at this awful "naming" phenomenon, now obviously losing genes from the pool in the second or third generation.

On Sept. 14, it says, the already annoyingly named Nokia Theater in Times Square will become the Best Buy Theater. (That old vaudeville-era lament, "I coulda played the Palace," sounds a lot less plangent as "I coulda played the Best Buy.")

Anyway, in Houston, what is now called "Minute Maid Field" opened in 2000 as a replacement for that grievous insult to baseball, the Houston Astrodome, ancestral home of plastic grass. Its original name was Enron Field, after the rapacious corporate pillager company Enron, which contracted to spend $200 million (whose money it's hard to say, but my guess is that taxpayers are still on the hook for some) to have the new ballpark named after it. Minute Maid came in after Enron collapsed in ignominy and paid $170 million to name the ballpark for orange juice.

Still, it could be far worse. As corporate titans like Enron lurched off to the tar pits, the penitentiaries or the federal-bailout bread lines, brazen entrepreneurs with even weirder names have arrived.

Here are some distressing examples, from the Times story. In June, the Ford Amphitheater in Tampa became, instead, the 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheater. I am not making this up. People in Tampa who are considering going to a concert now need to say, "Let's see who's at the 1-800-Ask-Gary this weekend."

Outside Denver, the Times says, the former Coors Amphitheater (bad enough, but at least it was named after a beer and, arguably, a beer baron, like venerable Busch Stadium) subsequently became Fiddler's Green Amphitheater (Whoa! Twee alert!) and now is called the Comfort Dental Amphitheater.

This must stop.

So repeat after me: Yankee Stadium. Dodgers Stadium. Wrigley Field. Carnegie Hall. Madison Square Garden. Union Station. Tanglewood. Churchill Downs. The Bonneville Salt Flats. Grand Central Terminal. Times Square, for the sake of God!

If 1-800-Ask-Gary and Comfort Dental are on the move, nothing is sacred.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hotels and Credit-Card Fraud

Your credit card is far more likely to be hacked at a hotel than anywhere else you use it. According to a report in January by Trustway SpiderLabs, 38 percent of the hacking breaches it investigated last year occurred in hotel credit card systems.

That was way more than breaches in other hacker favorites, including retail and restaurants.

The most recent example of hotel hacking, discovered last week, occurred starting in May at the Doherty Hotel, a convention hotel in Clare, Mich. About 150 people have reported that fraudulent charges appeared after they patronized the hotel. A Secret Service spokesman told the Clare Times online (report is here) that the hotel's guest computer system had been identified as the target of the hacking attack.

It is clear that lots of hotels have these issues. It isn't clear exactly how many. But the reports are troubling.

In June, it was reported that Destination Hotels, a chain of 30 luxury hotels, had been the target of what ABC News called "an intense database attack" that compromised at least 700 customer credit cards. Also in June, Wyndham Hotels said that a "sophisticated hacker" had gained access to credit-card data at up to 31 of its hotels between last November and January 23, 2010, when the attack was discovered.

For Wyndham, it was the second time in two years that credit cards had been hacked.

Wyndham and other hotels named in recent reports on the problem have said they are improving their point-of-sale and other credit-card data technology systems in response.

After I wrote about the Wyndham and Destination incidents, I got a lot of calls from national and local radio stations asking me to discuss the issue. Why hotels? they all wanted to know. And what can we do to protect ourselves?

Well, the reason hotels are a good target is that hotels collect a lot of customer data that a hacker can fairly easily access through point-of-sale systems and readily score enough information to be able to steal a credit card's data.

Mainly, this is because individual hotels are often owned by small or regional entrepreneurs -- investors who actually build, develop and own the properties, many of whom have been frantic in recent years as rates and occupancy have plunged. (Big hotel chains like Hilton or Marriott mainly manage the various brands, and charge the actual owners hefty fees for being associated with, and adherent to the standards of, a given brand).

With less money coming in following the Wall Street collapse, after a heady period of the best prosperity in the hotel industry's history, many hotel owners were caught flatfooted. Even while revenue plunged, they had to invest heavily in improving technology in immediate guest-demand things like better Wi-Fi and high-definition TV. At the same time, global hackers discovered that hotel point-of-sale systems were particularly vulnerable. In many instances, hotel owners simply have not yet invested what they need to in making their back-office data-processing technologies more secure against the new breed of hackers.

It often takes a hotel months to even discover that its system has been hacked.

