web Musings of The Global Traveller

Monday, November 24, 2008

UK tax to increase significantly

UK air passenger duty (APD), the tax on passengers who fly from UK or stopover in UK, is to increase significantly from 1 November 2009 with a further large increase in 2010.

The current APD is £10/20 for intra-Europe and £40/80 for inter-continental. The first figure refers to the lowest cabin on the aircraft and the latter figure for all other classes of travel.

The rate of APD from 1 November 2009 will be distance based, and depend on the distance between London and the capital city of each country (except Russia east of the Urals has a different calculation). The new rates will vary from £11/22 for shorthaul up to £55/110 for long haul.

Other than a couple of destinations in northern Africa, every APD will go up to a varying extent, with the biggest increases (whether measured by £ or %) for longhaul. APD for business class only airlines will change from the lower rate to the higher rate.

In 2010 the APD goes up by more, with rates varying from £12/24 for shorthaul up to £85/170 for longhaul. Ouch.

The new tax has a longer lead in time than in the past. The last change in APD gave only 2 months notice and caused significant problems for airlines. This time we get over 11 months notice. Airlines should make the changes to their systems fairly quickly so as not to be out of pocket and minimise the disruption at check-in. Those who book now, until the system changes are made, for travel after 1 November may be hit up at check in to pay the tax shortfall.

As with the current system, the calculation is based on ultimate destination not necessarily the destination of the first flight. So you can't reduce the taxes by flying from UK to far-flung destinations via Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam - unless you break the travel into 2 or more tickets.

For those interested in the detail, check out the UK pre-budget report sub-section on APD.

With the airline and tourism industries in crisis mode, and a major downturn in financial services (business travel is a very significant source of revenue for airlines flying from or to UK due to the size of the London financial centre), it seems an odd time to be socking the travelling public.

On pages 18-21 of the main pre-budget report press release, further taxes for travellers are signalled with the intention for aviation to be included in EU emissions trading scheme from 2012.

Fun charity travel event - global scavenger hunt

I came across Global Scavenger Hunt a few years ago and thought it was a neat concept. They are seeking applications for the 2009 race to be held in April and May across 10 countries and 4 continents.

If I didn't already have plans I would be tempted as it sounds like a lot of fun.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The importance of checking accounts and itineraries regularly

I was reminded this week why it is important to check accounts and itineraries regularly.

Rules change, miles expire

I logged into an account for the first time in a year to check an upcoming booking. It was for a frequent flyer program (FFP) which I have no status and only use infrequently. Nonetheless I have a decent amount of miles accumulated - enough for a business class award or some upgrades to business or first class. I was startled into action by noticing a good chunk of the miles were about to expire.

In the time since I'd earned the miles, the expiry rules had changed for this FFP to something different and more harsh than many other FFPs. So I wasn't expecting any upcoming mileage expiry issues. I'm sure the FFP did let me know of the change in rules, but since this particular one is perhaps my tenth most used FFP I had put it out of my mind.

In the short time until the miles expire I have a lot of travel already booked, but of course you can book now for flights later than the expiry date*. So after some thought I have booked a business class award that represents about the best value I can for the miles that would otherwise have expired. If I'd realised earlier I could have gotten a much better value from them, but at least I'm still getting reasonable value and not nil (if they expired).

*There is, however, a trap for the unwary in booking future travel before the miles expire, where the date of the flights is after the expiry date. If the award is unticketed at expiry date then you'll lose the miles. If the upgrade is unconfirmed, on some programs the request will still be honoured (subject to availability) as the miles/vouchers are deducted at time of making the request. However, on some programs an unconfirmed upgrade request is lost at date of expiry as the miles/vouchers are not deducted until the upgrade is confirmed.

Lesson learned : keep up to date with program changes, and log into even the minor accounts at least a couple of times a year (I plan to do this when daylight saving changes to make it easier to remember).

Hotel stay or flight cancelled without notification

Earlier I blogged about a Lufthansa flight which had been cancelled without notifying me. The same thing can happen with hotel stays. I had a stay booked at a newly opening hotel, for which I had a confirmed reservation. I appreciate hotel opening dates are vague, but I waited until only a couple of months before the supposed date and booked my stay which was several weeks later. Unfortunately while checking if I could replace my eye-wateringly high paid rate (booked fully flexible of course) with an award I discovered my booking had been cancelled. Further investigation revealed the hotel had significantly deferred their opening date.

In many places and times of year, this would be of minor annoyance and no concern. Unfortunately this was for peak season and almost every hotel I checked was either completely sold out or had a six or seven day minimum stay requirement! Ouch.

Through stunning good luck I have found another hotel that accepted the one-night stay I need, so I have avoided the potential need to sleep at an airport. I am very glad I spotted the issue now and not be facing a building site instead of reception, and stuck for options in a place I haven't been to, is difficult to get around, and is sold out almost everywhere.

Lesson learned : check upcoming reservations (flights and hotel stays) earlier than my usual check just days before a trip.

Schedule changes

I had a message from an airline about an upcoming booking. As they didn't say which booking, I checked all my bookings for upcoming trips with this airline (about a dozen tickets) and found schedule changes for half of them on all sorts of different routes.

Lesson learned : make sure programs have my contact details, and check all reservations rather than assuming there is only an issue with one.

Involuntarily downgraded

Also this week (it has been an odd week for me for travel-related things), I found out through checking some bookings that several upcoming flights on LAN have been downgraded to economy from business class as a result of changes in the marketing of their intra-South America flights. So far I haven't been able to make contact with them to resolve. I don't expect I'll have much option, as my schedule is so tight I cannot fly another airline, but at least I'd like to be seated in premium economy and have a partial refund of the fares paid for the loss of amenity. These resolutions can be difficult to achieve if left until at the airport - premium economy may be full, check in will have no authority and ticket desk may or may not but will certainly require time (which given tight connections and schedules is something I will be lacking in).

Lesson learned : try to build in more flexibility into my schedule.

Monday, October 13, 2008

New Qantas First Class (A380)

I blogged previously that I'd been invited* by Qantas on a promotional A380 flight before scheduled service begins. What I didn't dare hope for, though, was that I'd be seated in their new first class for the flight. Woohoo.


I'd seen the publicity materials from Qantas when the new product was launched, and had been underwhelmed. Perhaps it was because Emirates and Singapore Airlines had both taken the opportunity to add fantastic new first class products on their A380s that expectations were too high.

Having sat in the seat for a couple of hours I think the pictures do not do it justice. For sure it is not as good as the top notch suites, but it is much better than the current Qantas First Class. I'd rank the new first class upper quartile rather than leading.

The cabin most definitely family unfriendly - you cannot easily see a small child in another seat, and also cannot reach across to refasten belts. While not enclosed ala Emirates or Singapore Airlines, there is a reasonable amount of privacy at least while seated or laying down. Stand up and you can see all.

I've posted a full review on Flyer Talk.

Here are a few snippets.

... overall the cabin is of airiness.

The seat faces forward for take-off and landing. There is limited legroom but with plenty of knee room in this position. Other than take-off and landing, there does not seem much point in the forward-facing position. All the other features of the seat are best used when the seat is swivelled.

There are plenty of places to put little things, but only 1 spot to put a laptop bag or similar - under the ottoman. There are two swivel triangular drawers under the small shelf at far right. A couple of cubbies up against the seat when swiveled. The lower one of these is partially blocked when in bed mode, but as a secure place to put things while sleeping it is inferior to BA first and business, or NZ business, for example.

The main table is inbetween the cubbies and the shelf and well positioned for eating alone or with someone else at the ottoman. The table however is not as large as NZ or CX business class, so it will be cosy for two.

There is a recessed drink/glass holder in the shelf, and also behind the head when in bed mode. Good for putting a water bottle in, but watch out if resting a glass on the shelf!

There is a pop-out coat hook to hang your jacket when you first arrive while waiting to hand it to an attendant, or on landing after being handed it back. There is also a hook on the seat wall to hang the headphones so you don't need to stuff them into a cubby or have them loose on the tray table or shelf.

In swivel mode there is decent legroom regardless of how far reclined the seat is. In bed mode the length is reasonable, the bed is flat (arm rests drop to lie fairly flush) and reasonably comfortable.

The master controller is wall mounted, and can also be lifted out of its socket. It reminds me of the one Emirates has in first class on A345 aircraft. The controller operates IFE, seat positions, blinds, lights, privacy screen, etc. It is touch screen, but also has buttons for preset seat positions, overhead lights and a crew call button. There are 7 different directions the seat can be adjusted (including massage functions), and 5 preset seating positions.

