Friday, November 30, 2012

Venom to Spirit Air

Two weeks ago, my wife and I had a nice little fight about an upcoming trip to visit a college with my daughter. A big part of it had to do with Spirit Airlines being the only option for the trip. I hate Spirit. No, really, I hate it. I did not want to fly anywhere on this cut rate, cut service, cut dignity airline.

But we parents make sacrifices for our kids and I bit the bullet (lead side in my mouth but it dangit it did not go off).

The one and only other time I flew Spirit was to Florida with the whole family of five, including a toddler. Nightmare making reservations (pay to book a seat? really?). I had a cow to the supervisor over that one saying there was no way I would risk getting my family split up with their randomly assigned seating. He relented.

LaGuardia is a dump. Well, at least Spirit's gate at this old NY airport is a dump. Why was AirTran's and jetBlue's adjacent gates so inviting while Spirit's was dreary and crowded. Imagine getting the call to board with a stroller and everyone is already lined up clogging the path to the jetway door. Nightmare.

Anyway, I booked the flight for us earlier this month and was damned if I was going to pay for carry on luggage.  Why was it cheaper to check a bag? It takes more labor, not less. Same for booking seats online and not at the gate. After learning how much my daughter wanted to pack, I bought a roundtrip for one suitcase for $70. Yes, seventy dollars. You can see the price advantage for the human fare evaporating.

But eat this bird, Spirit, I am not paying to select a seat. They all suck anyway. I chose the random option and it was just as uncomfortable as the paid option.

So we get through security and sit at the crowded gate. Since I did not have a carry on I waited until nearly last to get on. Minimize the discomfort. But I am jumping ahead.

The guy at the microphone then got on to threaten (connotation intended) us that if your personal item did not make the size limit your would have to pay for it as a carry on. $100. One hundred US dollars. Would have been only $50 at the ticket counter, you dopes (well, that's what I felt he was saying). Same for a bag you gate checked, too. "No exceptions!" he bellowed. I took my coat out of my computer bag to make it look smaller. Yes, a totally relaxing experience fearing getting called out to pay more fees.

I am shaking right now as I just checked in for the return flight online but do not have a printer for the boarding pass. Will they charge me a fee to print it at the ticketing kiosk? I would not put it past them.

Let me be fair and say that the flight crew and the flight itself were fine. Smooth take off and landing. Nothing special in the air which is they way you want it. Such a contrast to the evil gate attendant.

We taxi out, wait our turn for takeoff and I notice other planes are passing us. We had pulled out of line and the captain gets on the PA to tell us engine number 2 will not start. It will take 15 minutes to get back to the gate to get it checked out and repaired. I prayed they would not make us or let us get off because that was a half hour minimum to reload the plane.

Now, mechanical problems happen. I cannot fault the airline - or can I? Do you wonder how these cut rate airlines keep prices low? I have no proof but isn't it possible their planes go a few extra miles before that next tune-up? Or they hire one less mechanic and stretch them thin? Notice, I did not question the abilities of the mechanic. The people, save for Dr Evil, are doing their jobs and I must assume they want to be proud in their work.

We arrive at the gate and the captain announces it is a "tow-in" gate.  OK, that's what it is. But then he said it would be five or ten minutes for the tow vehicle to get there. Excuse me? You knew 15 minutes ago we were coming back and you certainly knew which gate was available. Why was the tow not waiting for us instead of the other way around?

Employ one less to vehicle, Spirit?  Or was the driver loading bags on a different flight to save some salary?

It turned out the problem was minor and fixed fairly quickly. Finally, a break. But because the doors were opened, federal regulations required they give us the whole, "this is how you open your seat belt" schpiel again. The flight attendants could only comply. I tried to remove the wedgie I got as I slithered into my spider hole, I mean seat. We eventually took off about two hours late (for a 94 minute in-air flight).

Then comes the fun. Enter the sardine can. Perhaps some soybean oil would have helped us all squeeze into this completely overcrowded cabin. "Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight, we heard over the PA. Clearly, they were on drugs. I wished I were, too.

I measured the seat in front of me was 13 inches from my nose. So much for taking out that laptop. It was hard enough bending and folding my magazine. I hoped the person in front of me would give me a sign when she was about to recline her chair so I could protect my face from assault. Fortunately, I was on the aisle so I could stand up a few times before and during the flight.

Did I say fortunately? Unfortunately, I was on the aisle with my shoulders in the path of the flight attendant with the giant hips. The first time she went by, I appreciated her curves along with a slender waist, pretty face and nice smile. The next 31 times she rammed into me I was not so enamored.  Why couldn't the skinny one at the front of the plane take care of us back here?

