Apr 172014
A new approach to business class seat design and space saving with one person's legs above/below the other's.  See article below.

A new approach to business class seat design and space saving with one person’s legs above/below the other’s. See article below.

Good morning

And a very happy Easter to you, wherever in the world you may be celebrating it.  One of the few disadvantages of living in the US is that Easter is not celebrated here – in New Zealand, it is marked by both the Friday and Monday being holidays.

Talking about New Zealand, I am approaching the ‘last call’ point for people who might be considering joining our Travel Insider NZ tour this October.  We’ve a great group of 20 people already coming, and room for another few people if you’d like to join us.

Anyway, treating this as a normal work week, you’ll find two additional articles as well as today’s roundup.

I was cringing in a hotel room earlier this week while reading the prominent bathroom placard none-too-gently suggesting that I not even leave the tap running while brushing my teeth, so as to ‘save the planet’ by using less water – a strange request for a resort located in the middle of the rain forest and surrounded by abundant water everywhere.  And then later in the week, I found a story about Portland, OR capriciously/ridiculously throwing away 38 million gallons of water, while boasting they have plenty more.

One wonders if the hotels in Portland also demand their guests save water.  For more, see the article below.

The second article is my addition to the 33 million articles already listed by Google when you search for ‘MH 370 conspiracy’.  It is an attempt to look at some of what we don’t know (because there’s still almost nothing we do know).  Indeed, not only do we still know nothing, but it seems that the latest greatest most scientifically calculated search area, bolstered by bearings from four different black box pings, might be wrong and be about to changed yet again.

Please also read on for :

  • The 737 Passes Another Milestone
  • New Airplane Seats on Display
  • A Bumper Year for Business Travel
  • Sydney to Get a Second Airport
  • Different Industry, Same Merger Nonsense
  • Foreign Exchange Fees Disappearing from Credit Cards
  • 4K TV Now Being Sold at Costco
  • The Ten Most Disappointing Destinations in the World?
  • And Lastly This Week….

The 737 Passes Another Milestone

This week saw the delivery of the 8,000th 737 made by Boeing, further cementing the plane’s place in the record books as the most popular passenger plane ever built.

It is only 2.5 years since the 7,000th was delivered, and with a current production rate of 42 planes/month, it will be just under two years before the 9,000th is delivered (there are more than 3,700 737s on back order currently).

It is however also more than 46 years since the first 737 was delivered, although there’s not a lot in common between the first 737 and the current 737s, other than – groan – the diameter of the cabin cylinder and the related necessary narrowness of the seats.

New Airplane Seats on Display

Talking about narrow seats, last week saw the annual Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.  A wide range of current, future, and futuristic seating choices were on display, including new attempts by seat designers to squeeze even more seats into less airplane space.

A first class seat can cost the airline up to $500,000 each, and even such inexpensive seeming things as the seatback video display units cost, on average, about $10,000 per inch of diagonal screen size, plus another $1000 or more for the separate control unit for each display (in other words, a modest 10″ display could cost perhaps $12,000 each).

When you add in also the associated weight costs of all that electronics, is it any wonder that airlines are keen to encourage us into bringing our own devices onto planes?

This article has some interesting pictures of seats on display at the Expo.

A Bumper Year for Business Travel

The Global Business Travel Association has just revised upwards its projection for 2014 business travel expenditures by US businesses.  They are now projecting a 7.1% increase in total spend compared to 2013.

After two years of business travel declines, the GBTA is predicting a 2% increase in business travel; the balance of the 7.1% dollar increase being due to increased costs of travel this year.  It looks like 2014 is sure to be another great year for the airlines.

Apparently video-conferencing has still not yet rewritten the rules of business travel.  Maybe next year.  Or – more likely, probably not.

Details here.

Sydney to Get a Second Airport

Even fairly modest sized cities often seem to have more than one commercial airport.  For decades now, Sydney has been crippled by only having one airport, and – even worse – it is an airport with curfew restrictions limiting when flights can arrive and depart.

This is not only a problem in terms of the total number of flights a day that can be managed, but it becomes an operational problem when flights are delayed, meaning that sometimes flights can’t depart or arrive due to their delayed takeoff/landing now falling within the curfew hours.

It is a further problem for airlines seeking to get the best utilization of their planes, and trying to synchronize departure and arrival times at both ends of perhaps a very long flight.  If a flight arrives into Sydney shortly before its 11pm curfew, it is stuck on the ground for the seven hours of the curfew until 6am the next morning, and there’s nothing a well run airline likes less than seeing a several hundred million dollar plane sitting unproductively on the ground for seven hours.

The current airport (Kingsford Smith Airport, code SYD, in the suburb of Mascot) also suffers from a split design where the international and domestic terminals are on opposite sides of the airport, making for inconvenient and time-consuming transfers between domestic and international flights (a bit like Heathrow with T4 and T5 in distant parts of the airport compared to where the original T1/2/3 complex is located).

There have been plans and proposals and studies for a second Sydney airport for almost exactly 50 years, and discussions dating back to the 1940s, but it is only in the last week that finally the government has decided upon a clear way forward, with a second airport to open in Badgerys Creek, about 30 miles to the west of Sydney (compared to SYD which is a mere 5 miles to the south).

Sure, the location is less convenient for people wanting to travel all the way in to Sydney and across town to its eastern suburbs, but that doesn’t matter if you’re changing planes and continuing your journey, and it would be acceptable if there was an adjustment in ticket price for most people in any event.  Another important factor will be how well it will be served by rapid train service to/from downtown Sydney, with actual distance from the city center less important than the travel time to get to and from.

But don’t expect to be flying there any time soon.  Construction is unlikely to start before 2016, and as for its first flight arriving, the current estimate ranges from ‘it would take about two years to build a single short runway’ to about 5 – 7 years to get to the point of some domestic flights operating, to a full opening perhaps some time in the mid 2020s.  There is a current budget of $2.4 billion for the new airport.

Can someone explain how it takes almost ten years to build and open an airport?  This is not time for approvals and appeals.  This is simply the construction time, after the final approval has been received, to lay a runway or two, build a terminal or two, and the associated infrastructure needed to make it all work and to connect it to road and hopefully rail links.

China is constructing an enormous new airport in Beijing in half this time (and for half the money).

Different Industry, Same Merger Nonsense

We’ve all been way over-exposed to the nonsense about the need for airlines to merge, but it is important to appreciate that this merger advocacy nonsense is not confined to the airlines, alone.

For example, in my home country of New Zealand, there are just over 4 million people and three mobile phone service providers.  The UK, with 63 million people, has at least seven major mobile phone service providers.

The United States has almost 80 times as many people as NZ and five times as many as the UK, but according to this nonsense report, is unable to support a mere four major mobile phone service providers.  The report says that Sprint and T-Mobile need to merge together in order to compete against AT&T and Verizon.

T-Mobile, although deemed ‘unable to compete’ by the report, has right around 50 million customers and is showing massive subscriber growth over the last year or so due to the introduction of its ‘uncarrier’ type strategies.  Sprint has a few more subscribers – about 55 million – but is not showing such growth.

Why do selected parts of the US economic community believe that size alone is the only/overriding consideration when it comes to being able to successfully compete in a marketplace/industry?  As still somewhat of an outsider looking in at the US business model, this seems to be an overriding issue, and quite without parallel in many other countries, where it is not so much about the size of your company as it is the adroitness with which you operate it (hmmm – that’s a bit like another thing, too, isn’t it).

Alternatively, if size truly is the most important factor, since when did 50 million customers become a ‘too small’ size for viable success?

Talking about size, it is also relevant to note that New Zealand has half the population density of the US, making it harder for the wireless companies to provide cost-effective coverage.  But NZ can support one wireless company per 1.5 million of population, whereas it is claimed that 50 million people are insufficient for a US wireless company, and that in total, the 314 million people in the country can only support three wireless companies.

This makes no more sense than when American Airlines – an airline outlooking a profitable future as a standalone carrier – said that it needed to merge with US Airways in order to survive.

Foreign Exchange Fees Disappearing from Credit Cards

For a while it was common to see most credit cards tacking on as much as a 3% fee when you charged amounts in a foreign currency.  They would convert the foreign currency to US dollars, and presumably make a small profit from the exchange rate they used, and then they would charge an additional fee on top of that, for no reason other than they could.

These fees have always been moderately negotiable.  There have also been a few cards that notably never added such charges, including some with Chase, Citi and Capital One.

Last year saw the Chase/United card waive fees, and it now seems that Amex is removing fees from its consumer and business Delta SkyMiles cards from 1 May, and the new Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard will also waive fees.

Suggestion – call your preferred card issuer and ask them to waive fees on your card, too.  Tell them you’ve been approached by and are considering one of these competing cards, and ask them to match the no foreign transaction fees.

I’ve had Bank of America, in the past, gratuitously offer to remove the fees from my Alaska Airlines Visa card, so if you travel internationally from time to time, this could be a worthwhile request to make.

4K TV Now Being Sold at Costco

If proof was needed about the transition from esoteric to mainstream by the latest and greatest ’4K’ resolution video monitors, I noticed three different models of 4K capable monitors on sale at Costco yesterday.

It was also great to be able to compare the 4K and ‘regular’ 1080P monitors side by side.  Yes, there was a visible difference, and there’s a great slide-over image in this article that attempts to show you the impact of the higher resolution.

The biggest benefit of 4K however is not so much a better or clearer picture as it is being able to sit closer to the screen and enjoy a larger picture without any visible scan lines or pixelation on the screen.  I checked, after going to the movies over the weekend, and already my 1080P screen subtends nearly as large a viewing angle as did the ‘big screen’ in the movie theater, and when you keep in mind that a 4K screen can be twice as wide and twice as high as a comparable 1080P screen when viewed at the same distance, it is clear that we can now enjoy appreciably bigger than movie theater screen type experiences in our own homes.

This hearkens back to my article in January, pointing out that home video finally now is capable of providing a better viewing experience than the latest state of the art movie theaters.

Bottom line – be sure to make your next big screen purchase a 4K screen.

The Ten Most Disappointing Destinations in the World?

Almost as inane as ‘infographics’ are the ever more omnipresent ‘top ten’ type lists, invariably produced through an opaque process of dubious probity.

Take, for example, this list appearing in USA Today that claims itself to be the ten most disappointing destinations in the world.  The list includes Las Vegas and Disneyworld in Orlando, so there’s every chance you might think the list to be nonsense.

Is USA Today really that desperate for travel related content these days?

And Lastly This Week….

Did you read about the hijacking earlier this week?  It happened on the way to SFO, but only four passengers were inconvenienced.  Perhaps this was because it was a shuttle bus from the city to the airport that was hijacked, rather than an airplane.

A spokesman for SuperShuttle said this was ‘not a common occurrence’ but one wonders how soon it will be before one’s ride to the airport starts off by being frisked by a TSA agent riding shotgun on each shuttle van.

More details here.

Perhaps one of the lessons of the MH370 mystery is that we’re not quite as much in control of our world as we think we are and wish we were.

Here’s an amazing video showing the power of the sea as it impacts on a modern mega-sized container ship.  Yes, the cruise ship you next treat yourself to a voyage on would do the same thing – or at least, you hope so.  Just like airplane wings are designed to flex, so too are ships.  Flexing makes them more resilient to stress.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Apr 172014
Details of Australia's current search areas for MH 370.

Details of Australia’s current search areas for MH 370.

There’s nothing worse than an unexplained or inexplicable misfortune, and particularly with the modern-day demand for instant news and certain facts, even when there’s nothing to say and little understood, low quality ‘information’ rushes in to fill the knowledge gap which exists.

When you add to this a layer of government bumbling and incompetence, and then leaven it all with truly unusual situations far removed from normalcy, you have an impossibly tempting situation for conspiracies to flourish.

This is definitely the case with the MH 370 mysterious disappearance.  If you can remember back the six weeks to when it first disappeared, the information that has been trickling out has consistently been slow and contradictory and the many claims of wreckage sightings, oil slicks, and other indications of the plane have all been proven false.  Never mind that incomplete and inaccurate information seems to invariably accompany the initial release of information on any major event; in the case of MH 370 it has consistently seemed particularly egregious, right from the very first six-hour delay between the plane losing contact and being announced as officially missing (ie an hour after it had already failed to land in Beijing).

We weren’t even sure exactly when the plane went out of contact, or what its last contact was, getting a series of conflicting stories about what the last contact was, and whether the last voice contact was with the pilot or co-pilot.  Indeed, not only were these simple seeming issues unclear for several days, but the official statement of what the last words received were was revised a month after the plane’s disappearance.

The initial search area – in the vicinity of where the plane was at its last contact, a location that on the face of it was initially sensible – gradually was shown to be more and more ridiculous, although it took almost exactly a week for us to learn that the plane had been sort of occasionally tracked by radar heading in the opposite direction long after communication stopped.  Subsequent search areas were located many thousands of miles to the west, and then many more thousands of miles to the south, and speculation covered even wider areas.

It is still unclear today exactly how much fuel the plane had loaded prior to taking off from Kuala Lumpur, although there’s not a huge range of possible values as between the minimum amount it should have had on board for its flight to Beijing and the maximum amount it could carry.  It took an astonishing amount of time for the authorities to concede the obvious possibility that the plane really truly could be anywhere within 3,000 or so miles of its last known position.  In other words, to put that in context, a plane last sighted over Los Angeles might be somewhere west of Hawaii, in northern Alaska, Halifax, Bermuda or Panama, or anywhere else within the circle bounded by those points.

Plane wreckage and oil slicks have been claimed to be sighted repeatedly by various governments (but never turned out to be actual wreckage/oil from the plane), and while no-one has actually said so, the lack of any wreckage is now starting to transition from merely frustrating to significant and unusual.  Even the US government at one stage was dropping strong hints that the plane was in the water somewhere off the Indian coast and went as far as to send one of its ships in that direction (the clear interpretation being that one of our confidential intelligence gathering resources had spotted/detected the plane crashing there).  There has been no explanation as to how the US was wrong with this claim.

In addition to what had seemed to be a series of credible locations for the plane’s remains, other more bizarre stories have briefly appeared and then disappeared about the plane being sighted on the ground, in locations ranging from Diego Garcia to China to northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other ‘-stan’ type countries.

Then – two weeks after the plane disappeared – there was news of a previously undisclosed series of automatic contacts between the plane’s engines and an overhead satellite being discovered, first leading to a series of location bands, anywhere on which the plane might have been at the time of each contact, and then further analysis based on these signals a few days later claimed the plane had flown to a fairly specific location in the Southern Ocean off the west coast of Australia – first thought to be to the southwest and then successively further north from there, by 1000 + miles.

But not everyone accepts this analysis, which clearly is imprecise to the tune of at least 1,000 miles in any event.  If the satellite data is to be accepted at a superficial level (ie the several rings), the plane could have flown on one of several different paths, depending on the plane’s speed, so as to position it on each of the rings at the times the engines ‘phoned home’.  Further analysis of the signals received is claimed to have enabled analysts to get additional information as to the plane’s heading at the time of each signal exchange.  The math involved is complex, and has strangely not been fully disclosed by the people asserting the plane flew a southerly route – a route which is a bit counter-intuitive considering the plane was flying in a west-north-westerly directly prior to apparently disappearing entirely from all radars.  It certainly would seem to embody some assumptions about the correlation between the plane’s speed through the air and directional heading, and as such, would be challengeable rather than demonstrably and unambiguously correct.

Here’s an interesting and credible website which suggests the plane may have been more likely to have continued in a general north/west direction – which certainly creates a bunch more ‘interesting’ scenarios as to the plane’s eventual disposition than does a suggestion that after all its earlier twists and turns, it straightened out and simply flew in more or less a direct path into the Southern Ocean, eventually running out of fuel and crashing.

There are few scenarios that can explain the southern route.  The most likely explanation seems to be that at some point prior to the final routing down to its final fuel exhaustion point, everyone on the plane died or in some other way, the plane became uncontrollable.  Another one is that perhaps the pilot, formerly under duress to that point, managed to briefly break free and reprogram the plane’s heading before being recaptured/killed.  On the other hand, there are many scenarios that could account for the plane continuing to fly a circuitous path to a specific destination and runway, somewhere on land, in an area of the world rich in terrorist type activity.