* The invite was offered due to my frequent flyer status, not for any publicity in this blog or elsewhere.

The Qantas A380 also has a new IFE system, which appears to be much better than the existing system. More on this later.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


I've gotten my passport back with the necessary visas (I think) for my upcoming trips. A few places I can get a visa on arrival, and there are a couple of places where it is not clear if I need a visa or not due to poor wording. Even the visa experts I use were baffled. Hopefully it works out okay, and if not I can talk my way out of the problem.

The passport came back in good time, for I have been invited by Qantas to a promotional A380 flight. Despite being domestic only (sadly), the function will be held in the international terminal. I'm looking forward to it.

The new US visa (waiver) program ESTA, which comes in mid January is now up and running - you can pre-register now at the website. I've managed to avoid USA on the first few trips for 2009, in part to avoid problems with the new system. However, I've realised I should still sign up by the end of this year, because in the event of irregular operations on my flights from South America to Australia I may get rerouted via USA. It would be very annoying to be denied the option merely because I failed to register.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Free Accor status

Accor is rolling out a new hotel stay program called APlus. It seems they are giving status of various levels to those who already have Accor Advantage Plus or Sofitel Privilege membership.

I have gotten free mid-level status with APlus, plus some bonus points thrown in towards requalifying.

A while back when I expected to stay at a Sofitel I signed up for the Sofitel Privilege program. This was free to join, and had a benefit of late check-out which I was after. As it happened I had to cancel my booking when an airline schedule changed, so I have no status or points with Sofitel currently.

I received an email offering to give me APlus Gold status for 1 year. You have to sign-up as if a new member. On the first page, enter promotional code "BONUS500" for 500 free points. These have already been credited for me, and they count towards requalification. On the second page there is a box to enter your old Accor or Sofitel numbers to link up with the status offer.

Voila! For 2 minutes work I will have (once they match up the membership numbers) mid-level status in APlus. Benefits include

  • 75% bonus points
  • a welcome drink and gift
  • room upgrade at check-in (subject to availability)
  • 4pm check-out

The emails to existing Accor and Sofitel members seem to have been slow to be sent - some received theirs several days ago. So be patient if you haven't yet received it. If you are an Accor or Sofitel member and don't receive the email by mid-October, I'd try signing up anyway at the AClub website.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Any seat awards

This year it seems to be the fashionable thing for Frequent Flyer Programs (FFPs) to add a new award category for any seat awards.

Yesterday, Singapore Airlines announced Full Awards. Perhaps so-named because you need to have a full mileage account to make use of them? Unlike any seat awards at other FFPs, Kris Flyer (the FFP of Singapore Airlines) blocks some seats - namely the A380 First Suite. All other seats appear to be available, but at a hefty cost. For example Australia to Europe round trip in first class (not A380) is 1,558,000 miles.

Any seat awards work slightly differently at other FFPs. Here is a summary.

  • Singapore Airlines - fixed cost up to 1,558,000 and exclude A380 First Suites, taxes charged separately, excludes Silkair (a subsidiary airline)
  • Qantas - variable cost (explicitly based on fare @ A1c per point) and some over 2,000,000 have been reported, include all seats, taxes optionally included (at extra cost) or charged separately
  • Virgin Blue - all awards on Virgin Blue are any seat, variable cost (loosely based on fare), include all seats
  • Air New Zealand - most awards solely on Air NZ are any seat (exception is business class awards for elites at limited availability), variable cost (based on fare @ NZ$1 per airpoint dollar), include all seats, taxes included for domestic itineraries and charged separately for international itineraries
  • various US-based FFPs - standard awards at double the cost of saver awards (ie fixed cost)

With most US-based airlines hurting financially, how long will it be before their any seat awards change to high variable mileage costs?

Monday, September 01, 2008

I'm ungrateful for extra space in economy?

Air New Zealand has been improving their economy class on some aircraft types.

First to be improved was the 737 used on major domestic routes. The first several rows have been designated as Space+ with a few extra (valuable) inches of seat pitch. Space+ is not treated as a separate cabin but rather like United Airlines' economy plus it is available for free to those with status or Koru Club membership (unlike United this includes Star Alliance gold members), and also available to those on full fares. All 737's have now been fitted with Space+ seating.

Next up is the 767 used on shorthaul and secondary longhaul international routes, and the A320 used on shorthaul international routes and the odd domestic positioning flight in place of 737. Again, the front of economy is being converted to Space+. I flew the first 767 to be converted the other day and I sure appreciated the spacious legroom. The other major change on 767 and A320 aircraft is they are getting new in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems. Not only does every seat get a personal TV screen with audio-video on demand (AVOD) but USB devices and ipods can connect to it.

Further, Air NZ has started gate to gate IFE on all international aircraft that are fitted with avod. The IFE system is switched on when boarding begins and switched off on arrival back at the gate. On long flights this may not make much difference, but for short 3 hour hops this adds about 40% more viewing time (games are switched off for takeoff and landing). I've experienced this a few times in the 747 and 777 aircraft and it has made a big difference on short flights in particular. No more carefully picking short movies to watch. Unfortunately on my flight on the improved 767 the IFE system still had gremlins and we didn't have any IFE at all. (NZ made up for it with a voucher in compensation.)

Short flights on 747 and 777 aircraft are also having a further change. From December premium economy will not be sold and instead premium economy will be used as the Space+ zone.

It all sounds very good, and it is. These are some of the most comfortable economy products anywhere.

Why am I ungrateful then? It has dawned on me that I can get a much better seat on a 45 minute domestic flight or 3 hour international flight, at much lower cost, than on the long 10-14 hour longhaul flights which cost so much more. It is a bit back to front - normally the best product is saved for the longest, most high yielding routes. The optimist in me hopes that Air NZ is working on the problem and will have some improvements to announce soon for longhaul passengers.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fly every domestic route

Earlier this week I blogged about some crazy travel goals I have, one of which was to fly every domestic route of the 3 main airlines in a country. I've mapped the routes below (as straight lines rather than attempting to plot flight paths). Even omitting several other domestic routes flown on other airlines, it covers a reasonable proportion of the country from the air. For those who follow my blog in a reader, here is a direct link to the map.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Changes to visa rules (2)

Yesterday I blogged about some changes to China visa rules as advised by The Practical Nomad. His response follows.

I wrote that *I* had never been asked this question before, which is

I'm very much aware that the USA routinely asks all arriving foreigners
whether they have any criminal record, ever, anywhere, and has done so for

But US authorities don't ask this question of US citizens entering the US.
Since I'm a US citizen, I have never been asked this question entering the
US. (US citizens don't have to complete the green I-94 form shown in your

And I had never been asked this in any of the other countries I had
visited, or on prior visits to China (as a foreigner, travelling on a US

Edward Hasbrouck

The Practical Nomad

Fair enough. I have come across a few odd questions on immigration and customs forms over the years - some simply lost in translation, but others are more intrusive.

One thing I have found curious is that some countries require every single box to be filled in (eg visiting USA an address must be given even if only in international transit), while others (eg Australia) have some boxes that are optional and the voluntary nature is not even mentioned on the form in some cases.

On the subject of immigration and forms, look out for an upcoming blog entry about changes for USA visa waiver visitors (ESTA).

Crazy travel idea

Some people know I've been working on a crazy travel idea (okay more than one but I'm only sharing a few ideas today) the past few years.

Flying to every current destination of a major airline.
I first achieved last year and have maintained with 2 additional destinations this year - all 52 destinations flown to on the airline.

Flying every current domestic route of each of the 3 main airlines in a country.
I achieved this earlier in the month - all 62 combinations of route and airline.

Flying on every current route of a major airline.
I'm not there yet, the airline has 107 current routes, but I'm getting closer. Scheduling these around other commitments has proved to be quite a challenge for me.

I thought I was very close to finishing the last one, until someone pointed out I'd overlooked a summer-only seasonal route. So I still have 5 routes to fly at time of writing, not the 4 I thought I had.

Oh yes, I truly love to travel and am always thinking about more travel ahead.

I'm not the only person to have crazy travel ideas. Someone with a more inspirational crazy travel idea is Chris Guillebeau. More on his idea (and my other crazy travel ideas) in a later blog entry.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Changes to China visa rules

I'd seen reports of changes in China's visa requirements made before the Olympics but had not paid much attention, having already secured my Chinese visa before the changes occurred. The Practical Nomad has brought me up to speed with his latest entry. For casual travellers like me who spurn tours, travel independently, and make changes to their travels on the fly, the changes are a major inconvenience.