Consumers have a degree of protection in credit-card fraud -- assuming they notify their credit card issuer promptly of a fraudulent charge.

But I've been advising people that it's easy to get blindsided even with this protection. For one thing, frequent travelers often don't carefully review their credit-card purchases on the road and may overlook fraud. For another, we're all now so accustomed to whipping out that credit card for small purchases, even a coffee at Starbucks, that we are more likely to not notice on our credit-card activity-reports the kind of small, frequent illegitimate charges that hackers first start hitting your card with, just to probe it, or in a case of basic hit-and-run.

In the last six months, both my wife and I have had credit cards we use for travel hacked. In both cases, the fraud began with multiple small charges listed as being for numerous Apple iTunes purchases, all in a very short period. In both cases, the fraud totaled over $400 before we contacted our credit card companies. (Neither of us has an Apple iTunes account, incidentally.)

In both cases, the fraudulent charges were removed. However, in both cases, the credit card company canceled our existing cards and issued new ones. With new numbers, of course.

Oops, that led to a problem I hadn't anticipated. Like many people in recent years, especially travelers who are away from home a lot, I tended to put routine household and other bills on credit card "auto-pay." Works beautifully. But when your credit card number changes, those auto-pays suddenly can get rejected if you haven't gone to the trouble of changing them to the new card number. I thought I caught most of them in time, but I overlooked a couple like the water bill. That took more phone calls to fix than I cared to make.

The credit card industry 9to protect itself, not consumers, of course) is now pushing hard for hotels and other businesses to adopt uniform standards for data security. Consumers, meanwhile, need to be simply up to date on issues such as credit card fraud. The Privacy Rights Clearing House has useful information on this.

I spoke recently with one of the leading experts in credit-card fraud, Anthony C. Roman, a private investigator in New York who now specializes in high-tech fraud investigations, but who once worked as a bodyguard for the infamous hotelier Leona Helmsley.

Here's some of what he said about hotels and credit-card hacking:

Hotel credit card point-of-sale systems (which begin at the place where your card is physically swiped through the machine) often offer a hacker the greatest trove of personal data for the least effort, he said. Hackers can work on site, or more often remotely online, using readily available personal information, sometimes culled from customer receipts and bill print-outs.

In the hotel industry, "the collection, storage and transmission of credit-card information is of particular importance," he said.

At many hotels, "upper executive management is developing more secure systems and procedures with regard to personal-data security, including the personal data on the magnetic strip on the back of credit cards, including things like date of birth, Social Security number, home address -- that kind of thing. That stuff is actually on the credit card."

Credit card issuers are trying to crack down harder to comply with standards that encompass "maintaining a secure computer network, which includes the computer network from the POS, point of sale, from the card-swiper through the internal network and terminals at the front desk or in executive or administrative offices. And after that, the broader network between that particular hotel site and the corporation at large all need to be secure," he said, adding:

"The best method to protect the data is by having a POS [point-of-sale] system that uses a transaction code in which the data is immediately encrypted when it hits the machine, and therefore not hackable for most casual hackers. It is, though, still somewhat hackable for the geniuses -- but most hackers are not geniuses or even brilliant. So we're talking about mitigating the vast majority of attacks" with a more secure point-of-sale front-end system that is protected through encryption.

"It’s not a standard created by the hotel, it's a worldwide standard created by the credit card industry," he said. "It requires purchasing not only of software and hardware technology, firewalls, encryption programs, et cetera, it also requires putting in place standardized procedural methods that are administrative in nature." That includes procedures for complex passwords that change at "rate differential periods" so no regular pattern can be discerned, he said.

This means spending more dough, if you're a hotel owner.

Also, he said, "there should be an audit trail to everything, as well as standardized preliminary and ongoing training of staff, and an overall system reflecting when and if privacy-sensitive data is released, to whom, and under what circumstances."

Hotels are by nature customer-service friendly. This builds a weakness into the system. A hacker with one stolen (or otherwise obtained) document, even a discarded bill, can sometimes call a hotel and say he or she needs a new copy of a bill. Hotels tend to comply.

"RevPARS [revenues per available room] are down dramatically as result of the economic turndown," he said. Many hotels "simply don’t have the money, and aren’t making the investment [in better technology security] at this time," he said.

The message hotel owners are hearing from credit card companies and even hotel chain management is this: Find the money and fix your systems. And as these instances of hacking continue, consumers are going to be demanding the same.


