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







Jan 242014
Continuing our theme of airplane design innovation, here's the Sky Whale (see article below).

Continuing our theme of airplane design innovation, here’s the Sky Whale (see article below).

Good morning

Another wintry week of weather disasters for the North American airline network and its passengers.  A great example of your taxpayer dollars, not at work.

It sure is enough to encourage you to escape for a bit of sun, but if you do so, be careful about the airports you choose to fly through on your way to somewhere warm.

Spare a thought also for the frequent fliers who live in the always-impacted cities in the midwest and northeast, who have to wrestle with these challenges week in and week out, all winter long; never being sure if they’ll be able to get home at the end of their travels each time, and, if they can, how many hours of delay and misery might become part of their journey.

Now wonder how it is that we, who like to think of ourselves as the greatest most developed nation in the world, are humbled by a few inches of snow – and try not to think how much of Europe keeps going, no matter how heavily the snow falls.

On a happier note, our New Zealand tour this October continues to fill up, and to help answer questions I’ve been getting about the tour, I’m adding some extra pages about NZ to the website.  The first two pages are more about Queenstown, which is featured in our tour’s optional extension, and which I urge all visitors to NZ to be sure to include in their itinerary any and every time they visit the country.

I’ll probably add another page or two about Queenstown next week, too.  Yes, there truly is that much to see and do around that area.  In case I need to add the disclaimer, although the Queenstown area truly is NZ’s tourist mecca, it is not garishly or offensively over-commercialized; it carefully maintains a balance between small town charm (Queenstown’s resident population is only about 15,000 people) and sophisticated international tourist destination (most days, the locals are outnumbered by visitors, but because many visitors are New Zealanders, it doesn’t feel quite so overwhelmed by ‘foreigners’).

More details and links to the new pages in the additional article at the bottom.  And please do consider joining us, in Queenstown and everywhere else in NZ, this October.

Also this week :

  • Profitable Airlines
  • High Profile Unhappiness With Airline Service
  • Interesting Twist on Regional Airline Pricing
  • The Sky Whale
  • Amtrak, Eat Your Heart Out (Again)
  • The Chinese Titanic – and Our Response
  • Why it is Better to be a Four Star Rather than Five Star Hotel in China
  • Art Imitates Life?
  • And Lastly This Week…..

Profitable Airlines

Airlines are starting to announce their results for the fourth quarter of 2013.

The results are very positive – Alaska Airlines reported a net income of $77 million, up 77% from the same quarter in 2012.  Southwest had a $212 million profit, nearly three times its profit the previous year ($78 million) and United managed to turn last year’s $620 million loss into a profit of $140 million.

Southwest enjoyed its best ever fourth quarter and its best ever year.  In total, it earned $754 million, up from $421 million in 2012.  The airline’s previous bests were in 2007 for a full year result ($645 million) and in 2000 for a fourth quarter result ($155 million).

The airlines as a whole had a brilliant December, with unit revenue up 11.5% for the month compared to the same month in 2012.  While a single month (or quarter) isn’t a lot in the global scheme of things, it does seem that until whatever/whenever the next catastrophe befells the industry, the less-competitive-than-ever-before airlines are settling in to a nice comfortable period of unchallenged profitability.  Heck, they even succeeded in persuading Congress not to increase the security level we pay when we fly.

We expect the other carriers will have similarly excellent improvements to report as well.  It is true that in terms of return on capital employed and net profit margin, these results are below the norms for most public companies, so let’s not begrudge the airlines a few quarters of financial happiness.  But let’s also hope that they’ll plow some of these profits back into their businesses, and not just in the form of spending hundreds of millions to buy new thinner seats so they can cram more people into planes.

High Profile Unhappiness With Airline Service

Oh, talking about those new seats, a recent TripAdvisor survey showed that 83% of respondents find the new slimline style seats to be less comfortable than traditional seats.  And who among us is surprised by that?

Indeed, it isn’t just anonymous TripAdvisor visitors who are unhappy at the latest airline changes.  Senator McCain is tweeting his frustrations when he says

… are you as frustrated as I am that the airlines keep moving the rows of seats closer and closer together?

(In turn, are you as surprised as I am that it seems he might be suggesting he is flying coach class?)

One of his colleagues also expressed displeasure with airlines.  Former Senator Bill Frist tweeted

… United Air miserable service again….

and yet another former political personage (a term which some would say includes John McCain too), ex-Sen Norm Coleman, tweeted

Sitting on another delayed United Airlines flight. Yet again, will miss my connection. Is there a worse Airline? I don’t think so.

Now you might think, and quite sensibly so, ‘Who cares what these fading political people say, particularly in tweets?’.  There’s actually an answer to that question.  The airlines care.

Typically the airlines have been very careful to give preferential treatment to lawmakers and opinion setters, who have in turn have been respectful and appreciative of their courtesy upgrades, lounge access, and other special perks, and have happily failed to comprehend or experience much of the misery we endure every day.

When politicians start breaking the rules and complaining in public, you wonder what’s up.

Interesting Twist on Regional Airline Pricing

This is almost certainly not going to work as well as the investors hope it will, but it is an interesting concept, and involves Americans crossing into Mexico so as to enjoy better economic standards.  In terms of air travel, that is.

The airport in Tijuana is hard up against the border with the US, and just a few miles south of San Diego, although the delays crossing the border (not so much into Mexico, but rather returning back into the US – yes, the Mexican government provides a better service to the citizens of MX/US than does the US government) make it far away in terms of travel time.  But, even so, the hassle can sometimes be worth it, because it is often very much cheaper to fly from Tijuana to other parts of Mexico than it is to fly from San Diego.

Plans are now progressing for a privately funded pedestrian bridge to link the Tijuana airport directly with the US.  Only ticketed passengers could travel across the bridge, and would pay a fee of between $13 – $17 for the privilege.  But after having done so, they could then enjoy cheaper fares from Tijuana, potentially saving hundreds of dollars in the process.

But why do I say this won’t work?  Airlines have a very simple way of controlling their fares.  They can require a certain fare to only be valid when sold within the country that the travel originates in (the ‘Sell Inside’ and ‘Ticket Inside’ rules).

So, a great idea, but unlikely to succeed as soon as the airlines move to close the loophole and continue charging massive price premiums for nearly identical travel to us, just because we’re ‘disadvantaged by accident of birth’.  More details here.

The Sky Whale

I’ve been bemoaning Boeing’s lack of innovation over the last few weeks – a lack of innovation largely shared by Airbus too, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

I refuse to believe that the current style of airplane design, little changed in the last 60 years, is the ne plus ultra of aerodynamic efficiency.  We occasionally see conceptual drawings of totally different airplane design types and shapes, but what ever happens to them?

Here’s one such design, and more pictures of it here (and pictured at the start of this week’s newsletter).

Seriously, why not consider a three passenger level plane?  For that matter, is the current concept of ‘freight in the bottom half, passengers in the top half’ inviolable?  With increasingly wide planes, why not ‘freight in the middle, passengers on the outside’?

Why not consider tiltable engines to allow for shorter runways?  And why not layer solar cells over the tops of airline fuselages and wings – high up above the clouds and pollution, airplanes would get some measurable amount of power from them during their flights.  And wings that break off in a crash – maybe a good idea?

Possibly none of these concepts make sense, but are any of them being seriously addressed and carefully considered?  We all know that somewhere in among the wilder flights of fantasy there are some new concepts that could bring about the next revolution in airline travel, dropping costs and increasing comfort.  We’re surely overdue for this latest transformation.

And, to segue into the Chinese theme that follows, here’s an example of at least some small innovation in airplane design.  No prizes for guessing where.

Amtrak, Eat Your Heart Out (Again)

The extraordinary phenomenon that is China and its enormous growth continues to best itself with ever more amazing feats.

The country has just announced plans to invest a further $100 billion as part of a new plan to double its current 6,000 miles of high-speed rail track and 1,000 high-speed trains.  Oh – the $100 billion investment.  That’s for this year alone!

These 6,000 miles of high-speed track have almost entirely been build in the five years since 2008.  By comparison, in early 2009 newly elected President Obama was promising the US would commit to developing its own high-speed rail network, and in January 2010 Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood famously promised us

And I assure you that one day, not too many years from now, ours will be the go-to network, the world’s model for high-speed rail.

In his January 2010 State of the Union speech, Obama said ‘there’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains’; which is of course very true.  But in the four years subsequently, while more trains – and ever faster trains – have continued to be added in both Europe and China, what has happened here?

The pathetic $8 billion of funds allocated for high-speed rail in the US has been largely unspent and not added to.  Unsurprisingly, it has resulted in no new miles of true high-speed track at all.  But China has added enough high-speed track to go from coast to coast in the US twice, and is spending another $100 billion in the next year to continue its high-speed rail revolution.

Sure, costs are different in China to in the US – here in the US, $100 billion may barely be enough to construct California’s problem-plagued semi-high speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the thing is that we’re not spending anything on rail, whereas China (and Europe and much of the rest of the world) continue to develop a new infrastructure for the 21st century that challenges our 20th century and now ‘old fashioned’ interstate highway system – something which in its day was one of the ‘secret weapons’ of the US economy and productivity, but now is neither.

The oft-cited ‘distance argument’ also doesn’t apply.  This argument says that distances are too great for high-speed rail to work in the US.  But the Chinese recently opened a 2200 mile high-speed rail route, and it seems to be enjoying great ridership.  In any event, not every person using a line has to travel all the way from one end to the other; many people might board at one intermediate stop and get off at another intermediate stop.

We need to switch from blindly accepting theoretical arguments why high-speed rail couldn’t work in the US.  We should find answers, not problems.  We should copy the Chinese example and make it succeed here too.

Read the mouth-watering details of China’s continued rail expansion here.  Read it, then weep.

The Chinese Titanic – and Our Response

Okay, so China might be beating the pants off us when it comes to trains, and the manufacturing of just about everything, and is scrambling to catch up to our airplane industry too.  But, hey, at least we still have the market cornered on Disneyland and other theme park extravaganzas, right?

Uh, maybe not.  News also this week of plans in China to build a $130 million replica of the Titanic, to be permanently docked inland on a river in Daying as the centerpiece of a theme park based on the ship.

While that’s less than the $500 million that Australian billionaire Clive Palmer is spending to build a sea-going replica of the Titanic (which, by the way, is being built in China – it seems that shipbuilding is another industry falling vulnerable to China) it is still an enormous cost and shows that over-the-top theme park developments, once so quintessentially and even exclusively American, are now becoming accepted in China too.

