Archive for the ‘Phillip Clark’ Category

How to Fly Cheaply to Vietnam

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Just like the Philippines, Vietnam carries a stigma stemming from events past. There’s no need to mention what that is, obviously, other than that it has spawned approximately four excellent movies and countless hours of trash.

Over the last couple of decades, the Vietnamese government realized that economic reality has no respect for political doctrine. As such, they set about improving international relations with their neighbors and, more importantly, the United States. What was once the adventure playground of a select few travelers is rapidly becoming a thriving destination.

So, how to get there and when to go?

From North America, there are few airlines flying direct to Vietnam. Asiana is one, from LAX, and Vietnam Airlines aims to start a direct service in 2010 to SFO. There are several carriers offering multi-sector flights but, with the current fuel price, the days of paying less for the inconvenience of a connection are long gone.

For those wanting to explore the entire country, Jetstar Pacific, Vietnam Airlines and Indochina Airlines all operate domestic routes. Booking in advance, rather than using them as airborne last-minute taxis, will give the best rewards. There are other outfits available, some incredibly cheap. However, given the poor safety record of certain low-cost operators, even in the U.S., it would be best to check what the FAA think about them first. Saving $200 may seem like a no-brainer, but if you need to spend triple that when the airplane breaks…

As for when to go, the climate varies from north to south. The winter monsoon is from October-March, where the weather is damp and chilly to the north, but dry and warm to the south. The summer monsoon, from April-October, is hot and humid in all but the mountainous regions.

For northern and central areas, only storm chasers should visit between July and November, as violent typhoons lash the country from the South China Sea. Tickets may well be cheaper to these areas, but the likelihood of massive delays (sometimes days) makes it a huge risk.

The most popular tourist periods, for a growing number of homegrown tourists as well, are May, June and September. Prices reflect this in both flights and accommodation so they’re best avoided, if possible. Christmas and New Year are even more expensive, which is only to be expected. Putting all these into the shade, however, is the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) festival. While the idea of joining in with the countrywide celebrations sounds wonderful, the price hikes for this period give new meaning to Tet Offensive!

One money saving possibility would be to fly to a city out of season, then take an adventurous train ride through the superb scenery in search of better weather. As always, prior planning will pay off – after all, what else is an internet connection for?

Don’t get Gouged to the Philippines!

Friday, February 5th, 2010

For many people in the West, the Philippines conjure images of mail-order brides, dictators and women with far too many shoes. However, like many places in the West, this is purely the image that the media portrays. The truth is that this country, made up of around 7000 islands, is one of the most understated destinations on the planet.

Trains and automobiles cannot reach island nations, such as the Philippines. The airlines know this and often exploit these juicy, price-gouging opportunities.

Away from Manila and the other popular tourist hotspots, the Philippines offer tranquillity, privacy and a local population that are genuinely pleased to see you. Secluded beaches, daily festivals and a favourable dollar exchange rate – what more could you want?

But, how to get there?

The Philippines has the highest number of expats in the world – approximately 11,000,000 people. The airlines know this and charge almost triple prices for flights to Manila during the Christmas period, as well as their Holy Week (around Easter time). There is also a large Chinese population in Manila who celebrate the Lunar New Year – flights are full, and therefore expensive.

Away from these holidays, prices vary depending on the time of year. The hottest month is May (with the mercury hitting 110 degrees), and the coolest period is January/February, where temperatures are in the 80’s and humidity is quite low. Try and guess which one has the cheapest flights?

The wet season runs from June to November, with the last few weeks vulnerable to tropical storms. However, because the Philippines cover such a large area, the rain falls on some islands and not others. Airfares tend to be lower because it’s the rainy season, but a check of the local climate can result in a cheap ticket and cracking weather.

From North America, just about every airline with a long haul plane flies direct to the Philippines, but almost all will put you into Ninoy Aquino International in Manila. This is often the cheapest option, but not necessarily the best. The airport is renowned for being a tourist trap, and the taxi drivers are almost predatory.