Not so easily explained is how the plane could have made its way through some contentious and heavily defended airspace on its way to some northwestern inland final location.  On the other hand, many people have found it astonishing that the plane managed to fly so far without any radar contact, and/or that the times it apparently did briefly appear on radar there was no response by the governments and air traffic control or air defense authorities involved.

Is this proof of a conspiracy or cover-up?  More likely, it is simply a case of the plane showing no alarming/aggressive tendencies, and countries not being sufficiently trigger-happy/paranoid as to want to spend money scrambling fighters to investigate a plane that was apparently flying in a normal manner and as likely as not, would soon start flying out of, rather than into the monitoring authority’s airspace.

In such a case, is it possible that a combination of infrequent radar returns and lack of any clear ‘threat profile’ meant a continued passive non-response as the plane flew on to its final destination?  It is unlikely, but far from beyond the realm of possibility, and in the scenario where there are no remaining likely explanations, we have to fully consider all unlikely ones.

In the early days, there were stories of cell phones belonging to passengers that were claimed to be still switched on, ‘on line’ and ringing, a day or two after the plane disappeared.  This was subsequently explained as being normal when you are calling a phone in a foreign country – the ringing the caller hears in their phone does not mean the called phone is also ringing at the same time – it is an auto-generated tone to reassure the caller that the call is being processed.  More recently, we have learned that the co-pilot’s phone is thought to have locked on to a cell tower signal briefly while the plane was flying back over the Malaysian peninsula after going silent, but we haven’t been told any more than this.  We don’t know if the co-pilot made (or attempted) a phone call, or who to, or anything else.

One thing that seems increasingly likely is that most – probably all – the passengers and crew are now dead, although the cause of their passing may or may not be as a result of the plane crashing into the ocean.  If the plane landed safely somewhere, it is hard to think of a likely situation where the 239 people on board would be kept secretly alive for five weeks.  That’s a lot of food, a lot of water, a lot of plumbing, and so on that would be required, and the type of people who would commandeer the plane probably would have little motivation to care for the passengers on board.  On the other hand – and for every theory, there’s a counter-theory – Russian sources are suggesting the plane flew to Afghanistan and the passengers/crew are alive and well.

The flight’s profile – shortly after losing contact, it executed a climb up to its maximum height before descending down again – could be explained by whoever was controlling the plane doing this to more quickly asphyxiate everyone on board before continuing to fly the plane, uninterrupted by the now cargo of dead bodies.

Credible black box pings have been detected on four occasions, as have some false contacts that proved not to be black box pings, but now it seems the black box batteries have finally gone silent, and most recently, two attempts to send the remote-controlled Bluefin-21 submersible down to hunt for any wreckage have each been prematurely aborted after only a few hours rather than full 20 hour missions.

That’s not to say that things won’t improve with the submersible, but it is frustrating at present – as is the knowledge that the Bluefin-21 can’t go as deep as the ocean floor in the areas it is searching and is operating right at the limit of its depth capabilities (and sometimes beyond that limit, causing the submersible to go into ‘panic’ mode and urgently surface).

Update :  It has now been decided to operate the Bluefin-21 at greater than its rated maximum depth, and after its two earlier deployments both being cut short, it has now completed a full mission, with the authorities expressing optimism that the entire search area will be covered in less time than earlier expected, due to more progress in narrowing down the likely search area in which the black boxes may be located.

Official statements from the Malaysian authorities change and contradict each other, and additional statements from the Chinese, Australia, and other authorities vary in terms of their subsequently demonstrated accuracy too.  Some of the time, optimistic hopes of finding the plane’s wreckage and/or black boxes are expressed, other times, officials express doubts as to how quickly anything may be learned.  There have already been some very delicate hints that maybe nothing will ever be found – mention of the silty ocean bottom potentially covering up the plane wreckage has already been lightly raised, but thus far only in the context of it being difficult rather than impossible to locate the plane.

What would it mean if the plane is never found?  Would this be significant?  Interestingly, it would be reasonably hard to fabricate a convincing crash scene, even miles below the surface of the ocean.  The location and disposition of every 777 ever manufactured is known, and it would be difficult to mock-up a crashed 777 without using real 777 parts, assuming that an independent investigative body subsequently recovered some of the remains and started to trace them back through the audit trail that is associated with every piece and part of a modern passenger jet.

It would be more possible to create dummy data to load into a black box and allow it to be miraculously found without any matching airplane pieces.  The voice recorder (which will only store the last couple of hours of data anyway, not the most ‘interesting’ parts when the plane first lost contact and was flying up and down and round and about) could completely credibly contain nothing except the sounds of the plane flying through the air, with some instrument warnings at the end – low fuel, low altitude, etc – followed by whatever some sound engineer imagines the sound of the plane crashing into the ocean would be (well, actually, we already know what that sounds like – that could be adapted from the AF447 recording).  A data recorder could take data from an actual 777 flight and then be edited to recreate the necessary profile for the supposed MH370 flight, and if there were any tricky bits, those could be deemed ‘missing’ or damaged.

Indeed, if someone with sufficient resources really wanted to cover up the fate of the plane, it would make sense to take the actual black boxes from the actual MH 370 plane, edit the actual recordings, then take the black boxes and drop them into the deepest part of the Southern Ocean they could find (which, coincidentally, seems to be where they ended up).  If the actual black boxes were found, with credible data on them, who would question things any further?  As it is, there was almost exactly a month from the plane’s disappearance until the first black box ping was detected – plenty of time for anyone to do anything.

Note that the delay in detecting the black box pinging does not mean the black boxes only recently were deposited wherever they may be, instead it probably just means that it took us that long to start looking in the appropriate place, because the pings seem to have a fairly short-range within which they can be detected.

Is it any wonder then that there have been many theories as to what might have happened to the plane, implicating all manner of governments (including our own) and a broad sprinkling of terrorist organizations (not just the usual middle Eastern Muslim groups).  Indeed, not content with implicating any/all groups, anywhere in the world, there have been suggestions involving extra-terrestrial beings as well.  Other unworldly forces include seeking advice from psychics (even on CNN).

It made sense to seek any evidence that might exist to shine a light of suspicion on the pilot or copilot, and similarly, the presence of people on board who were traveling on bogus passports was also a valid concern to be resolved.  But some of these issues were definitely a bit over-wrought.  For example, learning that a professional pilot also enjoys playing a high-end version of Microsoft Flight Simulator is far from astonishing, and to learn that some of the scenarios he had been running involved the plane getting into difficulties is totally normal.  There’s little fun in running a sim that involves nothing more than hours of ordinary flying.  Any sim player chooses interesting, challenging, and extending scenarios, the same way that professional training in ‘real’ simulators also involves problems rather than normal easy flight.

The pilot suicide theory also seems unlikely.  If a pilot wished to kill himself by crashing his plane, one would expect him to do so quickly, with no fuss and no opportunity for the other pilot(s) or people on board to overpower him.

The pressure on getting news out fast, and the unfortunate fact that the internet and ‘social media’ gives everyone a voice, meant that some normal things were quickly being cited as ‘proof’ of various conspiracies to do with the plane, and the fact that the Malaysian authorities seemed chronically unable to get their own facts straight, combined with astonishing delays in disclosures, definitely added fuel to the fire.  And with a total lack of knowledge about what did happen, anyone and everyone is therefore free to speculate any way they wish.  While there is nothing to confirm any theory, there is also nothing to negate much of the speculation, either.

Furthermore, whatever it is that did happen is clearly going to be a very unusual thing, so we’ve opened the floodgates to speculation about unusual things in general.

The result?  If you search for ‘MH 370 conspiracy’ on Google, there are 33 million pages it returns in its results.  Happily, there is now a Wikipedia page devoted to the topic, sparing you the need to sift through all 33 million pages.


All we really know is that the plane has disappeared and hasn’t yet been found.  We’re not sure what happened, who or what was responsible, or where the plane now is.

Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.  And, unfortunately, so too is the guess of anyone else.  Whatever it is that did happen, it is already obvious that it was not a common or normal or usual thing.  The only remaining issue is just exactly how uncommon, abnormal, and unusual it was.

We might never know the truth.  Perhaps even worse, even if the plane is subsequently discovered, it may not answer all the many questions circling over the situation.

Apr 172014
Some of the 'holier than thou' placards we encounter in hotel rooms these days.

Some of the ‘holier than thou’ placards we encounter in hotel rooms these days.

The in-room placards are getting more and more offensively aggressive at demanding we ‘save water’ while staying at a hotel.

Earlier this week, I was at a property that not only had the well-worn homilies about re-using towels, but also was suggesting a long list of other water-saving strategies, ranging from taking showers instead of baths to turning off the tap between rinses while brushing one’s teeth.

The fact that the resort in question was in the middle of a lush wet rain forest and alongside a pure flowing river made it all even more ridiculous than normal, and also begged the response ‘if you really want me to save water, perhaps I should just go back home, use water any way I like, and not visit at all’.

On the other hand, we do know that some parts of the world, and some parts of the country, are short of water.  But to save water in a place where it is freely abundant doesn’t help the arid parts of the world any more than, when we were children and told to ‘think of all the starving people in India’, it helped them when we ate all the food on our plate.

And now, news comes this week of the Portland (OR) city water bureau administrator claiming they have plenty of water.  After deciding to gratuitously throw away 38 million gallons of the stuff, he said

It’s easy to replace those 38 million gallons of water.  We’re not in the arid Southwest.  We’re not in drought-stricken parts of Texas or Oklahoma.

The water was stored in a large open reservoir in a popular park in the center of the city, Mt Tabor, and travels from the reservoir direct to consumers’ taps without further treatment.  Birds fly overhead and, ahem, regularly defecate in it, plant life grows in it, and we don’t know but will wager that fish probably live in it too.  Also likely are various wild and even domesticated animals that come along and also, ahem, ‘muddy the waters’.

Animals don’t only do these things – they also die in the reservoirs (see picture of a water bureau employee removing a dead duck from the reservoir here).  City pollution also settles in the water – either being washed down and into the water, or just normally settling, along with other dust and dirt and debris.  Leaves and seeds and pollen fall into the water, too.

One of the Mt Tabor reservoirs in Portland, with the downtown area nearby in the background.

One of the Mt Tabor reservoirs in Portland, with the downtown area nearby in the background.

But all of this is both normal and negligible, and the water quality/purity exceeds all federal, state and city requirements.  None of these events cause any alarm at all.

But earlier this week a 19 year old youth was seen urinating through the protective stand-off fence surrounding the reservoir.  It is unclear if any of his urine actually reached the reservoir.  Urine is normally a germ/infection free liquid, and some people even routinely drink it as a tonic (Gandhi being a well-known example).  We’re not advocating you should start doing this, too, but we’re simply pointing out that while we are conditioned to avoid urine, it is not normally harmful.

So, here we are, with a 38 million gallon reservoir, full not only of water but also of assorted other products, including plenty of excrement from birds, and possibly also fish and animals, as well as all manner of precipitated pollutants.  There is a possibility that it may now have some small amount, probably less than a pint, of urine added to it, making for an undetectable one part (or less) of human urine per 300 million parts of water, and dwarfed by all the other urine and feces already present.

To put that level of contamination into perspective, if it was cyanide that was for sure emptied into the water instead of urine that may or may not have reached the reservoir, the fatal dose level would have to be 5,000 times greater (about one part in 600,000).

So, what does the city of Portland do?

Clearly its managers have never read the placards in hotels exhorting them to save water.  It decides to dump the entire 38 million gallons of water.  Details here.

Oh yes, this is the second time they’ve done this, although the previous time, three years ago, it was ‘only’ a 7.5 million gallon reservoir.

Could we ask Portland area hotels to now remove their ‘save water’ placards.

Apr 102014
A low-res sample of the picture quality from my new camera - see below for a link to a higher res version of the same.

A low-res sample of the picture quality from my new camera – see below for a link to a higher res version of the same.

Good morning

Happy birthday to the internal combustion engine.  This is one of those inventions that are hard to pin down to a specific point in time, due to being a series of evolving and improving things, but the patent filed on 3 April 1885 by Otto Gottlieb is perhaps one of the pivotal points of what is now the amazing thing under the hoods of our vehicles.

Interestingly though, not everything to do with automobiles can be considered a consistent forward march of progress.  Also an anniversary this week is the 9 April 1971 issuance of the first ever NHTSA bumper standard, requiring bumpers to be able to withstand a 5 mph forward impact and a 2 mph rear impact.

But, today, the bumper standards are less demanding than they were then.  If you manage to read through this page of obfuscated details, you’ll see that the new underlying requirement isn’t for bumpers to protect cars, but rather for the cost of improved bumpers to be less than the savings created from them.

You might think that sensible – why spend $1000 in bumper strengthening if, on average, a stronger bumper only saves a typical driver $500 in crash damage?  The answer is that if we were to require stronger bumpers, don’t you think there’d be a focus of R&D into making better bumpers on a more cost-effective basis?  There have been amazing improvements and enhancements to materials technologies over the intervening 40+ years, but precious little of this has flowed through to making cars more resilient to minor dents and dings.

We definitely agree that cars are much safer today, especially for substantially higher speed impacts, than they were back in 1971, so overall we’re improving our game.  But we’d sure like to see them more robustly resistant to ‘fender benders’, and we’d definitely love to see the cost of repairing fender benders to be less than it is at present.  It seems you can’t ever visit a body shop without spending at least $1000 to replace bumper components – a cost that is all the more aggravating when you consider the enormous profit that the overpriced components bring to their manufacturers.

For most of us, we happily go our entire lives without a major car accident and insurance claim, but we do suffer a number of fender benders.

Currently there’s no substantial financial incentive for car manufacturers to reduce the cost of their vehicle repairs.  We think there should be.  If we can impose massive requirements on manufacturers when it comes to meeting fuel economy levels, why not also require them to make their vehicles more repairable?  One could credibly argue the same ‘enviro-conscious’ issues apply in both cases – the ‘carbon releases’ or whatever else you want to measure associated with each new car’s production are enormous; if we can extend the life of present automobiles, we are ‘saving the planet’.  Sort of.

There are two additional articles appended to today’s newsletter.  The first calls your attention to an invidious attempt by the airlines to sneak very bad new legislation through the system without allowing for fair review and debate.  I’m not sure which is the more egregious aspect of this – the refusal of the Congressional committee to allow submissions and debate, or the underlying lie which the legislation is based on.  Read it and decide for yourself, then please let your congresscritter know of your disapproval.

The second article responds to several comments I received about my camera article a couple of weeks back.  Readers asked for recommendations for lower priced and/or smaller cameras than the one I recommended, and it is true my preferred camera is at the higher end of the ‘affordable’ scale.  So here now is a table listing more than 20 highly rated cameras at lower prices, including a couple of good cameras in the under $300 category – less than half the price of the Sony camera I recommended two weeks ago.

I was also asked for some samples of pictures from my new Sony camera, and that is something I’d avoided doing, because pictures often reflect more on the skill of the photographer than on the camera itself, and a full appreciation of the camera requires seeing many pictures and appreciating the differences between how they appear with one camera and a different camera used similarly.

But I was visiting the tulip fields just north of Seattle earlier this week, and decided to offer you one picture now – you can see it in small preview size above, and if you click this link here, you’ll see a cropped part of the complete image, at full size.  Note the glorious colors, the very clear definition, and lots of detail in both the highlights and shadows (rather than just dark blobs and burned out bright parts).

It is the best of the dozen or so tulip pictures I took, but it was taken with all settings on automatic and without any special adjustments.  Anyone can take pictures this good, without any special knowledge or skill, when using this camera.  If I’d messed around with some settings, I could have made it even better, but I want you to appreciate how good the camera is, not how good I may (or, more likely, may not) be.

Truly, my new Sony camera is marvelous.

Below, please read on for articles about :

  • MH 370 Update
  • This Week’s Round in the AS vs DL Fight
  • Airline ‘Competition’ – Good or Bad?
  • My Suggestion to Alaska Airlines
  • More on Hawaiian Airlines
  • Pity the Poor Airlines and Their Desperate Cost-Saving Measures
  • Airbus A350 Testing
  • Windows XP Transitions to a Well Earned Retirement
  • Another Amazing Photo/Video Technology
  • TSA Bans Stroke Victim From Flight
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH 370 Update

It seems the plane’s black boxes may be found.  Pings from the black boxes have almost certainly now been detected on several bearings on several different days this last week (in total, there have been, as of late Thursday, five probable detections), and with each new detection, the approximate location of the black boxes becomes more readily determined.