But maybe yes; maybe we still have an edge in theme park extravaganzas (much to my daughter’s excited delight).  Some sources are suggesting that the extensions to the Universal Studios Orlando Harry Potter section could be costing as much as $400 million.  Money well spent, according to my daughter.

Look also for a Harry Potter section of Universal Studios, Hollywood, to open in 2016.

Why it is Better to be a Four Star Rather than Five Star Hotel in China

Continuing what has become an unplanned mini-section on China, many hotels are seeking to be downgraded from official five star status to four star status, while new hotels are no longer seeking to get that ultimate stamp of status.

China is going through a new wave of pseudo-austerity, and it is no longer quite so cool, or quite so socially safe, to be seen to be extravagant, particularly if you are a government employee.  This article says that this year’s Chinese New Year gift giving has seen toothpaste replacing iPads as gifts.  And the five star hotels of course feel it will be easier to sell their rooms if they are labeled as four star (a bit like in the west when the airlines first started using other fare codes and even cabin names to provide a very thin veneer to obscure when we were traveling in first class).

The good news about all of this for the west?  If wealthy Chinese people can no longer be ‘conspicuous consumers’ at home, then it will drive them, their wealth and their spending offshore, to relatively poorer places like, for example, wherever you’re reading this today.

Unless, of course, you’re in the US, because here in the US, we persist in viewing China as an economically depressed country and its truly wealthy citizens are assumed to be impoverished financial refugees desperate to move and then illegally remain in the US in the hope of living a better lifestyle here.

The Chinese people I know sneer at this perception.  They enjoy much better lifestyles in China and have no desire whatsoever to settle here, but would love to be able to conveniently travel here on vacation.  What a shame we don’t make it easier for them to do so.

Art Imitates Life?

There’s a new off-Broadway comedy, ‘Craving for Travel’.  It is written by a travel agent and about travel agents, and sponsored by travel companies.

Maybe I’ve been inside the industry too long, but I can see how it could potentially be very funny.  All of us who have been ‘doing’ travel tend to build up some stories that are on the far side of believable, but actually true.

If you’re in New York, you might want to go see it during its (ahem) short run.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week…..

We’ve written quite a lot about China this week.  But not all is good there.  China’s continued rush to industrialization, and its lower priority when it comes to balancing development with environmental concerns is causing continued growth of smog, particularly in the largest cities.

It is no laughing matter, and measurable amounts of this massive airborne pollution is traveling over the Pacific to the US (even though it is 6,000 miles by shortest great circle route from Beijing or Shanghai to the US west coast).  But sometimes China’s response to this pollution is such that you have to laugh, for fear of otherwise crying.

Such as, for example, on this occasion.

Do you remember back to the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010.  At the time, they seemed to be outlandishly expensive, but isn’t that true of all Olympic events.  And, more to the point, the Vancouver costs are now being massively upstaged by Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, due to commence next month.  Some details of the costs of this extravaganza are here.

One of the saddest aspects of the $50 billion blowout in costs (original projection – $12 billion) is that undoubtedly some of the money is being skimmed off the top by graft and corruption, as is shown by the cost of building a new road that became so expensive that it could have been paved in caviar for the same price.  And of course the fact that Sochi has a warm climate doesn’t help much for a winter sports event, either.

Highlighting the fact that the $50 billion is only imperfectly securing appropriate facilities is this picture of, ahem, facilities, and the cost-cutting that is being undertaken.

For those so interested, this is not the only place in Russia where such economies are observed.  Scroll down through this blog page and see some of the rather cringeworthy photos and situations featured.

Even funnier perhaps is that the Russians responded with alacrity to the hilarity that the picture caused.  But their response is also rather strange.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Jan 102014
An Airbus project for a zero emission supersonic jet traveling at Mach 4 - twice the speed of Concorde.

An Airbus project for a zero emission supersonic jet traveling at Mach 4 – twice the speed of Concorde.

Good morning

I do hope the cold weather hasn’t affected your week too severely, and that yours weren’t among the 13,000+ flights cancelled during the earlier part of the week.

There’s a sad inevitability to these winter weather travel disruptions.  The sadness is that in largest part they are preventable.  More robust snow management systems at airports and better air traffic control, would greatly reduce the disruptive effect of cold weather, but it seems that the airlines, airports, and the FAA all would prefer to ‘save money’ rather than provide a reliable robust transportation system (see also the article below about the ever-increasing government fees and taxes on airline tickets).

As for me, the cold weather has had me inside and writing – there’s a huge newsletter for you this week – together with the attached article, over 10,000 words!

Happy seventh birthday, on Thursday, to the iPhone, which was announced on 9 January 2007.  At the launch, Steve Jobs described it as a revolutionary phone that was going to change everything – and who can dispute the accuracy of that claim.  He also described it as being ‘literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone’ – a claim that was perhaps not quite so accurate.  The first Android phone came out a mere 18 months later (the HTC/T-Mobile G1).

Still on an electronic theme, this week has seen the annual Consumer Electronics Show extravaganza in Vegas, and I’ve been struggling to get an article published reporting on what is clearly the biggest new thing to come out of CES this year – the move from previously being high-end/esoteric to now becoming normal (and normally priced) by 4K resolution video displays.  You mightn’t yet realize this, but your next big screen should have a 4K not ‘just’ a 1080p resolution.

The struggle in writing this article was that each day, new product announcements required further updates to the text, and indeed, I had to update it even more, shortly after finally getting it published on Wednesday afternoon, due to a new lowest-ever price for a 4K set ($799 for a 55″ set) being advertised at, of all unlikely places to find a high-end innovative piece of home electronics, Sears.

I’m very pleased with the final piece that I wrote.  It is lengthy (4700 words) because it includes a wide-ranging look at this new technology, what may follow it, and the implications for us and our future.  Bottom line – if you’re about to go out and buy a new 1080p screen, I urge you not to do this.  Hold off until the new Vizio or other reasonably priced 4K units arrive and get a more ‘future-proof’ 4K unit instead.  The article follows this week’s roundup, below.

This is, alas, also a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.  An early Christmas present for me was a lovely new 1080p screen, which in a mere month has gone from a state of the art thing of pride and joy to now being something I look askance at and (almost) wish I’d not received.

Although I ended up writing this detailed piece on the evolving nature of video screens, it wasn’t actually the thing I was most looking forward to or hoping to write about from CES.  But, alas, with CES now all but over for another year, there’s been no mention at all of the much rumored new Google tablet, its updated Nexus 10.  But I still manage to write several paragraphs about something that didn’t happen, below.

On the lighter side of CES, here’s an amusing article that challenges you to choose which new products are imaginary and which were announced at CES.  It is harder than you think.

Switching gears, the launch of our October NZ Epicurean Extravaganza tour was greeted with much excitement, and we now have potentially filled ten of the 18 rooms we have available for our group.

This truly is a great way to see and enjoy New Zealand, whether you’re on your first visit there (as some of the people joining us will be) or whether you’ve visited many times before (or even lived there, like me).  There’s lots for everyone to experience and enjoy, and I do hope you’ll consider joining us.  Full details here.

My request for your thoughts/preferences about an Italian tour in late April 2015 showed a clear preference for Sicily as an optional extension to the core Rome experience, and so that is what we’ll feature.  Thank you for your comments and help.

Please also don’t overlook our 2014 Christmas cruise, because at present, the 30% discount is only on offer through the end of this month.  This year we’re offering a Bavarian and even Swiss extension prior to the cruise, as well as the essential Prague option after the cruise, and for all the past cruisers who might be thinking about another cruise, remember to ask me about the unpublished special discount for past cruisers.

What else this week?  Please read on for articles about :

  • Airbus Showcases its Innovation
  • Boeing’s Burgeoning Sales – The Good News and the Bad News
  • Should Airline Fuel Surcharges be Regulated?
  • The Outrageous Ongoing Increases in Air Ticket Taxes
  • It is Time to Let Foreign Carriers Fly Domestically in the US
  • Delta to Spend $770 million on Airplane Cabin Improvements
  • 2014 to be a Record Breaking Year for European River Cruising?
  • Crewless Ships
  • High Speed Rail Notes
  • The Device That Wasn’t Announced at CES
  • Why Cell Phone Usage Is Inevitable on Planes
  • And Lastly This Week….

Airbus Showcases its Innovation

I wrote last week about the extraordinary slow-down in passenger airplane design and development.  The latest truly new design was the 747 back in the mid 1960s – everything since then has been a derivative of the single or dual aisle, one or two level, flying cylinder with center wings, wing mounted high bypass jet engines, and traditional tail type plane that we’re so familiar with.

Not only does airplane design seem stuck in the sixties, but the ‘new’ models that come out, while almost imperceptibly different, inside and out, from each other, take more time and money to develop than ever before.  A strange contradiction, for sure – if you missed my article last week, it is still just as relevant this week so please do go enjoy it.

At much the same time I was writing that article, Airbus was boasting of some of its futuristic airplane concepts.  None of them are being disclosed for the first time, and none of them have much corporate commitment behind them, so we shouldn’t expect to see any of the four different concepts aired by Airbus in the air and carrying passengers anytime soon.

In a way, this further proves my point.  Airbus has offered up four different ‘disruptive’ airplane technologies, so it is clear that there are opportunities to develop different and possibly better forms of air transport.  But at the same time, the company has little or no commitment to pursuing these concepts and making them into commercial reality.  Alas.

Boeing’s Burgeoning Sales – The Good News and the Bad News

Boeing announced its 2013 orders and deliveries this week.  The numbers seem good – its second best year for orders, and its best year ever for airplane deliveries, and the company is posting healthy profits too.  We’ve added those numbers to our ongoing annual tables of orders and deliveries for Boeing and Airbus (the Airbus results are expected next week).

So what’s not to like about that?  There’s an interesting article in the Wall St Journal headlined ‘Boeing’s Key Mission: Cut Dreamliner Cost’ (if the link doesn’t open, search for the headline in Google to get access to the story that way) which quickly becomes rather complex and technical, giving a good example of how accounting is more than just adding up columns of figures – it truly can be a very complicated and nuanced subject.

The point of the article is to show that Boeing is currently losing money on every 787 it delivers, with the costs of making each plane exceeding the average selling price ($115 million) by about $45 million.  If that sounds bad, earlier in 2013 Boeing was losing $73 million on every plane delivered.  But Boeing is reporting a profit on each plane, due to deferring some of its production costs using an accepted accounting formula.