It is cheaper to fly direct from the west coast of the U.S. to Manila than it is to take a stop or two. However, for those with a little extra cash, or time to spare, the best option is to fly to Hong Kong, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur. Enjoy a few days there, and then take a flight to Cebu – the up-and-coming Philippines airport – where you can enjoy your vacation without the hassle of predatory taxi drivers!

Landing Airfare Bargains?

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

2009 has been one of the worst years in history for the commercial aviation industry, with revenues plummeting on the back of worldwide recession. While this has been bad news for stockholders and employees, it can mean ridiculously low airfares for those passengers who can still afford to travel.

The airline only has to sell the last 100 seats for more than $20 each to make it worthwhile.

Traditionally, airlines have used complicated price structures based on historical demand and time of booking. In general, booking early was the best course for those who had specific travel plans as, more often than not, the price would increase as the departure date got closer. Those who were flexible in both time and/or destination could hang on and pick up a bargain at the last minute.

But the game has changed recently. Unlike the slumps that followed Gulf War I and September 11th, this time people are afraid of the bailiffs, not fanatics. Passenger figures are down because of the financial uncertainty that has gripped even the rich. The airlines know this, but they also know that it won’t last forever. The industry is cyclical in nature and, barring another kick in the teeth, the chances are it will be profitable again before too long.

In order to take advantage of this anticipated recovery, they first have to survive. If they can do this while maintaining, or even increasing, their market share, then all the better. The rules still apply to popular routes, such as LHR-JFK, but forward bookings to some destinations are poor. As the airlines are reluctant to cancel these routes (their competitors would pick them up in a flash), it seems that many have adopted a “bums on seats” pricing policy.

Here’s how it works. Say, for example, a 747 with 350 seats is on a 12-hour flight. If the airline has managed to sell 250 of those seats at normal price it won’t be too far from breaking even. However, as the flight was going no matter how many tickets were sold, all the services – baggage handlers, crew, etc – are already paid for. This means that the only extra ‘costs’ of carrying more passengers are fuel and catering. In-flight meals are dirt cheap (no surprises there) and, at July ’09 prices, the additional fuel required to carry 200lbs more weight is about $15 worth.

Therefore, the airline only has to sell the last 100 seats for more than $20 each to make it worthwhile. This is why taxes and charges often outweigh the actual fare on discounted routes, and why full service carriers can be cheaper than their low cost rivals. Of course, this is a very simplistic example and break-even loads depend upon the original ticket prices and operating costs. But, with patience, flexibility and a strong mouse finger, there are some fantastic deals out there, especially on long haul flights where premium seats are being heavily discounted.

This state of affairs won’t last forever though – as soon as demand for travel picks up, so will ticket prices. If for some reason the demand doesn’t pick up then a lot of companies will run out of cash charging these prices. The reduction in capacity as they go bust will have the same effect on airfares.

In the meantime, if you do manage to find bargain flights, keep it to yourself. Chances are the person sitting next to you paid a lot more!

Will Turbulent Times Affect Aircrew Attitude?

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

The next time you board an airplane, have a close look at the flight attendant. Is the insincere smile slightly less sincere than usual? Does she have a worried, far-away look in her eyes? If the answer to either question is yes then the chances are she’s a victim of the recession – even though she still has a job

Since the astronomic fuel prices of 2008, the airline industry has been under siege. The credit crunch followed, and many companies went to the wall. For the survivors – and it has become a battle for survival – rapid and Draconian measures were needed.

This is nothing new. The industry is cyclical by nature and undergoes a downturn every 10 years or so. September 11th hit hard, and before that was the first Gulf war. However, each time, executives follow the same map to recovery they cut capacity, cut fares, cut costs.

Unfortunately, this time, most airlines don’t want to lose market share and have slashed airfares to keep it. As the fuel price is out of their control, the only way they can afford this huge loss of income is to cut costs, and cut them hard.