Currently the likely location of the black boxes is somewhere in a 500 sq mile patch of ocean floor – an area about the same size as the city of Los Angeles.  Imagine trying to find two boxes lying around, somewhere in Los Angeles.  When you’re dealing with extreme depths and an uneven ocean floor, trying to find the black boxes is much the same sort of almost impossible task.

The likely depth at which the black boxes are located is appreciably below the depth at which the AF 447 black boxes were retrieved, and slightly below the maximum operating depth of the Bluefin 21 submersible that is on location to be used to hunt and find them.  There are submersibles capable of deeper operations, but they are not currently on-site and would have to be shipped in, delaying things while they were dismantled, shipped, and then rebuilt.

Here’s a fascinating chart that puts the depth of water into great perspective.

I was asked ‘Why are the black boxes still pinging if the batteries were only rated for 30 days?’.  The answer to that question is because the battery rating is for a minimum of 30 days, not for a maximum of 30 days.  It is normal for the manufacturer to use a battery with a much greater than 30 days life when first installed for two reasons.  The first is so that, as time passes and the battery life slowly diminishes, the black box doesn’t need to be maintained as frequently or the batteries replaced as often.  The second reason is recognizing the variable life of each individual battery – if the batteries have a generic average life of, eg, 40 days, then that means some will last longer than 40 days but others might struggle to make even 30 days.  So, to guarantee 30 days of life, the manufacturers start off with batteries that will probably have much more than 30 days of life.

It is our good fortune that the batteries inside at least one of these two black boxes have been performing beyond their minimum specification, although a lowering in ping frequency suggests a diminished vitality in the battery.

One more thing about the black boxes.  Malaysia Airlines doesn’t have a perfect record when it comes to black boxes and the preservation of the data on them, as this article points out.

It is surprising there has still been no floating debris sighted.

This Week’s Round in the AS vs DL Fight

Anyone who ever argued against the benefits of competition in the airline industry should look at the fevered pitch of things in the Seattle market at present – although it is a mixed blessing, as I observe below.

This week Alaska Airlines has introduced new baggage tags that you can print yourself at home – they print onto plain paper which you then insert into a robust ‘tag carrier’ on your bags.  Apparently this is supposed to be more convenient than printing baggage tags at the airport – a claim which begs the question ‘More convenient for who – the airline or its passengers?’.  But it will doubtless appeal to a few ‘do-it-yourself’ enthusiasts, as well as, in time, opening up a new potential revenue stream for some of the more rapacious airlines – a fee levied on people who don’t pre-print their own bag tags prior to arriving at the airport.

Alaska also announced a plan to allow passengers to stream movies, television shows, and audio tracks directly to their own portable devices such as laptops, tablets, and phones.  Again, this new feature begs the question as to who benefits more from this – the customers, for being able to watch content on their own device, or the airline, for saving the cost and weight of outfitting their planes with individual seatback screens and controllers.

Personally, there’s no way I’d ever want to watch anything on my phone screen instead of on an airplane seatback screen, and while the screen quality is much better on my tablets, I would have to also dig out some type of charger to power the device for a long flight, and need some way of holding the screen at a convenient viewing angle and position too, so this is another subtle rather than obvious benefit.

There’s no apparent cost saving to the passengers, either.  Alaska says it will charge ‘under $6 for movies and under $3 for television content’.  Typical airline – it saves a huge amount of money itself, while passing little or none of the saving on to its passengers.

In addition to these two new service ‘enhancements’, Alaska Airlines also deployed a very very traditional weapon in such market-share battles – its frequent flier program.  For flights between now and the end of the year, to eight destinations (all of which just so happen to also have competing Delta flights either to the same airport or a very nearby one), Alaska will give its frequent flier members double mileage.  The cities are ANC, LAS, LAX, OAK, SAN, SFO, SJC and YVR.

Delta meanwhile continues to talk up its future plans and to justify its clash with Alaska Airlines, while also sending out promotional mailings exclusively to ‘its friends in Seattle’ encouraging people to sign up for its branded Amex card, offering bonus miles and Amex statement credits for those who do so and then use their cards to buy DL flights.

Delta’s justification – ‘we need to operate more domestic flights to/from Seattle, so as to provide passengers onto our new international flights from SEA to other countries’ is of course paper-thin in credibility.

There’s no clear reason why it couldn’t have worked with Alaska Airlines to bolster the AS code share flights to/from Seattle, and if some of its new international routes were not viable on their own, maybe they shouldn’t have been activated in the first place.

Make no mistake.  This is a cold calculated grab for market share from Alaska Airlines.  One imagines that Delta’s executives carefully looked at a map of the US and identified the Pacific Northwest as an area where neither of its two major competitors had a strong presence, but rather an anomalous area with a small and possibly vulnerable regional carrier dominating.  This would of course encourage Delta to move in and replace the regional carrier with itself, while avoiding a ‘fight to the finish’ with either of the only two other major US international carriers in the process, and its former close working relationship with Alaska actually gives it an advantage by gleaning some insight into the markets from Seattle and what works, how and why.

Airline ‘Competition’ – Good or Bad?

You might wonder why someone like myself – such a keen supporter of airline competition – is now unhappy when being presented with a clear example of such activity.  To answer that question requires a distinction to be drawn between good and bad competition.

Good competition are sustainable and sustained activities by one company to either grow the market or win more market share.  An example of good competition would be a car manufacturer announcing that next year’s models will have improved fuel economy and included back-up video systems.  Good competition sees other companies matching or even beating the moves of their competitors, while all companies remain profitable.

Bad competition occurs when a company engages in unsustainable and unsupportable (ie unprofitable) activities – activities which might short-term boost market size or market share, but which are designed primarily (and secretly) to destroy competitors, so that, in the fairly near-term future, the market becomes less competitive, allowing the bad competitor to then discontinue their promotions and raise their prices, unchallenged by its former competitors.

My concern is that – the same as almost every other occasion when airlines butt heads – the competition we are seeing in the Seattle market will quickly degenerate into ‘bad’ rather than ‘good’ competition, and the net result will be the loss of a great high quality airline, and Seattle becoming a fortress-hub dominated by Delta and subsequently suffering high fares on all Delta’s key protected routes as a result.

My Suggestion to Alaska Airlines

What should Alaska do, if (when) the competition becomes ‘bad’ and unsustainable?

The never-far-from-the-surface ‘predictions’ that Alaska should/will merge with a dinosaur airline are of course being trotted out again, but rather than merge with a dinosaur, there’s another option that might ‘kill two birds with one stone’ – or, in this case, save two airlines by merging them into one.  There is another nonaligned and fairly small airline that might nicely complement Alaska’s route network and high quality ethos – JetBlue.

Merging these two carriers would take an airline with a strong west coast base and fingers of traffic into the east and match it with an airline with a strong east coast base and fingers of traffic into the west.  With a bit of imagination, they could even do a wonderful ‘sweetheart’ type deal with an almost abandoned midwest airport with lots of spare gates and capacity that had formerly been a hub for a now disappeared airline – there are plenty of such places to choose from – and quickly come up with a complete national network almost the equal to any of the majors.  Rather than losing two of the minor airlines, we’d gain another major national player.

Sure, there are all sorts of integrative issues that would be involved – not the least of which would be the Airbus/Embraer fleet operated by JetBlue and the Boeing/Bombardier fleet operated by Alaska (and its subsidiary, Horizon), but these are details to be resolved rather than impossible hurdles to shy away from.

Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways.  That’s my pick for an airline merger that actually would benefit us all.

Or – at the risk of over-reaching, why not make it a three-way merger and bring in that other excellent and non-aligned airline and its growing international routes – Hawaiian Airlines too.  That would give us an airline with an international as well as domestic footprint, and positioning it well to then consider adding international operations from the east coast to Europe as well as its current Pacific rim focus.

More on Hawaiian Airlines

Talking about my new favorite airline, on the face of it, this week’s announcement from Hawaiian Airlines about a drop in passenger numbers in March might seem like bad news.  Passenger numbers were down 3.1%, year-on-year, and total miles flown by fare-paying passengers were down even more, a 5.3% drop.

But it isn’t as bad as it seems, because March 2013 included the boost to traffic provided by Easter vacationers.  This year, Easter isn’t for another week, which should see 2014′s April catch-up and the year to date numbers look much more positive when the results come out after April ends.

Also this week was a release of the latest on-time statistics, showing HA to yet again be appreciably the best of all airlines for their on-time arrival results.

Pity the Poor Airlines and Their Desperate Cost-Saving Measures

From time to time, we learn of a stunning cost saving measure implemented by the airlines in their desperate attempts to consistently make money.  There have been, in the past, such sterling measures as the removal of olives from salads, and the reduction of lettuce leaves too.

Apparently the airlines have yet to get all the blood from their cost cutting stone.  We now learn that the latest cost saving measure, by some airlines, is to remove lime slices from drinks where you’d otherwise expect to find them.  The cost of limes has increased of late – we’re told in this perhaps too sympathetic article that the retail cost of a lime has increased from 31 cents each a year ago to 56 cents last week, although somehow I don’t think that the airlines go to their local Safeway stores and buy limes, one by one, from the fruit aisle ( in other words, the cost to the airline is probably no more than half the retail price and perhaps even less).

The article tells us Alaska Airlines formerly used 900 limes every day.  If we say that one half of the limes are now being substituted for by lemons (and I’ve no idea how much lemons cost compared to limes, but let’s agree the price is not wildly different) then the 450 limes remaining represented an increase of about $56 a day compared to the cost of limes last year.  In annual terms, that $56/day comes to $20,500.  Alaska Airlines received $4.96 billion of gross revenue in 2013, making the $20,500 saving a 0.0004% share of total revenues.

We expect similar numbers would proportionally apply to the other airlines.

Oh – and one more thing.  Did we forget to mention that most airlines are enjoying record-breaking profits, often the best profits they have ever made in their entire history.  But they can no longer afford to include a slice of lime in the cocktail they sell us for $6+.

Airbus A350 Testing

There are some fascinating pictures with this article about Airbus testing its new A350 plane, due to enter service late this year.  The water pipes you see help the airline understand the heating and cooling needs of the plane.  Maybe that means that this new plane might become the first plane in history with a truly functional heating/cooling system – I’ve never understood how it is that planes costing hundreds of millions of dollars and jam-packed full of high-tech computerized systems have not been able to maintain a consistent comfortable cabin temperature.  I can do it at home with a single furnace and thermostat, surely it isn’t rocket science.

(Answer to the above pondering – the systems are probably working as designed, but the crew on the planes set the climate controls incorrectly in the air, and the airlines save money by not operating the units sufficiently while on the ground.)

Like Boeing and its 787, Airbus is making some interesting claims about how comfortable the new A350 will be, including how the near vertical sides give a more spacious feeling to the plane.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that – even before the first plane has carried its first passenger – there is way too much talk about the extra ‘savings’ available to the airlines if they replace the recommended nine-across seating with ten-across seating instead.  Ooops – all of a sudden, an almost acceptable seat width would be replaced with another too-narrow seat width.

Windows XP Transitions to a Well Earned Retirement

A happy retirement wish to Windows XP.  First released more than twelve years ago (Oct 25, 2001), Microsoft this week finally ended its support for the operating system.

There was a time when we all were caught up in a whirlwind of computer innovation, with regular refreshes of both hardware and software.  Twelve years was an unthinkable span in any part of the computer industry.  Windows was coming out with major updates, typically once every two years, and most application software had annual releases.  Our hardware too required regular changing.

But as one of the starkest indications of the slowdown of everything in the computer industry,  28% of all Windows-based computers today are still running Windows XP, notwithstanding the releases of newer operating systems in 2006 (the generally poorly reviewed Vista), 2009 (the very positively reviewed Windows 7) and the disgrace that is and remains Windows 8 in 2012 and its update, 8.1 in 2013.

It is interesting to note that whereas XP retains a 28% share of all desktop operating systems, Vista has only a 3% share.  Windows 7 has a huge 49% share, Windows 8 has 6% and Windows 8.1 has 5%.

While some people have claimed that Apple’s Mac computers have enjoyed a resurgence in market share, the Mac OX X 10.9 operating system has a mere 4% share.  (You can find lots of interesting market share rankings on this site.)

As an interesting aside, many doomsayers have been predicting the end of the PC, due to diminished sales of new PCs.  But they are totally wrong in this claim.  There are two reasons for a reduction in the rate of PC shipments/sales.  The first reason is that the market is now mature and close to saturated.  Most people who are likely to buy/own a PC already have one.

So most PC sales now are to replace existing PCs, rather than to add to a person or business’s total collection of PCs.  And even those sales are declining because (second reason) we are keeping our PCs for longer.

There is no longer any technological need to replace our PC every couple of years.  In the past, new operating system or application software requirements (and particularly computer games) tended to push us into new, faster, ‘bigger’ PCs, but these days, the slowing in software development and the massively powerful PCs that we already have mean there’s less need to upgrade.

Self-evidently, most of the XP computers out there today are at least five or more years old and some may be as much as ten years old.

Interestingly though, the flipside of that is a blip and sudden upspurt in PC sales – apparently caused by people recognizing the need to finally replace their XP operating system, and realizing that to do this, they also need to upgrade their computer hardware.

One last comment.  If you have a modern PC, you should definitely consider Windows 8.  Yes, it is burdened by a beyond-stupid interface redesign, but the operating system – in my experience – is extraordinarily stable and well-rounded, and the interface idiocy can be quickly removed by spending a mere $5 to download the Stardock program that restores the interface back to ‘normal’ Windows style.

A bit of tweaking with the Stardock product and you can avoid almost all of the new interface problems, and in return, you get a very powerful and very reliable operating system.  It is well worth suffering the hassles of working around and eliminating Microsoft’s new interface design to get to the core functionality.

Another Amazing Photo/Video Technology

I wrote a couple of articles a month ago about how new technologies are making high-end movie making possible for us all, even if we only have tiny budgets.  A new product announcement this week provides a further case in point.

I had been evaluating the need for some aerial imagery for a project I was involved with recently, and the traditional approach – a helicopter, its pilot, and a camera operator – would have quickly progressed from a four figure cost to probably five figures.

But as an alternative, it is now possible to buy a four rotor ‘quadcopter’ with a built-in stabilized 1080p video/still camera that can be remotely operated by anyone (no helicopter skills required), and with the ability to fly up to 2300 ft away from the remote controller.  If you want to do an extended tracking shot, that means you can film almost a one mile long sequence before needing to cut to a second scene and shot.

The cost of this?  A mere $1300.  That might sound like a lot, but to put it into perspective, the last camcorder I bought cost more than that – and that was for a regular handheld camcorder alone, without any fancy quadcopter mount, without even a regular Steadicam mount either.  Now you can get a high-end camcorder on a quadcopter mount for the same money.

Many of us think nothing of spending this sort of money on a camera or video recorder.  Now we can get the camera/video recorder and the helicopter mount, too, giving us an enormous new dimension to our filming abilities.

Here’s an article explaining this amazing new device, and with sample video at the bottom.  Home movies will never be the same again.

Lastly on this point, we all know that if this year, such devices are costing $1300, next year they will be less, and before too long, you’ll probably see them for less than $500.

TSA Bans Stroke Victim From Flight

A stroke left Heidi Wright unable to speak.  She tried to take a flight with her sister, and it turned out her driver’s license that she was wanting to use as ID had expired.

Normally, this would not be a problem – not many people realize this, but the TSA will allow people to travel with expired IDs and even with no ID at all.

But, unfortunately, it was not to be a normal day for Ms Wright.  The TSA agent at LAX demanded that Ms Wright speak, and upon learning that she could not speak, refused to allow her on the flight to Phoenix, turning Ms Wright’s journey – what would have/should have been a 1 hr 20 minute flight, into an 8 hr bus ride instead.

The TSA, while conceding ‘it could have been handled differently’ blames Ms Wright and her sister for the incident, saying

….. it probably could have been handled differently by the family, and hopefully moving forward the family won’t have this problem again, because they know about the programs that we have in place.

Yes, let’s blame the incorrect refusal by the TSA agent to follow official TSA policies and procedures on the stroke victim and her sister.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a lengthy video, but you only need to watch the first minute or less to get the sense of it.  A Westjet 737 is blown away from its jetway while parked (on ice) in Halifax last week.  And, as a bonus, if you scroll down past that video, there’s another video, this time of a parked 747 lifting up its nose in the face of an oncoming wind.