Using Boeing’s ‘deferred production costs’ method of accounting, the company will end up in a $25 billion hole for its 787 program (total deferred production costs) before it starts to slowly climb out of this and move towards profitability.  Ouch.

How is it possible to make a $25 billion loss on the 787 program, even after allowing for the sale and delivery of perhaps 500 planes?

Should Airline Fuel Surcharges be Regulated?

Let’s not just rush to the sadly obvious ‘yes’ answer, and instead look at the process that seems to call for fuel surcharge regulation.

Here’s an article that quickly deteriorates into some complex accounting, but which points out still more underhandedness on the part of the airlines and their fuel surcharges.

In support of its probable view that surcharges should be regulated, the article first gives several examples where the fuel surcharges eclipse the fare itself, and it is relevant to further note that the fare before fuel surcharge is often unbelievably low.  For example, $291 for a San Francisco to London fare?  When was the last time you saw that sort of fare on offer?  Fifteen years ago?  Twenty?  Twenty five?  The $291 fare has a $458 fuel surcharge, meaning that your actual cost is $749, which further hints that the fuel surcharge is as much regular fare as it is special extra temporary surcharge.  Under what circumstance could any airline profitably operate a roundtrip flight SFO-LON-SFO and make money off $291 fares these days?

But the really interesting point in the article is that if you don’t actually fly on a ticket, then no matter if the airfare might be non-refundable or not, surely the ‘fuel surcharge’ should be fully refundable, because the airline didn’t use the fuel to fly you that it is charging you for.

In the example cited in the article, a person changed a ticket for flying from SFO to Delhi (through Europe on LH) to a shorter ticket from the East coast to Delhi and back.  Unsurprisingly, the shorter distance ticket had a lower fuel surcharge attached to it (although the fare was higher!), but the airline refused to refund the passenger the $220 difference in fuel surcharge.

So, we have egregiously dishonest fuel surcharges to start with, overlaid with unfair policies when it comes to exchanging or refunding them.  In cases where an industry shows itself to be incapable of self-regulation, and in cases where competitive forces have failed to act positively, what is left?

Yes, it seems we must call upon the government to regulate fuel surcharges.  Fortunately, such regulation would be simple.  Two small requirements would be all that is needed.  Firstly, fuel surcharges need to be factually based on the difference between, perhaps, the actual cost of fuel on a quarterly basis and maybe the average cost of fuel paid for the previous year, and should be adjusted every quarter.  Oh yes, and if fuel prices drop below the previous year’s average cost, then there would be a fuel credit instead of a fuel surcharge applying to that quarter’s tickets.

Secondly, fuel surcharges would be fully refundable in the event that travel does not take place.

These are easy simple measures to put in place, and would force the airlines into fairly and honestly accounting for fuel surcharges.  Who could disagree with that?  Indeed, my guess would be that we’d see fuel surcharges disappear entirely in double-quick time, particularly if airlines had to zero them out or even give money back in quarters when fuel prices were dropping (as they often have been over the last few years).

The Outrageous Ongoing Increases in Air Ticket Taxes

Talking about governments and airlines, how about air ticket taxes?  You probably haven’t been tracking this (which is what the government hopes).  In 1972, government taxes and fees levied on a $300 domestic roundtrip airline ticket came to $22 – a 7% cost.  Twenty years later, in 1992, this had nearly doubled, and was $38, a 13% tax levy.  Skip forward another 22 years to now, and that same $300 fare now attracts about $62.60 in government taxes and fees – 21%.

Needless to say, the airlines don’t think that is very fair, although of course they see the extra $40 in taxes not as money that should be given back to us, but rather as money that they should get to keep, rather than share with the government.  We’ve already seen what the airlines do in the rare case of an airline tax decrease – when the FAA was shut down temporarily last year and so the FAA 10% or thereabouts tax was no longer being collected on airfares, the airlines promptly increased their price by the same 10% amount.  So we need to realize that when the airlines complain about ticket taxes, they’re not advocating on our behalf.

However, it is also regrettably true that the government has almost trebled its tax take on a typical airfare over the last 42 years.  But what are we getting, now, that is three times better than it was back in 1972?  Should I remind you of the latest bout of air travel disruption, notwithstanding the huge fees we and the airlines all pay to airports (presumably to cover the costs of snow removal and other foul weather mitigation activities) and to the government (for air traffic control)?

Here’s a very interesting article that talks about this, and mixes in a curious jumble of other fascinating statistics.  For example, in the five years from 2007 to 2012, while the major US carriers have reduced their widebody fleet from 508 to 464 airplanes, three UAE airlines alone (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar) have almost doubled their fleet from 174 to 311 planes.  But can we lay the blame for the decaying US airlines at the feet of excessive US govt taxes and fees?  Almost certainly, not!

There’s another interesting table in the article as well, comparing the level of federal reporting requirements imposed on airlines compared to other industries – both travel related such as hotels, cruise lines, rental car companies and even government-owned Amtrak, and other regulated industries such as cable and telecoms.  For the eight factors analyzed, rental car companies didn’t have to lodge any reporting or comply with any regulations at all.  Amtrak and hotels only had to comply with having operational contingency plans, nothing else.  It is a fascinating example of governmental intrusion into airline operations – an intrusion that alas (see previous point, for example) seems to do no good to anyone.  It hasn’t helped with uncompetitive airline mergers, it hasn’t helped with outrageous baggage fees, and it hasn’t helped with all the dishonesty surrounding the fuel surcharge topic.

Maybe less regulation – but more effective regulation, combined with fewer taxes and fees, might work better for us all?

It is Time to Let Foreign Carriers Fly Domestically in the US

We’re down to only three legacy carriers (UA, AA and DL) that operate comprehensive domestic and international route networks.  Yes, Southwest is another major domestic carrier, but for all intents and purposes, it has no foreign routes.

Having only three American airline choices for foreign travel – and many times, effectively only one or two depending on where we want to travel from and to – would have been unthinkable only a very few years ago, but is now the new reality for 2014.

Our domestic choices are only sometimes better – maybe you’re flying somewhere that also has a regional or smaller airline such as Jetblue or Virgin America or Alaska Airlines, or one of the niche airlines such as Spirit and Allegiant flying, but maybe also you’re flying somewhere that doesn’t have these and only has one or two of the major airlines.

There might have been a time, decades ago, when our domestic carriers deserved protection from rapacious foreign airlines seeking to swoop in and steal domestic traffic from the local carriers.  But now that we, the passengers, have lost the variety of choices we used to enjoy, surely it is only fair that a competitive environment be restored by allowing foreign airlines to operate domestic flights within the US?

Who wouldn’t be pleased to see their next flight between Los Angeles and Chicago, say, now offer flight choices on not just ‘the usual suspects’ but perhaps also Singapore Airlines and Ryanair, Lufthansa and Emirates, even Qantas and Aeroflot?

Indeed, think about that.  Six foreign carriers, all with very different images, identities, and service ideals.  You could never be confused about which airline you were on when flying on any of these six.  But what about the differences between AA, DL and UA?  There aren’t any, are there?  They seem to operate close to completely interchangeable planes, cabins, crews, fares and fees.  We desperately need some truly different competitors, and if we can’t find them domestically, we need to allow them in from other countries.

We’ve allowed the US carriers to merge and merge and then to merge some more, all in the name of supposedly making them stronger and more competitive.  Let’s now take the airlines’ assurances that they’ve become stronger and more competitive at face value, and allow some competition to appear.

Oh yes, by all means require foreign airlines to hire US crews, and of course to comply with all FAA regulations – that way, it truly is a level playing field for all airlines.  What could be the possible harm in that?  Of course, the US airlines will scream themselves hoarse in hysterical opposition to the concept.  Gosh, they’re panic-stricken by the small incursion into their international routes to the US by tiny Scandinavian discount carrier, Norwegian, so one can only guess at the level of response to this suggestion, but perhaps the more they complain, the more right the concept is.

Here’s a rather vague article that talks a bit more on the subject.

Delta to Spend $770 million on Airplane Cabin Improvements

Delta continues to show a new attitude to itself and its business, and the latest example of the airline’s drive to transform itself is its announcement that it will be spending $770 million on a three-year project to overhaul the cabins on 225 of its domestic airplanes.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and alas, part of the overhaul will be cramming more seats into already crowded cabins, but it also includes larger overhead bins and that’s got to be a good thing.

Details here.

2014 to be a Record Breaking Year for European River Cruising?

I’ve been watching the astonishing growth in cruise ships that operate along the Danube, Rhine, and other rivers in Europe with amazement.  Viking alone is launching 14 more ships in 2014, and has launched 16 others in 2013 and 2012.  Uniworld and Amawaterways continue to steadily launch one or two new ships each year, and completely new cruise lines are also appearing – for example, Australian owned Emerald Waterways.

But it seems that no matter how many additional ships and cabins are added, US travelers are keenly snapping them all up.  This article claims that many 2014 sailings are already sold out entirely, and predicts the rest will quickly fill too.

If you’ve not tried a river cruise yet, you really should.  As clearly more and more people are coming to realize every year, the experience is a million times preferable to a traditional coach based land tour.  You get to see just as much, if not more, and have the incomparable comfort and convenience of your own ‘traveling hotel’ transporting you smoothly through Europe with no need for daily packing/unpacking of your suitcase, checking in and out of hotels, and all the rest of the hassle associated with normal European touring.

Two further points based on the boom in cruising this year.  First, please remember I can offer you at least a 5% discount on all Amawaterways cruises, all the time, and secondly, if you’re thinking about our 2014 Christmas Markets cruise, please do act soon to reserve a cabin while there are still a reasonable selection of cabins available.

Crewless Ships

I’ve often advocated the development of either pilotless or remote piloted planes.  I’ll spare you what I consider to be compelling arguments in favor of such an advance, and look instead at a similar concept – crewless ships.

As an aside, something I’ve never understood is the way some passengers on cruise ships get so excited at running across the ship’s captain and fawn over him so effusively.  Certainly on the river cruise ships, the captain is someone who maybe barely understands English, who dislikes passengers, and who is in a constant state of conflict with the true and greatly underappreciated hero of the passengers’ experience, the ‘Hotel Manager’.  The captain wants to work to a schedule that is most convenient for him; but the Hotel Manager and the Cruise Director want to work to a schedule that is most convenient for the passengers, creating a continual tension and conflict between the departments.  The captain has probably spent much/most of his working life driving barges full of obedient and inanimate cargo up and down the Danube, and has little inkling of what foreign US passengers want or expect, whereas the Cruise Director and Hotel Manager have worked their entire lives in the hospitality and travel industries, and understand all about passengers/guests and are dedicated to giving the guests the best experience possible.