T.S.A.=This Stuff's Asinine?

First of all, a correction. The other day I wrote about three Florida kids, aged 15, 13 and 11, who went on a lark and flew, without any I.D.s, to Nashville -- without telling their parents. Without I.D.s.

Made fun of the T.S.A. for that, I did.

Turns out T.S.A. policy allows people under 18 to fly without having identification. Thanks to Joe Brancatelli for reminding me of this policy. Read that again. If you're over 18, you need to have a government-issue ID, which then becomes part of the process of checking to ensure that you are not on a terrorist watch list. Under 18, no prob.

Time and again, we are confronted with T.S.A. security rules that, upon examination, simply don't add up. Here's one example: The 3-ounce liquids/gels carry-on rule goes into effect and after a while it becomes the 3.4-ounce rule.

That's because the T.S.A. decided to change the chemical calculation. Initially, it had been decided that 3 ounces times the number of 3-ounce containers that can be fitted into a zip-locked quart baggie does not add up to a sufficient volume of potential explosives to blow up a plane.

But then it was changed to 3.4 ounces, to conform with European Union standards, 3.4 ounces equaling 100 milliliters. (To be more precise, 100 milliliters equals 3.3813793525499998 fl oz.)

But OK, maybe the chemistry concerning explosives still works (if it ever worked at all, that is) -- but I had to wonder about the abrupt change in formula, evidently for the sake of international comity. Granted, x-amount of volume still has to be contained within a one-quart bag, but as we all know, few screeners still insist on the zip-lock bag, and instead look only at the containers of liquids or gels.

There're also bizarre exceptions in the T.S.A. regs concerning liquids and gels. As noted, the chemistry, as the T.S.A. had laboriously had it analyzed, says that x-amount of liquid or gel is safe and anything above that is not. However, after a furor was raised by lobbies for the disabled and others, exceptions were quickly put in allowing unlimited amounts of gels to be carried on inside things such as medical seat cushions and bras -- either prosthetic or cosmetic.

The science, assuming we are not in Tea Party land here, remains the same.

I'm not arguing here for more hassling of passengers, but just pointing out that some T.S.A. regulations don't stand scrutiny, and that a conclusion that many of them are in fact just "security theater" is hard to avoid. At what age does a passenger become a potential threat? Eighteen, says the T.S.A. Here is the regulation:

Effective June 21, 2008, adult passengers (18 and over) are required to show a U.S. federal or state-issued photo ID that contains the following: name, date of birth, gender, expiration date and a tamper-resistant feature in order to be allowed to go through the checkpoint and onto their flight.

Passengers who do not or cannot present an acceptable ID will have to provide information to the Transportation Security Officer performing Travel Document Checking duties in order to verify their identity. Passengers who are cleared through this process may be subject to additional screening. Passengers whose identity cannot be verified by TSA may not be allowed to enter the screening checkpoint or onto an airplane.

Acceptable IDs include:
Acceptable Documents

Photo of acceptable documents
Click here to view a
full-size version.

* U.S. passport
* U.S. passport card
* DHS "Trusted Traveler" cards (NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)
* U.S. Military ID (active duty or retired military and their dependents, and DOD civilians)
* Permanent Resident Card
* Border Crossing Card
* DHS-designated enhanced driver's license
* Drivers Licenses or other state photo identity cards issued by Department of Motor Vehicles (or equivalent) that meets REAL ID benchmarks (All states are currently in compliance)
* A Native American Tribal Photo ID
* An airline or airport-issued ID (if issued under a TSA-approved security plan)
* A foreign government-issued passport
* Canadian provincial driver's license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) card
* Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC)


Monday, August 16, 2010

Southwest Airlines Weighs Adding Bigger 737s to Fleet, With Implications for New York Service

Southwest Airlines is considering buying Boeing 737-800 model airplanes, which would give the airline the capability of flying more passengers per-plane out of congested airports like New York LaGuardia.

Friday, on its company blog, Nuts About Southwest, Southwest's chief operating officer, Mike VanDeVen, wrote that "Southwest has been evaluating the opportunity to introduce the Boeing 737-800 into our fleet as part of our domestic network, but we have not yet finalized our decision."

Southwest always plays its strategy close to the vest, but if it were to add 737-800s to the fleet that would certainly signal a greater interest in markets like New York City, where Southwest has been only a small player at LaGuardia (where it only began service in late June 2009), and not a player at all at Kennedy or Newark.

