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April 2007

Expect delays

There was a rather stupid letter in SCMP on Monday (Hidden cost of budget airlines - subscription required) about the recent problem Oasis had with a flight delay. 

Here they go again - "Flat tyre takes the wind out of Oasis Flight" (April 8). The airline's inaugural flight last October was delayed for 24 hours because of problems getting clearance from Russian authorities.

In October a tow-bar snapped on a vehicle towing the plane on the tarmac at London's Gatwick Airport. By the time the aircraft taxied out to the runway, the airport's curfew hour had arrived and it had to close for the night. Oasis missed it by one minute.

Oasis' general manager of sales and marketing, Raymond Ng To-wing, said he was waiting for the report on why it took hours to fix a flat tyre.  In Apple Daily one passenger said the captain informed them the landing gear had problems, then blamed it on a flat tyre and later claimed that the aircraft wings had a problem.

Legislator Howard Young, representing the tourism sector, said it was not unusual for new airlines to run into technical problems, but it was important to have enough planes to provide a good quality service. I agree.

If travellers choose budget airlines such as Oasis to get from A to B, they should be prepared not to arrive at their destination on time.

Eugene Li, Deep Water Bay

This drew a couple of responses from passengers on full fare airlines, who had also experienced problems of their own (one with mislaid luggage on a BA flight, another with a delay):

Eugene Li, "Hidden cost of budget airlines" (April 23), seems to feel that those who pay budget airfares should not complain when they arrive late.

Perhaps he may want to explain why hundreds of people paying full first-class fares, business-class fares, economy-class and discounted economy are still arriving late on full-fare airlines that apparently have planes to spare? Except, of course, when one gets a technical hitch that strands passengers in London because there is no spare plane available. Having paid HK$70,000 for this inconvenience recently, I would be much happier being late for HK$16,000!

Mark Peaker, The Peak

No airline is perfect.  On two recent flights I took on Cathay, the entertainment system was suffering from a "software problem" that meant that none of the advertised movies were shown, and on another occasion they excelled themselves by sending me an SMS announcing that my flight would be two and a half hours late - the catch being that actually it left on time.  Good trick - nearly caught me out with that one... 

Nothing remarkable in any of that, and the only reason for mentioning it is that I can't help feeling that if Oasis suffered any of those problems then they would be on the TV news and in the newspapers.  Or in stupid letters to the SCMP.   

Meanwhile, Oasis seems to have dropped Oakland as its next destination in favour of Vancouver (Oasis Airlines to Fly to Canada in June), which does sound like a more attractive option.  So far they are only selling tickets through travel agents in Hong Kong (they cannot be purchased online or in Canada), which seems to indicate that this has all been arranged in rather a rush. 


Always look on the bright side

Spike has noticed the same thing I just noticed, namely that HSBC have decided to "improve" their PowerVantage account from the start of next year.

The catch being, of course, that these improvements are accompanied by a substantial increase in the monthly fee if you don't meet their minimum balance requirement - oh, and that minimum balance has been increased from HK$100k to HK$200k.  

If you have less than HK$200,000 in your account, the monthly fee will now be HK$120 (a six-fold increase). 

I remember when HSBC stopped offering Bonus Points on tax payments, and they did the same trick - they made a big thing of a lucky draw and only mentioned the real change in the small print.

My all-time favourite is a company of my acquaintance, which issued an internal announcement saying that due to the great success of product X, two staff were being transferred to the London office.  Only in the second paragraph did they get round to mentioning the fact that the rest of the staff were being made redundant and the office would close down.        


Mr Jam

I've mentioned Nury Vittachi's blog here before.  Now he has redesigned it, purchased a new domain, and started writing a diary that is someone similar to the Lai See column of old (which ran in the SCMP until 1997 and then in the iMail for a year or two) - though naturally you can expect more on the literary scene and less about business.

I know that Nury's stuff is not to everyone's taste, but I have to admit that I enjoyed the old Lai See columns, and now he is free from the constraints of writing for a newspaper.  Here's one item from today's diary:

A BEIJING COURT ordered a shop to pay 195,000 yuan to US movie studios for selling pirate DVDs of films, the press reported today. The sample movie mentioned in the charge was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Well, that must be the first that particular bomb actually made some income for the movie industry.


Van blanc

The SCMP reports that new 5-seater taxis are to be introduced in the New Territories (subscription required). 

Battery-powered seven-seater vans will soon be introduced across the New Territories as a more comfortable alternative to the usual taxis, with the same fares, at least initially. 

The chairman of the Taxi and Public Light Bus Concern Group, Lai Ming-hung, said three taxi companies had invested up to HK$60 million to buy 20 modified seven-seat Toyota vans, which will be introduced as a pilot scheme in June. 

They are an attempt to counter business taken away by illegal van services operating out of the airport.

The so-called "vans" (I'd call them "people carriers") are a good option for travelling to and from the airport, being both cheaper and more spacious than normal taxis.  It's bizarre that they are illegal, but the taxi business is highly regulated in Hong Kong, with fares fixed by the government, and taxi licences are a tradeable commodity.   

The law says that taxi drivers cannot offer discounts, but they can give a discount if a passenger asks for one. Of course, it's not easy to negotiate a discount when you jump in a cab, but it is possible to order a taxi by phone and get a discount of 20-40%.   

In London, black taxis are similar to Hong Kong taxis (highly regulated and with fares fixed by the government), but there are also a large number of private hire vehicles (usually called "mini cabs").  You have to book by phone, but prices are not regulated, and they are almost always much cheaper than black taxis.  There was a time when they were often rather seedy, with elderly and dirty cars and dodgy drivers, but now the industry is more regulated and standards are much higher, with a range of different vehicles available, including the large "people carriers".  If you want to go from Heathrow to another part of London, it's a good idea to book a mini-cab rather than paying a small fortune for a black taxi.    

