Jul 252013
Might US skies start to see more Emirates planes, and now traveling to/from the UK?

Might US skies start to see even more Emirates planes, and now traveling to/from the UK?

The airline market across the North Atlantic between the UK and US has been looking less and less competitive of late.  Most recently, Delta’s approval to buy half of Virgin Atlantic has tied up the last truly independent airline of any significance, Virgin Atlantic, which is now in bed with its new colossus Skyteam partner, Delta (and Delta’s other European partners such as Air France/KLM).

Can you name an airline – any airline – that is not affiliated with Skyteam, Oneworld or Star that has any measurable amount of service nonstop between the US and UK these days?

Well, as proclaimed by the headline, maybe there is one – uber-unaligned and massively successful Emirates.  Wow – that could definitely help open up the market.

Currently it seems that Emirates has rights to fly from the US via the UK to Dubai, and can also transport passengers on the US-UK part of those flights without requiring them to travel on to Dubai or somewhere further afield.  These rights apparently apply if the UK airport is one of a number of ‘secondary’ airports (if we consider Heathrow and arguably the other London airports to be the primary airports) which Emirates secured such permissions at many years ago (back when it was a small airline and the UK authorities never guessed at its future growth and success.

Emirates already has considerable capacity flying between Dubai and four secondary UK airports -  Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow, even an A380 as part of its three daily flights to Manchester.

What this means is that if Emirates extended its routes on from the UK and to US cities, it already has the UK/Dubai portion successfully covered.  It doesn’t need to now find Americans wanting to travel to Dubai, because those flights are already full; it just needs to find Americans and Brits wanting to fly across the North Atlantic.

But – don’t rule that out either.  If you draw grand circle paths between the US and Dubai, you’ll be interested to see how many times the route from a city in the US to Dubai involves travel very close to Britain.

Now for an amazing fact.  London is by far Britain’s largest city (9.8 million in the greater London area) with the second largest city (Manchester) mustering only 2.6 million in its urban metroplex – wait, that’s not the amazing fact!  We also know that Heathrow is the country’s largest airport (70 million passengers in 2012) followed by Gatwick (34 million) and only then Manchester at 20 million.

But – and here now is the amazing fact.  If you look at the ‘catchment area’ of people living within two hours of the airport. more people live within a two-hour drive of Manchester airport than live within two hours of Heathrow.  In other words, there’s a huge number of Brits who would find it more convenient to fly to the US out of MAN than out of LHR.

Furthermore, Manchester’s current passenger traffic of 20 million barely scratches the surface of its maximum capacity.  Whereas Heathrow is already at capacity and straining at the seams, Manchester could absorb another 30 million passengers a year, and has vacant land adjoining the airport for further expansion as may be needed.

The airport already serves 190 destinations worldwide, and for people starting or ending their journey at MAN, it has good rail and road connections and is also planned to be on the new High Speed Rail service going north from London, making it a not ridiculous place to arrive at even for people traveling to London.

It would seem that Emirates’ ability to offer service between the US and UK is limited primarily by its ability to then fly the planes on to Dubai and back.  It currently operates seven daily 777 flights and one daily A380 flight to these four secondary airports; if all eight of these flights were extended to the US, that is still only a drop in the bucket of the total traffic across the North Atlantic.

But if you’re dying of thirst in the desert, you’ll seize on any drop of water you can, in any bucket you can find.  Give us these extra eight flights, please, and doubtless (noting how Emirates are growing their UK/Dubai service at a massive rate) before long these eight flights will become 16, and while that is only as many as BA/AA fly between just New York (JFK and EWR) and London (LHR and LCY) alone, it starts to become a more measurable impact (and if we were Emirates, we’d probably spread our flights over some of the other cities in the US where we already have stations as well as just New York).  Plus if Emirates adds some more flights that have Americans flying on them all the way to Dubai, that would add still more capacity to the route, and so on.

Emirates currently operates flights from Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington (Dulles) as well as New York, giving it plenty of cities in which it already has a US presence to consider twinning with its secondary UK markets.

We’re not saying this is going to happen in the immediate future, and we’re not saying it will see airfares across the North Atlantic plunge if/when it does.  But we are saying it would definitely be a good thing, and we are saying we hope it transpires (hey, Emirates – pick Seattle, please!).

Some more detail and speculation here and here.

Jul 252013
This clearly shows the extra profile of the Evolution pillow and its drawstring fasteners in the front.

This clearly shows the extra profile of the Evolution pillow and its drawstring fasteners in the front.

Over the years, we’ve tested a huge number of different potential solutions to the problems we as coach class passengers all suffer on long flights – how to support our head while trying to sleep.

They’ve ranged from many variations on the classic inflatable collar/pillow to an innovative unit that fits between the entire seat and yourself (the First Class Sleeper, and something we still like) to a uniquely designed object (the TravelRest, and another long time favorite).  There are also many more products we’ve tried, disliked, and ignored.

So when we were invited to try what looked for all the world like yet another slight variation on the well-worn theme of travel pillows, we found it hard to muster too much enthusiasm.  But as part of our tireless quest to check things out so you don’t need to do so too :) , we agreed, and soon enough found ourselves opening a box containing a Cabeau Evolution Pillow.

Ostensibly, it looks very similar to most other travel pillows, but it has three vital differences.

First, it is made of memory foam rather than being inflatable.  This seems to do a better job of adjusting to the contours of your face than an inflatable pillow, which varies in stiffness/pressure depending on the cabin pressure, and always feels a bit wobbly and/or bouncy.

Second, it is raised up with a higher profile than a typical travel pillow, giving more support more quickly to your neck and head.  This support can further be adjusted by tying together the two ends of its ‘U’ shape with a provided adjustable clip fastener, giving you as much or as little freedom vs support as you wish.

Third, many people seek support not just to help their neck and head from lolling to one side or the other, but also to prevent their head from falling forward.  The Evolution pillow has two approaches to that.  First, if you tighten the clip fasteners at the end of the ‘U’ there is some added support, and if that’s not enough, then a bit of lateral thinking resolves the problem fully.  Rotate the pillow 180° and you then have the usually much less essential rear support of the pillow (assuming you’re in a typical airline seat with some type of headrest) now in front, cradling your chin and keeping your head as you want it.

The pillow has a cloth velour type outer cover which can be unzipped and removed for cleaning purposes.  A pocket on its left side can be used to hold an MP3 player or smartphone if you’re listening to music while dozing – that’s a clever idea, I guess, and means it won’t slide off your lap or wherever, but I’m not sure I like having an electronic device that close to my brain.

The pillow (or to be precise, its cover) comes in five different colors.

In addition, there is a carry pouch for the pillow.  You can roll up and compress the pillow (Cabeau claim you can reduce it down to one-quarter its normal size) then stuff it into the pouch and pull its zipstring tight, making for a much smaller object to carry when you’re not using it – for added convenience, the pouch even has a velcro loop on it so you can affix it to your carry on bag handle or something else.

A pair of memory foam type earplugs are also included.  Personally, we’ll stick to our noise cancelling headphones, but if you like sticking things in your ears, then they are included for free.

The pillow in its carry bag, weighs about 12.4 ounces.

Cabeau (the French sounding name was formed from the name of the founders’ son, Luca Beau) also offer the pillow as a traditional inflatable unit or as a filled-with-tiny-plastic-beads unit.  They have the same identical design, weigh much less, and cost less too ($20 compared to $35 for the memory foam version) but are not as comfortable.  The inflatable one compresses down to a tinier size than the memory foam one, of course, whereas the plastic bead unit doesn’t really pack down much in size at all.

We’ve spent too much time with less-than-best travel pillows, so didn’t give them a second glance.  It’s either the memory foam one or nothing for us!

Talking about the memory foam, Cabeau tell us that they expect the pillow to last 4 – 6 years at a minimum, and perhaps as long as 10 years, and they say they’ve seen no ill effects from squishing it up  into its carry bag and leaving it squished up for as long as a year; with the pillow still quickly returning to its original shape once released from the bag.

So, how good is this pillow?

Don’t get us wrong when we say it is not ‘good’ at all.  Rather, it is great.  It is marvelous.

While it doesn’t give the same back support that the First Class Sleeper does, it is much easier to carry and deploy, and doesn’t look as strange as the TravelRest, which for those of us who are a bit self-conscious about such things might be a blessing.  Our feeling is that when you pull out a TravelRest, you are making a major commitment to sleeping, and if you fail to succeed, you feel like a conspicuous failure – ‘I’ve got this unique looking device and I’m not sleeping any better than the person with the $10 blow-up pillow’!

The Cabeau Evolution pillow looks enough like ‘normal’ pillows as to allow you too to look passably like a ‘normal’ passenger, and, best of all, it simply works.

It gives you comfortable and adjustable support sideways and forward.  It is a very clever design that seems to come up with solutions to every part of the ‘comfortable neck/head support when sleeping on a plane’ problem.