One thing about me and travel is that we do not do well together. But I have learned to go into commuter mode with low brain activity and higher tolerance for the scruffy guy across the aisle coughing while his wife makes loud obnoxious saliva clearing noises into their toddler's face. I go into a zone of sorts, perhaps meditating but more likely resigning myself to a waste of several hours of my life.

We arrive at our destination and perhaps 20 minutes later I was able to finally get off the plane. No, they opened the doors on time. It's just that it took longer than I have ever seen for the people in front of me to get off. I could see it was because everyone was packed in so tightly that it took extra long to get out of their seats and extra long to retrieve their bags from overhead via contortions and excuse me's. Meanwhile scruffy was putting on his coat, draping it over other people, gathering his bags, picking up his infant and generally forgetting that his every move touched someone else. I knew a shower was in my near future so I left my commuter mode on. Did someone invent full body Purelle?

Finally, we made our way down to baggage claim. We were the only flight arriving so why did it take more than a half hour for the bags to show up? One less baggage porter? Less maintenance on their systems to get the bags to us?  You truly get what you pay for.

I will never, ever fly this $#!& airline again. No cheap fare would do it. No offer to upgrade to their fat seats for free (call it less bad class, not first class). In fact, the flight attendant came through the cabin with applications for the Spirit credit card (which I laughed at like Mitch McConnell to Timmy Geithner). The instant free flight incentive did not make me want to sign up. I did not want the bonus miles for some other promotion they had. They could have offered me a round-trip to the Caribbean with hotel and transfers I would not subject myself to the nickel and diming price structure, the worry about not following their rules to the tee and getting more fees. How much would a magazine cost me? Next I am sure they are going to go through with the fee for using the bathroom..

Think bout this - if they  want to fly to family vacation locations their idea to charge a la carte is ludicrous. Families must have baggage. They must book seats together, sometimes with a family member in the seat in front of the kicking toddler.

Did I mention I hate Spirit Airlines? I previously hated Delta the most but Spirit wins.

I'll close on a happy note. Mr. Scruffy's infant made a connection with the infant in the row in front of him. It was cute indeed and everyone around ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the pleasant interaction and distraction. What I noticed, and I could be wrong, was that Mr. Scruffy and family seemed to be religious Brooklyn Jews while the family in front of them seemed to be of Arabic descent. The innocent interaction between their infants was indeed a shining oasis in the misery that is Spirit Airlines.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Hurricane Kudos to MetLife

I am pleased to report that my prop/cas insurance company , MetLife, has already sent me a settlement check for Superstorm Sandy related damage.I found them to be prompt, fair and quite pleasant on the phone and in person.

I highly recommend this company. Not like Northwestern, who dropped me right after I filed a claim for a burst water pipe.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Worst financial writing ever (fiction)

I write for several financial media outlets and each one has a dual mission. First, they must inform with cogent analysis and a decent track record of being right. Second, they must hold the reader/viewer's interest by being interesting, if not entertaining. 

Analyst A might have a 90% success rate with an annualized return of 25% but if he puts the viewer to sleep he will not be asked back.

Analyst B always gets the comment "You looked great on TV but I did not know what you were talking about." Eye candy only goes so far.

For written media, headlines MUST grab reader attention. They MUST make the reader curious about what is in the story and want to read it. Unfortunately, they lapse into Pun-Land with a vengeance. With that in mind, here is my worst made up Thankgiving headline and opening paragraph ever:

Stuff Your Portfolios but Avoid the Turkeys

Today, stocks were seasoned by market joy as investors made a pilgrimage to the buy side. With the holiday just around the corner, investors feasted on sweet potato stocks to fill their brokerage account plates. Joe the Trader, senior analyst at Holiday International, added this chestnut, "I love this holiday because profits are easy as pie."

How's that for a bowl full of corn? Kind of makes you want to drown yourself in a cranberry bog.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody! And while you celebrate, don't forget the thousands of victims of Hurricane Sandy still struggling to put their lives back together. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Finally back after the hurricane

We had no power for 13 days.
No telephone for 17 days.
No TV or Internet for 18 days.

But the house is standing, nothing was flooded and only a few trees came tumbling down. We had it so much better than thousands in the area.  Sayonara Sandy. What starts with "B" rhymes with Sea Watch?

Expect more blogs from us soon.  In the meantime, check out this back of the napkin description of our methods in preparing Quick Takes Pro and gazillions of other things we produce in a week.  This was a question asked by a subscriber and answered in the newsletter Monday morning.

Question - With your unrelenting press of numerous deadlines I know you have to have a systematic way of monitoring all thing macro to micro leading you to eventual security selection. Would you share how you organize your routine and what resources you use to efficiently sort through the enormous quantity of data to get to the promising opportunities?

Answer- You are right about the unrelenting deadlines. My own method is steeped in madness but a lot of it stems from staying plugged into the market all the time.  We follow which sectors are leading and lagging each day. We look at which sectors and stocks are volume leaders. News plays a role but as a reason to check something out, not trade. That decision is based on the charts alone.