One can only hope that common sense prevails, and Hong Kong adopts a similar system, legalising the so-called vans.  Of course, normal taxis should be allowed to compete by offering discounted fares for longer journeys booked by phone.  Then everyone's a winner.


Not so much of a bargain

According to The Times: "It had to happen.  You can now fly around the world entirely on low-cost airlines."

And most important, they mean you’ll end up with a serious bargain. For example, you could bag a fantastic trip from London to Hong Kong, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York and back to London for an all-in fare of little more than £500 [HK$7,850]. A similar route would cost at least £1,400 using British Airways and its chums in the Oneworld alliance. 

At first, the £500 round-the-worlder will be limited to a small range of cities. You’ll fly Oasis Airlines (www.oasishongkong.com) from Gatwick to Hong Kong for £150 (including taxes), then pay Oasis another £150 to hop on to Oakland — just across the bay from San Francisco’s main airport. From there, fly to Las Vegas and then on to New York with JetBlue (www.jetblue.com; from £125). From New York, it’s back to Gatwick with Zoom (www.flyzoom.com; from £129).

Well, it's a good hook for a story, but actually if you really wanted to go round the world, you can probably get a decent bargain from the established carriers - I've mentioned round-the-world fares before, and if you compare this calculation with the HK$10k fare charged by Air New Zealand then it's not so much of a bargain.  Anyway, that's not really the point of the article, which is more about Oasis offering flights from Hong Kong to London and (later this year) to Oakland.

Oasis seems to get a lot of publicity considering its size - some good, but also some bad as well.  Recently an Oasis flight to London was delayed, initially because of a burst tyre and then because the crew needed to take rest before they could take-off.  It's hard to believe that a similar problem for any other airline would even make it into the SCMP, let alone in such a promiment position in the paper.

Meanwhile, they are still running a variety of promotions, mainly for business class, and mostly variants on 'buy one, get one free'.  These work out at around HK$13k per person (return, including taxes), which makes them a reasonable alternative to 'premium economy' on Virgin, BA and Air New Zealand.  You get a much bigger seat, but not lie-flat, and of course you don't get most of the frills offered on full-price business class.  Personally, I think that's quite an attractive option.   


Headline here

From the City section of today's SCMP...

OK, so the SCMP runs banal stories such as the one about children liking to chat on the Internet (who'd have guessed it?) or a building we've never heard of being structurally safe. 

The question is what made someone sandwich those stories with the other 4 items that make up the 'In Brief' section, namely a couple of deaths, a hit and run accident, and an 81 year being injured by her grandson. 

Splendid piece of work, chaps.


Not listening

I knew this would happen.  I started using Pandora, and now it seems that it's under threat, as the BBC reports:

US webcasters will face sharp rises in royalty fees that could be "fatal" to the nascent industry, a coalition of web broadcasters has claimed.

The increases will start on 15 May and will eventually charge royalties every time an online listener hears a song. The decision to impose the fees was made by a panel of judges who threw out requests to overturn an earlier ruling.

Public and commercial broadcasters claim it will force cuts to services used by an estimated 50 million people.

"If these rates stand... I believe we'll see a virtual shutdown all of US webcasting," wrote Kurt Hanson, CEO of AccuRadio, on the SaveInternetRadio.org blog.

I think that link should be SaveNetRadio.org/blog

These rates are much higher than for satellite radio, and of course normal terrestrial broadcast radio stations in the States don't pay any royalties at all.

I can see that there is an argument for charging more because many of these "radio stations" are highly customisable by the user, but it looks like another short-sighted decision by the record industry.  Isn't it obvious that if you deny people the chance to listen to music they are unlikely to buy it? 

Pandora has links to both Amazon and iTunes to help people buy music, and someone pointed out in a comment here that there is an unofficial Pandora/emusic "mash-up" that (sorta) helps you to find a song you have heard on Pandora and then download it from emusic.  Well, up to a point, because it doesn't always work very well - if an artist is not available on emusic they sometimes come up with very strange alternatives - but it's a useful service nonetheless.

If I can't listen to music on Pandora (or something similar), I'll surely stop subscribing to emusic and probably buy even fewer cds.  Is that what they want?


Do the maths

Someone please slap me around the face, will you? I think I'm about to something a bit daft.

The problem is that I have lost my access to SCMP.com and I am therefore considering the rather radical step of actually paying for it.

As luck would have it, the SCMP have written to me suggesting that I subscribe to their fine newspaper. They say that they are offering me 40% off a subscription to both the newspaper and the website.

Er, not quite. By my calculation, it would cost HK$2593 to buy the SCMP every day, and their offer is HK$1798, which is about 30% off. The difference seems to be HK$399, which is what they charge for a web-only subscription, and they have added that on to arrive at an "original price" of HK$2,992. That's a bit naughty because if you subscribe to the newspaper this always includes access to the website, so you can't count it twice.

In fact, their "normal" price seems to be HK$2168 for a 7-day subscription, so in reality they are only knocking off HK$370 with this "special" offer. There's more special SCMP maths here, because here they calculate the full price of buying the paper every day as as HK$2693, so it looks as if you are getting a 20% discount when it's actually 17%.  I've no idea where the extra HK$100 comes from. 

Anyway, the question here is whether I should wait for the "new" SCMP.com which may (just possibly) have some of the content available free of charge. 


Why not?

Octopus cards can be used very widely these days, but not to buy tickets on the MTR or KCR. 

That might sound a bit daft, but what if you a travelling with someone who doesn't have an Octopus card?  Why do you have to use cash to buy a ticket when you could use your Octopus card?