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February 2010
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April 2010

Lost and found

Appropriately enough, it was while waiting to travel in cattle class that I read this article in Newsweek about flying in a first class suite on the new Airbus A380 (A Room of One’s Own).

What really horrified me was this part:

From the moment you arrive (generally in a dedicated hall decked out like a fancy hotel), you are greeted by a personal attendant, a kind of butler/sherpa who quietly whisks you toward your aircraft, sending you sailing through exclusive check-in, passport control, and security lanes so fast you barely have time to unlace your shoes.

Such personal attention is seductive—and dangerous, as I discovered on the first leg of my journey. On my way out of New York, I was so distracted by the presence of my minder that I temporarily forgot my suitcase on the X-ray belt.

Oddly, the online edition goes no further, but if you read the print edition you will know that the journalist only realized his mistake as the plane was about to take off.  That’s unlucky, you might think.  Well, yes, except that Singapore Airlines allowed him to disembark and go back to pick up his bag.  This delayed the takeoff by 40 minutes.

Now, if I were onboard an A380 waiting to fly long-haul, I would feel very upset if I had to wait that long because an absent-minded passenger had left something behind.

So is it just coincidence that this tale (which I think reflects badly on both the journalist and the airline) is missing from the online edition?

English or HD, not both

Another year goes by, and we still have the same old problem.  TVB are apparently unable to provide an English language commentary for the Rugby Sevens on Jade HD.  You can choose TVB Pearl, but with a fuzzy picture, or HD with no English.

What really puzzles me about this is that the picture quality on the digital version of TVB Pearl is more than adequate for US dramas, so if they have an HD feed why can’t they at least manage to have good quality standard definition for the rugby?

Red alert

Yesterday, all package tours from Hong Kong to Bangkok leaving in the next few days were abruptly cancelled after the government raised its first “red outbound travel alert

Large gatherings of people and protests are expected in [Bangkok] in the coming days. The Security Bureau said Hong Kong people intending to visit [Bangkok] should adjust their travel plans. Those already there should avoid protests and large gatherings.

Hmm…  there were strong rumours that there would be trouble in Bangkok two weeks ago (when the courts ruled on Thaksin's ill-gotten gains), and that turned out to be a false alarm.  This weekend there certainly will be demonstrations in Bangkok, but the protestors have promised they will be peaceful, and the security forces are well-prepared for any trouble that might occur. Clearly there are areas of the city that you might want to avoid, but it's hard to believe that tourists will be in any danger.

It’s fair enough for governments to issue warnings, but if I had my holiday cancelled like that I'd be very upset (of course it wasn't the government that cancelled the tours, but it might just as well have been). Mind you, I’ve never understood the appeal of going anywhere in a tour group, and if you booked your trip independently you are treated like an adult and can make your own decision (Cathay Pacific have said that passengers can change their flight booking without any penalty).  No such luxury if you booked a package tour.

This is the same government that has been making such a fuss about Swine Flu, forcing us to waste our time filling in stupid forms long after more sensible governments had realized it was a waste of time, so it’s no surprise.

Hemlock has more on this (Warning- Warnings Ahead):

The big excitement for government officials whose duty it is to raise alarms is the first-ever Red Outbound Travel Alert, advising Hong Kong people to avoid prolonged exposure to Thailand on account – as it happens – of matching Red Shirts, the supporters of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin, who are planning a major march in Bangkok in the next few days.

The OTA system was introduced in October 2009 in response to widespread public whining after Hong Kong tourists suffered inconvenience when protests, also in Bangkok, shut down airports (Yellow Shirts on that occasion).  It covers the 50 countries Hong Kong people are most likely to visit, which is why the likes of Afghanistan and Somalia do not appear.

Under the easy-to-remember system, an Amber Warning (currently applying to five countries with predominant or large Muslim populations but obviously that’s just a coincidence) means ‘Everything is cool, you can probably relax, but don’t blame the Security Bureau if you get shot or kidnapped because we issued an Amber Warning’.

Extreme Makeover – Castle edition

Watching BBC Lifestyle last night produced a bizarre juxtaposition.