This affects cabin crew in many ways:

Short Term Effects
The quickest way to cut costs is to cut staff salaries and there’s a result within a month. This is the obvious one, and the reason flight attendants might seem a little distracted. Contrary to popular belief, many airlines pay crew a pittance and more cuts could see several of the regionals paying just above minimum wage. Reports exist of some flight attendants, and even pilots, qualifying for food stamps.

Customer service suffers, as people start asking why they should go the extra mile for a company that wants their children to starve. However, there will always be company minded crew (usually those with an eye on promotion) who resent the more militant ones, seeing them as a threat to their future. Working in such close confines, this can lead to open conflict on board. There is strong anecdotal evidence that, during a dispute in the early 90s, two crew from a major US carrier started a catfight in the cabin!

Cost cutting also directly affects staff morale. Aside from cuts in pay and conditions, crews have to tolerate the results of decisions made at head office. An accountant may think that the money saved by reducing the product on board is justified, but after the hundredth time of explaining why there are no more blankets, many flight attendants just lose interest.

This apathy usually means that, when the unions come a-knocking, the crew want to work-to-rule, or even strike, just to get back at the managers who are making their life a misery.

Longer Term Effects
Some of the larger airlines still have crew working on contracts that are over 30 years old. Compared to new contracts, these pay much more money, and have conditions that benefit the worker, not the company. Looking to the future, several airlines have offered voluntary severance in order to reduce costs. The downside of this? By definition, it is the senior crew who are targeted, cutting a huge experience layer from the top.

Couple this with reduced starting salaries, and reduced recruitment standards just to fill vacancies, and the future isn’t orange, it’s green. This lack of experience will tell in the cabin, but not only affecting customer service. It may also affect the crew’s ability to handle emergency situations. When the chips are down, it’s not possible to put a value on having someone who has “been there, done that”.

So the next time you don’t get a smile as you are shown to your seat, don’t assume it’s just because the flight attendant is a miserable cow. She might have a lot on her mind too!

Why is my Flight Stuck on the Runway?

Friday, September 4th, 2009
In August 2009, 47 Continental passengers were forced to remain on their jet overnight…

Apart from sharing an Atlantic flight with a screaming infant, there’s nothing more frustrating than being trapped in a cramped aluminum tube for hours–and going nowhere. Worse still, for shorter commuter flights, it only needs a 90 minute delay and it would’ve been quicker to drive.

Recently, there have been high-profile cases of passengers being stuck on board for several hours. In August 2009, 47 Continental passengers were forced to remain on their jet overnight after it diverted to a regional airport. It seems that the duty manager refused disembarkation because security staff had gone home. Whilst these marathons are quite rare – for now – some airlines have seen the litigation on the wall and done something about it.

In 2007, Jet Blue published a ‘Bill of Rights’ after passengers endured up to 11 hours on their aircraft, unable to disembark. There have been shorter hijackings! With this Bill, passengers are assured compensation. Even so, the trigger point at which the airline actually guarantees to deplane is an amazing 5 hours. With a decent tailwind, that’s the flight time from Boston to London.

So, what are the main reasons for tarmac delays?

Firstly, it’s necessary to understand airline policy. In most cases, they will board even if they know of a delay in advance. Larger aircraft take over 30 minutes to get passengers into the right seats, by which time any potential improvement will have been missed. There’ll be an inbound flight needing the gate as well, so the best place for the delayed plane is on a taxiway, ready to go.

‘Avoidable’ Tarmac Delays:
Although there’s an argument that tarmac delays are unavoidable by their very nature–no airport makes a plane sit there for the fun of it–a bit of common sense could have made all the difference. Take the Continental example above. The passengers weren’t going anywhere until the airport reopened, so why not let them wait in the terminal?

Air Traffic Controllers do an excellent job, but are often let down by their tools. Certain airports operate a ‘slot’ system, where peak hours are divided into timeslots, then allocated to airlines. There’s little flexibility allowed for, and a few minutes’ delay early on can snowball into hours for later flights.