For eons, Southwest's brilliant success has been partly attributed to its simple business plan, built around a fleet entirely of 737s flying to and from domestic airports where origin and destination traffic is robust, and where quick aircraft turnaround is possible. Southwest says its current fleet of 541 Boeing 737s each average about 6.5 flights a day, with an average trip length of 633 miles.

VanDeVen addressed that as regards the bigger 737-800s. "While the aircraft introduces additional complexities to our operation, we believe our existing network could be enhanced by converting some of our future 737-700 deliveries to 737-800s. Introducing the -800, which has more seating capacity than the -700, would be a complementary fit to our current fleet by supplementing opportunities for longer-haul flying, while also potentially improving our unit costs. The -800 can also give Southwest scheduling flexibility by allowing for additional capacity in high-demand, slot-controlled, or gate-restricted markets—in other words, we can carry more passengers to some of our most popular destinations."

By the way, "gate-restricted markets" is a real good way to describe New York airports.

If it were to buy Boeing 737-800s, Southwest would likely drop existing orders for Boeing 737-700s. It would also need approval from its pilots and flight attendants unions for the bigger planes.

Of the 541 Boeing 737s now in operation on Southwest, 343 are -700s (137 seats each), 25 are -500s (122 seats) and 173 are -300s (137 seats).

The -800s are basically a stretched version of the -700s, but the extra capacity pushes the plane up into the markets typically served by MD-80s, which most competitors are phasing out.

Southwest would likely configure the -800s in a single class with about 175 seats.

VanDeVen said, "Since the decision to add the -800 has not been finalized, any details regarding configuration, timing, and quantity of deliveries are still to be determined. Given the long Boeing lead time from order to delivery, Southwest would need to make a final decision by December 1 to begin accepting deliveries by early 2012."


Premium Traffic Growth Looks Solid

[Continental's new international BusinessFirst class]

There was a sharp jump of 16.6 percent in June in international premium traffic -- that is, first-class and business class travel. That's according to the International Air Transport Association, and the figure is by comparison with June 2009.

International coach travel was up 9.5 percent in June, IATA says.

Even with the negative effects of the Iceland volcanic ash problem in Europe, premium travel grew 11.9 percent in the first half of this year compared with the first half of 2009. Coach travel was up 6.3 percent.

Still unclear: Premium fares. After almost two years of lower first-class and business-class fares on many key routes, it isn't yet apparent whether the airline industry will be able to regain the kind of pricing power that led to walk-up fares of $11,000 for business class and $16,000 for first-class on routes like New York-London up till the economic collapse. The people in the industry I have been speaking to about this say it's doubtful that those fares (even deducting maybe 40 percent for the very, very highest corporate-volume customers) will ever be sustainable again.

To which I say, yay -- as someone who consistently argues that companies that send employees on long-haul international trips owe those employees a degree of human comfort on those flights. If you can't send 'em business class on flights over 6 hours, don't send 'em, I say. Which makes me highly unpopular with a lot of penny-pinching corporate travel managers.


Harrowing Crash on Colombian Runway

CNN reports:

One passenger was killed when an airplane crashed in bad weather and split into two when landing early Monday on the island of San Andres, Colombia, officials said.

The number of injured remained unclear Monday morning, but the national police said six of at least 127 people aboard the plane were not hurt.

The Colombian national police initially said the flight had 131 people -- 121 adult passengers, four minors and six crew members. A list the police later released, however, indicated 127 people on board -- 121 passengers and six crew members.

I'm linking to CNN here because the other early reports all gush on about how it was a "miracle," rather than a fluke, that so many people survived. Been there, done that. It wasn't a miracle for anyone who died, as I have had the occasion to point out previously.

[UPDATE: This, via e-mail from AccuWeather, based in State College, Pa: AccuWeather.com reports lightning is believed to be a factor in a Colombian plane crash that killed at least one person early Monday morning.

AccuWeather.com senior meteorologist Henry Margusity said it appears that the pilot was attempting to land during a severe thunderstorm.

AccuWeather.com meteorologists found evidence of multiple lightning strikes all around the island, including one strike that occurred at 1:42 a.m. local time, which Margusity said could be the strike that contributed to the crash.

Margusity said that the strike that occurred at 1:42 a.m. hit the eastern side of the runway.

Generally, planes are protected from lightning strikes, which is why Margusity believes other weather factors, including wind shear and poor visibility caused by rain could also be contributing factors in the crash."]