But put a sailor in a uniform, sprinkle some braid on it, and otherwise sensible people go weak-kneed with excitement at having their existence briefly acknowledged by this godlike creature, the captain.  As I said, this is something I’ve never understood.

It is an ugly truth that most plane crashes are caused by pilot error; and similarly, 75% of at sea disasters are attributed to human error, too.  Just like on a plane, much/most/all of a ship’s operations are automated already, and particularly on deep-sea voyages with bulk freight and container ships, the only debatably difficult parts are getting in and out of ports, and for those operations, the ships have local experts (the ‘pilots’) come on board to assist.

So do we really need crews on non-passenger ships?  This article describes a project being spearheaded by a Rolls-Royce team which would see crewless ships.

As for passenger ships, the ‘nautical’ crew on ships is getting ever smaller and smaller – a captain and sufficient reliefs to provide one person on the bridge at any time, sufficient multi-purpose engineers to fix things as they break, a couple of deck-hands, and that’s about all that’s essentially needed.  The rest of the crew are the underappreciated but essential – and much more truly irreplaceable – people working in the hotel and passenger experience departments.

High Speed Rail Notes

It is interesting to note that over the last 50 years, while air travel speeds have remained constant, rail travel speeds have more than doubled.

It is fifty years since the first bullet trains debuted in Japan (October 1964), traveling then at the stunning speed of up to 130 mph, and completing the 320 mile route between Tokyo and Osaka in 3 hrs 10 minutes – an average speed of 101 mph.  This was at a time when most trains, elsewhere in the world, struggled to get up to a 100 mph maximum and seldom averaged much more than about 75 mph over their routes.

Today of course, we are several generations into high-speed rail service in most countries in the world.  The world speed record for a train is now 357 mph, trains in several countries sometimes reach in-service speeds of 200 mph, and speeds of 170 – 180 mph are often encountered.

When understanding the improvements in rail travel, it is important to look at one other point as well.  While the very fastest trains are the headline grabbing most impressive examples of continued innovation with rail services, regular slower speed rail service has also massively improved over the last 50 years (or any other time period you choose to use).  What used to be slow chugging uncomfortable commuter trains averaging 30 mph or less on their service schedules are now higher speed smooth traveling quiet units that are managing to average 60mph or more, with the trains peaking at speeds of 100 mph or so – speeds which would have been unthinkable a few decades before.

But not in the US.  Our slow speed trains are as appallingly slow as ever, and if possible, some are even slower than before.  Apart from a tiny patch of fast service on the NY-DC corridor, trains seldom exceed freeway bus speeds and generally average much slower speeds than buses.

However, hope springs eternal, and high-speed rail proposals continue to be aired.  One of the latest has a lot going for it – it would be service between Dallas and Fort Worth at one end and Houston at the other end.  I’ve long felt there to be an excellent opportunity for fast rail in the generally flat lands of Texas, with the cities of Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston all crying out for a nice triangle/loop service between them.

The mooted service between DFW and Houston would see a 90 minute travel time, probably somewhat less than half what it takes to drive, and faster also than the total time to go to an airport, check-in, take a flight, reclaim baggage, etc.  It is spearheaded by a private company, although doubtless it is fully reliant on massive state and federal subsidies.  Details here.  We wish it well.

One of the difficult trade-offs that is required with high-speed rail is the balance between adding more stops so as to service more destinations, but slowing down the total journey time in the process.  By the time a train has slowed down and stopped from, eg, 180 mph, then allowing a minimum of two or three minutes at a station, then time to accelerate back up to 180 mph again, there is at least a seven minute time cost, compared to a through train that doesn’t stop.  Add four such stops and you’ve added half an hour to the train’s journey time.  If the train has very few stops, you’ve reduced the number of origination/destination points it is servicing, making it harder to fill the train with passengers and operate profitably, but if it has lots of stops, its travel time extends and it becomes less appealing to the people on the longer sectors (and the people on the short sectors don’t get much benefit from high-speed services anyway).

How to balance these conflicting needs?  One idea that occasionally appears is some way of having passengers get on and off a train while it is moving.  Now that is no big deal if the train is moving at 2 or 3 mph, and at 5 mph you could have a moving track at 2.5 mph at an intermediate point between the stationary platform and the moving train.  But clearly, this concept very quickly fails when the speed differential between stop and go increases, so how to get a person onto a train traveling at 180 mph without slowing down the train?

Here’s an interesting article that looks at some possible solutions to this problem.  I like the idea of a looped train that pulls alongside and attaches, swaps over passengers, then separates again.  But that would have to be a big loop. The loop needs to be long enough for the service train to speed up from its stopped platform, then some further distance for the two trains to be traveling alongside, then more distance for the service train to separate and decelerate.  In round figures, and allowing a three minute transfer time at, say, 150 mph, this would require at least a 15 mile length of track, and probably a bit more for additional safety margin, and it would add about ten minutes travel time for passengers when getting off the train.

But these are far from impossible compromises.  Probably not an essential feature of any US high-speed rail, but something to consider in Europe where potential stopping points are much closer together.

The Device That Wasn’t Announced at CES

As is always the case, CES was a flurry of new product announcements of all types, ranging from ‘wearable’ electronic devices up to enormous big screens, lots of in-car and at-home connectivity and automation, and a great deal of new tablet and phone announcements.  But one product, widely expected and hoped for, was not mentioned at all.

As you may know, Google introduced a 7″ tablet, the Nexus 7, on 27 June 2012.  In late October 2012, Google complemented it with a 10″ tablet, unsurprisingly called the Nexus 10.  This gave Google two similar products to Apple, also with both a smaller and full screen sized tablet on offer.

In 2013, Google updated the Nexus 7 on 24 July, which was consistent with the typical annual refreshes that most manufacturers seem to observe.  So, as October approached, anticipation and then expectation mounted, waiting for a new Nexus 10 update.  This expectation seemed to be confirmed by the increasing lack of availability and/or remainder discounting of existing stocks of Nexus 10 devices, as if Google and its retailers were clearing out the old stock prior to a new product being launched.

Nothing happened in October, and so the rumor mill then decided that the device would be announced in time for the Thanksgiving shopping rush.  We were told it would come out on Black Friday, and then we were told it would be out on Cyber Monday.  But only silence from Google greeted both these dates.

So the rumor mill revised itself without any embarrassment and pointed to various dates prior to Christmas, allowing Google to get some Christmas sales for the new Nexus 10 (and, of perhaps equal strategic importance, to take sales away from the new iPad Air, which had been released at the end of October).

But Christmas too came and went with no new Nexus 10 device.  So this caused the rumor mill to double down still further and decide that clearly Google was going to make a flashy announcement immediately prior to CES, and when that didn’t happen, it was predicted that Google would release the updated Nexus 10 during CES.

CES was indeed full of tablet announcements from Google’s various hardware partners.  Samsung in particular (the maker of the original Nexus 10 and possibly the future maker of any new Nexus 10 unit), announced a wide range of new tablets, including a bigger-than-ever 12.1″ screen sized unit that seems to be testing the limits of how big a hand-held portable tablet can get.  But no Nexus 10 announcement.  Nor announcements for a Nexus 9 or 8 (some people are wondering about other size tablets from Google, perhaps supplanting the 10″ screen size).

The rumor mill, now flummoxed, is despairingly starting to wonder if maybe there won’t be a replacement Nexus 10 at all, while the optimists are saying perhaps a new Nexus will feature the huge 12.1″ screen size.  But no-one knows for sure, and there is no word forthcoming from Google about their plans for a full screen sized Nexus unit, while its website continues to show no availability for one of the two Nexus 10 models, with the same ‘check back soon’ suggestion as has been there nonstop for over three months now.

Google’s disdainful silence about its future tablet plans is again demonstrating something between indifference and incompetence when it comes to managing their hardware product lineup.  These guys might have the cleverest search engine on the planet, but they show precious little smarts when it comes to selling hardware.

Why Cell Phone Usage Is Inevitable on Planes

Personally, I don’t understand the vehement opposition, limited almost entirely to the US, but nowhere as prominent elsewhere in the world (many jurisdictions already allow cell phone use on planes), to people using phones on planes.  We used to have seatback phones on planes a decade and more ago, and it never caused problems, in large part because – and here’s the bit most people fail to consider – the high level of ambient noise on a plane drowns out the sounds from people more than a row or two away from you, no matter what they’re doing – the only exception to this of course being screaming babies, who have a supernatural ability to be heard from one end of the plane to the other.

Anyway, lost in among all the brave pronouncements by US airlines recently that they’d never allow cell phones to be used on their flights is one teensy tiny consideration.  Money.  Profit.

And therein lies the reason why the airlines are certain to allow cell phone usage on flights.  Because they can make money from it – indeed, they can make money both ways, from people who use phones and from people who don’t.

People who do use their phones will be charged a fee to have their calls relayed through the plane’s cell.  And people who don’t use phones?  They’ll be charged a fee for the privilege of sitting in a cell-phone free ‘quiet zone’ on planes.

Here’s an article that mentions the concept of quiet zones, but fails to join the financial dots in the way the airlines are sure to do.  So remember, when you find yourself with the choice between paying to use your phone or paying to avoid people using their phones, you read it here first!

And Lastly This Week….

Coming back to the concept of cold weather, here’s an interesting thought about something we almost take for granted.  The salt that is spread on roads to combat ice and to facilitate snow removal – have you ever wondered how much ice is used in a typical season for this purpose?

The answer might surprise you.  We go through about 137 lbs of salt for every person in the US, each year (although in the Seattle area, concerns about the salt washing into Puget Sound mean the city prefers to let roads ice up and traffic snarl/stop – and, yes, you are correct; Puget Sound is a salt water inlet from the Pacific Ocean, a few tons of salt more or less would make no perceptible difference to it whatsoever).

Now I just know you’re immediately thinking ‘What happens to all the salt in the rest of the country?’.  Here’s an answer.

Time for our first bathroom story of 2014, which is a look at the cultural differences around the world as expressed in terms of, ahem, urinal usage, and a move afoot to get all us men, ummm, sitting down.

Talking about cultural differences, here’s some commentary about a new list of cultural do’s and don’t's promulgated by VisitBritain to help British tourist operators be more in tune with international visitors.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Jan 022014
Honolulu's International Market Place 1957 -2013, RIP (story below).

Honolulu’s International Market Place 1957 -2013, RIP (story below).

Good morning

A very happy new year to you.