That’s really all one can say about it, and all one needs to say about it.  The concept is simple and the implementation excellent, which makes one wonder ‘So what was so hard about that?’ and begs the question of why we’ve all suffered for so many years/decades/flights without such a great travel-aid in the past.

Anyway, now you need suffer no more.

It’s twin ‘secrets’ to its great comfort are its high-profile sides and your ability to tie together the ends of it with whatever degree of tightness you wish.  This makes the pillow very adjustable for personal preference, and, when adjusted, very comfortable and effective.

Cabeau also suggest it can be used as an outdoor pillow, for example when lying on a towel at the beach, either face up or face down.  I’ve not tried that, and of course, in such a case, it is great that you can remove the cover and wash it, should it become too infested with sand or salt water.

You can see more about this product on Cabeau’s website, where it sells for a list price of $34.95 and hefty shipping fees on top of that.  Alternatively, you can enjoy the convenience of shopping on Amazon , where it sells  for $29.95, and potentially with free Prime second day free shipping.

This is truly a great product.  Buy one now to confirm our praise (and if you disagree, return it to Amazon!), then when you find yourself in complete agreement with us, you’ll know what to buy everyone on your Christmas list this December.  :)


And lastly, as a reward for those who read all the way to the end, while this wonderful travel pillow will help in many situations, there are some things that it can not do.  Such as, for example, the situation so vividly shown in this Youtube video.

Jul 182013
Your writer, at the controls of a British Airways 777-200 simulator.  I landed it safely at SFO....

Your writer, at the controls of a British Airways 777-200 simulator. I landed it safely at SFO….

Good morning

We say farewell to Dr Amar Bose this week, who died at the age of 83.

The founder (in 1964), chairman and technical director of Bose Corp, and also a professor at MIT from 1956 – 2001, his products had a strong impact on the audio marketplace, and for many of us, none more so than the Bose QC15 Noise Cancelling headphones, the latest in a series of noise cancelling headphones from his company, and in my opinion, currently the best out there.

It is often said that most Bose audio products were as much overpriced hype as they were actual quality products – a claim I don’t entirely disagree with.  Some people were never sure where the science stopped and the snake oil started with some of his innovative designs and considerations about room acoustics as part of the total sound production system.

It is certainly true that the QC15 noise cancelling headphones probably cost little more than $30 of their $300 selling price to produce, with other products costing massively less and providing almost as good a quality (plus a few products costing way more, but not of any better quality).  But for those who want to have the best in noise cancelling headphones, the QC15 reign supreme, even now, some four years after their release.

Two years ago Dr Bose donated a majority of the shares in his company to MIT.  It is unclear what the value of the shares were, but because MIT can’t sell the shares (nor are they voting shares) but merely gets to enjoy the dividends from them, perhaps their notional capital value is of little relevance.  Some have speculated that they may have even been worth in excess of a billion dollars; which points to the huge success that his company is – a company which bootstrapped itself without ever requiring external financing.  An impressive achievement, indeed.

What else this week?  There’s a separate piece, attached, reporting on the preliminary findings (and not yet found) to do with the Ethiopian Airways 787 that spontaneously caught fire while parked, unattended, and with all systems apparently switched off, last Friday, as well as a tangential mention of a mysterious aborted 787 flight (the airline isn’t saying why).  Plus many more articles on :

  • A Nasty New Way to Buy Air Tickets
  • Two Safe Landings
  • Funny – or Offensive?
  • Some Damning Details of Korean Pilots and their Training
  • The Law Suits Start
  • The Law Suits End?
  • The Skylon Superfast Plane
  • And a Flying Acura Too
  • The Most Important Hotel Amenity
  • A Surprising Explanation for Bad Reviews
  • US to Beef Up its Border Security, but……
  • More on Dogs
  • Warning – Do Not Show Your Contempt of the TSA
  • Guantanamo Detainees Have More Rights than US Airline Passengers?
  • TSA Now Making Valet Parkers into Nosey Parkers
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Nasty New Way to Buy Air Tickets

Normally when you phone an airline to buy a ticket, the agent asks you where you want to travel, when, and whether you want coach or first class.  They then quote you a ‘take it or leave it’ price, and you either buy the ticket or end the call.

The airlines eagerly envision a future where, to get a price quote, you also have to tell them your age, marital status, the purpose of the trip, and way more details as well, all of which will be merged with other consumer databases so the airlines know almost as much about you as the NSA.

This is what they term their ‘New Distribution Capability’.  The airlines hope to use the new improved abilities of integrated consumer databases and behavioral profiling to amass people’s entire life stories onto computer, and use that knowledge to tailor fares to suit each person.  Will they be the lowest possible fares or the highest possible fares?  Do you really need to ask!

In this BBC article, the airlines try to make the safe sounding positive claim that it is simply their desire to create ‘an Amazon style shopping experience’ for their customers, including personalized ‘just for you’ fares.  We presume when they talk about an Amazon style shopping experience they are not talking about delivering paper tickets to us in brown cardboard boxes.

Do they not know that any time Amazon has been outed as varying the price it sells things for based on its guess as to how much the prospective purchaser will pay, the disclosure has created howls of outrage and embarrassed promises from Amazon that it was all a mistake and will never happen again?

Or do the airlines think that a public and regulatory environment that happily lets them merge and merge again will also happily allow them to now make use of their much greater market strength and much lower competitive pressures to really turn the screws on their pricing policies, without us even realizing?

Two Safe Landings

After the crash/landing of the Asiana 777 almost two weeks ago, it is nice to be able to report a couple of stories of planes landing unusually, but safely.

A light plane was forced to land on the US 321 highway near Granite Falls NC, at about 11pm, after running out of petrol.  The pilot found a space between two cars and made a perfect landing.  This is actually easier to do than you might first think, because light planes typically land at moderate freeway speeds, making it possible to thread their way into traffic.

The plane was subsequently towed to a nearby airport.  Details and pictures here.

The other safe landing is a great tale as told by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.  Two 737s were flying to Adelaide in South Australia when bad weather forced them to divert; unfortunately, the diversion airport also had bad weather (thick fog).  Even more unfortunately, one of the 737s was low on jet fuel, and the other was perilously low, but due to a misunderstanding between them, the 737 that was perilously low allowed the other 737, with more fuel on board, to land first.

When the second 737 came in, it first failed to land (due to the poor visibility) and after going around, has only enough remaining fuel for one more landing attempt, so had to land, whether they could see the runway or not.

Ben Sandilands does a good job of setting the scene then quotes the ‘interesting bit’ of the official report that makes for the exciting reading.  Amazingly, in Australia, planes aren’t required to fly with sufficient fuel to divert to an alternate airport in cases like this.

The story can be read here.

KTVUFlightCrewFunny – or Offensive?

If a report on television station KTVU was to believed, the four pilots on the Asiana flight that crashed at SFO were – well, you can see their names here.

Asiana threatened to sue, before cooler heads prevailed and the airline then accepted the tv station’s formal apology.

Perhaps that was a wise move on Asiana’s part; if I was that airline, I’d currently be trying to avoid any discussion to do with its pilots at all.  Discussion such as, for example, the commentary in the next section from a pilot which went viral last week.

Some Damning Details of Korean Pilots and their Training

Here’s an interesting article that politely tries to make the point that there seem to be some problems with Korean pilots and their skills.

Stating things more bluntly is a post from a US pilot who was a former pilot trainer in South Korea with both Asiana and Korean Air Lines.  He posted it on a Yahoo pilot group early last week, and it has gone viral – I’ve received half a dozen copies of it already through various different paths.

I’ve tried to explain some of the buzz-words he uses, but even if they mean nothing to you, the overall points he is making are starkly clear.

It continues to be beyond unthinkable that with four pilots, the Asiana crew were unable to safely land their plane in the middle of the day with clear skies and great weather.  As I mentioned above, I’ve even done it myself in a 777 simulator (thank you, British Airways).

Here’s what the training pilot has to say :

After I retired from UAL as a Standards Captain on the [747]–400, I got a job as a simulator instructor working for Alteon (a Boeing subsidiary) at Asiana. When I first got there, I was shocked and surprised by the lack of basic piloting skills shown by most of the pilots. It is not a normal situation with normal progression from new hire, right seat, left seat taking a decade or two.

One big difference is that ex-Military pilots are given super-seniority and progress to the left seat much faster. Compared to the US, they also upgrade fairly rapidly because of the phenomenal growth by all Asian air carriers. By the way, after about six months at Asiana, I was moved over to KAL and found them to be identical. The only difference was the color of the uniforms and airplanes.

I worked in Korea for 5 long years and although I found most of the people to be very pleasant, it’s a minefield of a work environment … for them and for us expats.

One of the first things I learned was that the pilots kept a web-site and reported on every training session. I don’t think this was officially sanctioned by the company, but after one or two simulator periods, a database was building on me (and everyone else) that told them exactly how I ran the sessions, what to expect on checks, and what to look out for.