Friday, August 13, 2010

Tarmac Strandings? What Tarmac Strandings?

[Chart: Speednews.com]

Some apologists for the airline industry have been scoffing at the idea that Kate Hanni's and others' activism on behalf of stranded passengers has caused the rather abrupt decline in such incidents since the Transportation Department instituted severe penalties in April.

The evidence is pretty persuasive that the problem -- passengers stuck for three hours or more (sometimes 12 hours) on planes stranded on tarmacs -- has almost disappeared. Maybe it's a ... coincidence that the numbers dropped so sharply after the Transportation Department rule, fining airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for such strandings -- took effect on April 29.

In June, U.S. airlines recorded only three tarmac delays in excess of three hours, compared with 268 in June 2009 -- with no increase in the rate of canceled flights, the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics says.


Why the 'Terror Babies' Will Win: TSA Fails to ID 3 Kids Flying On Nashville Lark

Some media think it's amusing that three Florida kids, ages 15, 13 and 11, gathered up $700 in what one later described as "baby-sitting money," and got on a plane and flew from Jacksonville to Nashville without having any identification among them. Or without having informed their parents.

And here I thought the fear of "terror babies" was just another paranoid delusion of some loons in Congress.

"I just wanted to fly," said 15-year-old Bridget Brown. "I had the money." Yep, if not the common sense of a beanbag. But hey, who expects common sense from a 15-year-old? Here's a story about it.

Southwest Airlines is taking a media pasting for letting them on board, but my concern is, of course, the TSA. The kids had no ID's. Somehow they sailed through security and flew.

Ha-ha. ... I guess.


Hotel Rebound Continues As Meetings Pick Up

The rebound in the U.S. hotel industry continued in the first week of August, meaning hoteliers are breathing easier but, for travelers, room rates are rising.

Smith Travel Research says that for the week of Aug. 1-7, occupancy increased 6.7 percent, average daily room rates increased 1.6 percent and revenue per available room -- the key metric, called RevPAR -- increased 8.4 percent. This is against data from the comparable week last summer.

Part of the rebound is being driven by an increase in company and other group meetings, said Steve Hood, senior vice president at Smith Travel. He added, "Oahu Island, Hawaii; Houston; Anaheim-Santa Ana, Calif.; Seattle and San Diego were among the markets to report big bumps in group occupancy for the week, due to an increase in convention-conference activity."

All top 25 markets reported occupancy and RevPAR increases for the week.

Detroit had the largest occupancy increase, rising 26.1 percent to 69.1 percent. [UPDATE: Detroit? Turns out the Detroit economy is doing very well, see this in the New York Times.]

Three other top markets posted occupancy increases of more than 15 percent: Norfolk-Virginia Beach, Virginia (+17.0 percent to 87.5 percent); Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida (+15.6 percent to 62.4 percent); and Chicago +15.5 percent to 78.9 percent). San Francisco/San Mateo (+0.3 percent to 91.1 percent), and Orlando (+0.2 percent to 68.4 percent) ended the week virtually flat in occupancy.

New York City hotels reported the only double-digit increase in average daily rates, up 12.4 percent to $215.63.

[New York is thriving as a tourist spot. NYC & Company, the New York tourism agency, said separately today that the city had about 23.5 million visitors in the first half of this year, an 8.75 percent increase over the same period in 2009. New York City remains on course to have approximately 47.5 million visitors by the end of 2010 – a 4.2 percent increase over 2009, and a new record, the agency said.]

In the Smith Travel Research report, meanwhile, the New York City average daily rate increase was followed by Boston (+6.6 percent to $137.34), and San Francisco/San Mateo (+6.5 percent to $143.51). Nashville reported the largest average daily rate drop, falling 5.3 percent to $80.45.


Heads-Up On Strike Threat At Heathrow and Other UK Airports

I am weary, and wary, of saber-rattling statements by British unions threatening strikes they don't have the ability to really pull off. But just in case, here's a heads-up on a strike threatened at Heathrow and 5 other British airports as early as next week.

It involves unions working at BAA, the Spanish company that operates many UK airports. The two big unions, Unite and Prospect (when did unions start adopting names that sound like consumer-hygiene products?) are planning talks with BAA officials to avert what they say could be a strike that would shut down Heathrow, Stansted, Southampton, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. The unions represent airport staff, firefighters and security workers.