First there was Extreme Makeover - Home Edition in which a few hundred contractors appear as if by magic to build a brand new house in less than 7 days, and there are nice touches such as a brand new truck being dropped in by helicopter. Subtle it is not. Oh, and American it is.

Then, immediately after that they had Grand Designs, in which an unassuming (but totally mad) bloke was rebuilding a 14th Century Castle in Skipton, Yorkshire.  In Britain.

You know that the new house in EMHE will be finished within the week and the family will love it, but there is far less certainty on Grand Designs. In this one they started with nothing more than some crumbling walls - and it was no surprise when one of them collapsed completely – and it took more than two years to complete.

In EMHE there is no discussion of the budget, and every room has its own big-screen TV. Contractors take part in return for loving close-ups of their company names. In Grand Designs, contractors have to be paid, and you know that the budget is a big issue. Francis Shaw, the mad castle owner, solemnly tells us that if the expenditure on the castle renovation goes over £600,000 he will have to sell and walk away. It does, but he doesn't.

If you want to see how it turned out, the castle has it own website, and there might even be the chance for Ruth Watson to do a follow-up show. 

I might add that neither of these shows was made by or for the BBC, but at least Grand Designs (which was made for Channel 4) does seem at home on a BBC channel, whereas Extreme Makeover - Home Edition has far too many people running around  and shouting.

Prudential – bold or barmy?

A year or so ago, Prudential (a British insurance company) apparently tried to buy 49% of AIA (an Asian insurance company based in Hong Kong and owned by AIG). This seemed doomed to failure for at least three reasons: they didn't offer enough; they didn't have the money; and how was it going to work if they owned 49% of their biggest competitor in several markets?

Now they are back in the toy shop and even more determined to get that shiny new plaything (Prudential gambles on Asia with $35bn deal):

Prudential, Britain's largest insurer, shook off the gloom that has dogged the City for the last two years with a record-busting financing package to fund a £23bn agreed takeover of Hong-Kong-based American International Assurance.

The acquisition signals a major push by the insurer into China and the Far East, where AIA was its main rival, with 20 million customers.

There’s that pesky problem again - in many markets Prudential and AIA are fierce competitors.  No-one seems sure how that will be resolved:

It was unclear how the company would operate after Thiam said the AIA brand would remain. AIA has 320,000 tied agents who have long seen the Pru's 400,000 employees as their main rivals.

Anyone who has been through any process where your company gets acquired (or "merged"), will know the problems this creates, especially when the acquirer is much smaller than the company being acquired -  and it's a well-established fact that most mergers destroy value rather than creating it.   Hostile acquisitions of “people” businesses are particularly risky - and you have to assume that everyone in AIA wanted an IPO rather than to be taken over by a rival.  This was a deal done by AIG and the US government, both of whom want as much money as possible as soon as possible, rather than by the management of AIA.

So there must be a fair chance that a significant number of agents may leave rather than work for Prudential, and you can be sure that other insurance companies will be watching this carefully to see how they can take advantage of the situation.

Prudential is undoubtedly a big name in the UK, and fairly well known in Asia, but AIA is much better known and has been in these parts far longer.  So there must be an argument for the new company being called AIA.  This would also remove the confusion with Prudential Inc., an unrelated US company, and after all the advertising that has been done in preparation for an IPO, it might be easier to issue new shares in Hong Kong under the AIA name.

But it almost certainly won’t happen.  Prudential’s top management are obviously feeling very pleased with themselves right now, and the last thing they want is to lose any of the glory.  Whether this will turn out to be a good deal for shareholders (whose interests the directors are supposed to be concerned about) is another matter. 

Prudential shares fell 12% to 530p yesterday against a slightly higher FTSE 100, while AIG shares were up 6% at $26.30.

"(The deal) is going to be enormously dilutive," said ING analyst Kevin Ryan. "No one knows exactly what AIA contains or how profitable it is, or how it overlaps with Pru's existing businesses."

Pru chief executive Tidjane Thiam rejected concerns that profits could be jeopardised. He said: "Transformational is an overused word, but this deal is truly transformational."

Well, yes, he would say that, wouldn’t he.  Oh, and thanks to the SCMP for their insightful coverage of this story (one article from Bloomberg, since you ask).