As well as seemingly abandoning the most flexible visa options, there are more hoops to jump through to get a visitor visa. The most significant of which, in my view, is visas must be issued at the embassy or consulate in the country of residency or citizenship (presumably exemptions for those from countries that have no Chinese embassy or consulate). So if you're in the middle of a trip and decide you want to visit China, you need to go back home first to get a visa.

Another change which might impact me (I haven't checked it out yet) is the requirement to arrange the visa in person. I use a specialist visa company for my visa requirements - one reason being that for many countries their nearest embassy/consulate is in another city or even another country. That company couriers the documents to the relevant city and has a local representative deal with the application - does that meet the requirements? Maybe.

One point I was surprised to read was this remark relating to a new question on the visa application form.

"Do you have any criminal record in China or any other country?"

I'd never been asked this question before, in more than 50
countries including previous visits to China, but it seems to be becoming more
common. I'll have more about this question in a separate forthcoming article.

Perhaps The Practical Nomad is unaware, or perhaps he has forgotten, but anyone who enters USA under either the visa waiver program or with a visa gets a similar question (see sample I94W form).

Monday, August 25, 2008

2 years of liquids rules, some funny slogans

The Cranky Flier recently ran a 6-word contest to mark the 2 year anniversary of the liquids restrictions. The winning entries have now been posted - congratulations to all. My entry "security has dry sense of humor" won an honorary mention. To check out lots more great slogans entered, click here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

More weather woes

Lately my travel pattern seems to be coinciding with the worst of winter weather. In the past few weeks my flights have been affected by more thunderstorms than I can count, hail, snow, excessive winds, heavy rain, frost/ice. Today looks like it will be no different. 2 prop flights. Wind 80 mph. Thunderstorms. Hail. Heavy rain. Weak tornadoes possible. Not a good mix.

So once again, I'm preparing back-up plans. But this time won't be easy as I'm flying somewhere remote and have further connecting travel tomorrow. A flight cancellation will be problematic.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Waiting out weather situation

Once again I'm sitting in an airport lounge waiting out an unfolding weather situation. There are a number of possibilities for my trip today.

1) Flights are delayed (currently 90 minutes delay for the first of my 4 flights and lengthening) but I fly as planned.
2) I fly part of the trip as booked and then switch to other flights/airlines - perhaps unlikely as I have no status on this particular airline.
3) I fly part of the trip and then get stuck overnight - possible depending on whether the snow and ice at transit and destination airports clears.
4) The trip gets cancelled.

Fortunately I have some tools to help me. As I noticed yesterday that the weather forecast was not great for today (although it actually is worse than forecast currently), I brought more stuff with me than I normally would - just in case I get stuck somewhere. However, I just noticed my cell phone is running low on battery. I should have brought my charger with me - doh.

Despite not having status on the airline I'm flying, I have access to lounges at a couple of the airports I will (I hope) visit today, thanks to status I have with the airline running those lounges. I'm making good use of the lounge by checking my options on the computer and working out various contingencies.

I'm checking out several websites for information. The airline website has arrival and departure information, as well as schedules. This information is partly updated but flow on delays are not being recorded. From the schedules I can work this out myself by figuring out where each aircraft goes next. The websites of the airports - the one I'm currently at, the transit airport and destination airport - help me by showing general delays and will give the first warning if the airport actually closes. Two of these airport websites are not very good at updating, so I am also checking out flightstats and using the airport and flight status tools. I also have an official weather website up which is updated hourly with weather conditions including radar - this helps me predict impacts for later in the day. Lastly, I have a page that links to various online weather stations for current conditions updated more frequently than the official weather website.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Wish me luck.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sleeping in airports

For the first time in years I recently slept at 2 different airports. I'd forgotten what it was like and I ended up paying the penalty. I was lulled into a false sense by my dodgy memories and also a quick review of the sleeping in airports website.

The first one was at Auckland when a schedule change meant I had 3 hours in the wee hours of the morning between international flights. Factoring in immigration both ways, customs, and a cab ride to & from the nearest hotel I reckoned I'd get 30 minutes sleep if I was lucky. I didn't need a hotel to access a shower - having the option of the free airside international terminal shower (bring your own towel and soap) or the shower in the 2 lounges I had access to after a couple of hours of waiting for them to open. So I cleared security (requiring a phone call to summons an officer) and settled in one of the comfy chairs on the upper level. While good for lying down it was soon apparent that some fellow transitting passengers were going to talk noisily all night (and some also playing football) thus making it difficult to sleep. I found some of the gate lounge areas were overlooked by passengers wandering aimlessly and thus a quiet respite. I managed an hour or so of sleep. The shower in the lounge, when it opened at 4am, was a godsend.

The second one was at Hamilton. This time I had 4 1/2 hours between international flights. Factoring in immigration, customs and check in time I figured I'd get a maximum of 2 1/2 hours sleep at the nearby airport hotel. I found a comfy chair on the upper level. Even though the terminal was locked up once the last passenger on my flight had cleared customs, I was allowed to remain inside. However, I was kept awake by the heavy rain drumming on the roof, and then an hour later by the cafe staff preparing to open up for the day (lights on, and an automated announcement every 10 minutes or so about security and keep your bags with you at all times). I gave up trying to sleep having had less than 30 minutes sleep. The airport has no showers, so I had to wait until my next destination to shower. In hindsight I would have been better off with the airport hotel (despite the relatively high cost).

The other option for such short overnight transits is to not try to sleep at all. I've done that before, but that is easier said than done when the body clock wants sleep and there are no stimulants coffee or cola on hand. What do you do in these situations?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

TSA Watchlist a False Security

In my previous blog entry I explained how the TSA’s claim of "small" selectee and no fly watchlist is nothing of the sort and impacts millions. Many readers will, however, have noticed that I omitted (deliberately in the interests of space) some key arguments against a watchlist. This entry covers those arguments.

In tv crime shows the detective or lawyer looks for 3 angles to assess guilt – motive, opportunity and means. I’ll use these in a different way, to assess the worth of having the watchlist.

For the sake of argument, lets suppose the watchlist is perfect. There are no false positives (name of an innocent matches someone on the list or an innocent name is on the list). The watchlist, then, is a list of names of those who have the motive for terrorism based on perfect intelligence. But perfect intelligence is an oxymoron. It is relatively easy for a terrorist to avoid being on the list, or to find someone else who is not on the list to do the evil deed. So the watchlist is insufficient to prove motive, or to put it another way does not filter passengers into those with motive and those without. Not a good start against the criteria.

Next consider opportunity. Pretty much everyone who flies, works in or near airports or airlines has an opportunity to do harm. It is a fact of life, and really by definition, that you cannot prevent opportunity for terrorism. This criteria therefore is no help at all, and again the presence or absence of a name on a watchlist proves nothing.

What about means? This is where security really should be, and leave the rest of the window dressing alone. If the means are prevented then there can be no terrorist attack. The names on a watchlist matter not to means either.

Thus, the watchlist does not improve security – it is a false security.

But wait, there’s more. If the 50,000 people on the no fly and selectee watchlists really all are going to crash or hijack planes, shouldn’t they all be arrested? The 50,000 are not arrested because the intelligence is imperfect. They don’t have sufficient proof of terrorist intent and means, and the outcry from so many false arrests would show up the lists as the sham they are. The bigger the list gets and the more times the importance of the watchlist is emphasised by TSA, the harder it is for a reversal, an admission of error. That is really unfortunate, especially for the millions of innocents caught up in the dragnet (refer my previous blog entry).

TSA watchlist of 1 million

I don't blog much about the TSA (USA's transport security if you're lucky enough to not know what it is about), mainly because pretty much every policy they implement riles me up. There is plenty of coverage elsewhere on their terrible practices and stuff-ups.

However, an entry on the TSA blog from a couple of weeks ago has gotten me even more riled up than normal so that I have to comment on it. The blog entry is a self-styled myth buster on the recent news that the watchlist has 1 million names.

A summary of the TSA blog entry:

  • 2 million daily passengers (this is USA only)
  • 400,000 on a consolidated terror watch list
  • 50,000 selectee and no-fly lists (subsets of the consolidated terror watch list)
  • buster #1 - the list is not 1 million names long
  • buster #2 - ACLU's method to estimate 1 million names is flawed
  • buster #3 - Ted Kennedy, Catherine Stevens and Robert Johnson are not on the no-fly lists, they just happen to have the same names as other who are on the no-fly lists. Then there is spiel that spending more money will enable the number of false positives to be reduced, and that those who are falsely identified (false positive) face only minor inconvenience.
  • Terror watch lists keep legitimate terror threats off of airplanes every day, all over the world. (This point is a verbatim quote.)