Sometimes ATC is its own worst enemy, too. In June 2000, a new UK airspace system went live one day, and dead the next. The back-up system was paper strips, something designed decades previously, and massive delays were inevitable.

One more ‘avoidable’ cause is the technical delay. Obviously, airlines cannot predict exactly when a part will fail, and would be negligent to depart with a defect. However, if they haven’t the spares available then the delay can be substantial, especially if a part needs to be flown in from the airline’s main base.

Unavoidable Tarmac Delays:
ATC can be responsible for a delay even when they’re doing an excellent job. They occasionally have in-flight emergencies where a stricken aircraft needs to land immediately. In such cases, a runway will be made sterile–closed to all traffic so that nothing can block it. And if that was an active take-off runway…

A more common situation is where a nearby airport has been forced to close. Diverted airplanes will be low on fuel and, unless the diversion airport has several runways, take-offs will be curtailed. Add to this all those planes sitting on the ground that should be somewhere else, and the knock-on effect is enormous.

And so to the big one. Weather.

With her thunderstorms, wind shear, fog, snow and hail, Mother Nature clearly hates the aviation industry. Commercial pilots never willingly fly into hazardous weather conditions, and a big thunderstorm can close even major airports. It’s obvious to those waiting in the pouring rain what the problem is. But passengers 500 miles away, whose flight is sitting in blazing sunshine, might just think they’re being lied to when weather is quoted as the cause.

With passenger numbers increasing, and the airways becoming more and more congested, one thing is certain. Tarmac delays are here to stay.

Airbags in Airliners: Is the Human Cost too Expensive?

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Search the internet for ‘Why don’t airliners have airbags?’, and answers range from patronizing to downright rude. But check this out…

The technology exists, and has saved lives in several private plane crashes. A thicker seatbelt contains the airbag, which is set off by accelerometers and inflated with helium. Unlike a car, the airbag inflates up and away from the passenger, creating a soft barrier between them and the seat, or bulkhead, in front.

Would it make a difference in a 737? The commercial aviation industry thinks not.

Properly done, airbags could work. There have been fatal accidents during taxi and take-off where hitting soft cushion instead of hard seatback would have undoubtedly saved lives.

Basically, each adapted seatbelt costs $2000. Airline risk managers weigh the cost of safety measures against the chance of them being needed, and airbags are currently in the same box as parachutes. This will only change if the authorities mandate their use.

Don’t hold your breath, though – airlines also use lobbyists who wrangle alleviations by making aviation a special case. In no other industry would it be acceptable to have toilets two meters away from the kitchen, or a row of seats next to an emergency exit.

However, it could be argued that airbags aren’t suitable for commercial use. The major problem is the location of the unit, in the seatbelt itself, which places it within easy reach of a cabin engineer’s worst nightmare: children.

Unless on Ritalin, children do not travel well. They’re easily bored, leading to restlessness, fidgeting and, inevitably, vandalism. These airbags deploy in 30 milliseconds, AWAY from the wearer – imagine a small hand nearby at the time.

So, to the next argument against; namely that not every traveler is as intelligent and urbane as a person who would, say, be reading this article. Safety videos still contain seatbelt and lifejacket instructions. However, in recent evacuations some passengers pressed the buckle, thinking they were in a car. And when an Ethiopian 767 ditched, some drowned because they inflated their lifejackets before the crash and couldn’t get out.

With airbags it would be imperative that passengers didn’t adopt the brace position. Otherwise, 30 milliseconds after the first impact, they’ll be getting another. Then, if necessary to evacuate, they’d have to unfasten a belt which would be underneath the bag. Finally, those using overwing exits would have to get past balloons! That’s bound to stretch the average Jerry Springer audience.

Still, properly done, airbags could work. There have been fatal accidents during taxi and take-off where hitting soft cushion instead of hard seatback would have undoubtedly saved lives. ‘Controlled’ crashes, like the Hudson River Airbus, and landing mishaps would also benefit through a reduction in the number of impact injuries.