For example; I used to open an aft cargo door at 100 knots to get them to initiate an RTO [rejected takeoff]  and I would brief them on it during the briefing. This was on the B-737 NG and many of the captains were coming off the 777 or B744 and they were used to the Master Caution System being inhibited at 80 kts. Well, for the first few days after I started that, EVERYONE rejected the takeoff. Then, all of a sudden they all “got it” and continued the takeoff (in accordance with their manuals). The word had gotten out. I figured it was an overall PLUS for the training program.

We expat instructors were forced upon them after the amount of fatal accidents (most of the them totally avoidable) over a decade began to be noticed by the outside world. They were basically given an ultimatum by the FAA, Transport Canada, and the EU to totally rebuild and rethink their training program or face being banned from the skies all over the world. They hired Boeing and Airbus to staff the training centers. KAL has one center and Asiana has another.

When I was there (2003-2008) we had about 60 expats conducting training KAL and about 40 at Asiana. Most instructors were from the USA, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand with a few stuffed in from Europe and Asia. Boeing also operated training centers in Singapore and China so they did hire some instructors from there.

This solution has only been partially successful but still faces ingrained resistance from the Koreans. I lost track of the number of highly qualified instructors I worked with who were fired because they tried to enforce “normal” standards of performance. By normal standards, I would include being able to master basic tasks like successfully shoot a visual approach with 10 kt crosswind and the weather CAVOK [ceiling and visibility okay].

I am not kidding when I tell you that requiring them to shoot a visual approach [ie land the plane without auto pilot] struck fear in their hearts … with good reason.  Like this Asiana crew, it didn’t compute that you needed to be a 1000’ AGL [above ground level] at 3 miles and your sink rate should be 600-800 Ft/Min. But, after 5 years, they finally nailed me. I still had to sign my name to their training and sometimes if I just couldn’t pass someone on a check, I had no choice but to fail them.

I usually busted about 3-5 crews a year and the resistance against me built. I finally failed an extremely incompetent crew and it turned out he was the a high-ranking captain who was the Chief Line Check pilot on the fleet I was teaching on.  I found out on my next monthly trip home that KAL was not going to renew my Visa.  The crew I failed was given another check and continued a fly while talking about how unfair Captain Brown was.

Any of you Boeing glass-cockpit guys will know what I mean when I describe these events. I gave them a VOR [VHF omnidirectional radio range - a very basic type of radio navigation system] approach with an 15 mile arc from the IAF [initial approach fix - the point at where an instrument landing starts from].  By the way, KAL dictated the profiles for all sessions and we just administered them.

He requested two turns in holding at the IAF to get set up for the approach.  When he finally got his nerve up, he requested “Radar Vectors” to final. He could have just said he was ready for the approach and I would have cleared him to the IAF and then “Cleared for the approach” and he could have selected “Exit Hold” and been on his way. He was already in LNAV/VNAV PATH [full lateral and vertical navigation by autopilot]. So, I gave him vectors to final with a 30 degree intercept.

Of course, he failed to “Extend the FAF” [final approach fix] and he couldn’t understand why it would not intercept the LNAV magenta line [on the flight director display in the cockpit] when he punched LNAV and VNAV. He made three approaches and missed approaches before he figured out that his active waypoint was “Hold at XYZ.”  Every time he punched LNAV, it would try to go back to the IAF … just like it was supposed to do. Since it was a check, I was not allowed (by their own rules) to offer him any help. That was just one of about half dozen major errors I documented in his UNSAT paperwork. He also failed to put in ANY aileron on takeoff with a 30-knot direct crosswind (again, the weather was dictated by KAL).

This Asiana SFO accident makes me sick and while I am surprised there are not more, I expect that there will be many more of the same type accidents in the future unless some drastic steps are taken. They are already required to hire a certain percentage of expats to try to ingrain more flying expertise in them, but more likely, they will eventually be fired too.

One of the best trainees I ever had was a Korean/American (he grew up and went to school in the USA) who flew C-141’s in the USAF. When he got out, he moved back to Korea and got hired by KAL. I met him when I gave him some training and a check on the B-737 and of course, he breezed through the training. I give him annual PCs for a few years and he was always a good pilot.

Then, he got involved with trying to start a pilots union and when they tired to enforce some sort of duty rigs on international flights, he was fired after being arrested and JAILED!

The Koreans are very very bright and smart so I was puzzled by their inability to fly an airplane well. They would show up on Day 1 of training (an hour before the scheduled briefing time, in a 3-piece suit, and shined shoes) with the entire contents of the FCOM and Flight Manual totally memorized. But, putting that information to actual use was many times impossible. Crosswind landings are also an unsolvable puzzle for most of them.

I never did figure it out completely, but I think I did uncover a few clues. Here is my best guess. First off, their educational system emphasizes ROTE memorization from the first day of school as little kids. As you know, that is the lowest form of learning and they act like robots.

They are also taught to NEVER challenge authority and in spite of the flight training heavily emphasizing CRM/CLR, [cockpit resource management/command leadership resource - a key concept that encourages all pilots to participate in decision-making and to never hesitate to correct/query the captain] it still exists either on the surface or very subtly. You just can’t change 3000 years of culture.

The other thing that I think plays an important role is the fact that there is virtually NO civil aircraft flying in Korea. It’s actually illegal to own a Cessna-152 and just go learn to fly. Ultra-lights and Powered Hang Gliders are Ok. I guess they don’t trust the people to not start WW III by flying 35 miles north of Inchon into North Korea.  But, they don’t get the kids who grew up flying (and thinking for themselves) and hanging around airports.

They do recruit some kids from college and send then to the US or Australia and get them their tickets. Generally, I had better experience with them than with the ex-Military pilots. This was a surprise to me as I spent years as a Naval Aviator flying fighters after getting my private in light airplanes. I would get experienced F-4, F-5, F-15, and F-16 pilots who were actually terrible pilots if they had to hand fly the airplane. What a shock!

Finally, I’ll get off my box and talk about the total flight hours they claim. I do accept that there are a few talented and free-thinking pilots that I met and trained in Korea. Some are still in contact and I consider them friends. They were a joy! But, they were few and far between and certainly not the norm.

Actually, this is a worldwide problem involving automation and the auto-flight concept. Take one of these new first officers that got his ratings in the US or Australia and came to KAL or Asiana with 225 flight hours. After takeoff, in accordance with their SOP, he calls for the autopilot to be engaged at 250’ after takeoff.

How much actual flight time is that? Hardly one minute. Then he might fly for hours on the autopilot and finally disengage it (MAYBE?) below 800’ after the gear was down, flaps extended and on airspeed (autothrottle). Then he might bring it in to land

Again, how much real “flight time” or real experience did he get. Minutes! Of course, on the 777 or 747, it’s the same only they get more inflated logbooks.

So, when I hear that a 10,000 hour Korean captain was vectored in for a 17-mile final and cleared for a visual approach in CAVOK weather, it raises the hair on the back of my neck.

The Law Suits Start

A Chicago law firm has started the paperwork to sue Boeing over the Asiana crash, on behalf of 83 passengers.  Boeing?  That’s an interesting choice, but in these types of high-value actions, attorneys will sue anyone and everyone to start with.  Yes, they plan to add Asiana to the action too, as well as various other companies that made components of the airplane’s control systems.

They did well to so quickly collect 83 of the passengers as clients.  Federal law prohibits attorneys from soliciting victims of air crashes for 45 days after the crash, and in this case, the NTSB has been aggressively trying to enforce the law, even to the point of having police preventing known attorneys enter hotels where victims were staying.

Two other attorney firms are also filing claims, on behalf of two more passengers, each.

Details here.

Not quite so potentially lucky are non US resident passengers, because international air travel is covered under an international treaty (the 1999 Montreal Convention).  This specifies in which countries passengers can sue airlines – generally being the country of residence of the passenger suing, or possibly the country in which they purchased their tickets, or the country they were flying to as their final destination (on a roundtrip or multi-stop ticket, that would be the final flight, typically back home, not the place they were going to on their journey prior to returning).

One wonders about the status of the 83 + 2 + 2 passengers currently filing law suits.  There were 141 Chinese, 77 South Koreans, three Canadians, three Indians, one each Japanese, French and Vietnamese passengers on the plane as well as 64 Americans.

The Law Suits End?

It is almost twelve years since the 9/11/2001 events, but only now are we getting a lower court ruling on a claim by the owner of the former World Trade Center, who was asking up to $3.5 billion in damages from United and American, plus Boeing (poor old Boeing, on everyone’s lawsuit, it seems), airport security authorities and whoever else his attorneys could think of, seeking compensation for the destruction of the buildings.

There is one notable feature in the claim – the plaintiff has already received $4.9 billion in insurance payouts.  The defendants suggested to the judge that allowing the claim to succeed against them would be double-dipping, and – some five years after the case was first docketed – the judge has now ruled in favor of the defendants.