Here's the story in the Guardian. If you're planning travel through Heathrow or those other airports next week, you might want to stay in touch with this situation.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

BBC Starts Online Travel News Site

It's no secret that I dislike most mainline travel writing as precious, formulaic, boring, repetitive, pointless and, worse, devoid of humor and a sense of the absurd that is built into many trips (come on, Sharkey, tell us what you really think!). This, by the way, is how I introduce myself to students in an online travel-writing class that I am routinely a guest editor on. Trust me, the students get it.

So I'm glad to say (and hope) that a new approach could be on the way. BBC.com today launched its new travel site in partnership with Lonely Planet. BBC.com/travel is the first in a series of factual and lifestyle sites, announced last month alongside BBC.com’s new U.S. edition.

[I had a quick look this morning, and will evaluate further once I get organized, having just returned from a four-day trip to the National Business Travel Association convention in Houston, a city that has a major league baseball stadium with a roof they close during summer day-games, which strikes me as sissy-baseball). Anyway, I should say that the first thing that caught my eye on the new BBC site was a reference to Las Vegas, one of my absolutely favorite cities, as "Sin City." Come on, BBC -- nobody has used that creaky term (except the usual travel writers) since Johnny Carson in the 90s.]

The editorial director of BBC.com/travel is David G. Allan, formerly NYTimes.com Travel & Styles Editor. Emirates, one of the real class acts in travel supply, is one of the key initial sponsors.

In a statement, Miranda Cresswell, a senior vice president of BBC.com. says: "We know the people who come to BBC.com are curious about the world and look to us to feed that curiosity. BBC Travel will deliver insight, know-how and adventure that connects you to the world. With first person accounts from on the road we will dig into local culture, history and architecture."

David G. Allan: "Our audience already loves the smart, sophisticated and well researched stories from the BBC. BBC Travel builds on our news and documentary heritage with outstanding travel journalism, and key insights from Lonely Planet’s authors, to inspire you to leave your desk and have an adventure whatever the destination."

I'll follow this with some interest, hoping the delivery is there. And hey, guys, maybe you'll lose the "Sin City" tropes and even generate a few laughs along the way? Travel is many things, but even in the grimmest of times (as Mr. Chaucer, to invoke one noted travel writer, knew), it's got an element of humor.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Delta Plans $1.4B Terminal Expansion at JFK

Delta Air Lines said today it's expanding its Terminal 4 at Kennedy international Airport, with work starting in September.

Said the CEO, Richard Anderson: "Following a multi-year effort, we are very pleased to have reached a decision with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, JFKIAT and Schiphol USA."

Schiphol, a Dutch company that operates Amsterdam's much-admired Schiphol Airport, manages Terminal 4 through a U.S. subsidiary.

The usual gasbag politicians made speeches at the airport today, and I shall spare you this. Suffice to say they think the move is swell, and would not have happened without their genius.

Delta now operates predominantly out of Terminal 2 for domestic flights and Terminal 3 for international flights at JFK. The expansion of Terminal 4 will replace the outdated Terminal 3 facilities for the 11 million passengers who fly Delta at JFK annually. Delta said that customers will experience an improvement in operational performance through dual taxiways, resulting in reduced taxi times and better on-time performance. Delta is also upgrading its inter-terminal passenger connectors between Terminals 2 and 4 for faster transit between the facilities.

Construction is scheduled to begin in September 2010, with anticipated completion of phase one and relocation of Delta's Terminal 3 operations to Terminal 4 in May 2013. Delta's JFK terminal project includes the expansion of Concourse B at Terminal 4, with nine new international gates; the construction of a passenger connector between Terminal 2 and Terminal 4; expanded areas for baggage claim, Customs and Border Protection; and the demolition of Terminal 3 in May 2015. The Terminal 3 site will then be used for aircraft parking.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Free Speech Act, Protecting Americans Against Frivolous Foreign Libel Suits, Becomes Law

[Photo: President Obama signs the SPEECH Act into law. Right is Rep. Steve Cohen, the author of the final version of the bill that passed unanimously in both the House and Senate]

I am very happy to share this e-mail today from Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, the driving force behind the SPEECH Act, which President Obama signed into law today.

Great news! I am delighted to inform you that the SPEECH Act (Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage) - a law which I have initiated promoted over the last two years - was signed into law today by the President.

This new law will uphold First Amendment protections for American free expression by guarding American authors and publishers from the enforcement of frivolous foreign libel suits, filed in countries that do not have our strong free speech protections.