Given the watchlist isn't public info, I'll take TSA's word that the list is "only" 400,000 names long. I'll also take their word that the names used to trigger extra security or outright prevent from flying are a mere 50,000 names.

Now to some that may not seem a big number, compared with say the population of USA.

However, a unique name is rather rare. Some common names have many thousands who share the exact same name - for example a couple of dozen others shared my name even in the small town I used to live in (and no my surname is not Smith). Suppose there are 100 people with the same name on average - this I think is a low estimate. Some unusual names will only have few people with the same name, while other names may have 100,000 people or more with the same name. That 50,000 list now matches 5,000,000 names. Not so small any more, is it?

Unfortunately that isn't the end of it. For "bad people" could try to fool the system by slightly tweaking their name - using initials, changing the spelling slightly, etc. So the watchlist system gets close matches as well as exact matches. The number of names matching the list grows again.

Now, for some the ends (prevent terrorist attack) justify the means (extra hassles for those whose name "matches" the selectee and no-fly lists). However, consider this. How many of the 50,000 names realistically will try to blow up or crash a plane? I bet it is a tiny number - let's say 100 for argument's sake. Of those, a portion will presumably be savvy enough to realise that if they can take a name that doesn't match the list (or find a suitably named new recruit) they won't be subject to extra security. So really the security the name matching provides is non-existant.

But for the notion of apparent security, a significant proportion of the travelling public faces inconvenience. The TSA blog entry downplays the impact by claiming it merely limits ability to check in online. However, the real impact is far worse. Missed flights due to longer times to check in, missed connecting flights, being stranded at the transit point (eg if you couldn't get through checked for the onward flight), not being able to easily switch flights to another airline in the event of irregular operations, etc. Then there is the time totally wasted by all these people, which somehow never make it into a proper cost-benefit analysis.

To sum up - lots of costs, no benefit, faulty logic being used to justify it all. Unfortunately this sounds rather like some other aspects of security (and not just TSA, other countries are not immune).

Those readers interested in finding out more, I suggest checking out the excellent Schneier on Security.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Travel update

Sorry for the lack of recent blog posts. While I haven't had as much travel lately as normal (blame the need to stay in the country while my passport gets some visas for upcoming trips), I certainly haven't been grounded and have still been busy with travel-related plans.

I managed to rush through ticketing some trips that became "impossible" to ticket after the move to e-ticketing.

Star Alliance has a new member, Egypt Air, and so I have been checking how I can leverage that in an upcoming trip. There normally are some welcome to the alliance type promotions. Since I belong to many frequent flyer programs I can pick the promo that best suits my travel. Check out Flyer Talk's Star Alliance forum for more info.

In the middle of a couple of big trips later in the year, I've planned some side-trips to places I haven't been before and perhaps not so easy to get to. 2 of these are now ticketed and I have 2 more to sort out.

The Qantas frequent flyer program finally launched their response to Virgin Blue and Air New Zealand's any seat redemptions. My analysis is it is a pale imitation - awards are more expensive (some simple round trips are well over a million posts!) and yet Qantas will not allow any seat redemptions on the cheapest fares. The ability to flex the any seat award cost between points and $ is interesting, but worthless given the ridiculously poor value assigned to a point. There is also concern that less regular awards will be made available. Conclusion - the changes are good for small business owners who earn vast amounts of points from credit card spend and a yawn for everyone else.

A number of schedule changes have been made with varying impacts on my upcoming itineraries. The worst will have me spend 2+ hours in the middle of the night waiting for transfers to open up (the alternative was spending 3 hours landside with no amenities).

After a long absence I had some more domestic travel - by air and by train. I appreciated that the lounge staff (3 different cities for 2 airlines) had noticed my absence!

I've had to chase up several flights that have not been credited from earlier trips. The amount that failed to credit automatically added up to almost 100,000 miles so worth my spending some time following up.

I have decided (I think) to switch my hotel loyalty. I've been with Hilton a few years mostly as Diamond (and a couple of years as Gold). However the issues I had earlier in the year (see here for example), plus problems getting my earned status recognised, a total absence of promotions and terrible room rates at the hotels I usually stay at frequently; means it is no longer worth it to me. I still have to figure out how best to cash in my points while I still have some status (thus better award availability). In the meantime I requalified for Priority Club Gold in just 2 1-night stays and by my calculations should reach Platinum with another 3 or 4 nights, thanks to some decent promos.

Paper ticket issuance hassles

It hasn't taken me long to curse IATA's 100% e-ticketing initiative. For some info check out a previous blog entry here.

A recent booking apparently required a paper ticket for reasons that are not clear to me. The obvious limitations or potential issues are not relevant - there are less than 16 flights, not an infant or child fare, all airports are e-ticketable, the marketing airlines are all e-ticketable.

Anyway, for some reason I need a paper ticket. It is now 3 weeks since the booking was made (and payment taken), with no ticket yet issued. I've made several phone calls to the airline and no one has yet worked out (a) exactly what is the problem, and (b) how to fix it or work around it. I'm glad my travel dates are a long way ahead - if I'd been booking at the last minute as I often do, I would not have been able to travel.

Still, I hope it is resolved soon. A couple of flights are codeshares and the operating airline could decide to cancel my booking for not ticketing within their time limits.

If you have any itinerary likely to require paper ticketing, my suggestion is to book and ticket well in advance of travel date. Unfortunately these ticketing issues do not just affect new bookings as some old paper tickets issued before 1 June 2008 may still require reissuing as a paper ticket, possibly at short notice if the flights change at an inopportune time.

I hope the airlines resolve the system issues quickly.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Last paper ticket

I've now picked up what is supposed to be my last paper tickets. It has been a rush trying to get several complex itineraries sorted before the conversion to all e-tickets on 1 June 2008 (or rather mostly all see my previous blog entry). Some of my upcoming trips are not currently supported by e-tickets.

Here's hoping none of us need last minute reticketing of paper tickets. Supposedly these will be impossible, although I think some work around must be provided once the airlines experience how much of a problem the restrictions will create.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A charge for all checked bags

American Airlines (AA) has taken the low-cost carrier (LCC) approach with their latest baggage fee. All checked bags will be charged for most domestic economy passengers. Exemptions to the first bag luggage charge are given to those flying on first and business class fares or awards, or paying full economy fare, or an anytime AAdvantage award, or anyone with any oneworld elite status at the date of travel (as well as anyone else flying with them). Those passengers who are upgraded at the last minute (eg operational upgrades) will not be exempt from the fee unless they also fit another exemption category. Perhaps the list of exemptions will get simplified at some stage.

From 15 June, the first bag is $15 (each way), the second $25, the third $100, and so on. At least they haven't tried to put on the LCC spin of "it is a discount for no checked bags", as Australian airline Jetstar does for example.

Expect the overhead bins to be even fuller, at least until AA is forced to either back down or restrict and enforce carry-on items to 1 bag plus 1 personal item. Having elite status to enable boarding early will be more important than ever to claim the bin space by your seat.

As with fuel surcharges and the earlier introduction of baggage fees for the second checked bag, I'd expect other airlines to quickly follow suit.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

100% e-ticketing? Not quite, and a warning.

IATA, the airline association, has been pushing for 100% e-ticketing for quite some time. The latest deadline is 1 June 2008, and unlike previous targets it seems this date is sticking.

I, like many other frequent travellers, have been sceptical that 100% etickets can be achieved by 1 June 2008. After all, it is not just remote parts of the planet that do not support etickets. It was only a couple of months ago I was issued an eticket by Qantas for a simple round trip between one of their hubs and another oneworld hub.

So it was no surprise when Air New Zealand confirmed that there is a long list of circumstances where paper tickets will still be required from 1 June 2008. More on that in a moment. My main concern is this. Air NZ warns that from 1 June 2008 it may take 5 or more working days to issue a paper ticket. Too bad if your travel plans change in a hurry and you are forced to use a paper ticket because of the e-ticketing limitations. Note this long delay is not because paper tickets suddenly become difficult to issue in two weeks time. No, it is an artificial constraint engineered to ensure as few paper tickets as possible are issued. Travel agents and airline ticket offices will no longer have paper ticket stock but will have to jump through hoops to get paper tickets issued and sent out to them.