How’s your ear for regional accents?  It used to be claimed by some people that they could place a person from Britain, almost to the exact town or village or suburb, after hearing the person speak only a very few words.  My sense is this is less the case these days – national (and international) language influences (such as movies, radio and television) are moderating all accents, in Britain and elsewhere, and the more frequent moves by people from one place to another further blur things.

But here’s an interesting example of the still present differences between a number of the more obvious (?) regional accents from the British Isles.

Something we all wish we could be or become, these days, is an infrequent flyer.  And now, never mind all the increasingly worthless inducements airlines offer their long-suffering frequent flyers.  Low cost carrier Tiger Air has a special program for such privileged infrequent flyers too.

And truly lastly this week, there are lots of events that can cause a pilot to make an emergency landing.  But ‘overheating’ cows?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Apr 102014
The airlines are trying to put one over us.  Congress is aiding and abetting them.

The airlines are trying to put one over us. Congress is aiding and abetting them.

One of the most effective lobbying groups in the country are our airlines.  They can boast a brilliant record for delaying or avoiding any legislation they feel would disadvantage themselves, while effectively promoting legislative and regulatory actions that advantage them.

Their ‘successes’ aren’t always obvious to most travelers, but if you want to see an example of their ability to delay and deter consumer-friendly regulation, try to conveniently compare the total cost you’d pay on two or three different airlines to fly somewhere, including an understanding of the fees as well as the base fare.  You can’t, can you.

The DoT is keen to make it easier for us to be able to truly price compare different airline offerings, but that remains a distant dream, and currently you have to click-through dozens of webpages to uncover the ever-growing complexity of associated fees and charges the airlines impose on us when we fly – including massive fees for essential rather than optional parts of the travel process.

We are seeing a new example of the effective overbearing nature of the airline lobby at present, in the form of HR 4156, a bill currently working its way through Congress.  It is named ‘The Transparent Airfares Act’ but of course, the first thing to understand about this legislation is that it is all about making airfares less transparent rather than making them more transparent.

The name of the bill is just the start of the lies surrounding its passage.

Not only will this legislation make airfares harder to understand, but the process of making it into law is far from transparent as well.  It is being rushed through the House, and being done so this far with no ability for public submissions or any debate.  The bill was not the result of any initial requests from consumer groups, and is all to do with what the airlines want, and in this case, it seems that what the airlines want is what they are going to get.

The bill would allow airlines to advertise airfares without prominently showing the extra associated taxes and fees as part of their lead pricing.  Sure, you’d find out what the final cost was when you come to pay for it, but not necessarily much before then.

We should also point out that if two airlines both have an underlying airfare cost of, eg, $250 for a roundtrip between two cities, that does not mean that the final actual price, inclusive of all fees and taxes, will also be the same.  The most obvious reason for a difference in price is that one airline may fly non-stop, while the other airline goes through a hub and therefore incurs more PFC charges (up to $4.50 per airport transited) and more flight segment taxes ($4 per segment).

The lack of any external inputs in drafting this bill is all the more significant when you realize that the legislation isn’t ‘new’ legislation from nothing or nowhere, and neither is it affirming legislation extending a current practice.  Instead, it seeks to overturn and reverse a 2012 Department of Transportation ruling that required the airlines to most prominently feature the full total price of their airfares.  Surely we need to have a fair and full opportunity to discuss why this DoT ruling is now being overruled.

Rebutting the Claimed Justifications for the Bill

The justifications for the legislation are thin and easily rebutted, which is perhaps why the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee refused to allow any submissions or debate prior to approving the bill and passing it out of its markup stage and sending it on to the full House.

1.  It has been suggested this is a law the American public want and are calling for.

But there has been no naming of any consumer group at all who are supporting the bill; quite the opposite – all the usual consumer groups are unanimously opposed to it.

2.  It has been suggested this simply places the same disclosure rules on airfares as on anything else you’d buy.

It is true that in this country, prices are usually quoted without sales tax, but that is necessary and unavoidable because sales tax rates vary not only from state to state and from county to county, but even from city to city.  Air taxes and fees are a constant for any given airline, route and fare, no matter where the ticket is purchased.

Furthermore, some things are sold inclusive of taxes and fees.  For example, next time you go fill your car with petrol, you’re only seeing a total price per gallon of gas.  Imagine if gas stations were to start advertising just the underlying cost of the gas on their signs, and only after you’d filled your tank you discovered the total cost, including all federal, state and local taxes and fees!

3.  The third reason offered to support this legislation is that it serves to uncover and expose the level of taxes and fees the government imposes on air travel.

That is perhaps an oblique outcome – and one wonders why exactly any congressman would wish to expose their greedy grab of such a large slice of our air travel expenditures, but it does not require legislation for airlines to differently format how they show their total fares and explain the make-up of airfare vs taxes/fees.

All airlines are already free to make as prominent a statement as they choose about how much of the ticket price you pay goes to the government and what it is for.

What this legislation would most risk is a return to the most egregious examples of the former ‘bait and switching’ where you’d see a low advertised airfare, but only after getting all excited, and working your way 95% of the way towards paying it, do you then discover a morass of fees and surcharges – carrier imposed as well as government imposed – that in total more than double the price you thought you were going to pay.

More details about this awful legislation here.

What a True Transparent Airfares Act Should Include

Don’t get us wrong.  We’re enthusiastically in favor of truly transparent airfares.  But let’s actually create provisions that promote transparency, rather than ones that prevent them.  How about :

1.  All airline pricing data must also show the associated costs (if any) for credit card and other payment fees, booking fees, ticket/boarding pass issuance, checking luggage, hand carrying luggage, seat assignments, change and cancellation fees.

Yes, we agree that would make for some very complicated screens full of data.  But the airlines have a simple solution – to ease back on the adding of massive fees for every conceivable – and essential – aspect of traveling by plane.

2.  Requiring the 7.5% federal aviation tax be imposed on all fees as well as the base airfare.

There’s no accounting reason why this can’t be done, and eliminating the loophole that currently encourages airlines to shift as much of the money they charge us from ‘taxable’ to ‘untaxable’ will reduce part of their motivation to be so greedy.

3.  Removing some elements of the ‘can only be sued in federal court’ protection the airlines currently enjoy.

Maybe there was a reason for this protection, many decades ago, before the ‘information age’ and the ability of companies to monitor and comply with multiple jurisdictions and obligations.  But, today, plenty of other companies operate nationwide without needing this protection, and manage to defend themselves appropriately against actions in state courts, so why not airlines, too?

Because there are fewer and fewer airlines, we are losing our ultimate consumer sanction – our ability to take our business away and to shift it to a competitor.  We need to make the mega-airlines – the very few of them that remain – more accountable the only other way that remains – through the courts.

Please contact your congressional representatives and ask them to vote against HR 4156, the Transparent Airfares Act, because it does not promote transparent airfares, but rather does quite the opposite.

Apr 032014
The latest addition to the Las Vegas skyline is the world's highest Ferris wheel, the 550 ft tall High Roller, which opened this week.  The 30 minute ride costs $25 daytime and $30 at night.

The latest addition to the Las Vegas skyline is the world’s highest Ferris wheel, the 550 ft tall High Roller, which opened this week. The 30 minute ride costs $25 daytime and $30 at night.

Good morning

I returned back from New Zealand earlier this week, and enjoyed two more splendid flights on Hawaiian Airlines.  That makes four excellent flights in a row with HA, all pushing back on time or early, and all of which arrived early.  More astonishing still, the flights even had edible food on them, and both the domestic flights (between SEA and HNL) and international (between HNL and AKL) gave the food for free.

Bravo to HA.  Please be sure to consider them the next time you fly somewhere they go – either to Honolulu or further afield around the Pacific rim, including Auckland, Brisbane and Sydney in Australia and Tahiti, plus other destinations in the North Pacific including, from later this month, Beijing.

I also experienced a couple of flights within NZ, between Auckland and Christchurch, on Jetstar (a Qantas subsidiary).  These were notable as well, but unfortunately in a very bad way.  They say on their website that the A320 they were operating has an average seat pitch of 29″, which implies that some seats have more and some have less.  In my case, while I half lucked out with an exit row seat one way (I say half because although there was more legroom, the seat wouldn’t recline), on the return flight I was seated in a regular seat in the rear half of the plane, and the seats were so close together I could not put my legs straight out in front of me – I had to awkwardly splay them into the slightly extra space between the sides of the seat in front (fortunately the seat next to me was empty, making this possible).

I have never before been in such a cramped airline seat.  My legs aren’t notably longer than anyone else’s (I have about a 31″ leg length on trousers) and I noticed other men forced to do the same thing in other rows, too.

Having a mix of different seat pitches is quite common – when you think about it, an airplane typically has three fixed points – its front, its rear, and its exit rows (more in large planes with multiple cabins and multiple exit rows of course).  It is quite common for the seat pitch in the front ‘half’ to be different to in the back ‘half’, and the airlines sometimes seek to obscure this by quoting an average seat pitch.

The much over-rated Seatguru website – the place you’d expect to find information on the real seat pitch in each part of a plane – is usually silent on this point.  Indeed, Seatguru is wrong when it claims the JQ A320 seats have a 17″ width; although I didn’t measure them, I’ll accept JQ’s website claim that the seats are 17.88″ wide, which is more closely typical to seat width on an A320.  Oh – and the pictures on the Seatguru site claiming to show adequate seat pitch – for all we know, they were taken by a midget.  Or, more likely, they were in the front half of the cabin, where the pitch is probably better.

One more thing about seat pitch – and again this is something that both the airlines and Seatguru are silent on – these days seat pitch needs to be considered along with seat thickness.  Some seats can be as much as an inch thicker than other seats, and if the seat is thicker, then that is more space taken up by the seat back and less space for your knees.

Spending an hour and a half on a plane where you can’t have your legs straight out in front of you is close to cruel and unusual torture, and worse even than on the North Korean airline, Air Koryo.  As laissez-faire as I may be, after such an experience I find myself tempted to say ‘there should be a law against this’….

In all seriousness, there are situations where animals have more protection in terms of how they are transported than people have.  I’m thinking in particular of the summer temperatures that soar into the dangerously high regions on London’s Underground system, but that’s an annual story for a few months later in the year (each year the Underground registers higher temperatures than the year before, along with stories of passengers suffering from heat exhaustion while traveling on the system).

I would have liked to have flown on Air NZ domestically within NZ because their fares on similarly scheduled flights were lower than Jetstar.  But unfortunately, Air NZ’s 15.4 lb maximum carry-on weight – one of the lowest limits of any airline, anywhere in the world, and one they sometimes enforce rigorously – makes it impossible to consider them.  As a prudent traveler, I always take anything essential or valuable in my carry-on rather than risk losing it in a checked bag, and doing so puts my carry-on consistently over Air NZ’s 15.4 lb maximum.  Many carry-on bags weigh close to 10 lbs empty, pointing still further to Air NZ’s ridiculously unrealistic maximum weight.

Fortunately, whatever extra I spent on the flights was more than compensated for with the cheap rental car I enjoyed.  I drove over 1500 miles, all comfortable and trouble-free, in a Nissan Sunny of unknown age, but with 155,000 miles already showing on the odometer.  Why pay $50+ a day for a nearly new car when a well maintained older car can be yours for half the price?  Thank you to Ace Rental Cars.

Anyway, now that I’m home again and struggling to shake off the jetlag, what else this week?  The feature article this week is more about nothing than about something – it is about the lack of any developments in the missing MH370 saga, and the growing possibility that we may never find the plane.  Even if we do find the plane, we might never ascertain what happened to it, why, how, or who.

The article follows at the bottom of the newsletter, and may be the last time I write on the topic – unless/until the plane is found and reveals its secrets.  And noting that a cruise ship disappeared in the North Atlantic a year ago and has never been seen since, my point is that if we can lose a cruise ship in the congested North Atlantic, how much easier is it to lose a plane in the empty Southern Ocean.

See below for lots more good stuff; it is an enormous 6,060 word newsletter this week with items on :

  • How a Competitor Benefits From a New Airline on Its Route
  • Delta Cancels Fewer Flights than Its Competitors
  • Alaska Airlines Concentrates its Forces to Fight Delta
  • An Interesting History of ETOPS
  • World’s Busiest Airports
  • They Said it Could Never be Done.  SFO Proves Them Wrong.
  • China’s Airlines Suffering from Unexpected Competition
  • Hush!  Don’t Complain!
  • Hotels Switch to Digital Newspapers
  • Is Wi-Fi No Longer Appropriate for Hotel Internet Access?
  • A Workable International Phone Solution for Many of Us
  • Arguments For and Against Daylight Saving
  • And Lastly This Week….

How a Competitor Benefits From a New Airline on Its Route

One of the strange aspects of the airline industry is that competing airlines also ‘help’ each other out, in both public and private ways.  I came across examples of each on my return from New Zealand earlier this week.

The semi-public way in which two competitors quietly cooperate was seeing that Hawaiian Airlines has contracted with Air New Zealand to provide its ground services in Auckland.  So when you go to check in for the flight, you’re actually checking in at a thinly disguised Air NZ checkin counter, manned by Air NZ personnel, the same in the gate lounge as well.

For years, even an airline with a major presence in Auckland – Qantas – also used Air NZ to provide its ground services, notwithstanding the two airlines being apparently arch-competitors.  Would you really want your major competitor managing one of your key branches, and having access to all your clients and your business information?  Only airlines feel comfortable doing this.

Does this mean that the Air NZ ground staff occasionally make subtle ‘mistakes’ to disadvantage the competitor airline they are serving (and, of course, it isn’t just Air NZ in Auckland; similar situations occur elsewhere in the world as well)?  Well, you can make your own decision about that, and perhaps it was just an unfamiliarity with HA’s boarding policies that caused the NZ gate staff to get the boarding priorities wrong.

The more subtle benefit is worth mentioning, too.  I had an interesting chat with a senior seeming NZ staffer, and he confirmed my fear that the HA flights had been operating with light loads, and said he couldn’t understand why, because their own loads on NZ’s competing flights to Honolulu were so high that they were sometimes having to offload passengers and put them on the HA flight instead.

This pointed to an interesting scenario which the guy confirmed.  Prior to the HA flight operating, if an NZ flight was oversold and had to offload passengers, they would have had to either delay the person until their flight the next day, or else pay Qantas or some other airline to first fly the passenger to Australia and then from there to Honolulu.  But now, with the nonstop HA flight later in the day, it is easier for them to ‘protect’ any overbooking on their own flight by moving passengers to the HA flight if necessary.

As a result, it seems than NZ may have increased the percentage by which it is willing to overbook its own flight to HNL, knowing that its cost to move any bumped passengers will be lower.

So, whether in the form of increased revenue by selling its ground handling services to Hawaiian Airlines, or in the form of being able to oversell its own flights to a greater extent, it would seem that Air New Zealand is not being too severely harmed by the presence of HA on the Auckland-Honolulu route.

Delta Cancels Fewer Flights than Its Competitors

Here’s an interesting article that gives a ‘behind the scenes’ view on what Delta does to minimize its need to occasionally cancel flights.

After a user survey that showed passengers preferred delayed flights to cancelled flights (did they really need to survey us to find that out – particularly these days where being re-accommodated on an alternate flight can sometimes take a day or more) DL has made it a priority to avoid cancelling flights, with impressive results, including a 72 day stretch in 2013 without a single cancellation.

The net result – last year the airline cancelled only 0.34% of its flights.  The next best airline was United, with a 1.0% cancellation rate.  American was the worst major carrier with a 1.7% cancellation rate.

Note the article’s ending comments, however.  Although I’ve been accused (by an airline pilot on a live talk show) of ‘living in a dream world of unreality’ for saying so, the article confirms the fact we all know or suspect – airlines will sometimes cancel flights based on low passenger loads.

Alaska Airlines Concentrates its Forces to Fight Delta

There’s something fascinating for me, as a Seattle area resident, in seeing the slowly escalating conflict between former airline allies Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

This last week saw a more subtle act on Alaska’s part.  It is beefing up its service from its Seattle hub, and cancelling flights between other less strategic parts of its route network so as to provide the planes for its additional Seattle services.  This strengthens its position in Seattle and gives Seattle-based fliers less need to stray out of the AS route system for all their travels.