This was a lower court hearing, however.  With as much as $3.5 billion at stake, what do you think the chances are of an appeal on that ruling?

The Skylon Superfast Plane

We regularly point to futuristic promises of new super-fast planes and their quotes of New York to London in an hour or two, and try to convey a sense of eyeball-rolling as we do so.

Quite apart from their very insubstantial nature and uncertain future timeframe for development, the truth is that most of these developments have nothing to do with flying passengers across the Atlantic more quickly, and are all to do with replacing current subsonic slow cruise missiles with new fast missiles that can cross the world in three or four hours.

There’s one technology however which shows some promise – and it too is a dual or even triple purpose technology, being suited for military applications and low-earth orbit space missions as well as passenger jets.  This is the British Skylon space plane, and it received another £60 million (almost $100 million) in funding from the British government this week after a successful test of a key part of its unique new engine technology.

In passenger plane form, it is proposed to be a long slim and windowless plane that would carry 300 passengers at about five times the speed of sound (ie more than 3000 mph).  This makes anywhere in the world no more than four hours away from anywhere else.

All going well, and assuming continued funding of many billions of dollars/pounds is secured, the first test flights of an actual plane are expected in 2019.

There’s an interesting video on the company’s website home page where its founder talks about their engine technology and the promise it holds.  While I have absolutely no idea at all how the engine can transfer so much heat, so quickly, it appears it can, and I’m excited by it.

One thing’s for sure.  2019 will be here before we know it.  Hopefully we’ll be greeted then by a flying Skylon.

And a Flying Acura Too

Note quite so exotic, and also much closer in our future, will be what the president of Honda’s Aircraft Unit terms a ‘flying Acura’; a seven seater business jet due to get clearance from the FAA by next year.

It has been a very long project (this article first says it started 27 years ago, then subsequently ‘more than three decades’), and the plane’s release has been frequently delayed, but it seems it may now be about to get certification and become a reality.

One has wondered, for a long time, how long it would be until the Japanese became more actively involved in aircraft building.  However long it has been already, it seems it won’t be much longer now.

The Most Important Hotel Amenity

We’ve spoken about toothbrushes the last couple of weeks as a strangely omitted hotel amenity, and we’ve surveyed readers in the past about the free hotel amenities they most want (reported here – the most important being breakfast followed by shuttle service).  Now, a new survey this week reassures me it isn’t just me – the survey finds the most important hotel amenity for most travelers is internet connectivity.

You wouldn’t think it though when you wrestle with a hotel’s front desk over connectivity problems.  They treat you as if you’re from another planet, and show no comprehension why a guest in their hotel would want to spend time on the internet, and act as though you’re the only guest with problems (I’m remembering in particular a recent hotel stay where I went down to the hotel front desk and was talking to the receptionist, with her telling me that no-one else was having any problems with their internet when she interrupted me to take a call – from another guest also complaining about the internet!).

Those of you who, like me, consider internet connectivity essential will take heart from the survey results.  We’re the overwhelming majority of travelers, and it is normal to want internet access.

Talking about hotel amenities, have you ever wondered what to say when you’re booking a hotel online and a box pops up for ‘Special Requests’?  Do you say ‘Free upgrade to a suite, please’?  Or, more prosaically ‘a room on the 3rd – 5th floors, please’?

Have you also wondered if the hotels ever even read such requests.  Well, apparently, at least some hotels do, as evidenced by this amusing story.

A Surprising Explanation for Bad Reviews

We all know that reviewing sites such as TripAdvisor, and the review section of sites such as Amazon, are awash with fake reviews.  Some fake reviews are written by the owner of the thing being reviewed and all his friends, and are of course gushingly positive.  Other fake reviews are gushingly negative, and it has been common to assume the negative fake reviews come from competitors.

A new study suggests that many fake reviews actually come from loyal customers.   How’s that, you might wonder?  They are loyal customers, but are aggrieved by some element of the company’s (possibly new or changed) products or services, and so they create an online negative campaign to try to encourage the company to change, ‘for its own good’.  They are motivated by a positive spirit of trying to help a company see the error of its ways.

Here’s an interesting research paper that uncovered this, and if you’d prefer a more approachable summary, here’s an article in the NY Times that explains what it means in normal language.

US to Beef Up its Border Security, but……

Plans were announced for the US to add new high-tech sensor arrays to its border, enabling it to more efficiently detect and prevent drug smuggling and terrorist intrusions along the massive length of the border.

A great step forward, you might agree – drug smuggling is legion in vast quantities, and because we never catch or detect most people crossing the border illegally, we can only guess at the number of terrorists who choose to enter the country surreptitiously, rather than wait hours in line at an airport.

But – the border we’re talking about?  It isn’t our southern border.  Oh no, it is the much more serious and troubling northern border.

You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you.  We close our eyes to the Mexican border while focusing more resource on the border with our ally, Canada.  Details here.

More on Dogs

We’ve been talking about using dogs for security purposes the last two weeks.  Of course, the only sort of security dog most of us meet are the ones when we arrive into the country, the Customs dogs presumably sniffing for drugs and the Agriculture dogs presumably sniffing for illegally smuggled Alpo.

But if you arrive into an airport in Germany, the friendly dog sniffing at your suitcase may be looking for something entirely different.  Money.  Apparently money has a distinctive smell, and the dogs are trained to alert when they smell more than one thousand banknotes (either Euros or dollars, we’re not so sure about other currencies, hint hint) in a single concentrated location.

Hopefully money smugglers, after reading the helpful information about dogs alerting for 1,000 or more notes, won’t cheat and reduce the quantity of notes they bring with them down to 900.  And surely it won’t now occur to them to split the money into two packages, and place half in each of two suitcases.

More details here.

The largest Euro banknote is a €500 note (about $650).  So you could travel with close to $650,000 and escape detection….

Warning – Do Not Show Your Contempt of the TSA

CNN managed to obtain a list of 70 behavioral indicators the TSA use to determine ‘high risk’ passengers they should give extra screening to.

Among the indicators was being very arrogant and expressing contempt for airport passenger procedures.  But, on the other hand, some experts suggest terrorists are more likely to be non-confrontational and fawning.  So be careful not to be either too negative or too positive the next time you try to pass through screening unaccosted.

The TSA says that one of the 9/11 hijackers was arrogant and confrontational, and suggests this proves the correlation between arrogant behavior and evil intent.

My question to the TSA – how many of the 19 that weren’t detected were being fawning and non-confrontational?  Or just acting totally normally?

Gasp!  Could it be that the most powerful indicator of being a terrorist is acting perfectly normally?  Or, of course, acting not perfectly normally?  In fact, here’s a startling thought.  Every terrorist has one consistent giveaway characteristic.  They breathe – some through their nose and some through their mouth.  Maybe the TSA should single out anyone who breathes.

No wonder their entire Behavior Detection program is a farce and unable to show any sign of any success at all, notwithstanding its billions of dollars in costs and thousands of people (currently 3000+) tasked with carrying it out.

Recognizing that their BDO program has spectacularly failed, the TSA has now broadened its scope to claim it now seeks to find not only terrorists but ordinary criminals too (since when has that been part of the TSA’s mandate?).  That way, the small number of normal miscreants that by random chance get accosted by the TSA are now considered to be proof of the program’s success, although the TSA is careful not to track too closely what happens to people after they are referred to airport police, for fear that even those statistics too will come in lower than they hope.

Here’s another suggestion for the TSA.  If a program fails to work, don’t expand it.  Close it down.

Guantanamo Detainees Have More Rights than US Airline Passengers?

A judge has just ruled that Guantanamo detainees need not be intimately searched prior to meeting with their attorneys.  Instead, he says it should be sufficient to grasp the waistband of the detainee’s trousers and shake the pants to dislodge any contraband.  He said that more intimate searching (such as we get at the airport) was an ‘exaggerated response to security concerns’, and described it as ‘religiously and culturally abhorrent’.  Details here.

So, let me get this straight.  Known Muslim terrorists, in detention at Guantanamo, are protected from abhorrent searches that have been claimed to be necessary due to ‘exaggerated responses to security concerns’.

But law-abiding Christian Americans, trying to exercise their First Amendment right to free assembly and the travel necessary to do so, and hoping also to be protected by their Fourth Amendment right against intrusive search, have no such protection?

Oh – the government has appealed the judge’s ruling.

TSA Now Making Valet Parkers into Nosey Parkers

The latest bit of mission creep from the ever growing TSA is to require valet parkers at the airport in Rochester NY to search the cars they park.

It is an interesting assertion as to if the TSA has any rights at all in car parks, whether they be public or private, and even more an interesting assertion that the TSA can compel untrained and unpaid third parties such as valet parkers to search cars on their behalf.

But in their desire to make us as super-safe as they possibly can, the TSA is pressing ahead with this latest expansion of their claimed powers.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

I remember when the most desirable passport in the world to possess was unquestionably an American one.  I certainly spent many years coveting one before finally securing my own.