The good news is that those who have paper tickets by 31 May 2008 will not be forced to reissue their tickets as e-tickets. Phew. The exception is where a ticket needs to be reissued after 31 May 2008 (eg for a change of routing) and travel has not yet commenced - they will need to reissue as an e-ticket.

The bad news. Here is a list of circumstances still requiring an e-ticket when the ticket is issued by Air New Zealand (or by a travel agent or Air NZ ticket stock). For other airlines, the items in points 4 to 6 may be different depending on where they fly, which airlines they interline with and whether or not they themselves have system issues with e-tickets.

  1. Over 16 coupons required, including any surface segments. This is the reason that both oneworld and Star Alliance round the world fare rules have reduced the number of allowed flights (from 1 June 2008 for oneworld and from 1 May 2008 for Star Alliance). Bad for travellers.
  2. Any open-dated segments. No more booking an itinerary and firming up the dates later while waiting for a waitlist to clear on the date you want. Bad for travellers.
  3. Reissue of paper ticket where travel has commenced. Neutral for travellers (forcing to switch to e-tickets would be bad).
  4. Any flights on Air Vanuatu or Air Rarotonga including Air NZ codeshares.
  5. Any flights on one or more of the following airlines - Aeroflot, Air Fiji, Air Rarotonga, Frontier Airlines, Garuda, Hong Kong Airlines, Hong Kong Express, Skywest, Royal Brunei, Jetstar, Jet Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Eurostar. There may be other airlines that are also not ready for e-ticketing but which have no interline agreement with Air NZ.
  6. Any ticket that includes an infant and a flight on one or more of the following airlines - all those listed in #5 above plus American Airlines, Alaskan, EVA, Air China, Delta Airlines, Etihad, Air Pacific, Shanghai Airlines, Solomon Airlines, Lufthansa, Malaysian Airlines, Air Vanuatu, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic.

IATA is keen to push this through to save money for it's member airlines. However it seems it is the passengers who are having to pay for the initiative through greater restrictions on tickets (which could be solved by amending computer systems but this is not being done), and through potentially great inconvenience in some circumstances.

I wonder how long it will be before we get the first stories about people missing funerals because they needed a paper ticket and it was unable to be issued in time?

A most unusual flight experience

I've flown a lot and so experienced a lot of things that may seem odd or unusual. Sooner or later the law of averages catches up with everyone*, and with my crazy travel schedules it sometimes seems I seek out trouble - even if it is inadvertantly.

* I've had my share of delays, cancellations, bombs exploding nearby, hijacking attempts, temporary terminal reconstructions (just after 9/11), weather problems, go arounds, misconnections, baggage lost, and so on.

However I recently had a most unusual flight experience. I was flying to Erbil (aka Arbil or Irbil), Kurdistan or Iraq depending on your views I suppose. For those unfamiliar with the area, Erbil is in the northeast corner of Iraq close-ish to the borders of Turkey and Iran. Amazingly, there are commercial flights there - on Austrian Airlines from Vienna (the other commercial flight to Iraq is Royal Jordanian Airlines from Amman to Baghdad).

The scenery is spectacular en route - flying over a big mountain range and afterwards the desert landscape. However, that is not the unusual bit. For the last several minutes before landing, and the first several minutes after take-off, are spent in a tight spiral while the aircraft descends or ascends over the city.

Before I took the trip I'd read that Baghdad had this spiral landing but as Erbil is a much safer area I was surprised to experience this. I admit it unnerved me when I realised what was happening. What had I let myself in for?

On the ground immigration was rather simple. As far as I could tell, everyone onboard who was not a local was given a 1 week entry visa (stamp) and advised to register by the 10th day if intending to stay longer. Compare this to the many hours I had spent (or rather the company I use for arranging visas had spent) trying to find information which was absent or conflicting on the entry requirements. Even at Vienna I was almost refused boarding because my nationality was not on a piece of paper of countries which will get granted an arrival visa - it took a conference with a supervisor to decide to let me fly.

I'm glad I went rather than wait out for hostilities to cease in Baghdad. Although it has had a small impact on my travels - I have already been questioned by immigration in 2 different countries about the Iraq stamps in my passport, and I expect to keep getting questions until my passport is replaced (which should be another year to 18 months at the current rate I'm filling it up).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

More miles - 3 free tips

Sorry it has been a while since I last blogged here. It has been a busy travel month even by my standards as I have passed through 18 countries on 5 continents. When I travel I have more time to ponder and notice things - look for a few upcoming posts on this.

1) I got an email recently from AAdvantage offering miles to subscribe to some of their email offerings. These are the same offerings which I subscribed to last year (and got bonus miles for then), so it is worthwhile unsubscribing to stuff you don't need. The only catch is to unsubscribe after the promo period (in this case I've diarised for the 3 months subscription that is required to earn the miles). For a minute effort I will get a modest bonus, and the price sure is right.

2) Normally I stay in the same hotel chain where it is available because I struggle to maintain high (meaningful) hotel stay program status given my schedule (lots of overnight flights and same-day return trips) and the locations I visit (lots of places with no or few chain hotels). However, lately I've been staying in a few different chains due to location, cost and availability issues. So, what I have done is use these odd stays to credit to various lesser used frequent flyer programs (FFPs) as an easy way to extend the mileage expiry out several more months. For some of these frequent flyer programs I am yet to set foot on one of their aircraft but have almost enough for a basic award, again with just a bit of effort here and there to credit some hotel stays or pick up the odd promotion (such as surveys).

3) I have a lot of flights of many different airlines and so it can be hard keeping track of the frequent flyer miles, hotel points and status earnt. I spent an hour or so the other day reviewing 5 of my accounts which I had credited recently. The result - I found several uncredited flights (which will net me about 70,000 miles when they eventually post), some more flights were I was given too few miles (an extra 3000 miles have already been credited), a couple of flights were the miles credited seems too low (still being investigated by the frequent flyer program), 3 missed hotel stays (2 have credited already which requalifies my status in that hotel program), and another where they forgot to give me points for incidental spend. Not a bad return for an hour of my time (plus maybe some more chasing up). Although ideally these would all credit correctly in the first place. One account took me more time than the others to go through, because they had reversed and re-credited many transactions, and not always at the same rate which then meant more reversals and re-credits.

I'm still looking for an easier way to reconcile my accounts than the spreadsheet I currently keep. If anyone knows of software please let me know.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Get 30k Delta miles for $330

An email from Delta skymiles offers double miles on transfers through to end April. While the email says it is targetted, it seems to have been sent far and wide.

To get your 30k miles, simply pay $330 to transfer 30k to a friend. Your friend then pays $330 to transfer the 30k miles back to you. End result is you each have 30k miles added to your balance for $330.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Airline passenger rights in USA improved

Thanks to a tip-off from Rick Seaney, I learned today that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has improved airline passenger rights in USA. No, this is not the passenger bill of rights that some have been calling for and has been on and off in the news for months.

Rather, the rules for compensation for denied boarding (or involuntary denied boarding aka IDB) are being improved 25 years after they were set. The press release is light on details but refers to compensation limits being doubled and also extended to include 30 to 59 seat aircraft (the old rules only covered 60+ seat aircraft. The detail (and reasoning) can be found on the DOT website here.

In summary.

Old rules - 100% of ticket value to next stopover to max $200 if delay is 1-2 hours (1-4 hours for international), 200% to max $400 if delay is over 2 (or 4 for international) hours. This on top of the provision of transport or refund. Only applies to aircraft with 60+ seats.

New rules - as above but with $400 and $800 limits. DOT acknowledges this increase does not fully reflect inflation. Only applies to aircraft with 30+ seats.

Under the new rules an exemption applies for aircraft with 30 to 59 seats where for safety reasons either a smaller aircraft must be substituted or payload restricted. Hopefully this exemption does not get abused by airlines (eg by excessive overbooking in situations where payload restrictions are reasonably forseeable or likely) as much as European airlines trying to wiggle out of their EU passenger rights compensation obligations.

The rules don't come into effect for at least another 30 days, but it is promising that DOT refers to next month. So while the exact date isn't yet published it should be before 1 June 2008.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Great London Heathrow Terminal Shuffle Extended

I spoke too soon when I said a couple of days ago that things were looking up for British Airways (BA). They've now announced a delay to the second phase of flights being shifted to their new terminal at London Heathrow (LHR), T5. This was planned for late April but "will now begin in June". My guess is they need some time to make some changes in the baggage handling area which seems to most problematic of the many issues BA has in the new terminal.

What does this mean for LHR travellers?

