Friday PM December 21st, 2007
by: Ed Mayberry, December 21, 2007 5:12:00 am
AAA says slightly more Americans are traveling this holiday season than last year, even though airfares and gasoline are significantly more expensive. The group says an average plane ticket costs 16 percent more than last Christmas. Its latest fuel gauge report shows gas is back below $3 a gallon, with regular averaging $2.98 nationwide. But that's 65 cents higher than last year. The auto club estimates more than 65 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home between now and New Year's. That's less than one percent above last year's level.
A 19-year-old Houstonian has launched a national toll-free number that provides callers flight status, terminal and gate information covering 141 airlines, 432 U.S. airports and 173 international airports. Seth Stolbun began working on 1-800-Flights when he was a high school senior. He's now a student at Babson College.
"It's really great! I go to class, and then I'll spend the afternoons working on the company and making sure everything's going well, and thinking about new ideas. 1-800-Flights has been a great learning experience and introduction to the business world. I've got to learn everything from contracts to customer support and even to sales—and now interviews—and it's been a real great introduction to that, and it's going to be something I can take into the future with me, along with my education at Babson."
Stolbun's service is also available on the Web.
"It's very simple. Online, you just go to our Web page, and on the front home page is some boxes where you enter your airline or flight number and then, or your city pair. And then over the phones, similarly, you just say your information. We ask you for your flight number or your city pair, along with your airline. And while you wait for your information we play an advertisement--or right now, just a sales spot for 1-800-Flights."
1-800-Flights uses voice-recognition technology.
"Our voice application basically asks, as a computer, using your voice and it translates your words into typing into the system to check your information. It's all automated, so we basically had to design the system, and now once it's in place, it's fairly self-sufficient. We're constantly looking at ways to improve caller experience--make sure the calls are as fast as possible and the best information. And so we're going to be constantly changing things up and making things better."
Stolbun says the service is ideal for the holidays, and helps those picking up passengers at the airport keep in the loop on any flight changes.
Texas is seeing its highest yuletide retail gasoline prices ever, despite three straight weeks of declines. The AAA Texas Gas Price Survey released shows regular, self-serve is averaging $2.85 per gallon. That's down a penny from last week but 64 cents higher than last year. The national average remains unchanged at $2.99 per gallon. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says retail gas prices topping $3 per gallon are a common sight around the country. Nevertheless, she says that more than 86 percent of Texas travelers this holiday season will be driving. That's one percent more than last year. The cheapest gas prices in Texas is in Houston, where the average retail price of regular self-serve fell a penny to $2.81 per gallon. The most expensive is in the Austin-San Marcos area, where the average price fell about a penny to $2.91 per gallon.
The statewide unemployment rate edged up to 4.2 percent in November as the growth of non-farm jobs fell by half. The Texas Workforce Commission said that the state jobless rate grew from October's 4.1 percent, which matched a 31-year low. A year ago, it stood at 4.7 percent. Nationwide, the November unemployment rate held steady at 4.7 percent. The Workforce Commission said seasonally adjusted non-farm employment grew by 12,300 in November after an increase of more than 24,000 jobs the month before. Initial claims for unemployment benefits in Texas rose 2.3 percent in November, to 59,943. Midland continued to have the lowest unemployment rate in the state, at a steady 2.7 percent. Amarillo, Lubbock and Odessa were next at 3.2 percent. The McAllen-Edinburg-Mission area, El Paso and Brownsville-Harlingen all continued to have unemployment rates over five percent--and rising. They were joined by Beaumont-Port Arthur.
Consumer sentiment weakened this month, although it wasn't as bad as some analysts had been expecting. The University of Michigan final December Consumer Sentiment Index fell to 75.5 the final November estimate of 76.1. The preliminary figures released in mid-December had indicated a drop to 74.5. The decline in consumer expectations comes amid continuing volatility in the financial markets along with concerns about the economy's direction. However, economic data have remained reasonably solid outside the housing sector.
Holiday promotions seem to be paying off for retailers. Consumer spending surged more than one percent in November, nearly triple the increase in October and the biggest gain in three and a-half years. Consumers didn't let soaring gas prices and slumping home sales get in the way of going to the mall last month, as retailers ramped up holiday promotions with heavy discounting and longer store hours. Still, there are more recent signs that spending has slowed this month. Meanwhile, an inflation gauge tied to spending went up six-tenths of a percent in November, the biggest increase in two years, reflecting a big surge in gasoline prices.
Three former Merrill Lynch executives whose 2004 fraud and conspiracy convictions connected to an Enron deal were overturned will be retried separately, a federal judge has ruled. James A. Brown, Daniel Bayly and Robert S. Furst were set to go to trial on January 28th after an appeals court last year threw out their wire fraud and conspiracy convictions because of a flawed theory by prosecutors. U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein, Jr., ordered that Bayly and Furst will be tried in January and Brown will be tried at a later date.
Round Rock-based computer maker Dell said it's reached a deal with British retailer Tesco to sell XPS and Inspiron desktop and notebook computers in Tesco stores. Most of the 500 stores are in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It's the latest in a string of retail partners for Dell, which is edging away from its longtime model of selling machines directly to businesses and consumers over the phone or on the Internet. Dell's agreed to sell computers in more than 10,000 stores.
Dell has agreed to buy the Networked Storage Company. Financial terms weren't disclosed. Networked storage is a privately held data-storage consulting firm formed in 2002 and based in the United Kingdom. Dell says the company advises some of Europe's leading financial institutions and other customers on infrastructure maintenance and management. Round Rock-based Dell said it plans to use network storage's methods in its consulting offerings worldwide.
President Bush has signed a measure to provide financial relief for financially strapped homeowners who are facing foreclosure or are in bankruptcy. The bill gives a tax break to homeowners who have mortgage debt forgiven as part of a foreclosure or renegotiation of a loan. No taxes would be owed on the value of any debt forgiven or written off. Currently such debt forgiveness is taxable income. While the measure is anticipated to reduce taxes of some strapped homeowners by $650 million, the cost to the government would be offset in part by limiting a tax break available on the sale of second homes. The bill was in response to a mortgage crisis touched off this spring by a blowup in high-priced home loans for risky borrowers, throwing a pall over the economy. Foreclosures are at record highs and late payments are spiking. Lenders have been forced out of business and investors have taken huge financial hits.
The Federal Reserve has auctioned another $20 billion in funds to commercial banks at an interest rate of 4.67 percent. The central bank, which is working to combat the effects of a severe credit crunch, says it received bids for 57.7 billion worth of loans, nearly three times the amount being offered. That shows there's continued strong interest in the Fed's new approach to providing money to cash-strapped banks. It was the second of four planned auctions. The first—on Monday--of $20 billion resulted in loans being awarded at an interest rate of 4.65 percent. Two more auctions will occur in early January. There were 93 bidders seeking $63.6 billion at the first auction and 73 at the second.
Three children's hospitals and eight charity health care clinics in Texas will share in a $4.5 million settlement. The agreement is between the Texas Attorney General's Office and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. The funds must directly benefit indigent patients. Children's Medical Center Dallas, Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi and Dell Children's Medical Center of central Texas in Austin will each get $500,000. The agreement, intended to help provide needy patients with charitable health services, is the result of a more-than decade long acquisition dispute. It stemmed from litigation begun in 1996. The state opposed the merging of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, which the office contended was a charity, with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, which the AG's Office said wasn't a charity.