But our northern neighbors are trying their innovative best to make a Canadian passport much more desirable than a mere US one.

Although flight delays, by some measures, are supposedly down, they still occur all too often, and at the worst possible times.  As international travelers know, it isn’t just the US that suffers flight delays – many international airports have terrible problems too.  As does the entire country of China.

So what do you do when you’re desperate for your flight to depart on time?  These two Chinese flight attendants believe they have a special way of tipping the odds in their favor.

And truly lastly this week, here’s an interesting collection of outdated gadgets.  Some, like slide rules and typewriters do qualify for the title ‘outdated’ (although reportedly the Kremlin is buying in a new supply of typewriters so it can securely prepare highly confidential documents without the NSA snooping on them) but I feel a slight frisson of surprise and sadness at how quickly some of the other devices featured have become outdated.

How many do you have lying around?  Or – gulp – how many do you still use?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Jul 112013
It is incredible that all but two people survived both the crash and the fire on Asiana flt 214.

It is incredible that all but two people survived both the crash and the fire on Asiana flt 214.

Good morning

I’m ‘on the road’ at present – well, actually, I’m writing this in a small motel in a tiny town in rural Montana, but I’ve been traveling all week, so there’s not a lot of items for you, although – strangely enough – the newsletter is also much longer than normal (5050 words).

As road warriors know, after a day of high energy traveling and activities, it is difficult to then do a second day’s work in the hotel room in the evening, and while I had valiant plans to round off the newsletter triumphantly on Thursday night, technology – in the form of the internet access in the motel being down – failed, so I finished this off as best I could while parked outside the Public Library, using their free internet.

I did write a piece earlier in the week reporting on the Asiana accident at SFO on Saturday and that is attached.  Mercifully, the passing of time hasn’t embarrassed my analysis written on Monday morning.

Much of the discussion since that time has been not so much on if the pilot made a mistake, but rather, taking that as assumed, the focus instead has been on why the other pilots in the cockpit didn’t draw the mistake to his attention.  This article delicately raises a known and widespread problem in Asian airlines – the great deal of deference that junior employees give to their seniors, whether deserved or not.

I know that any time I’m in a cockpit, I monitor the key instrumentation without being asked to do so, and without saying I am doing it, but simply being another set of eyes and ears, ready to notice anything less than optimum, and most pilots I know do the same, particularly in critical phases of flight.  When coming in to land, for sure any pilot would be fixated on speed and height and landing point; it beggars belief that none of the other pilots noticed the plane bleed off speed, indeed, most airlines that I know of have a protocol whereby the co-pilot calls out heights and speeds as the plane approaches the runway, so the pilot flying the plane can concentrate on flying the plane and staring out the windshield at his ‘aiming point’ on the runway without needing to glance at the instrumentation.  Was the Asiana co-pilot not calling out airspeeds and heights?

Now, the big question – why did the plane lose speed?  It seems likely that the auto-throttle was disengaged a bit earlier in the descent (referred to in this article) and the pilots forgot to re-engage it (see this article).

The auto-throttle is an amazing device but it also destroys much of the intuitive nature of flying.  Intuitively, you know that if you push the plane’s nose down to descend, the plane will go faster, and if you pull it up to climb, the plane will slow down.  But the auto-throttle compensates for these things and keeps the speed steady at whatever you’ve set it for, meaning that if you pull back on the stick to make the plane climb (or reduce its rate of descent) the auto-throttle will give more power to the engines.  But if the auto-throttle is off, then when you pull back, the plane slows down.

A new explanation about things appeared for the first time on Wednesday.  It appears the pilot just then remembered, or got around to telling, that he was ‘blinded by a bright flash’ when the plane was at 500 ft from the ground.  No-one has any idea what the flash was (and, no, it is extremely unlikely it was a laser pointer) and not only is this only-now-remembered flash a mystery, so too is any understanding of how a bright flash at 500 ft would have caused the plane to already be too low and too slow at that point.

One thing which has been truly astonishing about this accident is how fast the NTSB has been releasing data.  Within 24 hours of them getting the black boxes, they were releasing information about what they’d found so far, and so this has been an investigation conducted very much in full public view.  We have the black boxes, video, photos, we have eye witnesses, and happily, we have a plane load of survivors too.  Add the internet to the mix, so everyone can get their stories out, and we’ve had a flood of data about the crash from every imaginable source.

The NTSB has been careful not to interpret the facts it has revealed, and merely has stated what it has found out.  Other people, including myself, have been quick to interpret the facts, and this has massively upset the US Air Line Pilots Association.  Although the Korean pilots don’t belong to ALPA, any mention of any possible pilot error anywhere in the world has ALPA snarling a fast and automatic response.

As ALPA views the world, it would seem that pilots are the most sainted creatures ever to walk the planet.  Incredibly, ALPA is now calling for a less open and transparent investigation!  It is concerned that someone somewhere might delicately hint at the merest possibility of the pilots not performing perfectly.  Details here.

ALPA is probably already delighted that the Korean pilots were not asked to submit to any alcohol or drug testing.  Although all US pilots would have to be tested after an accident, and indeed, in this case, even ground crews were tested after the accident (as part of the investigation into possibly running over one of the two girls who died); because the Korean pilots were Korean, they were not tested.

Question to whoever made that decision :  If a Korean drives a car and has a ‘single vehicle’ crash in the US, would he be tested for alcohol impairment, or would the fact that he is not a US citizen absolve him of any need to be subject to that – and perhaps any other – US law?  Alternatively, if Korean motor vehicle drivers are subject to US law while driving in the US (and indeed they fully and completely are) why are airplane pilots also not subject to US law when landing – and crashing – at US airports?  Details here.

One thing we’ve been thankfully spared is any claim that the pilots were heroes.  But I’ll certainly agree that the flight attendants were heroes (and heroines).  The airplane evacuation got off to a bumpy start (ooops – bad metaphor) because when the plane came to a halt, the pilot ordered the flight attendants not to evacuate the plane and so a cabin announcement was made telling passengers to remain seated!  It was only after one of the flight attendants called the pilot back and said ‘Uh, the plane’s on fire’ that the pilot agreed to allow people to disembark (details here).

It seems the last person off the plane was a flight attendant, and most of the flight attendants did an excellent job of helping passengers get off the plane.  The temptation to jump down a slide themselves must have been great, and very well done to them for putting their own safety at risk to help get the passengers off.  Details here.

What would you do if the plane you were on had just had a crash landing, finally came to rest, and an announcement was made to stay in your seat?

One would be tempted to do as one was told, in the desperate hope that whoever made the announcement knew what they were doing.  But, after a crash such as that one, there is nothing more important or more urgent than evacuating the plane.  It wasn’t as though the plane landed in the middle of nowhere in extreme weather such that passengers would risk dying of exposure, it was a warm day at almost noon, on the runway at SFO.

Perhaps the pilots were trying to determine which would be the safest side to evacuate the plane from.  But that shouldn’t have taken 90 seconds, and required the further prompting of a flight attendant, to decide.  Time 90 seconds while doing something unpleasant/uncomfortable, to get an appreciation for how long it is and how much can happen.  That is appalling.

Not only was there this incredible 90 second delay in initiating the plane’s evacuation (perhaps due to another bright flash?) but the rescue services were slow to approach the plane, for fear it might blow up.  It was so bad that several passengers felt forced to dial 911 and request aid to be dispatched to the plane; one 911 recording going the rounds of the tv news shows on Thursday morning had the passenger calling 911, and the 911 operator insisting on knowing what runway the plane had crashed on before he could send help.

To be fair to the 911 operator, it was not clear to him that it was a big plane.  Having a person dial 911 to say ‘my plane crashed’ sounds a lot more like what you’d expect from a tiny single engine private plane event, not from a massive 777 blazing flames and smoke.

You should read this article for the dismaying reality of how long it takes for ‘first responders’ to respond.  The article quotes a SF Fire Dept spokeswoman as proudly saying

Within 18 minutes of receiving word of the crash, five ambulances and more than a dozen other rescue vehicles were at the scene or en route

Excuse me for being churlish, but within eighteen minutes?  Why not eight minutes?  Indeed, why not within 7/6/5/4/3/2/1 minutes?  People can die a dozen times over in 18 minutes.

Plus, there’s a world of difference between being ‘en route’, or ‘at the scene’ (but at a staging point) and actually mixing it in with the injured passengers.

Phew.  What else, this week?  Below, please find pieces on :

  • Better Seat Belts Needed on Planes?
  • Salk’s Airport Transit Guide now Available on Android
  • Travel Between San Francisco and Los Angeles in Under 30 Minutes?
  • The Biggest Building in the World – But Does it Have Air Filtration?
  • TSA by the Numbers
  • More on Dogs at Security
  • TSA Randomizer
  • The Shifting Sands of the eBook Marketplace
  • Better in a Pocket than on a 787!
  • And Lastly This Week….