Most airlines that use LHR were due to change terminals in a great shuffle lasting around 12 months. The Cranky Flier did a good summary of the great LHR terminal shuffle last month. Forget that timetable, it is now history.

Firstly, if you are flying to/from or through London Heathrow in the next several months you should check again which terminal(s) you will be using. But wait at least a couple of weeks. According to the other major UK domestic airline, bmi, other airlines have not yet been consulted about the change of plans by BA. Catty? Yes, especially as bmi is one of the least impacted airlines (they don't change terminals in the shuffle but may have some impact on their scheduling thanks to star alliance connecting passengers). Anyway, I expect it will take a while before the dust settles.

So, don't rely on your travel agent or itinerary to tell you which terminal you are using. Check for yourself a few days before departure at least. If you are connecting between two different airlines (or on BA between terminals) check that your connection is still viable if it now requires a terminal change. If your connection becomes too short as a result, the airline should rebook you on another flight.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

More disruptions for American Airlines, and better news for British Airways

Just a week after I posted a blog entry about major disruptions to some airlines, in which I said American Airlines MD-80s had been out for wiring checks and completed, there is more bad news. From, today's grounding is due to checks on, wait for it, wiring. Huh? Did they only look at one aspect the other week?

I bet this isn't the last one in the series of temporary groundings by FAA.

Meanwhile, British Airways is at last back to normal operating levels in London Heathrow Terminal T5, that is apart from the backlog of undelivered bags. I hope it stays that way, and that both BA (the airline) and BAA (the airport operator) have learnt some lessons ahead of the next phase of the great terminal shuffle - most flights being moved from terminal T4 to T5.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Midnight delays and how to deal with trips in vain

The other night I was reminded just how unpleasant a lengthy delay can be in the middle of the night. My red eye flight was pushed back an hour at a time for a few hours in total and ended up leaving just before 3am. The frustrating bit was not being able to snooze during the wait as I was unsure if the latest announced boarding time was accurate, or if the gate would change yet again (it did change once). That the flight disappeared from the terminal monitors at the time of the scheduled departure did not help as we were totally reliant on announcements made at the gate.

During the wait I wondered what would happen if the flight delay turned into a cancellation. My tight schedule would mean I wouldn't be able to rebook for the next day on the same airline (it operated once daily), or reroute on the same airline, or be rebooked on the one other airline serving the route.

On a similar vein I calculated that my pull out time was about 4am. Earlier in the year I had to pull out of two trips - coincidentally from the same airport on a single route (different from this redeye) but on 2 different airlines. The first one was caused by a mechanical issue and I determined I would not return to origin in time to make an onward flight on a separate ticket. The second one was caused by bad weather at the destination airport but with the same problem. For this latest time, it was again a mechanical issue (on the same airline - bad luck probably but readers may wish to avoid being on my American Airlines flights!) but again the same problem with onward flights on separate ticket.

Fortunately I didn't reach the pull out time. But for the benefit of others, here is what I do. The situation I describe can be called a "trip in vain". The same applies if for example you are doing a short trip to another city to hold a meeting but the delays mean you cannot reasonably hold a meeting (eg your 6 hours in that city turn into 1 hour). If you have flexible tickets, or have status with that airline or it's alliance partners, then you can get the ticket cancelled and fare refunded (possibly with a small penalty). Another strategy to take to protect against this, instead of buying expensive flexible tickets, is to buy dirt cheap ones (if you don't fly but it cost you peanuts then the lost value by not flying is no big deal). You'd have to cancel a high proportion of such tickets for the cheap approach to be worse off than the expensive flexible tickets approach, although there could be other reasons for booking flexible fares.

With some airlines, you also have the option of rebooking. However it very much depends on airline policy as to whether this is worthwhile.

Some are very flexible and will let you rebook for free even if there is no availability in your booking class. A year or so ago I had a trip in vain due to weather issues on Air New Zealand and, thanks to my status I guess, my cheap ticket was rebooked as an expensive ticket at a later date that suited me - score extra miles and improved customer loyalty in return for the airline going the extra mile.

Others require payment of rebooking fee unless the cause of delay was totally within their control (eg if weather played a part then rebooking fee applies but if mechanical or crew issues then no rebooking fee), and/or require availability in the original booking class or payment of fare difference. I had a trip in vain on a dirt cheap sale fare on Qantas that was worth a whopping $2 as credit or could be used if the exact same sale reappeared on dates that work for me - result is a pissed off customer annoyed that I had wasted my money on something I could not use due to what I perceived as being caused due to the airline's actions.

Since policy varies so much it is worthwhile asking specifically if you have any options for cancelling or rebooking your trip in vain. Give your ticket details (including booking class if you know it or at least mention if it is first or business class) and your highest relevant elite status or airline club membership if you have any. Sometimes rules are bent for high price tickets, club members or high status passengers. Ask as soon as is practical (in the club lounge if you have access or the nearest ticketing desk). If you don't like the answer just say you want to consider your options and try calling the airline later, just in case the agent was lazy or offered incorrect advice or you get lucky with the rule-bending the second time around.

Back to the recent redeye. When we eventually left (with a scant 2 minutes until the crew went out of hours), I was so tired having already been up about 40 hours that I crashed asleep at the end of the safety briefing and only awoke a few minutes before landing. The sweet flight attendant apologised for not having enough time to now serve me my meal.

New links

I've added some more links (at right) to sites I find interesting or regularly useful. Please check them out some time.

Frequent flyer mileage not crediting automatically

I have no idea why it is happening, but lately a high percentage of my flights have not been crediting mileage to my frequent flyer programs (FFP) automatically. This has been across a few different airline and FFP combinations, even sometimes when crediting to the FFP of the airline operating the flight!

Maybe it just is a coincidence - I've also had long periods without any problems. But it sure is annoying. Some programs make missing mileage requests simple and painless. Fill in an online form and you are done. Unfortunately some online forms only allow claims for their own flights. Other programs have a more complicated process and require effort - hunting down an e-ticket number for example, or mailing in originals of boarding passes and tickets. Some FFPs say they require the boarding pass and tickets to be mailed in but in practice accept faxed copies or even an email outlining the required details. I guess they state a harder line to deter some requests, which is poor form in my view.

In general, if I can't do it online and have an elite status member contact that I can validly use, then I'll use that person to chase up the mileage requests. That sure beats having to snail mail stuff half way around the world to the mailing address of a FFP, hoping it doesn't get lost en route (or paying for expensive registered mail) and waiting weeks for any action. But, it would be better for me and for the FFPs, if they all had online missing mileage claim forms.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A rash of major disruptions to some airlines

Safety checks

Last week Upgrade: Travel Better and Cranky Flier (amongst others) blogged about several airlines' having some or all aircraft of a type being grounded temporarily for various maintenance checks.

Today it is United's turn with their 777s (source Chicago Tribune). Apparently one of the long list of things to check regularly, has not been checked for some time.

So a quick run-down by airline.

  • American - MD-80s out for wiring checks, now completed.
  • Delta - MD-88s and MD-90s out for wiring checks, now completed.
  • Southwest - 737s out for checks of the skin, now completed.
  • United - 747s out for maintenance checks, now completed.
  • United - 777s out for fire suppression checks, underway.

While I'd be surprised if any of these safety checks finds anything other than minor deficiencies in process and monitoring, they are still enormously disruptive to the airlines affected and of course to travellers. As the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is seemingly conducting audits airline by airline, I'd be interested in knowing when they plan to do the remaining airlines - so I can make sure I'm not flying those airlines at a time when disruption is likely.

British Airways (BA)

The situation seems to be very slowly improving. Cancellations and delays through London Heathrow (LHR) terminal T5 are ongoing (almost 1 week so far) but slowly reducing each day. There has to be a big question mark over whether they are up to shifting most of the remaining flights from T4 to T5, which is scheduled for April 30. Especially as one of the biggest problems has been baggage and T4 flights being longhaul will bring a lot more baggage. If the move is delayed, this will have snowball effects on the great London Heathrow shuffle (see this blog entry by Cranky Flier for a summary).

A threat of a pilots strike (over the set up of BA's new Open Skies subsidiary) was last month held off by referring to court for a ruling. I guess the silver lining of the current mess is that BA is (or should be) much more likely to settle with the pilots to avoid yet another public relations disaster.

I'm glad my transfers through LHR this month are on other airlines, even though I do wish to see the new terminal for myself.