No longer will libel tourists be able to suppress the rights of American scholars, writers and journalists to speak, write and publish freely in print and on the Internet.

* The SPEECH Act is of monumental importance to national security and the protection of free speech.
* The SPEECH Act allows Americans to expose the enemies of freedom and democracy without fear of foreign intimidation.
* The SPEECH Act protects all Americans in the manner that the First Amendment was designed to guarantee.

Congratulations and thank you to all of the legislatures, their staffs, and the many individuals and organizations that helped with this historic legislation."

Rachel Ehrenfeld, Ph.D.
American Center for Democracy

To which I will only add: Hear, hear!


And here's the press release from the office of Rep. Steve Cohen, the author of the House bill that eventually was adopted as the final version of the law, and passed unanimously in the House and Senate within recent weeks:

Aug 10,2010 - WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Obama today signed into law legislation Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-9) authored – the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage (SPEECH) Act – to protect American authors, journalists and publishers from foreign defamation judgments that undermine the First Amendment and American due process standards.

“Libel tourism threatens to undermine free speech in the U.S. because, with the rise of the Internet and foreign courts’ liberal exercise of personal jurisdiction over Americans, foreign defamation law that lacks the constitutionally mandated speech-protective features of U.S. law can be applied to publications that are substantially or entirely distributed in the U.S.,” said Congressman Cohen, who attended the bill signing at the White House. “Our First Amendment rights are among the most fundamental principles laid out in the Constitution. It is vital we ensure that these rights are never undermined by foreign judgments. I appreciate Senators Leahy and Sessions helping guide this bill through Congress to become law.”

Congressman Cohen recently spoke on the House floor about his legislation. Click here to see his remarks.

“Libel tourism” refers to forum shopping by defamation plaintiffs seeking to exploit plaintiff-friendly defamation laws in foreign countries in an attempt to silence or intimidate American journalists, authors and publishers. The issue of libel tourism came to the forefront as a result of the case of Ehrenfeld v. bin Mahfouz, which involved a U.S. author who was sued for libel in England by a Saudi billionaire.

The author, Rachel Ehrenfeld, was unsuccessful in her effort to have an English default judgment against her declared unenforceable in the U.S. This prompted the New York State Legislature to enact legislation – the first of its kind in the U.S. – prohibiting enforcement of a foreign libel judgment unless a court in New York determines that it satisfies the free speech and press protections guaranteed by the U.S. and New York State constitutions.

Last year Congressman Cohen – who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law – chaired a hearing where Dr. Ehrenfeld testified. The Congressman’s legislation passed the House of Representatives last year and was modified by the Senate and approved in July. The Senate sponsors of the measure are Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy and Ranking Member Jeff Sessions.

The measure is supported by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Vermont Library Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the American Civil Liberties Union, renowned First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, James Woolsey.


Monday, August 09, 2010

Comparing Hotels Before You Book: I Need a Cup of Damn Coffee Before 7 a.m., Dammit!

I'm currently on a business trip in a hotel in downtown Houston that's certainly comfortable enough, an old urban hotel whose rooms have had a very nice modern upgrade.

I booked it because there's a convention in town, but the big hotels closest to the convention center -- you know, the ones with a pulse of life in them? -- were full.

Still, I wish I'd known that this hotel was located in the forlorn-at-night, evidently reluctant-to-greet-the-workday so-called theater district. I wish I had known that its restaurant was pricey, depressingly empty at night, and evidently disinclined to open before noon, and, as I write this at 6.51 a.m. Houston time, having been up for over an hour, that its room service doesn't open till 7 a.m.

(I mean, really -- people these days are up and about early, and I need a pot of coffee, and there is nothing in this post-apocalyptic, empty, hellish part of town but massive dark buildings that don't even have any lights on, dammit!)

So, to settle down now, a little coffee would be nice. And maybe some protein of some sort. And, oh, throw in the morning Times. Is that too much to ask? Before 7 a.m. -- or 7-damn-30 a.m., when they finally might get the coffee to my room?

Wish I'd known before I booked that the hotel was cemented into a world of empty.