It will cancel service between LAX-SJC, PDX-LGB, ATL-PDX and ANC-DEN, while adding service between Seattle and variously ABQ, BWI, DTW, MSY and TPA.  This will give AS 78 destinations from Seattle, and 279 week day departures.

Will that be enough to slow down the Delta juggernaut?  Alas, almost certainly not, particularly for people who don’t only fly ‘out and back’ flights between Seattle and other places, but who also do ‘circle trips’ to multiple places as part of a single itinerary, and of course for people flying internationally (other than to Mexico).

With Delta (augmented by its Skyteam partners), a Seattle-based traveler can have pretty much all their travel needs, to everywhere, met.  With Alaska Airlines, this is not possible, and while it does have partner airlines that AS customers can earn frequent flier miles into their AS account with, it is not as seamless an integration as with the members of any alliance.

Alaska is and always has been a fine airline; well-managed and with good service and competitive pricing.  It has a strongly loyal passenger base up and down the west coast and so, on the face of it, would seem to have little competitive vulnerability.  Except for its route network.

It seems to us that Delta is currently being very gentle on its side of this growing conflict.  It probably feels that it needs to spin out the battle, because otherwise it will clearly show, perhaps even to those who wish not to see, the problems now associated with ‘too big’ carriers when they choose to compete against a ‘too small’ carrier.

An Interesting History of ETOPS

Who would have thought, when the 737 first came out, that it would these days be used for flights all the way from the west coast to Hawaii (for example by Alaska Airlines)?  Even more amazingly, news this week comes of a new 737 route – between Stavanger in Norway and Houston.  This will be a ten-hour flight, and is another of the occasional attempts to institute an all-business-class service between somewhere in the US and somewhere in Europe, this time under the auspices of SAS.

Having very much enjoyed the BA all business class service to London City Airport on an even smaller A318, we concede that a ten-hour flight on a 737 could be very comfortable in an all business class 44 seat configuration, and presumably the reason for attempting it between these two cities is due to the prominent oil industry base at each end and the expectation that such passengers will happily pay a premium price for a premium seat.

But who would have ever thought that the 737 would grow the ‘legs’ necessary for such long flights (about 5000 miles between IAH and SVG)?  Details here.

The point of this is to introduce an interesting article on the evolution of ETOPS flying – Extended range Twin engine OPerationS – the concept of allowing planes with only two engines to fly long distances away from airports, and with a particular focus on the 777.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m palpably more comfortable on a four engined plane when over the water, a long way from land.  As dated as they are becoming, there’s still something enormously comforting and ‘unbreakable’ seeming, when settling into one’s seat in a lovely old 747 and hearing the distinctive whine of its engines at take-off.

World’s Busiest Airports

Atlanta’s position as the world’s busiest airport, as measured by passenger numbers, remains confirmed for another year.  Last year saw 94 million people pass through ATL, 10 million more than number two placed airport, Beijing Capital.  But whereas ATL had a 1.1% drop in passenger numbers from 2012, PEK had a 2.2% increase (surprisingly moderate for fast growing China), causing the gap to close by almost 3 million people, as compared to 2012.

Heathrow came in at third, the same as last year also.  The big mover in all of this is Dubai, which enjoyed a 15% year on year increase, landing it this year at the #7 position, with 66.4 million passengers.

Dubai’s growth continued in January and February of 2014, where its passenger count placed it – for the two months – as the world’s busiest airport of all.  This is probably a seasonal anomaly, but we can safely predict that the 2014 rankings will see Dubai continuing to move much closer to the top of the list.

If you’d told me, twenty years ago, that a new airport in the middle of nowhere, in a tiny emirate, was rushing to become the world’s largest airport, I’d have laughed you out of the room.  And if you’d told me that the only serious contender for the title was Beijing, I’d have needed medical treatment from so much mirth.

Our world is clearly changing.  Details here.

They Said it Could Never be Done.  SFO Proves Them Wrong.

Talking about busy airports, one of the major problems at such places is the ‘we’re number 23 in line for take-off’ problem.  You’re rushed onto the plane, the door is shut, you push back early, then all of a sudden – nothing for half an hour, other than inching forward along the taxiway every minute or two, while your flight slowly makes its way to its turn for take-off.

I’ve long pointed out there’s an easy solution to this problem – one which would save passengers unnecessary additional discomfort on the plane, and save the airlines money – not burning as much jetfuel, and not paying as many hours of wages to their pilots and flight attendants (who basically only get paid when the plane’s engines are running).  Rather than having a plane’s departure priority established by when it physically gets to the end of the sometimes very long line of planes waiting to depart, why not give a plane an exact departure time on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis.

Whenever I’ve suggested this, I’ve been shouted down by industry ‘experts’ who have a dozen reasons why it would be impractical and impossible, and who expostulate that the only way takeoffs can be sequenced is for planes to have to physically queue up in a line on the taxiway.  Experts like these – people who know enough to say ‘it can’t be done’ but who don’t know enough to see how something could be done – are of course much of the reason why the airline industry generally loses money and is so appallingly insensitive to customer service issues.

And now, guess what?  Well, yes, the headline gives it away.  The bad news is that SFO will be suffering from major capacity constraints between mid May and sometime in September, while two of its four runways are closed for maintenance work – adding new safety braking zones at the end of runways 1L and 1R using a special ‘Engineered Materials Arresting System’ – a special material that collapses and retards a plane if it runs into it.  This is the busiest time of year, and will definitely cause problems.

But the airport is planning for this by introducing new efficiency measures.  One of them is new scheduling software that will assign each flight a take-off time prior to it pushing back from the gate, and reducing the delays that would otherwise be suffered by planes and their passengers waiting in line for their turn to depart.  The airport’s planning manager says ‘Passengers won’t even get onto the plane until there is a [takeoff] slot for them’.

So if SFO can develop a departure scheduling system – and is deploying it to make flight departures more efficient – why can’t other airports do the same?

China’s Airlines Suffering from Unexpected Competition

Talking about things which the ‘experts’ claim to be impossible, one obvious example is the near unanimity of expert opinion that high-speed rail is impossible in this country because the distances are too great.

China is 20% larger than our lower 48 states, and so has similar distance problems.  But its domestic airlines, while growing at a prodigious rate, are suffering profit downturns.  Like airlines the world over, the Chinese airlines are quick to blame everything but themselves for their reduced profits, but unlike US carriers, they have a surprising scapegoat.


The enormous growth in China’s new high-speed rail network (they are adding 1,000 or more miles of high-speed track every year) has seen a matching growth in rail passenger numbers, to the point now that trains carry twice as many people as do planes.

One has to wonder – if trains can beat planes in China, why can’t they do the same thing in the US?  Details here.

Hush!  Don’t Complain!

An interesting case made its way all the way up to the US Supreme Court, which has now ruled in a very unusual 9-0 display of unanimity, albeit more on procedural technicalities than the underlying claim.  One wonders how it is that a plaintiff can fund an appeal all the way to the Supreme Court with such an underlying technical weakness – if the plaintiff is willing to fund such a staggeringly expensive process, why not do the obvious proper thing and file in federal court to start with?

The case sort of addressed whether or not an airline can cancel a flyer’s membership in their frequent flyer program, based on the flyer being too active a complainer.  The Supreme Court allowed Delta (and its predecessor, Northwest) to ban a Minnesota rabbi and his wife due to having complained too much – apparently he had the temerity to complain, among other things, nine times about late arriving baggage.  And of course, rather than the airline respond positively to him, as you think they would/should – he held highest level Platinum Elite status on NW at the time – they decided to simply cancel his frequent flyer membership.

Unfortunately, if you read the court’s verdict, their decision was based almost exclusively on whether the action should have been brought at state level or at federal level, rather than being a direct determination of the validity of the claim itself.

For us, the clear message, legal issues to one side, is that if you like your frequent flyer membership and the miles you’ve amassed in your programs, better bite your lip the next time an airline foists an indignity upon you.

Details discussed here and the written decision can be read here.

Hotels Switch to Digital Newspapers

Many of us no longer get newspapers at home, so it is unsurprising to see hotels now doing the same.  The one-time common newspaper-outside-the-door-in-the-morning became instead a limited number of copies of USA Today available at reception, and now the Shangri-La hotel chain has discontinued providing print papers entirely.  The chain says this will save it giving away two million newspapers each year – that’s a lot of trees (and a lot of money).

Instead, its guests can get free access to the PressReader digital newspaper service while staying at one of the Shangri-La properties, getting it for free through the hotel’s (also free) internet access.  Not stated is the probable new commercial reality that instead of paying for papers, Shangri-La stands to make money if hotel guests convert from their free access to PressReader while at the hotel to an ongoing paid subscription, making this a brilliant deal for the hotel – saving probably millions of dollars in buying, distributing, and then disposing of newspapers, and now having a totally electronic news fulfillment system that probably costs them no money and no labor, and instead brings them extra income when guests subsequently subscribe to the service.

The hotel trialed the program and found it very popular, and perceives that most of its guests are traveling with a tablet and prefer a digital edition to a print edition, and love the ability to choose from many different newspapers to read.  Details here.

One wonders what this might mean to USA Today if the electronic newspaper concept becomes more widely adopted by hotels everywhere.  Over half USA Today’s circulation – some sources suggest as much as two-thirds – is in the form of free copies given away in hotels.

Is Wi-Fi No Longer Appropriate for Hotel Internet Access?

Talking about internet and hotels, let me continue by making a perhaps surprising statement.  I believe it is fair that hotels should charge for internet access.  But I also believe their charge should be reasonable rather than rip-off, and that in return for the fee we pay, the hotels in turn guarantee us reliable fast internet.

Once upon a time, it was probably fair to expect internet access for free, because the cost to a hotel was so minimal.  All it needed to do was stick a wireless router or two in its property, and then share the internet bandwidth it already had for its internal use with its guests.

But these days, with many guests wishing to use their internet access to stream movies, or at least to conduct Skype type voice calls, the bandwidth demands have skyrocketed, representing substantial additional costs to the hotel, both for the external internet connection and for the internal traffic management.  The number of devices that many guests bring with them, all wanting to connect to the internet simultaneously, and some demanding lots of fast data, has made bandwidth management and traffic congestion not just a problem for the connection out to the internet as a whole, but within the hotel and through the Wi-Fi routers too.  (Guilty confession – on my trip to NZ, I had seven devices all wanting to connect to the internet.)

Almost without exception, every time I end up in a hotel room, I am plagued with internet access problems, and increasingly it seems the problem is not simply inadequate bandwidth connecting to the internet beyond the hotel, but rather poor infrastructure within the hotel.  This latter problem is often evidenced in the all too common scenario whereby you call to the hotel front desk, and speak with someone who knows nothing about internet access or Wi-Fi, but who tells you ‘I’ve got a good connection here, it must be something with your computer’.

Originally, hotels tended to provide ethernet wired connections to the internet, but those have become scarcer and scarcer.  It is cheaper for a hotel to install wireless routers than it is for the hotel to run coax cable to each room, and furthermore, the provided coax connectors often seemed prone to problems, whereas – in theory – with Wi-Fi there’s nothing to wear out or fail.  In addition, the explosion of new types of devices that only support Wi-Fi connectivity (phones and tablets in particular) made Wi-Fi mandatory and wired internet less essential.

But some hotels have taken bad design ‘shortcuts’ in their network design, and instead of having multiple routers all feeding in to a central switch and then going out from there to the internet, I often come across hotels that instead have a series of routers acting as repeaters, with the traffic from the ‘furtherest away’ router then flowing through all the other routers back to the switch and from there on to the internet, creating much more congestion within the network.

Plus, the profusion of Wi-Fi services and the limited number of channels that such things can operate on has made for too much data fighting for too little spectrum space.  Even if the hotel you’re in has a perfect Wi-Fi network, you might find that the adjacent hotel, the nearby office building, and even the Wi-Fi hotspots of other guests in their rooms around yours are all interfering with your signal and bandwidth.

We’d like to see the return of ethernet connectivity in hotel rooms.  It is a more robust and reliable method of internet connection and the traffic it handles is more readily managed.

A Workable International Phone Solution for Many of Us

A US T-mobile account may be your best solution for international voice and data services next time you travel.

Slowly but surely, all the nonsensically expensive wireless phone service features are dropping in price.  Do you remember when any cell phone call would cost $1 a minute or more – indeed, often the prices were so high that the wireless companies tried to disguise the cost by quoting in half-minute pricing rather than whole minute pricing.  Back then (think mid/late 1980s) I would still use pay phones (remember them?) and calling cards (remember them, too?) for calling, even though I had a huge big heavy cell phone with me.  Now most of us have effectively unlimited calling plans, and at costs of perhaps $50 or less a month (for the voice part of our package).

And then there were the domestic roaming charges.  Initially you had to sign up for roaming service with each different network you visited, and pay a daily fee as well as a per call fee too.  Now all of this is free.

The same for domestic long distance.  How revolutionary it was when AT&T first allowed for free domestic long distance.  Now everyone offers it and no-one thinks twice about it.

The two stubbornly remaining outrageously high costs have been international roaming and international data.

As a result, a thriving industry sprung up, selling travelers either country-specific SIMs to put in their phones when traveling to the specific country served by the SIM, or world-wide SIMs offering reasonable rates for calling from many countries to many other countries.

International roaming charges have been slowly dropping down to under $1 a minute from most countries to most other countries, making these third-party products of less and less value and relevance, but international data has remained very high, no matter how you purchased it (other than via country-specific SIMs).

But T-Mobile’s announcement late last year that it was massively reducing its international fees has transformed this dynamic.  Basically, it reduced international calling down to 20c a minute between most countries and most other countries, making domestic calling within a country almost as cheap as with a local SIM, and international calling almost always cheaper.

All of a sudden, for voice calls when traveling internationally, there is usually no longer any need to do anything other than use a T-Mobile SIM.

But how about for data?  T-Mobile had an interesting approach to that.  It now allows unlimited free data connectivity internationally.  Unlimited?  Free?  Yes!

So, what is the catch?  Yes, there is a catch – the unlimited data is very slow 2G data, rather than faster 3G or 4G or whatever type of data.  But, if all you are using your phone’s data capabilities for is email rather than web browsing, maybe that is fast enough.

I experimented with the T-mobile service in one of the three phones I had with me in NZ, and it was perfectly workable, as long as one appreciated the limits of the slow 2G service.  One never really notices speed with email (does it really matter if it takes 5 seconds or 5 minutes to send and receive email?) and when browsing web pages, sometimes it was appallingly slow (as expected) and sometimes it was surprisingly fast.

All in all, I was very pleased with the T-mobile service and certainly can’t complain about its associated cost – zero for data, and 20c a minute for voice.  I used it primarily as a GPS (with the Copilot GPS app, because Copilot has all its mapping data on the phone rather than using up lots of data service to download map data as needed), and only rarely for other things.

Best of all, with T-mobile there is no need to sign up for any type of fixed term contract.  You can start the service when you’re about to leave, and stop it when you return with no termination fee.  If you have a phone that is compatible with T-mobile SIMs and international data and voice frequencies, it is probably your best choice.

I did have a NZ phone too, because I wanted to give people in NZ a convenient way to call me, and with the several hundred minutes I spent on the phone and occasional ‘need’ for fast phone data, it was worth it for the minor degree of hassle to set up one phone with a NZ number and plan.  But for most people, spending only a week or two in a country and without any expectation of a high volume of calling/data usage, T-mobile will now be the best choice.

Arguments For and Against Daylight Saving

Daylight saving is one of those things you either love or hate.  Few people have no opinion on the subject.

It is true that the original rationale for the concept – energy savings and greater productivity – is either trivial in scope (perhaps no more than a 0.5% energy saving) or may in fact no longer be applicable at all (see, for example, this discussion) and certainly its implementation is far from universal, with the vast majority of the world not adopting it at all.

I’ve always been a bit bemused by people complaining about the impact on their sleep patterns by a tiny one hour time zone shift.  Many of us have more than that variation in our daily habits currently (especially between weekday and weekend times) such that an hour change is nothing more than ‘random noise’ in our schedules.

Like many others, I love the long evenings in the summer and think no further about the concept, other than to dread the loss of daylight saving each fall as the final confirmation, if needed, about the end of another summer and the incipient arrival of winter.

But here is an interesting article which hints at the possibility of an increased risk of heart attack on the Monday following the onset of daylight saving each year (and its attendant one hour time loss).  One wonders if there might also be a balancing reduction in heart attacks on the Monday following the end of daylight saving (and its one hour of extra sleep time) – the study did not appear to consider that.