Keep informed

Clearly, the status of all these (and other similar) disruptions can change quite quickly. Be informed. Check the relevant airline and airport websites. Check live flight information (eg flightstats). Know your rights (eg if flying an EU airline or any airline from the EU check out my previous entry on EU passenger rights). Some more tips are in my blog entry from last year on disruptions.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

EU air passenger rights

For those affected by disruptions to air travel in the European Union, here some information on your air passenger rights by European Commission Regulation 261/2004.

4 page leaflet summarising.

Link to full legislation wording.

Poor start to Heathrow T5 opening

The opening day at London Heathrow terminal T5 turned out rather worse than British Airways hoped. Check out the live reports throughout the day from Flyer Talkers.

It seems a relatively minor baggage problem snowballed into dozens of flights being cancelled, and suspension of checked baggage for all departures. Further flights on day 2 have already been cancelled. As Cranky Flier suggests, if you have to fly from T5 in the next few days try to do so with carry-on luggage only.

Good luck to all those caught out by the mess.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Heathrow T5 finger-printing plan halted

Finally, many months after BAA (owner of London Heathrow airport) announced that domestic passengers at the brand new T5 terminal would need to be fingerprinted, someone in authority is questioning the plan with concerns over privacy. (Source BBC) While it is disappointing that it has taken the Information Commissioner's Office until now to respond to concerns raised nearly a year ago (the fingerprint requirements were made public by last July), at least they are now appearing to act just in the nick of time. Yes, T5 opens in about 12 hours time.

Monday, March 10, 2008

UK flying tips

The Cranky Flier has beaten me to it again. While I've been hunting for a comprehensive schedule for airlines changing terminals at London Heathrow in the Great LHR Terminal Shuffle, he's posted the LHR changes information that is to hand - here. These are incomplete and, I think, optimistic in some cases. Personally I expect there will be delays to the dates published (indeed many are later than originally announced). But getting hard info is difficult as BAA (the airport operator of Heathrow and several other UK major airports) and airlines alike seem reluctant to publicise dates that may not eventuate. For now I'll assume my upcoming trips will continue to arrive at and depart from the same terminals those airlines currently use. If a reliable schedule becomes available I'll be sure to provide an update. In the meantime the old advice is the best - to check with the airline you are flying a few days before departure to ensure you arrive at the right terminal.

Given the complexity of the move - different dates for different airlines, even different flights within the same airline, I expect there will be some teething issues as travellers and staff alike get used to the changes. So, on my trips through Heathrow I'll be checking out StreamThru, a free sms departure information service for UK airports which a friend has let me know about. Normal charges may apply if you are visiting UK with a mobile on a roaming plan.

When online I can also keep up to date using (quick links and live view of current delays in my earlier blog entry).

As for T5, British Airways new terminal opening in a couple of weeks? Until BA resolves an outstanding issue from last year I don't expect to be flying them unless I can avoid it.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Too many short hops, not enough long trips

The past month or so have been lots of short trips with no long (or longhaul) ones. I'm hanging out for the next big trip, which is still a month away. Never mind that I have some short (and a couple not so short) trips before then.

My big trip is at that annoying time of the year when a lot of airline schedules change. So far only 4 flights are affected. That is good. The bad bit is I've had to drop one destination as it is no longer possible to fit it in, no matter how I tried to reroute. So I've swapped for another destination nearby - a handful less miles, but the bigger blow is I miss meeting a fellow traveller.

To cheer myself up I've tacked on a side trip to an interesting locale - somewhere I didn't think I'd visit for several years at least.

My itinerary is rather crazy and I'm now experiencing pangs of doubt that it will all come together, especially as some places have infrequent flights (as in daily or less often to any other airport, not just a specific route) and others have all their flights at the same time of day so a hold-up will delay me a day. Hopefully it will all work out. I think I need to do more research on back-up plans.

Still it is always exciting travelling somewhere new, and, like most of my big trips, this time I get to several new places. Yay.

Live flight data

Although I regularly use flightstats, I confess it hadn't occurred to me to check the site for widgets. A post by mj speaks on travel alerted me to it.

Here is a selection of some useful ones.

Flight information is provided by FlightStats, and is subject to the FlightStats Terms of Use.
North America Airport Delays

Flight information is provided by FlightStats, and is subject to the FlightStats Terms of Use.
Europe Airport Delays

Flight information is provided by FlightStats, and is subject to the FlightStats Terms of Use.
Oceania Airport Delays

Flight information is provided by FlightStats, and is subject to the FlightStats Terms of Use.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Update on Hilton HHonors No Blackouts

In the couple of weeks since I previously blogged about Hilton HHonors No Blackout Dates award issues (see here and here), discussion on Flyer Talk has uncovered yet more problems.

So far the following exceptions have been identified, none of which made it into Hilton's No Blackout policy announcement (not even as fineprint).

  1. Exempted hotels - eg Conrad Maldives
  2. Exceptional demand dates
  3. Hotels that are new to the Hilton family chains - exempt for 90 days
  4. Hotels can require a large deposit that is non-refundable if you cancel the award

There is a further out, which is written into the policy, if no "Standard" rooms are available for purchase the No Blackout policy does not apply. Some hotels have no standard rooms.

For those too lazy to click on the policy announcement above, here is what Hilton HHonors says about the No Blackout policy.

No Blackout Dates

The Hilton Family of Hotels has announced No Blackout Dates for all members
of its HHonors guest reward program effective February 1. As long as a standard
room is available, members will be able to confirm that room using their HHonors
points at more than 2,900 Hilton Family hotels worldwide.

"Our goal is always to make traveling easier for our guests, and No
Blackout Dates is a significant way to offer our loyal members more flexibility
to use their points on their schedule," said Adam Burke, senior vice president
of customer loyalty for Hilton Hotels Corporation. "Members have always
considered Points & Miles a highly valuable benefit that distinguishes us
from the competition, and combining this unique offering with No Blackout Dates
reinforces HHonors as the world's most rewarding and flexible hotel loyalty

Unlike some other hotel programs:
  • HHonors program has no capacity controls. All standard rooms are available
    for rewards, not just a limited number each night.
  • HHonors does not require additional points to avoid blackout dates. Some
    hotel programs black out reward rooms and require their customers to redeem
    significantly more points to bypass those blackouts.
  • With HHonors, there are no exceptions. Every Hilton Family hotel worldwide
    offers No Blackout Dates. Some competitive programs exclude selected properties.

Hilton HHonors remains the only hotel loyalty program that offers guests the
ability to earn both Points & Miles® for the same stay at more than 2,900
hotels worldwide. Other global programs require members to choose between hotel
points OR airline miles, while HHonors members enjoy the benefits of both
currencies. Members also enjoy multiple ways to earn Points & Miles,
offering more flexibility and a faster way to earn HHonors rewards.

Hmmm. 2 of the 3 bullet points appear not to be met in some cases. As for extra points to avoid a blackout, Hilton goes one step further and requires a large cash advance which is refundable only on checking out.

Monday, February 25, 2008

On line check in (OLCI)

The Cranky Flier noted a new feature offered by Ryanair following their website changes over the weekend, on line check in (OLCI) up to 5 days before departure, and wondered what the point of it all is.

I've wondered as well, ever since Air New Zealand rolled out OLCI at time of booking for their domestic flights (subject to a few conditions) last March. Yes, Air NZ allows you to check in up to 12 months before departure. Presumably they expected the increased numbers of no shows and passengers requiring changes after checking in would be more than offset by efficiency savings at airport check-in. I'm not yet convinced this is the case - 12 months is a long time for changes in plans to happen, and if passengers lose the print out (or fail to save the generated pdf) they will still need to check in at the airport (either at a counter or using a quick-check machine). Anecdotally I've noticed an increase in the number of passengers being paged for boarding.

Cranky Flier has me thinking a bit more though. Given there are no ID checks for domestic travel in New Zealand, what is the boarding pass required to do? (1) It reminds the passenger of the flight number and departure time (the gate number is not available when OLCI'ing a long way before departure). (2) The printed barcode provides a quick way for the gate agent to confirm the passenger has boarded - however this can also be done by typing the seat number. (3) Possibly used for tracking of checked luggage? I'm not sure on this as it has been many years since I've checked bags when flying Air New Zealand. (4) It provides proof of eligibility for using the lounge (though a non-foolproof method in the case of OLCI as frequent flyer status or airline club membership may change between check in and departure).

That is all, at least for Air NZ. The boarding pass is not needed to clear security. There is no stub retained by the gate agent for reconciling passenger numbers. The boarding pass is not used to identify where passengers are (except possibly for those checking in manually at the airport).