Better Seat Belts Needed on Planes?

We’re seeing an interesting split between the ‘glass half full’ and the ‘glass half empty’ commentators in the aftermath and analysis of the Asiana 777 crash.

The glass half full people are delighted at the low casualty count, which they are claiming is the result of the superior design of the 777, better seats (ie now resistant to 16G of deceleration rather than 9G as was formerly the case), improved firefighting techniques and (don’t ask me how they can say this with a straight face when you see images of the plane burning) flame retardant materials used in the plane’s construction.

There is some truth in some of those statements, but the ultimate truth is that the crash was a survivable one simply because of the type of crash that it was.  It was a ‘nice’ crash with ‘gradual’ deceleration from a slow speed to start with, and with no substantial vertical velocity component, mainly horizontal velocity.

The glass half empty people are seizing on this as demonstrating the need for better seat belts on planes, with shoulder belts as well as lap belts.

Here’s a slightly muddly article which can’t seem to quite decide if it agrees or disagrees with the claimed benefits of ‘better’ seat belts on planes.  Perhaps the most interesting ‘take away’ point from it is that it is wrong to automatically assume that just because shoulder belts are safer in cars (and now mandatory) they would be safer in planes, too.

Here’s another article which is also slightly muddly in both its pro and con statements.

Salk’s Airport Transit Guide now Available on Android

I’ve written several times about Ron Salk’s wonderful Airport Transit Guide, and every time I enthusiastically endorse it as a must-have travel companion when you’re going to unfamiliar destinations.

Formerly a printed book, he switched to eBook format a few years ago, initially only for iOS – iPhones and iPads.  The most recent version of the eBook came out just a month ago, and I reviewed it here.

And now, at long last, it is available for Android powered devices, too.  You can now get it through the Google Store (it is an App, not a Book) and hopefully perhaps even already today, through the Amazon Marketplace too.

You’ll find it $5 very well spent.

Travel Between San Francisco and Los Angeles in Under 30 Minutes?

I wrote about this technology a month or two back, when it was being described as a way to travel from coast to coast in less than an hour, and was a bit dismissive at the time.

But another article has now appeared which provides some more detail about the ‘Evacuated Tube Transport’ concept, and it quotes some startling claims which if true would be truly exciting, including a suggestion that it would be cheaper this new type of transport than to build the current planned high-speed rail line between the two cities (which is probably about a $100 billion project).

The concept also has the backing of Elon Musk, head of Tesla Motors and SpaceX.  That’s not to say his support guarantees the project will proceed or succeed, but it does suggest that there is a bit more solid sense behind it.

I’m still very skeptical about everything to do with the idea of sending people in pods through vacuum tubes at speeds of up to 4,000 mph, but I’d love to see it actually happen.

A test track is planned to be in operation by the end of this year, but it will be only 3 miles from end to end, so one doubts the pods will get to travel very fast at all, making the test of dubious value.  However, let’s all hope that a solution to airline travel is being developed.  More details here.

The Biggest Building in the World – But Does it Have Air Filtration?

There was a time when the biggest of anything and everything was to be found somewhere in the US.  But those days are rapidly receding, and the latest example of that is a new building opening in Chengdu, China.  It claims to be the biggest building in the world, but that’s a surprisingly nuanced claim, depending on whether you measure the building by volume, by footprint, or by usable square footage.

In this case, the building’s prime claim to fame is in terms of square footage – 19 million square feet in total, only slightly more than the number two building (Dubai Airport’s Terminal 3, 18.5 million sq ft) and number three (Abraj al bait in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 17 million sq ft).

By other measures, the Wikipedia site claims the building has a 500m x 400m footprint, ie 200,000 sq m in total.  I think this is wrong, because it would require the building to have ten floors to then total the sq footage claimed, and much of the building is open from ground to ceiling. So it probably has more like 500,000 sq m of footprint, which would make it rank first or second for the footprint measure.

That leaves the matter of volume as the third measure.  We know some parts of it are 100 m tall, so there is up to 50 million sq m of volume, which likely makes it number one by that measure too.

So what do you do with a building this size?  You not only fill it with hotel suites and shopping, you also add its own slice of ocean and seaside and sandy sunny beach.  Details here.

The article mentions it uses a special technique to make the sun look bright and the sky look clear – necessary due to the endemic pollution that pervades so much of China these days.  But do they also filter the air?  There’s a reason for asking – and for hoping they do.  This article makes the sadly unsurprising claim that people who live in the northern half of China have their lives reduced by an average of 5.5 years due to air pollution.

The real kicker in the article isn’t actually mentioned.  The reduction of 5.5 years is in comparison to people in the southern half of China.  I’ve got to believe that people in the south of China also experience some reduction of life due to the pollution that is present there, too.

TSA by the Numbers

In 2001 prior to the 9/11 attacks, our airports in total had 16,500 screeners.  Today the TSA employs almost 15,000 staff, spread over the 457 airports it provides coverage at.

So, at first blush, it would seem the TSA is more efficient.  But – those staff?  This article points out, they’re just the bureaucratic administrators!  In total, the TSA has almost 50,000 full-time employees (it is limited by Congress to 46,000 full-time employees, but there is no limit on employing part timers), and of course, not all airports are manned by TSA staff.  Some still have private screeners.

One could also point out that prior to the TSA coming along, the private security contractors had to screen a lot more people than the TSA do now, because back then, anyone could go to an airport gate – airplane enthusiasts, family and friends wanting to farewell people or meet them upon arrival, and so on.  I’ll guess that back then, for every ten passengers, maybe there were another five non-passengers going to the gate as well (remember if a person has a friend go to the gate to say goodbye, and a second friend meet them, that is two visitors through screening and only one passenger).

It is common to sneer superciliously at the previous type of security screening in the good old days, but I’ve no idea why people do that.  Some people justify their low opinion by pointing out that previous security screeners weren’t paid much.  It is true that TSA employees are paid massively more, but does that mean they are more skilled?  There is absolutely no reason to believe that, and the TSA’s own testing shows that training guns/bombs still get by their screeners at about the same rate as was the case prior to the TSA taking over the screening duties.

Other people mistakenly blame the 9/11 hijackings on the screening procedures in place, but the truth is that back then, box cutters were not illegal.  They were allowed to be taken on planes.  If that was wrong, the fault lies with the government officials who decreed that box cutters were safe, not with the screeners who passed them through security.

Although we now have three times as many screeners, three times as much delay (remember when you could arrive at an airport terminal less than 30 minutes prior to departure and easily make your flight?), and massively more than three times as much hassle and massively more than three times the cost, are we also three times safer?  As long as the chances of a gun or bomb slipping through security remain around about 20%, the answer is ‘No, we’re not’.

More on Dogs at Security

I wrote last week about the TSA testing dogs at several airports as a way to speed passengers through security, and expressed my doubt about the efficacy of that.

I’m a dog lover myself, and some influential people have urged the TSA to use dogs.  Most notably, Rep Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) claimed ‘The single best way to find a bomb-making device or bomb-making materials is the canine’.  When told that dogs are expensive to deploy, he added ‘Alpo only costs so much.  I challenge you to verify that number’.

So an industry group responded to his challenge and did exactly that.  Apparently, and according to the detailed analysis, not only are dogs bad at finding explosives and other dangerous things, they are also extremely costly.  This study makes compelling reading, and will open your eyes to the reality and limitations of using dogs.

I hope Rep Chaffetz has read it, too.

TSA Randomizer

The TSA like to make a big thing out of how their security procedures are unpredictable.  Cynics would point out that ‘unpredictable’ is dangerously similar to ‘unreliable’ and part of the TSA’s implementation of ‘unpredictability’ seems to be to sometimes have not so much different security procedures, but rather to simply have substandard or ridiculous procedures.

In a way, that is an unavoidable part of unpredictability.  If there’s a best possible procedure, then any variations from it will be less than best possible.

The TSA has now decided to add an element of science to its pursuit of randomness.  Again, a cynic would say that the TSA has decided to replace common sense with expensive gadgetry, but we’re none of us cynics, are we.

The TSA has been worried that some passengers have been choosing which screening line to go in, all by themselves (you know, after the document checker has checked your ticket and ID).  That is very true – I’m guilty of it every time I go through security myself.  My first choice is a metal detector rather than radiation machine line, and my second choice is a short fast moving rather than long slow moving line.

But the TSA doesn’t like this small element of personal choice remaining, and so they have requested information from prospective suppliers of scientific randomizer devices that will assign each person to a specific line after their documents have been checked.

We’ve no idea how much these devices will cost (but we know they’ll be expensive), and we’ve further no idea how the TSA will enforce and ensure that people then go to the random line they were assigned, rather than (randomly) choosing to go to a different line because it is shorter or whatever.

You can read their formal preliminary specification here.  While sequestration is making our lines longer, it surely isn’t affecting the TSA’s ability to buy more gadgets, whether they are needed or not.