On the other hand, it is generally accepted that consistent lack of sleep is harmful – see this recent article.

The unasked question in all of this which springs to mind is ‘what are the health impacts of traveling across multiple time zones with probably insufficient sleep during the process?  What is the increase in mortality rates among flyers after a long flight?  Is frequent long distance travel harmful to our health?

I suspect the answer to this last and most important question is ‘Yes, much more so than anyone suspects’, and hope someone will put together a study to investigate.

However, not all the dangerous effects of daylight saving changes are bad.  Here’s one case where daylight saving clearly worked massively to the advantage of society as a whole.

And Lastly This Week….

I did a lot of driving in NZ, but one road I didn’t drive, and which is invariably highlighted as a road to avoid on NZ rental car contracts, is the lovely Skippers Canyon Rd.

The fame of this drive extends well beyond NZ – it is on this list of ‘the world’s 22 most dangerous roads’.  And if your normal rental car company won’t allow you to drive it, take encouragement from the company in the article, which will not only give you your choice of supercar to drive the road, but will also fly you there, too.  All yours, for only £200,000.

If you enjoy slightly edgy vacations, you might take inspiration from this list of the ten most dangerous cities in the world.  But one wonders about how dangerous they can be, because there’s a moderate chance you’ve already been to one of the cities on the list without even realizing its special status (ie city number four).

Do you print this newsletter – or anything else – out before reading it?  I know some people do.  If so, perhaps you should consider changing the font from whatever weighted serif font it defaults to, and set it instead to Garamond.  Here’s an example of Garamond.


A ‘real’ Garamond sample would be slightly higher quality than the one you see here, which has had to be ‘tricked’ into a format that will be sure to display as true Garamond on your screen.

For more details on the study, here’s an interesting article.

Talking about wasting ink, Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, is a past (and present!) master at causing newspapers to waste much ink in quoting his often outrageous statements.  We generally enjoy a chuckle at his outbursts, but as a loyal and respectful subject of HM the Queen, one wonders exactly how to feel about his statement reported here.  The images it evokes are, well, unsettling.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Apr 032014
This old Soviet cruise ship disappeared off the Canadian coast in Feb 2013 and has never been found subsequently.  If we can't find a ship, what chance do we have of finding MH 370 wreckage?

This old Soviet cruise ship disappeared off the Canadian coast in Feb 2013 and has never been found subsequently. If we can’t find a ship, what chance do we have of finding MH 370 wreckage?

The MH 370 777-200 has now been missing for four weeks.  In a few more days, the batteries that drive the ‘pingers’ on the black boxes will expire, and they will go silent (they are rated for about a month of pinging) and then the task of finding the plane will become even more difficult.

Every report of satellites or search planes spotting floating wreckage has resulted in disappointment when the wreckage is finally identified (but it is interesting to be reminded of just how much floating junk there is, even in the remotest and least traveled parts of the desolate Southern Ocean).  If actual MH 370 wreckage is subsequently spotted, while the wreckage may serve to confirm the plane’s fate, due to the ocean currents that would be continually drifting it away from the plane’s point of original impact with the sea, it will be increasingly difficult to track back from the located wreckage to where the sunk plane may be – already probably more than 100 miles away.

Should it be Easy or Hard to Find the Plane?

One of the more egregiously nonsensical statements repeatedly uttered has been to wonder how a plane as ‘big’ as a 777 can become so totally lost.  Well, even at its most seemingly precise (but still wrong), the search area has typically been measured in hundreds of thousands of square miles (a square of ‘only’ 316 miles per side totals 100,000 sq miles), and the dimensions of any plane – particularly one that has broken up and now is represented only by some smaller pieces of wreckage – represents an infinitesimal part of that total area.  Whether the wreckage is from a small plane or an enormous plane, it is still so small as to be a statistically improbable part of the total search area.

To be somewhat more exact, a 777 has about 11,000 sq ft of total surface area, much less of which would be represented by all the likely floating wreckage, and the largest piece of which is unlikely to even be 1,000 sq ft in area.  There are 2,787,840,000,000 sq ft in 100,000 square miles.  Yes, it would be easier to find a needle in a haystack.

When the Air France flight crashed into the south Atlantic, realtime data provided the searchers with a reasonably accurate location of where the plane had crashed.  Even so, it took two years to ultimately locate the plane’s black boxes, even though the search area was small.  With it appearing likely the MH 370 jet has crashed in the similarly deep (or even deeper) Southern Ocean and with a much less precise understanding of exactly where it crashed, if there are no ‘markers’ on the surface (ie floating wreckage) then the task of finding the black boxes does approach impossibility, particularly starting from some time next week when the black box pingers go silent.

But casting aside the issue of the plane’s size, it is arguably surprising that with all the sophisticated spy satellite technology available not just to the US but to a growing number of other nations as well (notably including China, a country with a vested interest in finding the plane) no-one is admitting to having any trace of where the plane is or was or anything at all subsequent to it ‘vanishing’ off radar.  If we accept the now authoritative seeming assertions that the plane went down somewhere to the south-west of Australia, in the water, it is close to impossible that the plane’s demise did not result in some floating wreckage.

Rumor has long suggested that the US has spy satellites that can read number plates on cars and are confirmed to have a resolution of only a half-dozen or so inches, and some spy-planes may have massively better resolution.  Even commercial satellites now have imagery with a better than three-foot resolution, but all we’ve seen have been fuzzy blurry images of featureless blobs in the water that have always turned out to be generic junk rather than airplane pieces.

We accept that no nation wants to reveal its technical surveillance capabilities, but you’d think that at least one nation would use its resources to spot some evidence of the plane’s fate and then ‘hint’ to the searchers as to where to look, and what to expect.

Indeed, there have been examples of that in early weeks of the search – the US was claiming to be convinced the plane had crashed into the sea off the Indian coast, and due to the way it was not revealing the reason for its belief, I’d guessed that this claim was due to underwater monitoring, either from a sound surveillance sensor array or from a submarine in that region.  How was such a confident claim so wrong?

Is the Plane Now Lost Forever?

With each day bringing no new news, and instead either being a recycled variation on how upset the families of the missing passengers are, a newly revealed and often inexplicable misstatement by the Malaysian authorities (it now turns out that they haven’t even been able to correctly advise on what the pilot’s final words were), or another go-round on the seemingly endless cycle of ‘wreckage sited – searching – bad weather cancelling search – resumed searching – wreckage deemed to be unrelated to plane – new search area redefined’, even the most eager of news sites are struggling to keep the story on their front page, much as they may wish to keep it there – apparently the crash has been a massive boost to CNN’s flagging ratings.

There is now a definite trend towards stories claiming that we might never find the plane, and/or, if we ever do, we’ll be unable to deduce what happened to it, how and why (and who).  The Malaysians seem to alternate between conceding the plane may be lost for good and promising to never give up the search.

Has the plane now been lost forever?  With the enormous amount of resource still being deployed to search for wreckage, we’d hesitate to be that dismissive of the chances of finding something – even if only floating wreckage rather than the submerged remains of the plane or, most elusive of all, the black boxes.  But we will be surprised if/when the plane is located.

Are Other Flights at Similar Risk?

The unresolved and unknown reasons for the MH 370 mystery raise a derivative point of valid concern.  If we can’t learn what happened to the plane, is there a vulnerability that may cause similar problems in the future?

This is a sensible question to be asking, but also needs to be viewed in light of a month of subsequent 777 flights with no more planes disappearing.  If MH 370 was the victim of an act of terrorism, you might think the terrorists would be rushing to repeat the exploit before it is discovered and the vulnerability resolved.  Neither has the plane (yet) re-appeared as a bomber for an attack on Israel (or various other nations), as was feared for a while, and perhaps these non-events are also significant and suggestive of a one-off event, be it a man-made or plane-made failing.

Needless to say, the ‘zero tolerance’ groups are up in arms, and are not allowing their total lack of knowledge as to what happened with the plane to interfere with their demands for better security and airplane tracking.

Such people forget that air travel is already vastly safer than crossing the road, driving down the road, or even simply staying at home.  Instead they cling to unreasoning fears and demand ever more intrusive and expensive protection against the remotest of dangers.

A question to such people :  Why are you trying to make the safest means of transport still safer?  Shouldn’t you be more focused on improving dangerous means of transportation, such as private cars?

To Put it In Context

Lastly, we are hoping to be able to spot probably small pieces of debris from a crashed plane, with most of the plane having quickly sunk.  While it might seem like we should be able to do this with the variously imagined or guessed at capabilities of national governments, let’s put it in context.

An entire cruise ship has been missing since Feb 2013, somewhere in the North Atlantic.  Authorities gave up the search earlier this year, deciding that it must have sunk, but with no idea as to when or where.

If no-one and nothing can find a ship in the congested and strategically vital waters of the North Atlantic, what are the chances of finding some assorted debris from a crashed plane in the vast emptiness of the Southern Ocean?

Mar 142014
Society worked perfectly well without everyone carrying officially issued photo ID.  Are we really any safer now that we must show ID for all manner of trivial transactions?  See items below.

Society worked perfectly well without everyone carrying officially issued photo ID. Are we really any safer now that we must show ID for all manner of trivial transactions? See items below.

Good morning

There are times when I am thankful that I don’t have to publish a daily newsletter, and I’ve been particularly feeling that this last week.

Ever since the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane last Friday morning (our time), other writers, less fortunate than me, have been heeding their need to publish, and have been writing an enormous amount of speculative material, much of which has been quickly superseded as new information comes to light.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is now within hours of a full week since the plane first disappeared, and we’re still unsure of what happened.  Where did it go, what did it do, and why?

However, although spared the need for daily publication, I do have a need for weekly publication, and so I’ve put together a piece that attempts to report on the current state of knowledge as of Thursday evening.  That follows the weekly newsletter, below.

There remain some curious contradictions and plenty of mystery about this flight, and hopefully the unknowns will start to be replaced by the reality of the plane’s discovery, and the ability to then start to replace guesses with answers.  One thing is almost certain, however.  There’s little chance the 239 passengers and crew are safe and unharmed (not zero chance, because maybe the plane landed somewhere and is in hiding, and maybe the plane’s abductors are keeping the passengers and crew safe, but there are a lot of maybes in that statement).

I should also publicly thank all our News site docents for their splendid job in ensuring the site remains up to date with the latest breaking developments in this ongoing and ever evolving story, and particularly Brian and Steve.  This is exactly the sort of thing our News site excels at – distilling the many different stories and ensuring you can turn to it for up to date information on what is happening.

I’m always happy to welcome new people onto our team of ‘docents’ – the people who spot and post news articles on the site, and if it is something you might be interested in occasionally doing, yourself, please let me know.  I can send you an explanatory note about how it all works, and you’re welcome to have a go and see if it is fun and interesting to you.

I’m off to New Zealand next week, in part to fine-tune and hand-craft arrangements for this October’s very special Travel Insider tour to New Zealand.  Why not choose to come on this tour and enjoy a great time in a lovely country, too.

So, what else this week – a week dominated with the mysteries of MH 370? Apparently, lots!  How about 5200 words on topics such as :

  • Heathrow About to Get a Little Better
  • A Tiny Problem for the 787 Fleet
  • White House Seeks to Increase Air Taxes
  • United’s New Free Wi-Fi – Sort Of
  • And Turkish Airlines’ Free eBooks and eMagazines, Too
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Flying Down Memory Lane – the Connie
  • TSA Takes on Buses – More Mission Creep
  • Show Me Your ID
  • The Stupidest Security of All
  • And Lastly This Week….

Heathrow About to Get a Little Better

Good news, but not much of it, to those of us who fly through Heathrow.  The ‘airport that people love to hate’ – Britain’s self-inflicted wound on itself all who suffer through it – is about to improve its ground handling capabilities.

A date has been set for the opening of the new Terminal 2 facility.  Put a ring around 4 June on your calendars.

Unlike the extended disaster that was the opening of Terminal 5 in 2008, the airport and its airlines are proceeding very cautiously with bringing Terminal 2 online.  On day one, only United Airlines will start flights there, and there will be only 2,500 passengers processed through the terminal.

By the end of June, it is hoped to be processing 26,000 passengers a day, and the target is to grow to 46,500 a day (ie 17 million a year).  The amazing thing about that statistic is that Terminal 2 has the same footprint as the earlier Europa terminal building, which was designed in 1955 to handle 1.2 million people a year.  Fifteen times more people through the same amount of ground area.  Hmmm – is that really a good thing?

Terminal 2 will become the official home of 23 Star Alliance airlines; but it won’t be until November before all airlines have completed their moves into the building.  One of the good things of this is it will make for easier airline to airline transfers within the Star Alliance because the planes will be more likely to be at nearby gates within the same terminal, rather than requiring the earlier transfers between terminals.

The new terminal’s cost is in the order of $4.2 billion, and will be named the Queen’s Terminal.

Full details here.

But the conspicuously missing part of all this happiness is that the airport’s ability to handle flights remains unchanged.  While the ground experience through the terminal may be improved (emphasis on ‘may’ – true improvement requires more airline staff at check-in, more immigration people in the arrivals hall, more security people when waiting to go through security, rather than just a new building per se), currently capacity problems in terms of handling arriving and departing planes, and the all too common delays associated with both, remain unchanged.

A Tiny Problem for the 787 Fleet

Hairline cracks in the 787 wings of new planes currently being put together at Boeing have been discovered.  Boeing says there is no risk to currently in service planes – the cracking may relate to a recent change in how Mitsubishi makes the planes’ wings, but the FAA is advising airlines to check the planes they already have in, too.

Cracks in airplane wings and other structures are nothing new, of course, and the A380 has had its own problems.  But whereas the cracking issues, along with how to detect cracks and how to repair cracks, is reasonably well understood when it comes to aluminum technologies, it is less well understood with carbon fibre manufacturing.

It is, shall we say, surprising, to learn of new wing assemblies that haven’t even been flown for the first time already showing some hairline cracks.

Talking about 787s, the JAL 787 that became an unwanted celebrity when it took center stage as the ‘Boston Battery Fire’ 787 reappeared in the news this week.  This time, it made an emergency landing in Honolulu after oil pressure in its right engine dropped.  The plane was flying from Tokyo to San Francisco at the time.

White House Seeks to Increase Air Taxes

A budget proposal from the White House would increase a range of air travel taxes.

The passenger facility charge would increase by up to $3.50 (there are a maximum of four PFCs levied on each domestic ticket currently, so that’s up to $14 more per ticket); both the customs and immigration fees go up by $2, ie $4 in total (now that customs and immigration are both the same thing, you wonder why they need two separate fees and two separate increases); and the TSA levy (currently $2.50)would go up by 40c per departure – the new TSA Precheck system might be reducing the amount of TSA staffing time spent per passenger, but that’s no reason not to charge more, apparently.

Oh, and as for the PFC increase, that’s the good news.  The airports, themselves, are asking for permission to charge even more.

United’s New Free Wi-Fi – Sort Of

My favorite four letter word beginning with the letter ‘f’ is, of course, ‘free’ (what did you think it was?).  But just like the amazing range of meanings that the other four letter f word has, we know that ‘free’ is a highly nuanced term.

So when one reads about United extending free Wi-Fi on its flights, it pays to read the fine print.

First, not all planes support the service, although the entire fleet should have it by the end of the year.

Second, the free streaming is currently offered only to iOS devices – iPhones and iPads.  You need to download the appropriate app from iTunes first.  It is understood that apps to run on other operation systems will be released in the future.

Third, you don’t get free unlimited access to the internet as a whole.  Instead, you get access to a probably hosted on the plane library of over 150 movies and 200 tv shows.  This is not Wi-Fi as we understand it, but merely access to the plane’s own library of content.

More details here.

Still, that’s great, isn’t it.  Well, yes, it is if you have an iPad, but not quite so great if it means you have to squint at your tiny iPhone screen to watch a movie.  And not too good at all if you’re part of the largest part of the smartphone and tablet owning population and have an Android rather than iOS device.

But, most of all, it pays to understand what the underlying and obscured/shifted cost of this free service is likely to be and become.  Our prediction is this is a first tentative step towards United – and, soon enough, all other airlines – removing their own IFE (in flight entertainment) devices from their planes.  Instead, you’ll have to bring your own compatible device, and use it to access the content that formerly used to be on the airplane provided screen in front of you.