Are there other airlines that allow OLCI so far before departure? The ones I am aware of that are more than 24 hours before departure are

  • KLM - up to 30 hours
  • Cathay Pacific - up to 48 hours
  • Singapore Airlines - up to 48 hours
  • Ryanair - up to 5 days
  • Air New Zealand - from time of booking.

Note rules may vary slightly in respect of connecting or return flights, some destinations/origins may not allow OLCI, and some passenger types are not eligible for OLCI.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Simple explanation of frequent flyer accounting

Ahead of a probable spin-off of the Qantas frequent flyer program (FFP), the Qantas half year results investor briefing includes several pages on the FFP. Skip to page 45. It has a clear explanation of how airlines make money and account for their FFPs.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

More BA baggage woes and some other bad BA news

British Airways is yet again in the news for a poor baggage situation at London Heathrow (LHR). Apparently only T4 is affected. With limited capacity to handle baggage by hand, there are restrictions in place. These vary by day, whether originating in London or transitting, by class of travel and elite frequent flyer status. So for the latest check the BA website here.

In short, some passengers are limited to carry on only. Fortunately this increased to 2 bags earlier in the year. Unfortunately we still have the liquids restrictions.

I do wonder though how much thinking went into this statement.

On Thursday 21 February, transfer passengers through London Heathrow Terminal 4 should not bring luggage to be checked in as they will not be able to travel.

So someone flying on BA from Sydney (leaves shortly as I write this and arrives on Thursday 21 February) and transferring through T4 can or cannot have checked bags? Isn't it a bit late to advise these passengers now? In general transferring passengers have the least flexibility in terms of being able to convert to carry-on only for luggage.

I think the rules BA has established for allowing checked baggage in the short term until the situation is resolved, while no doubt well meaning, are rather too complex to be well understood. Be prepared for longer than normal queues at check in, and also at security.

For once it appears the airline is not to blame for the problem which is attributed to computer errors and thus responsibility of airport operator BAA (source BBC News). Still one can't help but wonder why BA seems to attract so many problems compared with other airlines.

It was only a few hours ago I speculated that BA's latest announced fuel surcharge increase was being timed to get all their bad news over well ahead of T5 opening in 5 weeks time. BA have also been in the news recently for losing a major court case on overcharged fuel surcharge (yes ironic timing leading some to wonder how much of the latest increase is to pay the refunds of the lost case). They are also threatened with strikes by pilots and cabin crew (more on this soon).

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Update on Hilton customer unfriendly shenanigans

An update on the 3 issues mentioned in my previous blog entry.

Based on information received to date, the no blackout issue appears to be fairly widespread. It may be that the rollout of the new policy has not gone right. Some readers may recall there was little advance notice of the change - perhaps it was announced prematurely. So I'm somewhat optimistic this will be resolved satisfactorily, eventually.

For the other 2 issues (inflexible flexible rates and deposit required on awards) so far only 2 hotels have been identified (but there may be more) and not on every date.

I'll keep you updated as I get more news. You can also follow the discussion on Flyer Talk's Hilton HHonors forum.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Australia-US open skies agreement

A nice win for Qantas and more of the same for the travelling public with the announcement that a new Open Skies Agreement has been signed (source SMH).

Only Australian and US airlines benefit from the agreement.

Virgin Blue, through subsidiary V Australia (yet to fly) gains the right to fly more than 4 flights a week in their first year of operation. But with few aircraft and limited expansion possibilities the impact on fares is expected to be low.

Qantas has had its cap on market share on the route lifted. So it can freely add capacity where before it was constrained by the number of flights United and Hawaiian flew between Australia and USA. However, with the route such a cash cow for Qantas I don't expect any significant increase in the number of their flights. They will want to protect yields on their existing flights.

US-based airlines in theory have more rights. However the 2 existing airlines (United and Hawaiian) have no aircraft available to add more flights and a few other airlines still have rights from when they previously flew the route. It is hard to see any genuine new entrants from USA in the short term at least.

Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines and Emirates, who both have been lobbying for years to be allowed to fly between Australia and USA have been shut out once again.

I can't see the notoriously high fares on these routes coming down much any time soon. Instead the agreement has given both Qantas and Virgin Blue the license to make even more money.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hilton customer unfriendly shenanigans

Unfriendly #1 - no blackout dates

I know what you are thinking. How can Hilton HHonors recently announced "no blackout dates" be unfriendly? The announcement wording seems positive enough.

Unlike some other hotel programs:

  • HHonors program has no capacity controls. All standard rooms are available
    for rewards, not just a limited number each night.
  • HHonors does not require additional points to avoid blackout dates. Some
    hotel programs black out reward rooms and require their customers to redeem
    significantly more points to bypass those blackouts.
  • With HHonors, there are no exceptions. Every Hilton Family hotel worldwide
    offers No Blackout Dates. Some competitive programs exclude selected properties.
It seems someone left off the fine print. Exceptional demand dates are apparently being excluded. Not only are Hilton HHonors being deceptive about this clause, but there is no way to identify exceptional demand dates online. It is only when you call Hilton HHonors (for example their Diamond Desk) to make a request for an award that is not available online, that you might be told "sorry the hotel has reserved that date as exceptional demand". Boo.

There's some discussion about this on Flyer Talk.

Unfriendly #2 - fully flexible

Many travellers, myself included, have plans that often change. So we don't mind paying a little extra to have a flexible hotel booking. As long as the booking is cancelled before the deadline (which can be as late as 4pm on the date of booked arrival or as early as 48 hours beforehand), there is no charge.

Depending on the situations booking fully flexible might or might not make sense, and the Road Weary blog has a recent discussion about that.

I was stunned when attempting to make a recent booking at Hilton Frankfurt to find the hotel has made the rate called "Fully Flexible" non-refundable and non-changeable! Perhaps someone had mistranslated from German? But on checking with Hilton HHonors Diamond Desk it seems that no, the hotel policy is indeed to have NO flexible bookings. Wow. It certainly pays to read the rules instead of assuming the rate name bears any resemblence to the offering. Another Flyer Talker ran into the same deal at Hilton Munich City. I wonder how many other hotels pull this nonsense?

Unfriendly #3 - large deposit for "free" award stay

It gets worse. The same 2 German hotels (and there may well be others - these are the two I've identified so far) require a deposit for award stays. Again, this is hidden in the terms and could easily be missed by an unwary traveller as it is not expected.

Rules and Restrictions

  • This reservation requires a credit card deposit of a confidential rate per
    room and will be charged to your card by February 15, 2008.
  • If you cancel for any reason, attempt to modify this
    reservation, or do not arrive on your specified check-in date, your payment is
To summarise, at these hotels, 1 free stay =
charged an unknown amount of euros immediately
+ award points deducted immediately
+ no ability to change or refund the booking
+ refunded the deposit less charges at time of checking out (your deposit and points are forfeit if you don't show up)

The thought of approving a charge to my credit card for an indefinite amount did not appeal. I contacted Diamond Desk. They advised the charge is equal to the rack room rate - ie even higher than what I'd pay for a paid stay! Apparently Hilton HHonors do not feel empowered to override (or are hiding behind) this "hotel policy".

I'm hoping this nonsense is limited to just these 2 hotels, is soon stopped, and does not spread any further. Please let me know (by comment or email) if you are aware of any other hotels with such unfriendly practices. Also please post to the Flyer Talk discussion.


Where I live all three of these customer unfriendly practices are of dubious legality. #2 makes no sense. Surely there is some price point where refundable bookings are warranted? Granted, that might be higher than I'm prepared to pay but having nothing available that is flexible seems rather odd. #3 defies all logic. Only those who fail to read would willingly accept those terms for a free award stay.

It is amazing that until a few days ago I held Hilton HHonors in high regard. Can I please be allowed to amend my Freddies Awards votes?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

London Heathrow T5

British Airways (BA) is laying on the publicity about their new terminal 5 (T5) at London Heathrow (due to open 27 March).

In the past few weeks I've received invites to take a sneak peek from no less than 3 different sources at BA. Unfortunately none of the invites come with a ticket to London (hint hint) and my next planned visit is after the opening.

The picture above is the Gold Bar in the first class lounge (rebranded to Galleries First).

Some more pictures of T5 are available here at Flickr.

For those travelling on BA late March, I suggest keeping an eye out on the news (or blogosphere) for disruptions. Not only is there the major terminal shift at London Heathrow, but potentially both cabin crew and pilots may be striking around then (neither have balloted yet but the timing fits).