There is also a train of thought that, in catastrophic situations where only a very few ‘miraculously’ survive, ‘few’ may have been ‘several’ if airbags had been fitted. Unfortunately, the only way to be sure of this would be to fit them to every jetliner.

And then wait…

Discount Carrier Rip-offs

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

“10 Low-cost Airline Money Grabs, and How to Avoid Them”

Whilst discount carriers are often a cheap way of getting from A to B, they can afford the low prices because they hold many of their passengers to ransom. Faced with paying an extra fee or not travelling, the majority have to dip into their pockets. However, forewarned is forearmed, and the following tips ought to save future heartache.

1. Beware The Change: Many airlines let you alter bookings for what appears a small fee. However, they will also charge the difference between the original and the new rate. Within a couple of days of travel, this difference can be hundreds of dollars.

2. Cabin Carry-On: Don’t refuse to pay in advance for checked baggage, hoping that staff will turn a blind eye to the odd extra kilo in your carry-on. Discount carriers tend to police cabin baggage mercilessly so they can hit passengers with huge excess baggage charges.

3. Have Back-Up Money: Airlines are incredibly quick to take your money and glacially slow to give it back. Should you be in the unusual situation of actually getting a refund, it can take up to 6 weeks. Often the refund will be due to the airline cancelling a flight, so try to have back-up funds to buy a replacement ticket.

4. Take Noise-Cancelling Headphones: To maximise revenue, the aircraft are jammed with as many people as they can legally get away with (in parts of the world, this is open to scary interpretation!). As well as being surrounded by hundreds of strangers, carriers see passengers as a captive audience. Flights are one continuous advertisement for food, drink, lottery tickets, etc. Making things worse, some airlines charge $3/minute for cell phone usage and actively encourage it. Blocking out most of the noise might keep the murderous feelings at bay.

5. Low-Cost Isn’t Necessarily Lowest Price: Discount carriers rely on people assuming they are, by definition, the cheapest option. However, when booked a long time in advance, some full-service airlines are very competitive. There will be restrictions, but the ticket will probably include checked luggage, refreshments and no hidden fees. Definitely worth a look.

6. Connection Crisis: If you are booking a connecting flight, even with the same airline, ensure there is sufficient time to make it. Most discount airlines WILL NOT re-book or refund if they consider a delay to be beyond their control. Their definition of this is vague to say the least.

7. Priority Boarding Bulls**t: For a not-inconsiderate fee, some discount carriers offer you the chance to be first on board the aircraft. Unfortunately, you’ll still be battling with other fee-payers and, if the aircraft isn’t on a jet-bridge, you’ve just paid to be first on the bus!

8. You’re Landing Where?: Several low-cost operators fall just short of committing fraud when they claim to serve a city, and airport operators are just as guilty. Make sure the airport you’re flying to is actually close to the city or you could be hit with the cost of ground transportation too. Frankfurt-Hahn, for example, is 60 miles from the city centre – not exactly a cheap cab ride

9. Seats Apart: Some discount carriers save cash by running a free-seating policy. A boarding card is just that – a bit of plastic that gets you on. As far as they are concerned, your ticket will get you on but they couldn’t care less if you’re separated from your two-year-old. If you have a family, you have two choices. Either go with an airline that assigns seating for free. Or turn up at the airport a day early!

10. E-Theft: This is cropping up more and more. With a lot of low-cost airlines, the only way of booking a ticket is through their website. For this privilege, some of the unscrupulous outfits add on a service charge for electronic payment. There’s no other way of paying, so it’s basically charging an excessive amount of money for nothing. By strange coincidence, this is the dictionary’s definition of extortion.

Of course, these are only ten of the worst offences and the airlines are coming up with new scams almost on a daily basis. But if you only take one bit of advice from this article, let it be this: Always, always, read the terms and conditions. Always.

Then read them again!