The Shifting Sands of the eBook Marketplace

A couple of interesting events occurred this week which impact on the eBook world.

Firstly, Apple has been found guilty of conspiring with (eBook) publishers to raise the prices of eBooks.  Until Apple approached the publishers, retailers could sell books and eBooks for any price they wished.  This meant that Amazon decided to set a maximum price for an eBook of $9.99, and would sell eBooks at this price no matter what its cost price from a publisher was.  They would do this even if it meant making a loss on the sale, something they justified as being part of their effort to make eBooks more broadly accepted by readers – a strategy that by any measure that has proven to have been brilliantly successful.

But Apple persuaded publishers to switch to an ‘agency’ model where the publisher would set the retail price and then pay a ‘commission’ to the retailer.  This allowed the publishers to set the selling price, and greedy fools that they are, they thought setting higher prices would be more beneficial to them.

Why did Apple do this?  Simply because it simultaneously realized that if it were to successfully sell eBooks, it would need to offer the same pricing as Amazon, and at the same time, it had no wish to sell anything at a loss.  So it seems Apple persuaded the publishers to change the rules for eBook pricing (while still allowing anyone to sell print books at any price).  The DoJ anti-trust division brought suit against Apple for engaging in a price-fixing conspiracy together with five major publishers.  The publishers all settled, but Apple fought it out in court, a battle it has now deservedly lost.  Details here.

But will this mean we’ll see a retreat in the sometimes astronomical pricing of eBooks – I regularly see eBooks selling for the same price or more than a hardcover book.  I fear it is unlikely that we’ll see a major reduction in eBook pricing now.  If nothing else, it seems Amazon has now succeeded at getting eBooks into the mainstream, and perhaps no longer feels it should subsidize the publishers and the reading public when it comes to eBook pricing.

Note that although I object in the strongest terms to unfair eBook pricing, I don’t blame Amazon for this at all.  It is the greedy publishers who seem to consider eBooks a threat rather than a massive life-saver to their increasingly obsolete business who are at fault.

Oh – and as for the success of Apple’s attempt to dominate, or at least become a significant participant in the eBook marketplace?  By market share measures, it would seem to have massively failed.  Yay.

The article linked above quotes statistics showing that Amazon has a 65% share, Barnes & Noble about 20%, and Apple a mere ‘single digit’ share.  Another source (in the article linked below) gives ‘close to 25%’ to B&N, making Apple’s ‘single digit’ share even less.

Talking about Barnes & Noble, their latest financial figures have shown the company to continue hemorrhaging cash from its Nook eBook reader division, and it seems the company may be about to completely withdraw from making its own readers, and its CEO, who had been the driving force is now out.  The Board Chairman is currently running the company, and he’s much more a traditional retail/bricks and mortar kinda guy.

The fourth quarter of last year saw the Nook division lose $177 million before Ebitda, more than double the loss a year earlier, while total sales fell 34% to only $108 million.

This does beg the question – if B&N withdraws from the Nook, and possibly from eBooks too, what happens to people who invested in a Nook and eBooks which are only compatible with Nook eReaders?

I’d try to feel a pang of sympathy for such people, but it has always been starkly clear to me that the Nook was doomed to failure.  Although occasionally the equal or even better than comparable Kindle eReader devices, it has been painfully plain right from day one that the huge juggernaut that is Amazon would triumph and there has never been any clear guarantee that the market would be big enough for two hardware devices and incompatible systems.

Perhaps the saving grace for Barnes & Noble, and for people saddled with Nook eReaders, is the shrinking market for dedicated eReaders of all brands and types.  A dedicated eReader today seems almost as quaint as a dedicated ‘personal organizer’ – the latter is now of course integrated into our phone, and the former (eReader) is now a part of any tablet or computer we own.

Amazon is still fighting a battle to keep its Kindle hardware relevant – in particular its strategy of allowing Kindle owners to rent eBooks for free.  But that battle seems one Amazon is unlikely to win – why buy an eReader with limited potential when for the same price you can buy a tablet that has all the same identical eReader functionality plus many more things, besides?

Maybe there’ll remain a market for e-Ink type eReaders – tiny portable devices with massively long battery life and very low cost, but the days of dedicated eReaders costing hundreds of dollars have disappeared forever.

Talking about the future, what about the future of Barnes & Noble?  Incredibly, these days they are the only remaining major retail storefront type bookselling company in the US (with about 700 retail stores).  It seems its retail stores remain profitable, and if it can free itself of its Nook disaster, the company might be able to return to financial good health.  Details here.  We wish it well.

One last comment about eBooks.  It is fascinating how the recording companies resisted electronic distribution of music – something that has proven to be a saving grace rather than a threat, and similarly, the movie studios have done everything they can to interfere with first VCRs and subsequently other forms of electronic storage and distribution of movies, only to reluctantly find that this has been the savior of the studios.

And now we have book publishers doing all they can against eBooks.  When will they realize that eBooks will save their obsolete tree-killing approach to reading, the same way MP3s have saved recording studios and DVDs and streaming have saved movie studios?

Most of all, when will we see something like a Netflix model for books – you pay a flat fee a month and can read as many books as you like.

Barnes & Noble would be better off using its remaining massive leverage with book publishers to come up with a new distribution model, rather than trying to copy Amazon’s model.

Better in a Pocket than on a 787!

The plain truth is that even small lithium ion batteries store a huge amount of energy in them.  We’ve seen what larger sized Li-ion batteries can do to a 787, and now here’s an article about what a tiny phone sized battery can do to the person carrying it.  ‘Flames reached her shoulders’ (the phone was in a trouser pocket).

Scary stuff.

And Lastly This Week….

My question about why hotels don’t provide toothpaste provoked a range of interesting replies.  I particularly liked reader Art’s reply :

Most of the high-class items named don’t get used – a second soap, sewing kit, shoe mitt, shoe horn, nail file, etc.  Thus, they are “re-offered”  6-8-10 times before I get there.  As noted, toothpaste is a higher-demand, must-use item, and more likely to be used if offered.  Thus it becomes almost a fixed cost rather than an occasional “maybe”.

As for me, I stash the soap, mouthwash, shampoos and conditioners every day – come home with 3-4-5 of each.  After a few trips, I have a decent sized bag-full for the homeless shelter  -  they particularly enjoy fantasizing about the ones with labels in Arabic, French, etc.

Here’s a great airline complaint letter.  No word as to what sort of response the writer received from the airline, however.

Yet another theory about the Loch Ness monster – and this time the theory doesn’t even survive to the end of the article before being roundly debunked.

Talking about monsters, what to make of this type of monster, apparently sighted in a flight attendant’s pantyhose?

And truly lastly this week, surely this is the worst idea of the year (so far).

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Jun 272013
The story of US airlines as told by freeway signs.  Frontier - up for sale.  Midwest - closed in 2011.  United - merged with Continental.  US Airways - hoping to merge with American.

The story of US airlines as told by freeway signs. Frontier – up for sale. Midwest – closed in 2011. United – merged with Continental. US Airways – hoping to merge with American, and two blank spaces for airlines that may have disappeared entirely.

Good morning

I was driving out to the airport in Seattle this last week, and as I approached the terminal, I suddenly realized an amazing thing, something I’d not consciously perceived before.

As with most airports, there are a series of curbside signs with the names of airlines to provide guidance for where to drop people off, conveniently close to the relevant check-in areas.  Each of these signs has slots for four airline names, and I remember occasionally in the past seeing one slot with two different airline names squeezed into it, due to there being so many airlines and too few name slots for them all.

Seatac airport, like most major US airports, continues to experience annual increases in passenger numbers.  But, as I went around the terminal driveway, I noticed that nearly all the display boards had, at the most, one airline name on them.  The only remaining crowded boards were in the international check-in area, where there were lots of airline names.  But the once crowded listings of US airlines are now almost empty.

The hollowing out of the US airline industry isn’t a future trend.  It has already happened.

But fortunately, we still have a few remaining airlines to write about, and so please find articles this week on :

  • United Scores a 787 Hat Trick
  • 787 Battery Safety Devices Can Fail and Plane Still Allowed to Fly
  • It Took Five Ultra-Skilled Pilots to Save the A380 from a Potential Disastrous Crash
  • Airline Competition – This Week’s Most Quotable Quote
  • The DoT Pretends to Fine Naughty Delta $750,000
  • The Return of People Express Airlines?
  • The Most Unusual Reason to Order Family Off Flight Ever?
  • More Electronics for Pilots; Maybe for Passengers Too?
  • The One (?) that Got Away
  • Lists of Biggest Travel Co’s, Best Landmarks and Best Airlines
  • This Time, the Flight Attendants Have Proof
  • James Gandolfini Proves that Holidays Can Be Dangerous
  • A Lawyer to Hate and a Lawyer to Love
  • And Lastly This Week….