I hope your Christmas and New Year celebrations were appropriate – and you can be the best judge of what ‘appropriate’ allows and/or requires.  May 2014 be a wonderful year for us all, marked with lowered air fares, friendly airline employees, empty seats always next to us, plenty of spare space in the overheads, an abolition of fuel and many other surcharges, and – - – oh, wait.  Sorry.

But let’s at least hope for a reasonably good year, and that the soaring profitability of the airlines might see them reinvest a bit of their excess earnings into improving our experience as passengers on their planes.  Surely that’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

Happy birthday on 1 January to the birth of regular scheduled commercial aviation.  Yes, the first scheduled aviation service commenced on 1 January 1914, with service across Tampa Bay between St Petersburg and Tampa.  The first flight, 21 miles in length and 23 minutes in duration, had one paying passenger – the Mayor of St Petersburg, who paid $400 for the privilege at an auction.  As a side-bar comment, these days with the bridges across Tampa Bay – and even without, the land journey this flight replaced seems trivial rather than epic, but apparently it took 11 hours by train to otherwise get from one city to the other.

In 2014 it is expected that, in total and worldwide, 3.3 billion people will fly – about 9 million every day (2013 is estimated to be 3.1 billion, the best year ever for aviation, with 2014 expected to be better still).  Aviation overall generates $2.2 trillion in annual economic activity and supports over 57 million jobs.

To commemorate the first 100 years of aviation, the international airline association IATA has launched a special website www.flying100years.com.

Plenty of people have been using the occasion to make utterly predictable comments about the evolution of aviation, its present state, and to express opinions variously optimistic or pessimistic about the future – here’s an article quoting various airline CEOs on their predictions for the future, ie five years ahead, 25 years ahead, and 100 years ahead.  Some of the predictions are, well, predictable, and others are downright amusing.

I’ll spare you more of such comments, and simply say that if it weren’t for the growth of aviation, I’d not be living in the US, and I’d not be doing the job I do and enjoy so much; so even though I complain about many aspects of modern-day travel, I’m also truly grateful for it and my own life has been profoundly and positively transformed.

But – well, I can’t remain totally silent, and so have taken the advantage of some quiet time over the holidays to put together an article lamenting the enormous and totally inexplicable failure of the airplane manufacturing industry over the last almost 50 years.

A failure?  Lack of innovation?  Was I enjoying too much ‘frivolity’ when writing the piece?  Please read it before leaping to judge, and be prepared to be surprised.  Yet again, one of the biggest untold aviation stories during this centenary, with lots of retrospectives and future-gazing, is being told only here at The Travel Insider.  Our glass isn’t half full.  It is half empty.

In related news, today (Friday) is a big day for Boeing and the Seattle area.  Boeing’s machinists are voting today on a revised offer from Boeing – their acceptance might see Boeing keep more of a presence in the Seattle region; their refusal increases the probability that Boeing will continue to move work away from Puget Sound with a view to perhaps departing the region entirely within the next decade or so.  Poof – 75,000 direct jobs, and as many more related jobs, most high paying – could be gone, just like that.

I’d feel better if I thought the money Boeing hopes to save, either by paying its Seattle machinists less, or by moving to a less expensive location, would be channeled back into R&D and new plane development.  But what are the chances of that, compared to another boost to six and seven figure executive salaries, benefits, and stock buy-backs?  Although it won’t be part of the evaluation process, it seems to me that the hourly paid machinists have as much a fair claim to the money in dispute as do the probably overpaid and dubiously performing executives.

What else this week?  Precious little travel news, but sometimes that’s a good thing, right?  And of course, for some of you, you’ll be anxiously checking on flights today, due to the latest round of winter storms and extraordinarily cold weather.  Whatever your view on global warming, I hope you enjoyed a laugh at the irony of a team of global warming advocates sailing down to Antarctica to find ‘proof’ of global warming, and getting trapped on their ship by much heavier than normal ice floes (albeit a point omitted from most main stream media reports of the situation).

If your New Year resolution was to treat yourself to a special travel experience in 2014, we’ve a couple for you to choose from, and other things to read about too :

  • NZ Tour, October 2014
  • Help Design Our April 2015 Italy Tour
  • Christmas Markets Cruise, December 2014
  • United to Copy the Happy Meal Concept
  • Is Delta Getting Better?
  • Everything Old Becomes New Again
  • Update on Dispatch
  • Waikiki to Lose Some of its Personality
  • What Is It With New York’s Mayors?
  • And Lastly This Week….

NZ Tour, October 2014

I am delighted to now share with you the full details of our New Zealand Epicurean Extravaganza Tour this coming October.

Although just now released for booking, six people are already participating, and once we’ve filled the small number of rooms in our ‘Headquarters Hotel’ for this tour, we can’t get any bigger; so please do choose to join us while there’s still space.

There’s more about the tour in a separate article after this newsletter.  Suffice it to say that as a New Zealander, this will be my ‘signature tour’ for 2014 and I’m very excited about the itinerary and activities offered to you.

I hope you’ll feel the same way and choose to join me and your fellow Travel Insiders.

Help Design Our 2015 Italy Tour

Talking about signature tours, I’m joining forces with a colleague, Joe Brancatelli (see www.joesentme.com) to jointly create a tour, primarily to Rome, for both Travel Insiders and his readers (there’s a lot of overlap – many of you read both) that we’re planning for late April 2015.

The core part of the tour will be a five night focus on Rome.  While the tour would work for someone on their first ever visit to Rome, it is intended to be an in-depth immersion experience rather than a rushed and superficial overview of the highlights such as is all most people get to experience.  We’ve chosen late April as being the best time of year from a weather/not-too-many-tourists/not-high-season-prices perspective.

Joe and I have traveled together before, and I’m looking forward to sharing this tour with him too – he is as much fun to talk to and travel with as he is to read, only less irascible (hopefully the same can be said of me!).  Joe is intimately familiar with Rome, ‘the eternal city’, and with the many different layers of experiences the city offers.

To show it best to you, our plan is to split the city into districts, and each day to focus in on one district, primarily by walking around the neighborhood.  What with traffic and narrow streets, tour buses are seldom feasible, and we’ll get so much closer to the ‘real Rome’ by walking the streets, and experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and everything else directly rather than through the tinted windows of an air-conditioned tour bus.

Each day will include a visit to a local market, a look at something historic/important, plus a detour somewhere usually overlooked by tourists but well worth visiting, and we’ll have a different daily food theme as well.  As well as classic Italian dishes, Joe even knows where you can get truly good gourmet pizza (something that has always eluded me in Rome) and as the ultimate in temptations, promises some gelato to die for.

We’re also lining up a truly Insider ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Vatican for one of the days.  More on that, later.

Now, for the big question we’d appreciate your thoughts on.  Where would you like to go before or after Rome?  We’re considering several options, and rather than guess at what would be most popular, we thought we’d simply ask you directly.  Here are some concepts we’ve been considering :

  • A Sicily extension.  Often overlooked by American tourists, Sicily has an enormous amount of history, some great foods and wines, and a lot of natural beauty.
  • Somewhere north of Rome.  Genoa/Cinque Terra to the west, possibly extending on to Nice, Cannes, maybe even Marseille.
  • Somewhere north of Rome.  Venice to the east and maybe on to Trieste.
  • Some train travel, either during or after the main tour, with a chance to experience Italy’s unique situation with two competing high-speed rail operators – perhaps a day excursion to Florence, going up on one train service and back to Rome on the other.
  • Taking a ferry over to Dubrovnik, then traveling up the Adriatic Coast and ending in maybe Zagreb, or Ljubljana, or even back into Italy and Trieste (or Venice).

What do you think?  Does any of this have interest to you?  Maybe you have a completely different idea.  We might end up offering one as a pre-tour and the other as a post-tour option, so you can certainly indicate an interest in more than one of these options.  Please let me know.

Christmas Markets Cruise, December 2014

Yes, Christmas 2013 is still a very recent memory, and you probably still have your decorations up.  But with the ever faster passing of each year (or so it seems to me) it is never too soon to start thinking of next Christmas, and in particular, of our wonderful Christmas Markets cruise, this time offering optional pre-cruise touring in Switzerland and Bavaria, and after the cruise the de rigeur opportunity to visit beautiful Prague too.

We’ll be on a river cruise super-ship so new it won’t be launched until mid-way through this year, and enjoying a wonderful experience with a wonderful group of new friends.  Oh yes, and did I mention, you can get it for a 30% discount if you choose to get your deposit in by the end of this month?

Full details of the 2014 Christmas cruise and options here.

Even better still, if you’ve ever cruised with Amawaterways before, you can get an incredible bargain that I can’t mention in the newsletter, but if you ask me, I can tell you directly in an email.

United to Copy the Happy Meal Concept

As a parent myself, I know that the success of the McDonalds Happy Meal is nothing to do with the food.  It is all to do with the toy that the child gets ‘for free’ along with the meal.

United apparently wishes to use a similar approach, along with the ‘be sure to get all pieces of the valuable collectors set, supplies limited’ tag line off late night infomercial television.  Adapting this to airline terms means that United’s de minimis amenity kit that it gives to international BusinessFirst fliers will be packed into one of a set of eight ‘special edition’ tins rather than in the usual pouchy sort of thing.

Doesn’t that make you want to rush and book a gratuitous unnecessary premium cabin international flight on United?  All you AA and DL fliers – don’t you now want to fly UA instead?

Personally – perhaps because I still have memories of many decades ago when my perception (but perhaps not the truthful reality) was that airline amenity kits were amazingly special, any and all amenity kits these days are always a crushing disappointment, no matter if they are in a tin or any other sort of container.

The small kid in me wonders why, for fares sometimes costing $10,000 and more, the airline can’t give a truly valuable gift.  I’ve got some really nice things from past flights – clothing items, jewelry, CDs, good pens, and so on, but now all amenity kits seem to be nothing other than a jumble of esoteric overpriced smelly potions and unguents that I never use – oh yes, plus a pair of one size (ie wrong size) socks, a claustrophobic eye shade, uncomfortable ear plugs and a 25c plastic orange Bic razor.

Details and pictures here.

Is Delta Getting Better?

Well, okay, so you might retort that it could hardly get any worse, but that would be a facile comment, because the airlines can always get worse.

Here’s an account of one flier’s recent experiences with Delta, which seem to have been all good, including repeated situations where employees broke rules in his favor and went above and beyond to help him out.