Anyway, more and more of us know how valuable it is to cross-check hotels and have some idea of exactly where they might be before we decide to book them, and Orbitz.com today has announced what looks to me to be a very useful set of features:

The new Orbitz features include:

--Side-by-side comparison of hotel details

--Expandable, interactive maps showing both hotel location and real-time room rate pricing

--Google Street View showing the hotel and its surrounding neighborhood

--Filters and sort options based on price, star-rating, review score and amenities

--Unfiltered reviews from verified customers, photos, videos and virtual tours


Air Traffic Off in 2009

The Airports Council International released its final report on air travel in 2009, and it shows a drop of 5.2 percent in North American air travel. Of course, part of the reason for that is the recession, and a corresponding part is the shrinking of seating capacity by U.S. airlines as they try to cut supply to the point where it's blow demand, hoping to raise fares even more than they have so far this year.

Anyway, here is the ACI report:

"ACI’s World Airport Traffic Report for 2009 – the most comprehensive source of global airport traffic data available on the market – is based on traffic data from over 1350 airports. The introductory commentary focuses on trends at global and regional level.

--Worldwide airport passenger numbers dropped by 1.8% in 2009 to 4.796 billion, from a high of 4.882 billion in 2008.

--Middle East (+7.7%), Asia-Pacific (+4.9%) and Latin America-Caribbean (+1.5%) maintained growth.

--Europe and North America registered significant decreases of 5.4% and 5.2% respectively, followed by Africa (-0.6%)

--Worldwide domestic traffic was flat (-0.2%) while international traffic dropped 3.9%

--Worldwide aircraft movements decreased by 5.1% to 74.1 million

--Total cargo volumes handled by airports fell by 7.9% to 79.8 million tons

--38% of airports worldwide registered passenger growth, at an average of 10.2%. The gaining airports represent 31.7% of worldwide traffic

--62% of airports worldwide lost traffic, at an average rate of 6.5% representing 68.3% of global passengers

--Two thirds of airports with over 5 million passengers (147) lost traffic in 2009 at an average rate of -5.6%

During the first half of 2009, following a weak last quarter in 2008, overall traffic continued to drop rapidly due to the impact of deepening economic uncertainty, falling industrial production and falling GDP. Exceptional factors such as the H1N1 influenza virus pandemic had an adverse impact on traffic in May and June, reaching beyond the borders of Latin America to North America, Asia Pacific and Europe

The mid-year months traffic losses slowed and even stabilized in a few key developing markets. Domestic traffic in emerging markets reported new expansion, not just a positive comparison to past poor performance, in part thanks to government stimulus packages that were boosting industrial output and economic stability. China, Brazil and India were leaders in this trend. As is often the case, domestic traffic is a precursor of returning international traffic and that is what we saw in the third quarter, with general improvements in almost all markets.

Thus despite the losses in the first term, renewed passenger traffic growth resulted in an average decline of 1.8 percent for the full year. At the same time, the 5.1 percent drop in aircraft movements indicates the extent to which airlines dropped routes and trimmed excessive capacity in an effort to stabilize their service offerings.

Cargo fared less well in 2009, with steepest losses reported in the first months of the year related to global economic contraction. Despite the reversal of that trend later in the year, cargo traffic for the year dropped by an average of 7.9 percent relative to 2008. ...

Passenger movement by region highlights a clear disparity between two groupings: growing traffic in Asia-Pacific, Latin America-Caribbean, and Middle East on the one hand, and losses in the African, European and North American markets on the other. While the Middle East continued to gain market share in the international sector throughout the year, Asia-Pacific and Latin America-Caribbean were cushioned by robust demand for domestic air travel.

Traffic drops in the first quarter were the deepest in Europe and North America, where the recovery trajectory was shallow showing patchy growth in the fourth quarter. Africa experienced a smaller drop in traffic with stronger recovery signs. Latin America-Caribbean struggled with the fallout of the H1N1 outbreak over the summer which hampered underlying stronger growth, while Asia-Pacific emerged definitively from the crisis in the second half of the year."


Top 10 Airports in Passenger traffic
(Note: This list does not differentiate between connecting flights and origination and destination flights)

1. ATLANTA (ATL) ... 88 million

2. LONDON (LHR) ... 66 million

3. BEIJING ... 65.4 million (up 16.9 percent over '08)

4. CHICAGO (ORD) ... 64.2 million

5. TOKYO (HND) ... 61.9 million

6. PARIS (CDG) ... 57.9 MILLION


8. DALLAS/FORT WORTH (DFW) ... 56 million

9. FRANKFURT (FRA) ... 50.9 million

10. DENVER (DEN) ... 50.2 million

(Note: The New York market is divided mostly among three airports, JFK, Newark and Laguardia. JFK was 12th in passenger traffic at 45.9 million)