Sometimes, there is no theme and you can tell on days when we just have very little to say in the comments section. Unlike traders, journalists (and advisors) have to have an opinion every day. Have your clients given you the "we do not pay you to be in cash" speech? Editors certainly will not keep a columnist on who writes, "Nothing to say to today" or "Same as yesterday."

We plow into various lists of stocks with blunt force, not the precision cut of a rigid system. Markets change and that means systems have to change - all the time. We have not time to maintain them under such fluid conditions so it is better to stick to nuts and bolts, human nature based analysis as humans do not change. We won't find that monster winner but if we happen to stumble on it at least we'll ride it for a good chunk of change.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Blame High Prices for the Gasoline Shortage

Uh, what? Higher prices created less product not more? My Econ 101 professor is rolling over in his grave (I don't know if he is actually dead but go with it).

Remember in the fun days of 2008 when gasoline was heading toward $5 per gallon? Remember back even further when there were four gas stations on many corners in populous areas? You toddler traders with only 10 years experience are too young for that, I suppose.

But in 2008, I blogged Where Have All the Gas Stations Gone. It was hard to understand why they were disappearing especially when their products were soaring. Reader comments were awesome - basically saying that gas station profits were steady while inventory costs went up. Credit Card companies took a percentage leaving the station owner with a few cents revenue out of which they had to pay expenses and taxes. A big chunk for the oil company, a big chunk for Uncle Sam and a little chunk for Amex. Chaff for the station owner.

Lower profit margins and unfavorable cash flow (pay for inventory now, get paid by customers in 30 days or more). Result - Your local Esso station (toddlers?) is now a Walgreens. Your local Sinclair station is now a Wells Fargo.

The station density became inadequate to serve the population.

And then there's Maude, er, Sandy. Li'l Miss hurricane blew out a good chunk of the gas stations in the Northeast. Remember, the number was already low so this was -and still is - a big problem.

So, higher prices for gasoline in a fixed profit, not fixed profit percentage business and viola! Gas shortages.

Now, where is that hamster powered generator. Ain't no gas to fill up a real one to get the pumps working at gas stations sitting on thousands of gallons that they cannot pump. You cannot make this stuff up.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

No power, no problem

No power, no problem?  Well, let's just say I'm doing things the old fashioned way.

No, I am not out back churning butter by hand but I am washing the dishes with a sponge and some soap. Kind of makes you appreciate re-using a lightly used plate and fork.

How about this one? Talking face to face. My neighbor from across the street came over to see if I knew what was going on with the power restoration. She introduced herself (we'd met already) but had a nice little chat. I learned how she was coping and where she grew up. She even told me a little fact about firewood but I am not sure I believe her.

Another neighbor got a generator and we chatted about it at the end of the driveway. She took my laptop for a charge because you can't charge these puppies via USB in the car like cell phones of iPods.  I brought her a small space heater for her somewhat frail mother-in-law.  It felt good to be neighborly.

What was really fun was using that fire pit we had built in the back yard. Frivolous, in good times but it produced some heat and more importantly a little family time. Fire roasted hot dogs taste absolutely awesome. And of course, slow roasted marshmallows are everyone's favorite.

Meanwhile, the grill was put to good use feeding us. Aside from cooking up everything in the freezer before the ice ran out, it heated the water for morning coffee (still got to use my french press) and grilled frozen bagels. Grill lines on burgers are one thing but on bagels? They added a nice smokey flavor that complemented the last bits of cream cheese very nicely.

And grilled baked ziti. Now that was good. Who does not like the noodles at the edges when they get nice and crunchy?  But that was not the only pasta dish as we boiled up a pot of water for more pasta and pan roasted some chopped veal with fresh onions, some tomato paste (manual can opener) and the last splash of jarred sauce from the fridge (Emeril's). I need the gym to re-open and soon!

From homemade applesauce to a full box of frozen hors d'oeuvres heated in a foil pan, starving we are not.  getting that second tank of propane before the storm was a good idea.

With no TV, we've been going to bed a bit earlier. We've also been BLISSFULLY spared election news, polls and spin. Worth the price of admission all by itself. Imus in the Morning on the radio - not so bad. When he is not being a self-centered curmudgeon, Imus is a darn good interviewer. And when constant storm coverage got depressing, a quick flip of the analog dial on my battery powered radio and there was sports radio WFAN. Good thing I am a Giants fan and not a Jets fan or I'd still be depressed.

What's next? Writing letters?  Riding my bicycle down to the market for some milk and eggs?  Raising my own vegetables in the back yard?

Who knows? While I do look forward to returning to the modern world it was good to learn that unlike so many  people around me I would not be eaten by wolves if left to my own devices in the woods.