I’ve been on three Delta flights in the last month or so, and can’t really comment about the staff.  Sure, I can tell you about the uncomfortable seating (I have a new theory – exit row seat cushions are firmer than regular row seat cushions – I’m not sure why, but that seems to be the case, and while acceptable on a short flight, it is regrettable on a long flight, especially when having paid almost $90 more for the privilege of a less comfortable seat!), and the meals continue to be as awful as ever, but I did sense a more liberal approach to serving drinks.

The writer thinks he is seeing a formal corporate push by Delta to be better at customer service – let’s hope he’s right.

Everything Old Becomes New Again

Talking about Delta trying to improve, it is trialing an innovative new program at McCarran in Las Vegas to try and cut down on the incidence of baggage thefts off luggage carousels.

Delta’s innovative new idea?  A ‘positive bag match’ program where passengers have to show their baggage claim check to an employee and have it matched against the tag on the suitcase before taking their bag out of the claim area.

Innovative new idea?  Hmmm……  As most readers will surely know, this system used to be semi-common all around the US in years gone by, but disappeared over the last decade or so, perhaps as a result of cost cutting, and perhaps as a result of its probable ineffectiveness.

I’d usually be able to assertively barge on past the staff doing the tag checking, or simply walk along a carousel or two and then go out through an unguarded exit (not that I was stealing bags, of course; merely seeking ways to avoid one last line and piece of hassle-filled bureaucracy at the end of a flight, and sometimes having lost/thrown away my claim check).

There are plenty of ways to still steal luggage without having a claim check.  That’s not to pour cold water on Delta’s trial; well, actually, perhaps it is.  I don’t know of anyone who has had a bag stolen off a carousel, but I know of many people who have had other problems with other parts of the flight experience (and even other problems with their bags getting lost or damaged, rather than stolen), so is this the best part of the flight experience for Delta to be trying to upgrade – a process that involves inconvenience for the 99.999% of people who aren’t baggage thieves and only little inconvenience for the 0.001% of people who are?

Update on Dispatch

I wrote about a wonderful product for PCs last week, Connectify Dispatch.  It is a great and easy way of sometimes significantly increasing your internet connection speed and reliability, particularly when traveling.

By good fortune, I was at a hotel a couple of days ago and able to add a couple of screen shots showing exactly how Dispatch adds extra bandwidth when connected to multiple internet sources simultaneously.  So, if you missed the article last week, or were skeptical about how good it might actually be, please (re)visit now and see the graphical proof of the value Dispatch adds.

I certainly plan to never travel without it again, myself.

Waikiki to Lose Some of its Personality

Not a lot of people like Waikiki, and I’ll agree it is commercial, crowded, and increasingly generic.

One of its distinctive features has been its International Market Place, a landmark feature on Kalakaua Ave for 57 years.  It could always be counted on to regale you with junk and nonsense, average food, but also some vaguely perceptible native Hawaiian charm and even almost innocence.  Clearly it has been a low-value use of an increasingly expensive piece of property, and so part of its appeal has been to marvel at how such a bazaar has managed to survive.

Plans have now been announced to replace it with – gack – yet another ‘modern, multi-level, high-end, shopping mall’.  Just what Waikiki needs – not.

The International Market Place closed on 31 Dec 2013.  I never really thought I’d be sad to see it go, but who reading this hasn’t wandered through the Market at one time or another, and probably ended up buying a junky souvenir, or eating/drinking something they also probably didn’t need?  Instead, we’ll have a chance to shop at a Saks Fifth Avenue store, and a Macy’s right next door – just like back home, but with the added penalty of airline excess baggage charges if you actually buy anything in the stores.

What Is It With New York’s Mayors?

Talking about changes, there’s change afoot in New York.

The last mayor, now thankfully departed, wanted to regulate the soda we drink (and just about every other aspect of New Yorker’s lives).  The new one is approaching his duties from a very different perspective and has already stated his opposition to something the previous mayor supported.

Apparently one of the most important things on new Mayor de Blasio’s list of things to do is to ban horse-drawn carriage rides from around the Central Park area.  While it is true that no-one travels to NYC just for a carriage ride, one wonders if the new mayor really ‘gets it’ when he suggests that rides in vintage limos might be a suitable substitute.

And as for animal activists worrying that the horses are forced to breathe traffic fumes, isn’t that what all New Yorkers do, most of every day, anyway?

To be fair, New York is not going it alone with this.  Las Vegas, London, Paris and Beijing have already banned horse drawn carriages, although one wonders if the reasons are more to do with traffic optimization than concern about the horses.

More details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Okay, so we know that being in an airplane incident – a near crash type event – is a mega-scary thing for sure, and after such an experience, one can sometimes react slightly less than fully rationally.

But perhaps it is best not to write about such experiences when still in the grip of what you feel to be your near death experience.  For example, this regrettble outpouring from a person on a Virgin America flight who seems to have decided that the humorous quote from Sir Richard Branson on the side of the plane reveals a cavalier disregard of safety requirements.  Puhleeze.

It is always interesting to see predictions from the past, many years ago, that were made about the present day.  Here’s an interesting list of predictions by former science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote 50 years ago of his vision of 2014.  Most are impressively close to present day reality, but there’s one massive miss as well :  We will live in a society of enforced leisure and the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become ‘work’.

Hmmm.   If only.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and don’t work too hard







Dec 272013
Jet Fuel prices over the last six years.  See article below.

Jet Fuel prices over the last six years. See article below.

Good morning

I do hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and that your stocking was filled to overflowing with wanted gifts (whether they be the same as that appreciatively received by SC Gov Haley or not).

It has unsurprisingly been a quiet week, albeit livened by some weather problems which hopefully impacted neither on your travels or the delivery of anything you ordered online.

Talking about deliveries, it was interesting to read of UPS failing to cope with the larger than ever before last-minute volume of shipments, and I was also surprised to see they had been refusing ground shipments for the two weeks prior to 25 December.

It seems that the online retailers had no problems with their websites, but now the weak link in the chain are the delivery services.  It is easy to scale a website to handle surge volumes, but much harder to scale the capital-intensive delivery services – they need more planes, more trucks, more sorting facilities, and of course more people to handle the huge surges in shipping volumes that are occurring as online shopping grows in popularity.

This year it is estimated that 15% of Christmas season purchases were made online, and online sales in the final week were 37% up on last year.  In years past, we’ve come to accept the traffic and crowds during the Christmas shopping rush, but will we ever come to accept late deliveries?  It is estimated that 15% or more of late orders (but still expected to be delivered prior to Christmas) are not delivered.

I had an Amazon shipment delayed, although in this case it was for inexplicable ‘shipment lost’ reasons rather than due to last-minute overload, and was dismayed to learn that the bold statements on their website ‘Order by xxxx and we guarantee delivery on 24 December’ didn’t amount to much.

The ‘guarantee’ merely means that they hope the shipment will arrive, and are sorry if it doesn’t.  That’s not quite my understanding of what a guarantee is.

Last week I mentioned that the booking window for the Sri Lanka tour is closing.  That remains so, but one of the couples is now cancelling due to unforeseen medical issues.  If you’d like to take over their booking, they’ll split their $1000 deposit with you – giving you a $500 discount off the Sri Lanka trip (normally $5090 for two people, now $4590 after the $500 discount).  Please let me know soonest if you’d like to grab this bargain.

Talking about traveling, while in Europe these last few weeks, I was – as is so often the case – plagued by recurrent internet access problems.  In several places, I could choose between different Wi-Fi services (typically a hotel with multiple routers all in range) and each of the different choices had issues – some were very weak signals, and others were unreliable.

Surely there’s got to be a solution to this type of problem, or so I told myself.  And, yes, indeed there is (well, at least for those of us with PCs).  Which brings me to this week’s feature article, a piece that explains how you can simultaneously connect to and share multiple internet feeds.  With an all up cost of something under $50, this might be the best investment you’ve made in your on-the-road productivity for the entire 2013 year.  The article follows, after the newsletter.

What else this week?  Read on for :

  • Fuel Surcharges Continue, Jet Fuel Prices Stable or Dropping
  • US Flight Delays Significantly Under-Counted?
  • Airplane Boarding Slower than in 1970
  • A Small Rental Car in Hawaii is Costing $339/Day at Present
  • Garmin Implies US Drivers Are the World’s Stupidest
  • Portable Electronics Still Dangerous on European Planes?
  • The Real Reasons for the Demise in Sleeper Trains
  • Another Year Passes

Fuel Surcharges Continue, Jet Fuel Prices Stable or Dropping

As we come to the end of another year, we find the odious fuel surcharges remain firmly attached to air ticket prices, particularly on international routes.  It is true that some times in the past, fuel prices have skyrocketed, arguably at such a fast rate, or on such a volatile basis, as to make fuel surcharges an appropriate means for the airlines to handle the substantially changing nature of their operational costs, but what of the last year – or two, or even three?

As you can see in the image at the top of this newsletter, jet fuel prices peaked in mid 2008, then plunged in the six months that followed, before steadily rising to hit another peak in early 2011, and since that time, prices have wavered but never again reached that early 2011 level.  Indeed, according to this data, jet fuel prices on a world-wide basis are at exactly the same level as a year ago.

So, with almost three years of close to steady pricing, you’d think that fuel surcharges have either disappeared, or dwindled down to reflect the minor amount of remaining volatility, right?

So why is it that fuel surcharges remain so high, and in many cases equal or exceed the underlying ‘base fare’ cost (an agent in Canada recently reported a $432 fuel surcharge added to a base $378 ticket price).

Note only do such charges exceed the total cost of all fuel burned per passenger, they bear no relation whatsoever to any underlying changes in fuel costs since the last time the airline adjusted its overall ticket prices.

This insulting type of commercial deceit – unfair on two different levels – is another reason why we hate the airlines.

US Flight Delays Significantly Under-Counted?

Here’s an interesting article that quotes the Transportation Department’s Inspector General who claims that airline flight delays are being significantly under-reported, due to a loophole in the reporting process.

It seems that smaller regional airline flights, whether operated on behalf of major carriers or as standalone services, don’t need to have their delays factored in to overall counts of delayed flights.  This means that some airports (and airlines) have many more delayed flights than appear in the official statistics – for example, Philadelphia reported 13,800 delayed flights in 2012, but actually had 38,000 flights that were delayed – almost three times the reported count.

On the other hand, apparent delays may have truly reduced over the last decade or so (although with the inaccurate/incomplete data being reported, it is hard to know for sure).  The reason for the improved results (if indeed they truly are improved) is not because flights are being operated more efficiently, but rather is due to airlines adding extra time into their schedules.  In other words, if a flight which should/could take three hours actually takes three and a half hours, that is considered a delay, but if the airline gives in to its inefficiencies and now says ‘the flight will take 3.5 hours’ we are expected to be pleased if it actually takes only 3 hrs 25 minutes – even though it could/should be only 3 hours.