I’m not saying that is a bad thing, although probably it is more comfortable to have a screen in the seatback in front of me than it is to clutch my iPad all flight long.  But if you’ve been resisting getting some sort of portable screen yourself, and have enjoyed the IFE on longer flights, you’re now going to have to now either buy a screen or go back to books and sleeping pills.

Let’s hope the airlines also provide sufficient at seat recharging facilities for all passengers, too.

I’m also curious to see how much bandwidth there’ll be (or, to put it another way, what the picture quality will be like) when 200 – 500 people on a plane all want to watch movies at the same time.  Say each person has a 2 Mbit video stream (and that’s a very modest bit of bandwidth).  So that suggests 400 Mbit/sec and more to be provided in an entire plane – potentially 1 Gbit/sec on an A380.

Will first class passengers get more bandwidth than coach class passengers?  Will business class passengers get an intermediate speed?  Will the airlines start to shift from free streaming to charging for differing speeds of access?  Knowing the airlines and their predilection for charging for everything, how long will IFE remain free – assuming you can still call it free when you need to own a device costing some hundreds of dollars to start with?

And Turkish Airlines’ Free eBooks and eMagazines, Too

Here’s a great idea – an airline offering not just audio and video entertainment, but digitized reading materials too.

Turkish Airlines has released its free Sky Library  – a range of eBooks and eMagazines, for both adults and children, including, gack, the latest twist on the classic Reader’s Digest condensed books – short summary form books on management, marketing, and other topics, ‘in abridged form that can be read and finished during a flight’.

Happily, unlike United, Turkish Airlines is supporting both Android and iOS devices, right from the get-go.  More details here.

One wonders – will these abridged books be available in one, two, four and eight hour flight versions?

At least the bandwidth demands for reading books and magazines are a great deal more modest than for watching videos.

Wonderful Hawaiian Airlines

I’ve written before about how Hawaiian Airlines has been steadily evolving, extending, and improving.  Originally an island commuter carrier, it then started adding flights to the US mainland, and more recently started adding flights to other places around the Pacific rim.

The stealthy part of its route network development is that it is not only adding flights to Hawaii from many more places, but it is also creating a hub in Hawaii for flights between the US mainland and other places around the Pacific rim.

Case in point.  I’m off to New Zealand next week, and while I had the usual expensive option with Air New Zealand – flying first to SFO or LAX and then on to Auckland or the nowadays inconvenient choice of flying Qantas to Australia and then from Australia back to NZ, and a similar choice with Virgin Australia/Delta.  There’s also Fiji Airways with inconvenient flights via LAX and Fiji (I refuse to fly them any more after my problems with them last year).

But as well as these ‘obvious’ choices, there’s also Hawaiian Airlines.  I can fly Seattle to Honolulu, have a short but not too short, convenient connection, and then on to Auckland.  That’s almost a direct straight line from Seattle to Auckland.  The airline started service to NZ in March 2013, and is the only US carrier that flies there.

Better still, their fare quote has no odious fuel surcharge ‘smoke and mirrors’ nonsense associated with it, and they allow not just one but two free bags, and not just a 50 lb bag but two 70 lb bags.  I will need to take more than 50 lbs of stuff with me, and so I’m saving an enormous $300 on the second bag compared to what Air NZ would charge.

To put it another way, Air NZ allows 50 lbs in one bag for free, Hawaiian allows up to 140 lbs in two bags for free.  Two bags, and up to 100 lbs, with NZ would add $300 roundtrip to the fare, and three bags, with up to 150 lbs, would add $700 to the trip.  Or, to compare apples with apples, two bags and up to 140 lbs on NZ would get me both excess baggage and excess weight charges – a total of $900 extra, compared to fully free on HA.

Isn’t it amazing that one airline can do for free what another airline believes is fair to charge $900 for!  Oh yes, one more thing.  The lowest Air NZ fare I could find, even after juggling dates, was $1840 (and then add however much for excess baggage charges on top of that).  On Hawaiian it was $1438.

I’m delighted to see that even though its fare to Auckland is massively less than with Air NZ, HA is making a reasonable profit these days.  There’s more to operating a profitable airline than just simply gouging your customers at every turn.

So I’m very happily flying Hawaiian Airlines next week, and luxuriating in the ‘good old days’ scenario of being able to take two heavy bags for free with me.

If you’ve been thinking of coming to NZ for our October tour, be sure to consider flying Hawaiian as a possible way to get there.

The Fees We Hate the Most?

Talking about airline fees, here’s an interesting recitation of some of the more egregious fees airlines (and hotels) charge.

How about $125 for taking a small pet onto the plane and sticking it under the seat in front of you (with the pet also counting against your carry-on allowance)?  The airline does absolutely nothing at all different to what it does if you have a regular carry-on bag, but charges you $250 for a roundtrip to take a pet with you, just because it can.

United and American spokesmen both said their pet carry-on fee was ‘competitive’.

Well, if that’s competition, it sure proves we need a great deal more of it.

The above linked article doesn’t look at cruise lines, but they are becoming as adept at fee charging as any airline or hotel.  Maybe you remember when cruising was sold as being an all-inclusive vacation – you pay for your cruise, and almost everything is included.

Those days are receding (most recently Princess Cruises are now charging up to $60 a day for you to access an adults-only part of their ships, away from hordes of screaming kids), and cruise lines are becoming amazingly inventive at charging for all sorts of things that were once free.  This article is a great read, and as you can see in the attached chart, Norwegian Cruise Lines now gets almost 30% of their total revenue from onboard charges.  Back in 2001, cruise lines got less than 5% of their revenue from extras sold on-board.

Even the core promise – free food – is no longer being honored, with increasing prominence being given to onboard restaurants that charge extra to provide food which was once the standard fare given for free.  As another table in the article shows, you can now spend up to $200, per person, for a single featured meal on some ships.

Flying Down Memory Lane – the Connie

Some planes have a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ about them that cause them to linger and last, whereas others are quickly forgotten.  The Concorde of course is a standout example of a memorable gorgeous plane, and, at the other end of the scale (almost) so too is the DC-3.

Another old plane that is distinctive and beautiful is the Lockheed Constellation and subsequently its slightly improved derivative, the Super Constellation.

Here’s an interesting article about Lufthansa’s efforts to preserve a Super Constellation.  They might have spent $60 million in the process.  But the article makes a strange mistake (856 of the planes were built, not 44 as it claims) and also implies that the LH Connie will be the last one ever to fly.

Not so.  Qantas restored one some years back, and here’s an impressive Youtube video of it taking off, flames streaming out the cowlings of its engines in full boost mode, and here’s a video of a Breitling branded Super Connie coming in to land in Paris, ending with the Eiffel Tower nicely in the background.

Wikipedia has a fairly lengthy list of survivors.  That’s not to denigrate Lufthansa’s preservation efforts of course, merely to correct the record.

It is hard to think of any of the modern stable of generic jets inspiring the same feelings as these older planes.

TSA Takes on Buses – More Mission Creep

You know the urban legend, don’t you.  After massive public outrage and disgust at the inept security screening by private contractors that allowed 9/11 to happen, the government was forced to take over airport security, and so the TSA came into being.

Well, that is the urban legend.  The truth is that the airport screeners did not fail at all on 9/11, because, per the FAA regulations, the box cutters the terrorists used to commandeer the planes were legal and lawfully allowed as carry-on items.  The private contractors were blameless.

If one were to ascribe blame for 9/11 (and the issue is massively more complex than can be considered in a single allocation of blame) you might think that blame more fairly lies at the feet of the government, for having created the ‘cooperate with terrorists, do anything/everything they ask you to do’ policy that allowed four terrorists to take over each plane with 100 – 200 passengers on board with nothing more than box cutters.

But, needless to say, that’s not the way the urban legend goes.  A shame, perhaps, because the TSA and its new parent organization, the Homeland Security Department (such an Orwellian term) that was created after the TSA has taken a lot of its moral superiority from the claim that everything it does is essential to make us saferer and that private enterprise has catastrophically shown that it can’t be trusted to do as effective a job.

The TSA are always trying to expand their powers.  Remember, they were created to replace airport security screeners.  But not only have they re-defined ‘airport security’ way beyond the Xray machine and metal detector to now include things like their enormous corps of BDOs – the ‘behavioral detection officers’ who lurk around airports trying to spot people acting suspiciously, and – to date – with a perfect zero score for nabbing would-be terrorists, but they’re spreading out whenever they can from airports to other forms of transportation, too.

Here’s the most recent example – city bus passengers in downtown Pittsburgh.

If our nation’s security groups truly feel that city buses are now at risk of being used as weapons by terrorists, then we’ve well and truly lost the war on terror, as well as one of the few remaining shreds of public freedom.

Show Me Your ID

I don’t know about you, but I’m increasingly asked to show ID – especially when buying alcohol, but also when checking into hotels, and sometimes when charging things to my credit card.  No-one ever bothers to compare my signature to the signature on the back of the card, and neither do they bother to really check my ID either – I like to ask them, when they’re returned it ‘so what is my middle name’ or, if not entering my date of birth into their machine ‘so what year was I born, then?’.  I always get blank stares in return.

I particularly thought about this with the revelations this week that at least two and maybe four or even five of the passengers on the missing Malaysia flight were traveling with stolen passports, and I wondered just how much alike or different the passengers were to the descriptions and photos in the passports they were using.  The showing of ID is a reflex request, unthinkingly made, unthinkingly complied with, and not scrutinized with any care at all by the ID requestor, making the whole thing so pointless.

I’m not Dorian Grey – I’m convincingly growing older and looking so with each passing year, and in 18 months I turn 60.  But whereas I lived much of my thirties and probably all of my forties never once having to show ID to buy alcohol, it is happening more and more frequently now.  Why?

Perhaps the stupidest example of that recently was at Costco, a company I used to love to bits.  I’ve been a Costco member for probably 27 years (remember that the minimum age to buy alcohol is 21, so even if I was given a membership while still in my mother’s womb, I’d now be well and truly past 21); oh yes, and as I vaguely remember the last time I signed someone up onto my Costco account, you have to show photo ID that of course reveals one’s birthdate on it as part of getting your own Costco photo ID membership card.

So there I am, buying beer at Costco a couple of weeks ago, with my membership card having first been scanned by the cashier before she then started to scan the items I was buying, meaning that her computer either knew my age or at least knew I’d been a member for 27 years, and she refused to allow me to buy my beer without proving I was over 21.  She agreed I looked over 21, but said ‘It’s the law’ (it isn’t) and she had to ask everyone for ID (she doesn’t).

I called a manager, and the first ‘manager’ who came turned out not to be a manager at all (an all too common trick – store employees often get their peers to cover for them when they do something stupid – always ask for the ‘manager’ to give you their card to confirm their position) and then the real manager said there was nothing he could do and I had to show my ID or leave.  How does Costco and our society benefit by carding a balding greying 58-year-old when he tries to buy alcohol?

We are being subtly transformed from a national of proudly free citizens to a nation of subservient subjects, now humbling acceding to even the most stupid of requests from the most stupid of store clerks.

I remember in the 1990s, one hotelier proudly telling me that they don’t ask their guests for anything, not even a credit card, until it comes time for them to check out.  ‘We want to make our guests feel welcome’, he said.  But probably 3/4 of all hotels now ask for photo ID when you check in, even if you’ve logged in to your frequent guest account and booked direct with the hotel through a system that has, as part of it, already confirmed your ID, and even if you’re on a fully prepaid booking.

I still remember back to learning about the Soviet Union when I was at school in the 1960s.  We all marveled in amazement about a country in which their citizens had to carry ID with them everywhere, and show it regularly to officials any time it was asked for.  Of course, back then in NZ, there was no such thing as photo ID.  Our driver’s license was a little booklet with our name written into it in pen, nothing more.  It was the same in the US too (see picture above).

Are we really any safer now that we essentially all must carry official photo ID with us at all times and be prepared to show it, even to ordinary store clerks, any time someone requires it of us?  Or has our country become every bit as dictatorial to its people as the Soviet Union ever was?

The Stupidest Security of All

How many times have you called a company’s customer service number, and prior to getting to speak to someone, keyed in your account number, maybe your social security number, and been calling from a registered phone number they have on your account profile, only to be greeted, when finally talking to a real person, with the request to confirm your account number, social security number, etc.  My rejoinder is always to tell these people ‘the details haven’t changed during the two minutes since when I punched them into your phone system and now’ but this concept is too complex for the customer ‘service’ people to understand.

But these are mere pin-pricks compared to Amazon.  Yes, the company that seeks to lead the world in online shopping also has some of the stupidest security policies.

If you ever have a problem with an order on Amazon, you can work your way through a dozen internet pages and eventually get to the point where you can speak to someone on the phone.  To do that, you don’t dial a phone number yourself.  Instead, while logged in to your Amazon account, you click a ‘call me’ button and type in your phone number.  Seconds later, your phone rings.

After a usually very short wait, you then are talking to an Amazon rep.  They want to confirm that you are you by asking your name, and after having done so, off you go and get your problem solved.  But the other half of the time – well, for example, yesterday, after confirming that the agent was indeed talking to David Rowell, she then asked ‘for the email address associated with your account’.

I had some spare time, so decided not to play her game and instead do things the hard way.  ‘Why do you need to know that?’, I asked.

‘For security, to verify your identity’ was the predictable response.

‘But how would that verify my identify?  I’m logged into my Amazon account, and my email address is my login ID, the same as it is for everyone else.  Clearly, whether I’m really me or not, whoever it is that you’re talking to knows the answer to this question.’

The girl from whichever foreign country it is she lives in didn’t understand the logic of that, and she doggedly insisted on knowing my email address.  Her system needed it to validate me, she said.  Rules are rules, and it is a necessary part of the procedure.  So,

‘Why do you need to do this?  This is my second call about this problem.  When I called an hour ago, the previous person didn’t need my email address; why didn’t she need it, but you do?  Can I speak to Suzie again, instead, please?’

Needless to say, that request wasn’t well received.  So I asked to speak to a supervisor, and ended up speaking to an American, Jim.

He said he understood my point about the email address not being a good security question, but said it was just the first question, and after answering that correctly, it would unlock some more searching questions their computer system would generate, and these question would then be asked to me next.

I know when to gracefully give up, and so I told him that which we both already knew all too well, my email address.

Now for the two ‘real’ security questions that he proceeded to ask me.

‘What is your name?’ and ‘What is your address?’.

I pointed out to him that anyone who had access to my Amazon log-in would also have access to both those points of data too, in my account profile.  How were those questions any more a test of my true identity than my email address?

He had no answer to that.

Maybe – I don’t know, because I’ve never encountered it – sensible bona fide security measures might be tolerable and acceptable.  But the nonsense sham that is put out there as security, whether by the TSA at the airport, or by really clever companies such as Amazon, companies that should know very much better, really frustrates me.

It does nothing other than create a subservient unthinking compliance reflex in us.

And Lastly This Week….

I like to think of my fellow Kiwis as a fairly thick-skinned bunch, and for a long time, we adhered to the concept of ‘sticks and stones’ll break my bones, but names’ll never hurt me’, but alas, that seems to be changing.

A friend and colleague, approaching 80 yrs of age, works as a volunteer organizer for the St John’s Ambulance Association just out of Queenstown, and tells me how he was called in to a disciplinary meeting earlier this week.  He was arranging the transfer of a patient, and in speaking to the woman who was coordinating the other half of the transfer, referred to her as ‘young lady’ (he calls me ‘young man’ all the time).  She complained (don’t ask me why) and although he is a volunteer, truly of an age where the woman was young, and massively respected in the community and country as a whole (he has even received an honor from the Queen) he was severely chastised like a naughty schoolboy for the sexist comment.  Apparently these days in NZ people have to ignore both the age and gender of women.

This article points out that these outbreaks of lunacy are struggling to be contained – fortunately in case cited in the article, it was.  And who would have guessed about the derivation of the plaintiff’s last name?

If you find the evolution of the English language as fascinating as I do, either as espoused in the preceding article or in general, you might also like this article.

I don’t expect much if any newsletter next week, due to having just arrived in NZ and fighting off the jetlag.  And doubtless seeing lots of brids and hroses, but hopefully no wapses (previous link refers).

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Feb 212014
Our Sri Lanka tour is unfolding in an amazing kaleidoscope of colors, sights, sounds and smells.  There's no denying 'we're not in Kansas anymore'!  Here's a very 'grey' image though, recounting another highlight of the tour - a mother and her probably less than one hour old baby elephant.  Picture courtesy of a tour group member.