You’ve probably experienced flights that arrive as much as an hour ‘early’ (ie, conforming to the real time it takes rather than the worst case but now programmed time).  Is that truly a good thing?  Certainly not if you’re a limo driver, trying to plan your day around meeting flights!  And maybe not for you, either – if you’ve planned for a certain chunk of time being taken by a flight, you may not be able to salvage and sensibly use the sudden ‘bonus’ time returned to you (especially if the artificially lengthened flight time meant you had to get up an hour earlier!).

Airplane Boarding Slower than in 1970

Talking about efficient flight operations, a key point of supposed focus and area for productivity gains and efficiency with any airline, and a legendary part of Southwest’s ‘success’, is in the turnaround time of planes on the ground.  A couple of thoughts on this topic.

Firstly, I had an interesting experience and learned a valuable lesson with my recent Delta flights.  I paid extra for Economy Comfort, and one of the benefits of the Economy Comfort seating is priority boarding, immediately after the elite level frequent fliers.  As we all know, getting on the plane early is essential if you want to find space for your carry-on, other than at your feet.

But when I got to board – at the very beginning of the Economy Comfort zone of boarding, I found almost all the seats already taken (presumably by elite frequent fliers, probably on free upgrades) and, more to the point, the overhead storage all completely full.  I was one of the very first official Economy Comfort passenger to board, and while most of the rear of the plane had neither passengers nor things in the overheads, the forward zone of Economy Comfort had no remaining overhead space.

I’d have been better off to have saved my money and taken my chances boarding with everyone else into general economy.

Contrast that with the relatively placid approach to boarding on internal European flights – little regimentation when it comes to boarding zones, and – amazingly – empty overhead space, even on full flights with everyone seated.

Another thing that is sometimes encountered on European flights are dual jetways serving both the front and rear of a plane (or even just simple dual air stairs).

There’s no doubt that air travel in Europe is very much more pleasant than domestically in the US.

Secondly, and with the preceding as lengthy preamble, research by Boeing has revealed that, notwithstanding all the various ‘clever’ approaches to airplane boarding in the US, the time it takes to get a plane loaded has increased 50% since 1970.  Note that this slower pace of boarding (and deplaning, too) can not be explained by the fact that planes are bigger and carry more passengers – the rate of passenger flow is being measured in terms of passengers per minute (from a high of 20 per minute to a low of about 9) rather than total time for a plane of varying size to fill/empty.

But the same research also shows how boarding could be greatly improved.  A shame it is not being implemented.

A Small Rental Car in Hawaii is Costing $339/Day at Present

I’ve often viewed car rental rates as one of the best bargains in our travel world.  What other industry allows you the use of an asset that costs $20,000 or more, and which experiences significant wear, tear, and depreciation during the course of each use, for a cost of $20 or so per day?

Some people even rent a car if they are going on a roadtrip rather than drive their own car, because it is cheaper (and sometimes nicer) to use a rental car than to put miles on their own car.

Further proof of the bargain inherent in these rates might be seen in the form of rental company bankruptcies and mergers.  Of course, a cynic might observe that the explanation for the bargains is probably that the ‘back end’ charges – ridiculous rates for unnecessary insurance, and even more ridiculous rates for gas – that some people unnecessarily pay subsidizes the low up-front rates.

But there are exceptions to the bargain nature of car rentals.  A recent survey looked at the cost of rental cars in 30 major US markets for the Christmas period, and found that Hawaii had three of the four highest destinations.  Most shameful were the rates in Kahului (on Maui) – $339 a day, followed by Lihue (the most affordable car there was $272/day).  Honolulu was a comparative bargain at ‘only’ $127 a day for the most affordable car.

Garmin Implies US Drivers Are the World’s Stupidest

Talking about driving, I’ve owned Garmin GPS units for probably 20 years.  Each successive unit has boasted impressive improvements in screen size, color and resolution, massively better GPS receivers and accuracy, smaller size, and lower cost.  What’s not to like about that?

Unfortunately, as their units have shifted from being high-end niche products for skilled navigational enthusiasts to now being mass-market products for everyone, the technical capabilities and ‘raw data’ aspects of the units have been more and more obscured.  Or, to put it another way, notwithstanding the steady improvement in CPU power and interface design, the units are increasingly dumbed down.

I got a Garmin Nuvi 3590 GPS for Christmas, and was excited by its new capabilities.  In contrast to my old Nuvi 680 with a 4.3″ diagonal screen and 480 x 272 pixel resolution, the new unit has a 5″ screen and 800 x 480 resolution, making for a hugely improved picture.  It also has free lifetime traffic and maps, whereas my old unit charged a monthly fee for traffic and a per update fee for maps, and the 3590′s purchase price was perhaps one-third the earlier cost of the 680, too.

But – and here’s the huge but.  The new 3590 unit has an auto-zoom feature that you can’t override.  The unit (un)intelligently varies the screen’s zoom level based on the speed you’re driving at and the distance to the next turning, whether you want it to or not.  There’s no way to switch it to a fixed level of zoom which you vary yourself; worse still, there’s no visible scale on the map so you never have any way of telling whether an inch on the screen corresponds to 100 feet or 100 miles of real-world distance.

Some internet research revealed an interesting thing.  This auto-zoom feature only applies to the units sold in North America.  Doing a hard-reset on the unit and then telling it, when it reboots, that it is located in Australia (or just about anywhere else) sees the unit come back to life and now with the option of auto or manual zooming on the map.

So, Garmin, why is it that you no longer allow US drivers to manually set their map’s zoom level, but you do for drivers in most of the rest of the world?

Portable Electronics Still Dangerous on European Planes?

At the risk of stating the obvious, we’re now almost two months into the new situation where we are allowed to use electronics at all times while on planes, with not a single incident or mishap having occurred in the hundreds of thousands of flights and millions of electronic devices that have been on and operating, no matter how emphatically opponents of this common sense change assured us that doom would surely follow.

The European authorities have been cautiously catching up with the FAA, and earlier this month the European Aviation Safety Agency said airlines could pretty much set their own rules for when electronic devices could and could not be used.  The airlines have been very slow to change their present rules.

We now have the ridiculous situation where airlines allow unrestricted use of electronic items on a plane when it takes off (or lands) in the US, but gratuitously curtail their use below 10,000 ft, on the same plane, when taking off or landing in Europe at the beginning or end of the international flight.

Can any airline executive explain why they are still restricting the use of portable electronics on planes in Europe but not in the US?

Just last week saw the first European carrier lift restrictions – BA now allows electronics at all times.  But how about carriers such as Delta, which boasted being the first US carrier to lift restrictions in the US, within a day of the FAA decision, but still restricts electronics use in Europe?  What are they doing?

Answer – rather than rationalizing their approach, look at their crazy confusing table with 24 different scenarios that they published about what can be used on which flights (click on the third FAQ on this page to see the table).

The Real Reasons for the Demise in Sleeper Trains

I’m not sure exactly what the appeal of a sleeper train is, although I acknowledge the reality of the concept.  I’ve certainly been on plenty of sleeper trains, myself (mainly in Russia) and while I abstractly like the notion as much as anyone else, I’ll also concede that the experience usually comprises a tiny compartment, uncertain security of one’s belongings, unpleasant primitive toilet facilities at the end of the carriage, a narrow uncomfortable bed, and little sleep.

It has seemed that one of the reasons for the demise of the sleeper train – not just in the US, but in Europe too – is the prevalence of faster day trains such as to remove the sense of an overnight journey (if a formerly 12 hour journey now takes over 4 hours, it is as good or better to do it during the day, perhaps).  But, as another sleeper route ends (Paris-Madrid), there’s an interesting article that points to other reasons why sleeper trains seem destined to extinction.  Economic reasons.

A sleeper carriage holds less than half as many people as a regular carriage.  It can only be used for probably one journey, at night, each day, rather than for many day journeys like a regular carriage.  And they are harder to crew, due to the inconvenient work hours.  That’s three strikes – no wonder they are on the way out.

Here’s the article.

Another Year Passes

And so, and seemingly way too soon, another year is about to pass.  Thank you, one and all, long time readers and freshly joined friends, for your support this year, and let’s hope that 2014 proves to be positive in every respect for us all.

Special thanks to the Travel Insider Docents for helping make our new News site/newsletter the outstanding product that it is, in particular the most prolific of them – Steve W, Brian W, Fred H and Jerry K.

Oh – a new year resolution?  Mine might be to order Christmas presents earlier so as to be sure of their delivery.

Until next week and next year, I hope you’ll enjoy safe holiday travels







Dec 202013
Making us Saferer :  The TSA seized the teensy tiny plastic gun from this sock monkey, claiming it to be a 'realistic replica'.

Making us Saferer : The TSA seized the teensy tiny plastic gun from this sock monkey, claiming it to be a ‘realistic replica’.

Good morning

Apologies for being silent for several weeks.  A flurry of combined activity with the Christmas Cruise and other matters saw me silent for several weeks, but I’m now back again and as penance will offer a newsletter next week in the quiet between Christmas (golly – Christmas already!) and New Year (where did 2013 go?).  :)

I’m still behind on correspondence and in particular, terribly behind in responding to your many kindnesses with this year’s annual fundraising drive – an event currently observed more in the absence this year, due to technical problems and my silence.

If you’ve not yet chosen to help out this year, there’s still time to do so, and to be eligible for the extraordinarily generous range of gifts and prizes that will be given to contributors.  Please simply go to this page and choose how much you’re comfortable contributing.

The most important thing that has happened in the intervening time has been solving a terrible crippling problem that has inhibited just about everything.  I’ve been unable to edit my website.  Ooops!  Something got mangled in the process of moving to the new web publishing server, and eventually I had to give up and simply redo everything from first principles.  A long and tiring process, but now all seems to be back on track and optimized.

That is a huge relief, and it truly is a wonderful feeling to be able to easily edit and add new pages.

One comment about the lack of weekly newsletters (and thanks to everyone who wrote in about this).  Did you know that every day there is a Travel Insider compilation of travel news, complete with short pithy comments?  If you like the weekly newsletter, you’ll love this separate daily newsletter, too.  And although the weekly newsletter was in hiatus, thanks to the sterling efforts primarily of travel marketing guru Steve Wellmeier and a small team of other helpers, the daily newsletter continued to be published every day.  And, yes, it too is completely free and open to all.

XmasgroupcSo, our 2013 Christmas Cruise has now been completed, together with pre-cruise options in Dresden and Prague and a post-cruise option in Berlin.  There’s a pastiche of most of our group featured along the left of this newsletter – there were an amazing 60 of us in total, but it never felt like an unruly crowd.  We generally had two coaches and as many as four guides for our touring, giving us small group high-quality experiences throughout, and yet again, we had a wonderful group of people, all happily sharing a great experience, and blessed with good weather and no major problems.

Our 2014 Christmas cruise will be simultaneously similar and also different.  We’re cruising along the Danube in the opposite direction, and we’re offering pre-cruise options first in Zurich then in Munich and we’ll have Prague (59 of the 60 in our group added Prague this year – it really is an essential add-on) after the cruise rather than before.

Now for the great news about the 2014 cruise.  We can offer you a magnificent 30% discount on this cruise if you choose to join prior to the end of January 2014, and we have an even more special deal if you’ve ever been on any Amawaterways cruise before (either with us or even traveling by yourselves).

Why not give yourselves a very special Christmas present for this year – a Christmas cruise for next year.  More details here.

This newsletter is also essentially our last call for people wishing to come to Sri Lanka Nature’s Paradise Tour with us in February 2014.  We’ve a great group of 25 Travel Insiders currently coming along, and can probably squeeze two or three more people in at this late stage.

You can see all details here, but if you’d like to join, I’ve now disabled the signup form in case of too many last-minute applications, so you’d have to send me an email to let me know of your interest.

This week’s newsletter is somewhat brief, due to jetlag (I find that creative thinking is the hardest of all things when in a ‘wrong-time-zone’ mental fog) and general catching up, but hopefully its re-appearance is such as to delight you.  Please see below for items on :

  • An Amazing Christmas Gift from WestJet
  • A Lesser Gift from Alaska Airlines
  • Southwest Selectively Shrinks
  • Some Pilots Truly Can Still Fly Well
  • Scotland Yard :  From Jail Cells to £10,000 a Night Hotel Rooms
  • Budget Compromise Sees Higher Security Fees for Passengers
  • TSA Considers a Two Inch Miniature Plastic Toy Gun a ‘Realistic Replica’
  • The World’s Worst Tourism Slogans
  • And the Worst Infographic, Too?

An Amazing Christmas Gift from WestJet

Okay, so it was limited in scope, and probably was nothing more than a coldly calculated and commercial way of spending a little bit of money in the expectation of getting much greater positive publicity in return.  But even so, it was also a very positive and imaginative event by Canada’s WestJet, and they clearly made 100 or so passengers on a 4 hour 15 minute flight from Toronto to Calgary very happy indeed.

Well worth watching in the run-up to Christmas.

In other WestJet news, they announced plans to offer seasonal daily service to Dublin starting in June next year.  The flight originates in Toronto, but makes a mandatory stop in St John’s, Newfoundland, due to aircraft certification issues.  They are operating an unusually small plane – a 737-700 that seats only 136 people.  This means their one flight a day for part of the year will have negligible impact on overall air traffic from Canada to Ireland and beyond and an equally negligible impact on fares, but the airline said it will consider adding additional European destinations for the 2015 season if this first toe in the water proves successful.

WestJet (co-founded by David Neeleman, who subsequently founded JetBlue) has been steadily growing since its 1996 launch with three planes serving five cities, and now operates 114 airplanes (with 103 more on order) and flying to 88 destinations.  Air Canada remains more than three times larger, but if WestJet continues its steady growth, its market share, both domestically and internationally, can be expected to continue to grow.

A Lesser Gift from Alaska Airlines

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, now finding itself facing increasing competition from semi-partner Delta, is offering free rides to the airport for people flying out of Seattle on 23 or 24 December (possibly also at other airports too).

The free rides have a maximum value of $50, and are offered in partnership with the high-profile ride-sharing/car-service app, Uber.  Details here.

Southwest Selectively Shrinks

A lot is made of Southwest’s apparently unstoppable growth, and enormous local excitement invariably accompanies its move into new markets.

Not so well-known is that Southwest sometimes closes down cities, too.  The airline has just announced its plans to end operations next June in three airports – Branson, Key West, and Jackson-Evers International Airport (JAN).

The airline has been flying to JAN (just out of Jackson, MS) since 1997, although its service to Key West and Branson is much more recent and was unplanned – 2012, as a result of merging with AirTran.  Bad news for people in those three areas (and for people who wish to fly to those destinations).

Some Pilots Truly Can Still Fly Well

We seem to be coming across too many examples of pilots who simply can’t fly in other than fully optimized (and fully automatic) modes, with disastrous results when their supposed skills are tested and found lacking.

But some pilots clearly still can fly, and here’s an amazing video showing an Emirates 777 (I think) attempting to land in Birmingham, England.  Extreme cross-winds forced the pilot to ‘crab’ in to the runway at almost a right-angle, before aborting the landing seconds before touching down.

The pilot then tried a second time, before giving up and flying down to London instead – doubtless much to the relief of all concerned.

It reminds me slightly of my own flying past, trying to land a glider at about 30 mph when the head wind was the same speed.  The net result was the glider going almost straight down – nice when you’re correctly positioned over the runway, but not so nice if you still have a way to travel, up-wind, to reach it.

Scotland Yard :  From Jail Cells to £10,000 a Night Hotel Rooms

The phrase ‘Scotland Yard’ has become synonymous with London’s Metropolitan Police Force, and particularly their detective divisions.  The Metropolitan Police were based out of the building known as ‘Great Scotland Yard’ from 1829 (when they were formed) through 1890.  But the original building and its address, (3 – 5 Scotland Yard) was superseded by what has been termed ‘New Scotland Yard’ (now located at 8 – 10 Broadway) way back in 1890, although the name has stuck.

And now the Edwardian building currently at 3 – 5 Scotland Yard is to be converted into an up-market hotel, with suites to be offered at as much as £10,000 a night when it opens in 2016.

Some might think the irony of this is that some of the people who are willing to pay £10,000 a night for a hotel room might possibly also qualify for free accommodation in New Scotland Yard, due to having committed illegal acts as part of their becoming sufficiently flush with funds as to be able to afford such a ridiculous rate for a hotel room.

More details here.

Budget Compromise Sees Higher Security Fees for Passengers

Currently the TSA is partially funded by the airlines and further funded by passengers.  The airlines are charged at rates that are sort of frozen at the same level they were paying for security prior to 9/11, and passengers pay an extra $2.50 per flight, up to a maximum of $10 per ticket.  Interestingly, the true cost of TSA airline security is more than three times this, and one can only guess how much extra is spent on other ambitious TSA projects such as the random roadblocks it throws up around the country, its occasional ‘VIPR’ teams that accost subway and train passengers, and so on (none of which have ever found a single terrorist).

But the TSA wants still more money, and so we are seeing our former $2.50 a segment fee increase to $5.60 per each way fee.  If a journey from Point A to B formerly involved only one flight, this means the $2.50 fee would grow to $5.60; if the journey was formerly two or more flights, then the increase is ‘only’ from $5.00 to $5.60.

A peculiar aspect to this fee increase is that the airlines will no longer pay anything at all for security.  As part of the deal, we passengers will pay more, while at the same time, the airlines’ contribution ($380 million in 2012) will be abolished entirely.

A cynic might think that this $380 million (or more – in 2007, the airlines paid $573 million in security related fees to the government) windfall shows the power of the airline lobby in Congress, and a well-informed observer would note that while both political parties eagerly embraced the concept of increasing the passenger fee and eliminating the airline’s share, the lawmakers who actually serve on aviation related (sub)committees opposed the change.

Something – we can only guess what – caused rank and file politicians to add another pin-prick of taxes onto the traveling public, while giving a free ride to the airlines, currently trading more profitably than almost ever before.

TSA Considers a Two Inch Miniature Plastic Toy Gun a ‘Realistic Replica’

The TSA’s voracious appetite for money and the explosion in air travel security costs might be easier to accept if there was any sustainable suggestion that we are getting value for money.

But on the one hand, the TSA itself admits there are no active terrorist threats to protect us against at present, and on the other hand, the TSA’s own Inspector General describes its billion dollar and more behavior detection project as giving useless random results akin to rolling a dice.

And, on the third hand, we see the results of the TSA’s best efforts in cases such as when a passenger recently had the TSA carefully inspect her sock monkey puppet, seize a tiny toy gun from its holster, and threaten to call the police.

The TSA offered the following nonsense statement to justify its impossible-to-justify actions

TSA officers are dedicated to keeping the nation’s transportation security systems safe and secure for the traveling public. Under longstanding aircraft security policy, and out of an abundance of caution, realistic replicas of firearms are prohibited in carry-on bags.

Since when is a 2″ vaguely pistol shaped piece of plastic a ‘realistic replica’?  And as for the abundance of caution?  Perhaps better to call this an utter lack of common sense.

Details here.

The World’s Worst Tourism Slogans

There’s something about tourism marketing that doesn’t always attract the brightest lights in the Christmas string of bulbs – perhaps it is the semi-government department nature of such offices, and perhaps it is the additional challenges inherent in essentially unaccountably marketing an intangible offering, further handicapped by not having control over the complete ‘bundle of benefits’ and pricing involved.

The limitations of destination marketers predictably manifest themselves in the form of ridiculous promotional campaigns featuring irrelevant, unwanted, and uninteresting/generic aspects of the destination – tell me a destination that doesn’t sell its culture, nightlife, and food, for example.  It also appears in the form of sometimes ridiculous slogans – and am I the only one to notice that the less distinctive a product, the more it focuses on a slogan.

Does Google have a slogan?  Does Ford?  Apple?  Exxon?  On the other hand, many tourist destinations, including ones you’ve probably never heard of and couldn’t find on a map, invest heavily in slogans (and change them regularly).

Here’s an amusing list of what are suggested to be some of the least alluring slogans.

And the Worst Infographic, Too?

I’ve several times commented on the deceptive inanity of ‘infographics’ and how they can distort the underlying data they claim to clearly present, or obscure it through the juxtaposition of other selected semi-random and not necessarily linked additional snippets of information.

Some are better than others, which is a polite way of saying that some are also worse than others.  Such as, for example, this one.

That’s it for this week, folks.  Do please remember our current travel opportunities – Sri Lanka in February and the Christmas Cruise next December, and please also, during this season of giving, consider a contribution to The Travel Insider, too.

Until next week, I hope you’ll enjoy safe holiday travels – and may your Christmas be filled with much joy, and many presents