Our Sri Lanka tour is unfolding in an amazing kaleidoscope of colors, sights, sounds and smells. There’s no denying ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’!  Here’s a very ‘grey’ image though, recounting another highlight of the tour – a mother and her probably less than one hour old baby elephant. Picture courtesy of a tour group member.

Good morning

Another week, another round of weather problems.

As of Monday, there had been more than 75,000 domestic flight cancellations since 1 December – the highest total number and percentage of flights cancelled since when the DoT first started collecting cancellation statistics in 1987.  There have been thousands more flights cancelled since Monday.

As those of you who have been caught out well know, if your flight is cancelled, it might be two days or possibly longer before you get to where you’d expected to be.

My comments about the avoidable nature of ‘weather’ related delays last week drew an interesting response from a professional pilot, who claimed that in bad weather there was nothing that could be done.  In particular,the de-icing ‘protection’ of a plane would expire before the plane got to the end of the runway.

My thought in reply to that was ‘so why not have a second (or the only) de-icing station close to the ends of the runways rather than at the terminal gates’.

His further response was interesting :

The airlines have tried for 35 years to have de-ice pits close to the departure runway but the EPA, OSHA, now TSA and local airports are against it due to water pollution concerns they state. That is a real fact, animals love to drink the sweet fluid and it’s death to them or people.

Also, Ethylene glycol is very slippery the aircraft would have the real possibility of slipping off the taxiway during taxi power-up, sliding into the grass, mud or snow, which is really very likely. Further you don’t want to ingest ethylene glycol into the compressor section of a jet engine, it’s corrosive to the compressor blades and over time the strength of the blades would be compromised. Again SAFETY.

Last but not least it’s a government Legacy Mentality , “we’ve done it this way for 50 years, and we’re not going to change because we are the FAA and the Government.” If the government and the airline stockholders know that it can be done safely but it would cost the government and stockholders a lot of money to retrofit all the airports and neither is willing to pay for it, let alone the customer in a higher ticket price.

Far be it from me to paraphrase his comments, but happily I don’t need to.  His final comment is totally in line with my original position – the only problem in reality is nothing to do with EPA, OSHA, TSA, or any other agency or issue.  It is all to do with money.  In bad weather, it is cheaper to close airports down than it is to keep them open.

But cheaper for whom?  Maybe for the airlines and airports, but not for passengers.  When you miss your meeting, or your very important personal event, do you appreciate not having an extra $5 ‘foul weather mitigation’ surcharge added to your ticket price?

I’m going to guess that a $5 surcharge on tickets, year-round, would enable the US aviation system as a whole to massively curtail the service disruptions it currently allows to occur, and for any of us who miss a flight or spend a day at an airport not knowing if or when or how we’ll make it to our destination, maybe we might happily pay $5 or so per flight for the rest of the year to avoid that?

Faceless ‘experts’ decide on our behalf that we wouldn’t be happy paying extra for a reliable air transportation system.  What do you think?

Let’s have a Travel Insider instant poll to find out.  Please click the answer that best describes your situation and opinion – this will create an email with your answer coded into the subject line.

I’ll share the results next week.

I also wrote, in bemused terms last week, about the TSA Pre-check program, noting how someone with no apparent reason to be given Pre-check status received it when flying with my daughter and me.

Our second flight saw my daughter and me with our Pre-check status again (mine deserved due to my Nexus approval, my daughter’s totally gratuitous), but not the third person.  And, same as the first flight, Anna (daughter) was ‘randomly selected’ to be tested for explosives.

So why did they get Pre-check status on the first flight but not the second?  The system is clearly inconsistent.

I also wonder why or how it is that the same X-ray machine which needs a laptop computer to be taken out of a carry-on so as to be clearly viewed by the X-rays when in a normal line is possessed of a Superman type X-ray vision capability in the Pre-check line.  Indeed, the X-rays apparently could see through not just the computer in my carry bag, but the two iPads on top of the computer, too, and various other things in other compartments of my carry-on backpack.

A reader who didn’t wish his name disclosed for fear of possible TSA retribution (there’s something terribly wrong with our society when that becomes an issue!!!) wrote with some more comments about his Pre-check experiences :

As a PDX flyer who is on AS pretty much 100% or so of the time and is an MVP Gold 75k (for the past 3 years), I was happy to have TSA take my background info from AS and determine if I was a risk.  Once I got Pre-check status, the system worked like a charm.

In exchange for some information about me, I got something in return.  I have many other co-workers who did either that or spent the $85 for Global Entry.  That has all changed.

In the past few months I’ve seen a ridiculous modification of what constitutes Pre-check.  For example, just two weeks ago in Las Vegas, any time the lines got a bit long in the normal security line in terminal 3 where AS and some international carriers fly from, they put people in the Pre-check line.   As I was a few hours early, I sat outside security and watched this happen over and over again. There was no pre-determination of security risk or age or anything – just go over to that line and enjoy.

Forget the fact that now TSA has to have someone in the Pre-check line explaining that anyone there doesn’t have to take off shoes, jackets, belts or pull computers out – it was everyone in and this included foreign passport holders too.

This morning at PDX, in addition to the Pre-check line, they were now setting up three additional “normal” lines and had shut off the x-ray machines for 50% of the access.  That meant that now about 50% of the early morning load was going through Pre-check with nothing on their boarding passes and no pre-qualification whatsoever.  In asking the agents when I see this, all I get is “Ask the airlines, they want us to move people faster here so it’s them pushing us”. What a line of BS that is.

So what’s the point now of Pre-check if this continues?  I don’t know where TSA is heading with this but if it indicates that the very expensive whole body scanners are now in the trash heap, so be it but I seriously doubt that’s their rationale.  It’s a huge hole in TSA’s security plan and the more it’s exposed the more they will have to answer for it.

It is truly counterintuitive that at the same time the TSA continues to obsess over micro-sized plastic toy gun ornaments, it has also developed selective blindness towards the people it randomly pushes through its Pre-check lines.  One might almost wonder if this is the TSA’s tacit acknowledgement that the entire security screening process is nine-tenths nonsense….

Talking about counter-intuitive, I’m attaching an analysis of Amtrak’s latest ask – $200 million to speed up its trains on one of its ‘top financial performer’ long distance routes.  While it might seem that any speed-up of the terribly slow Amtrak trains is a good idea, I end up coming to the opposite conclusion – this would be an unproductive waste of money.  On the other hand, there are better ways the $200 million could be spent (assuming it ever is made available to the chronically un(der)funded railroad.

Also this week, please read on for articles on :

  • The Sorry Saga of the Bombardier CSeries Jet Development
  • Windowless Windows on Futuristic Flights
  • Egypt’s Tourism Under Threat
  • Unhappily Returning to the Apple/iOS Fold
  • Spontaneous Combustion on an Etihad Flight?
  • Never Mind the Passengers, What About the Pilots?
  • And Lastly This Week….

The Sorry Saga of the Bombardier CSeries Jet Development

While riding on a couple of earlier model Canadair regional jets this last week or so, I had time to contemplate the non-event which is the new CSeries of jets.  After an initial flight last year, which was of course acclaimed by the company as brilliantly successful, there has been a curious almost complete cessation of further test activity, and slippages in when the planes will enter into service.

The CS100 was first intended to be operational by the end of 2013, and currently is thought that it may enter into service some time in the second half of 2015, as detailed here.

But the delays are nothing compared to the cost rises.  Back in 2004, when the plane was first being designed, it was estimated to cost $1.5 – 2.0 billion dollars (including engine related costs) to get the new series of airplanes into service.  Within about six months, that cost had increased to $2 billion, plus engine related costs.  In 2013 it was announced as being a $3.4 billion program, and now it is said to cost $4.4 billion, while some industry analysts predict the costs could reach as much as $5.5 billion.  Details here.

How can any company mistake the costs of operating its core business by a factor of three or more?  And how can any such company remain in business?

All of which rather confirms my unthinking thought on the tiny Canadair regional jets – Canada may be great at many things (for example, ummm, errr, maple syrup and hockey) but passenger jets is not a competency that immediately springs to mind.

Windowless Windows on Futuristic Flights

Who doesn’t like a window seat on a plane?  If nothing else, it gives you some uncontested space that you can spill over into, and even the most travel-worn of us can still sometimes find wonder and amazement when looking down to earth, seven or more miles below us.  If only we didn’t have to clamber over the other people between us and the aisle when needing a bathroom break during the flight!

Windows have come and gone in shape and style.  Older rectangular windows became circular and now oval, windows became smaller (Concorde) and larger (787), but for now, they’ve all had a common characteristic.  They are made of a clear material, allowing us to see out of the plane.

But are windows about to go digital, too?  That’s the promise of the design company touting its new super-sonic business jet, which will come with a solid fuselage and floor to ceiling digital screens to recreate a larger than life external viewing experience.  Details here.

The plane is scheduled to go into service in 2018.  Color us unconvinced.

Egypt’s Tourism Under Threat

In some countries, when beset by internal conflict, all parties to the conflict take great pains to not harm the nation’s international tourism business.  In other countries, whether there may be threats to tourism or not, the ruling powers do an excellent job of protecting tourists and insulating them from the ugly underlying conflicts underway.

But then there are the countries where the dissidents decide to ‘cut off their nose to spite their face’ and seek to attack the nation’s tourists, no matter what harm may befall the nation’s international standing and economy.  Sadly, Egypt now finds itself clearly in that latter category, after a warning this week by Muslim extremists, telling all tourists to leave the country by Thursday (ie yesterday) or else become targets for attacks.

The terrorist group had earlier claimed responsibility for a bus bombing on Sunday that killed several South Korean tourists.  Until now, they had contented themselves with killing fellow Egyptians and lobbing the occasional rocket into Israel, but now seem to be broadening their focus.

This was the first tourist-targeted terrorism in Egypt for a decade.  But if we are to take these threats at face value, it may be far from the last.

Unhappily Returning to the Apple/iOS Fold

I generally like my Nexus 7 mini-tablet, and generally dislike my Nexus 5 phone – neither of them are any good for email the way I need to use it, and while they have some neat fancy features, some of their core functionality is simply not as well thought out as with Apple’s equivalent products.

But I was willing to turn my back on my iPad and iPhone in the interest of the greater ‘freedom’ of the Android software, and the massively improved screen of the Nexus 5 compared to the iPhone 5, and – last but not least – their massively better values.

I also wanted a full size tablet, and Google’s continued silence on the subject of its increasingly overdue replacement to its Nexus 10 was becoming an ever greater frustration, as was either the poor coverage of the T-Mobile service or poor reception capabilities of the Nexus 5 that I had signed up with T-Mobile.  Many times I’d find marginal and slow T-Mobile service while the iPhone 5/AT&T combination was working perfectly.

As for the Nexus 10 replacement, the rumor mill, after successively promising a replacement pretty much every week from before Thanksgiving, is now as uncertain as I am about whether Google will ever come out with a new full-sized tablet or not, and if so, when.  The old Nexus 10 enigmatically is sporadically available then unavailable in Google’s store; and each time it goes unavailable, people start to hope it signals the incipient arrival of a new Nexus 10, only for the device to reappear briefly before going unavailable again.

Now, I understand how a company has to carefully balance the conflicting needs of protecting its present product sales and also safeguarding its future, but there comes a point where non-communication starts to send a more powerfully negative message than any type of actual announcement would convey, and Google is surely well past that point.  Its mishandling of its Nexus 10 product line is another example of Google’s selective brilliance – it is great at search engines, but everything else starts to go downhill from that single point of outstanding achievement.  Indeed, I can’t help wondering, these days, if I were to switch to Bing, just how much difference there would be in search results.

Eventually, I reached a tipping point of sorts, and so I’m now the reluctant owner of an iPad Air, and as soon as the larger screened iPhone 6 appears, the Nexus 5 will be consigned to oblivion.

Apple’s anally retentive approach to controlling its users is already frustrating me – I entered my password wrong twice, a mistake which almost triggered World War 3 or so it seemed, and required creating a new password which conformed to their latest and ever stricter password requirements, and entering that not just once or twice but four times before the system calmed down again.

Surely I could be allowed three attempts or more before the system erupted in a conniption fit, and surely I should be allowed to make my password as weak or secure as I wish, rather than being forced to conform to Apple’s demands.

On the plus side, no-one can argue with my favorite four letter word that begins with an ‘f’ – yes, that’s right – ‘free’.  I’m referring to T-Mobile’s two offers – the first allowing you to buy an iPad with little or nothing down and then zero-interest payments spread over two years, and the second offer being 200 MB of data a month for free on any mobile device.

On the other hand, you get what you pay for.  The T-Mobile store employee who extremely unwillingly allowed me to buy the free-service SIM (he pressured me every which way to buy an upgraded plan that would cost $40 every month) then refused to help me register the SIM and set up the account, and doing so myself involved much frustration and three calls to T-Mobile.

As for the 200 free MB a month?  I’d used up 82MB of it prior to completing the registration process!  Ooops.  Maybe I should have agreed to the 2.5GB plan.

Spontaneous Combustion on an Etihad Flight?

No, we’re not talking of another 787 incident, this time.

An Etihad 777, flying from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi, experienced two toilet fires (deliberately lit) and so made a ‘precautionary diversion’ to Jakarta.  Upon landing, passengers and their carry-on luggage were searched, and all matches and lighters confiscated.  The flight then took off again, but on the rest of its journey experienced apparently three more toilet fires.  With ‘all’ firestarting devices confiscated, one wonders how this would be possible.

Upon arriving in Abu Dhabi, twelve passengers were ‘interviewed’ but no passengers were arrested.  The investigation is ‘ongoing’ but no-one at the Abu Dhabi police could be reached for comment.

Incomplete details are available in several places – this is one of the better accounts.

Never Mind the Passengers, What About the Pilots?

If anyone is keeping count, it would be interesting to contrast the number of serious ‘incidents’ on planes caused by pilots going berserk, as compared to those caused by rampant terrorists.  Here’s an interesting list, although because of their nature, the exact number of deliberate crashes by pilots (as opposed to the crashes caused by incompetent pilots) will probably always be a mystery.

Add another such incident to the list this week, when an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacked his own flight, threatened to crash it, and then flew the plane to Switzerland where he asked for asylum.  As in, hopefully, the lunatic asylum.  Details here.

It sure is a shame there isn’t a way the TSA can’t screen for insane pilots as well as they can for toy guns.  Just compare the statistics – the number of planes and flights harmed by tiny toy guns = zero.  The number of planes and flights harmed by crazy pilots = some number substantially greater than zero.

Seriously, which is the greater threat here?  Toy guns or crazy (and drunk) pilots?  But which threat do the TSA obsess over, and which threat do they totally not consider at all?

Memories of Travel Times Now Past

I may be unsophisticated, but a staple component of every trip to the Orlando region used to be a visit to Silver Springs, an hour or so north of the city.  The attraction claims to have been Florida’s oldest tourist attraction, and while its glass bottom boats were a simple pleasure, perhaps that was all the much more reason to enjoy a relaxing time strolling around.

Alas, it closed last year, and now is featured in this list of once popular tourist attractions.  Chances are you’ll have visited at least one or two of the places on the short list.

And Lastly This Week….

Flight disruptions have been the order du jour for the last month or so, but as bad as we’ve suffered in the US, we should be thankful for the DoT’s ‘Three Hour Rule’ – requiring airlines to deplane passengers within three hours if the plane is sitting on the tarmac doing nothing.

Not so the case on a recent Ryanair flight, as this video painfully explains (the delay was not weather related).

If you’re looking for something truly different in the way of places to stay, and have a very deep pocket, then here’s a very distinctive opportunity – a submarine, yours for ‘only’ £175,000 a night (about $290,000).

Alas, its ‘nudge, nudge, wink wink’ invitation to join the ‘mile low’ club is not altogether real – the submarine goes down to a very respectable 650 ft depth, but last time I checked, a mile is 5280 ft.

Note – if you were considering staying for more than a couple of nights, it might be more cost-effective to simply buy your own submarine.  Apparently second-hand Russian submarines sell for about half a million dollars.  But the bedrooms may be, ahem, slightly more spartan.

Truly lastly this week, there’s something very contemplative about this video, and in particular, its unexpected ending.

Until next week, please enjoy safe and as-scheduled travels