United Scores a 787 Hat Trick

Last week United had two 787 flights that needed to make emergency landings.  On Sunday that count rose to three, making for a ‘hat trick’ (explained here if you don’t recognize the term).  This meant that half of United’s 787 fleet (ie three of its six planes) were all simultaneously on the ground due to flights cut short by emergency landings.

And, shame on me, whereas the two events last week each seemed newsworthy and justified special bulletins from here, the Sunday event now seems like just another normal occurrence with these bedeviled planes.

So should we feel excited about, or sympathetic for, BA’s excited announcement of the start of its 787 services with flights between London (Heathrow) and Toronto starting on 1 September and flights between LHR and Newark on 1 October?  Or just ignore it entirely?

787 Battery Safety Devices Can Fail and Plane Still Allowed to Fly

As you surely know, Boeing’s “fix” of the problematic batteries on the 787 comprised in large part of measures to limit the damage if/when batteries might burst into flames again in the future.

One of those measures is a disc that isolates the pressure inside the battery box compartment from the lower pressure outside the plane.  There is some thought that pressure changes might not be good for the batteries and these discs reduce the pressure differentials the batteries experience.

Of course, like any other mechanical thing, they might fail.  But the FAA says it is not necessary to check them every flight, but rather only once every 14 flights, meaning there’s a chance the plane might be flying with a failed disc for 13 – 14 flights.

Okay, we understand that everything needs to have a compromise between perfection and sustainable reality, so we’ll accept the FAA’s ruling with only a small amount of surprise.

But, wait.  There’s more.  If a failed disk is discovered on the once-every-fourteen-flights inspection cycle, the plane is allowed to continue flying for up to another 21 flights prior to the disc needing to be replaced.  That is a total of potentially 35 flights – maybe 400 or more flying hours, many of them a long way from any airport – that the FAA is allowing this failed safety device to remain unrepaired.

Details here.

It Took Five Ultra-Skilled Pilots to Save the A380 from a Potential Disastrous Crash

Talking about airplane near disasters, the final report on the near disastrous engine explosion on a Qantas A380 – flight QF32 on 4 November 2010 – has now been released.  It includes some alarming revelations about how Rolls Royce (the engine manufacturer) had become lax on safety standards to the point where it was acceptable to not bother reporting what were considered to be ‘minor’ quality ‘non-conformance’ issues (see half-way down this article).

To me, the key point was how the plane coincidentally had not two but five pilots in the cockpit – the normal captain, his first officer, the extra second officer who would relieve the other two pilots during the flight from Singapore to Sydney, plus a ‘Check’ captain (a senior pilot who checks on the performance and safety standards/compliance of pilots during actual flights) and a supervising check captain too.  Between the five of these gentlemen, they had amassed an extraordinary total of 76,000 hours of flying experience, and being five of the best examples of the superlative flying skills that Qantas pilots generally have to start with, they managed to save the day, notwithstanding engine fragments having damaged over 600 control circuits, hydraulics, indicators, and just about everything else in the plane.

The captain of the flight subsequently wrote a great book – ‘QF32 ‘ – and is quoted in this article as having described the situation after the engine explosion as having error messages and check list actions spewing out of the plane’s computer monitors as fast as ‘dinner plates at a buffet’.  What a lovely metaphor.

Depending on whether one sees one’s glass as half full or half empty, you can either be encouraged or concerned at the totality of the QF32 incident.  It is alarming that an uncontained engine explosion did extensive harm to the plane, but it is reassuring that the pilots were still able to compensate for failed systems and land what remained to be a still flyable plane safely.

Here’s an earlier related article on the benefits of having lots of pilots in the cockpit when things go wrong.

I’m reminded of the story of how a reporter asked a pilot ‘How do you feel about the trend to reduce the engines on a plane from four down to two?’.

The pilot’s answer ‘Ideally when my co-pilot tells me “We’ve got an engine problem with number four engine”, I want to be able to reply to him “Is that the fourth engine on the port wing or the starboard wing”.’

Clearly, to the desire to have as many engines as a B-52, we should add a hope that the cockpit has as many flight crew as a B-52 too.

Airline Competition – This Week’s Most Quotable Quote

As reported by the redoubtable Joe Brancatelli about halfway down this interesting article on diminishing airline competition, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-VA) opined on the value of airline promises and claims when seeking approval to merge.  He said

Other airline CEOs have repeatedly promised that merging their airlines would lead to more choices for travelers in small and rural communities.  I have found that not to be the case.

Indeed, Senator Rockefeller didn’t need to restrict his observation to only smaller communities.  Airline mergers inevitably lead to fewer choices to passengers in all sized communities, and service to formerly large hubs is just as much at risk as is service to smaller airports.  Just think back to former hub cities such as St Louis, Memphis and Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.

In the case of the merged US/AA, there would be nine ‘hub’ cities in the new airline (Charlotte, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Reagan National, Dallas/Fort Worth, JFK, LAX, Miami, and Chicago/O’Hare).  It is hard to countenance that the merged airline would keep all nine as hubs – where are the ‘synergistic economies of scale’ if all nine hubs are to remain?

The DoT Pretends to Fine Naughty Delta $750,000

Talking about playing ‘let’s pretend’, the lede on this story tells how Delta has been fined $750,000 for not following proper procedures when bumping passengers off flights.

This is all the more aggravating as it follows Delta’s earlier $375,000 fine in 2009 for similar violations.  So you’re doubtless in full agreement with the $750,000 fine levied on Delta and delighted to see this second fine is twice the first fine.  Well done, DoT, right?

There’s only one thing, though.  If you read down to the final paragraph, you’ll see that $425,000 of the ‘fine’ can be used by Delta to buy tablets for its staff – tablets that it was going to buy anyway.

That’s a bit like getting a $60 parking citation, and being told that you can spend $40 of it to buy gas for your car.  It isn’t a $60 fine at all, and neither is the $750,000 fine truly a $750,000 fine.  It is only a $325,000 fine – less than the $350,000 fine imposed in 2009.

Hardly an impressive or stinging fine at all, is it.  And shame on the DoT for trying to make a $325,000 fine read like it was actually a $750,000 fine.

The Return of People Express Airlines?

Some airlines have a magic to their names that lives on well past the demise of the company.  Pan Am and Braniff are two names that keep on keeping on, and if I was to make a list of other names with potential for future resurrection, I’d put Laker Airways and People Express near the top of the list.

People Express started service in April 1981, one of the first of the new post-deregulation airlines, and it quickly became prominent as the poster-child for everything we had hoped for in the new deregulated industry.  It quadrupled in size from 1981 to 1982, doubled again in 1983, doubled again in 1984, and increased 50% more in 1985, and became the fifth largest US airline in 1986 before collapsing and being bought out by Continental later that year, then disappearing entirely in 1987.

During its ascendancy the airline innovated in many different parts of airline operations, including pioneering the concept of charging for drinks and snacks and luggage, and had a simplified fare structure which people could even pay in cash after the flight had taken off.  The amazing thing was that – as best I vaguely remember – people didn’t even mind its fees, because we were all delighted in its low fares and innovative thinking.  On the other hand, it wasn’t an unalloyed brilliant customer service success – its low-service and high over-booking/bumping rates earned it the nickname of ‘People’s Distress’.

Headquartered at Newark, the airline added flights to 50 destinations, including internationally to Europe (and Canada).  Here’s an interesting, albeit incomplete, history of the airline.

The reason for revisiting People Express – or as it subsequently stylized its name, PEOPLExpress, is that its name has been picked up by a new startup carrier and will be reused for its new services, with details of where and when it will fly to be announced this summer.

Making the new startup less a speculative venture and more something likely to proceed is that it has bought out an existing airline so it has immediate access to an FAA operating license and to airplanes.  The new People Express will be based in Newport News/Williamsburg, VA, and will take advantage of the emptying out of the airport after AirTran was purchased by Southwest and subsequently curtailed service there.

The startup purchased Idaho based carrier, Xtra Airways, which operated charter flights, and has five 737-400 airplanes.

We wish the new People Express well.  More details here.

The Most Unusual Reason to Order Family Off Flight Ever?

Flight attendants and pilots are very creative when it comes to ordering people off planes.  It is almost as if they don’t like having passengers on board.

But just when we all think we’ve heard, seen, and read every possible reason to force people off the flights they’ve paid for, we get struck between the eyes with a new atrocity that sets a whole new level of evil idiocy.  Alas, one such event recently afflicted a hapless family, guilty of wishing to fly an Easyjet plane back from their vacation on the island of Jersey (one of the Channel Islands just off the coast of Normandy, France), returning to Newcastle in England.

While on holiday, the couple’s 19 month old daughter had fallen and scratched her cheek, and after a flight attendant drew this to the pilot’s attention, he refused to allow the family to fly, out of concern that the pressure changes in the flight might get worse, and (even more strangely) he was worried about the safety of the other passengers on the A319.  Are scratches contagious?

He told the family they’d have to get off the plane, and wouldn’t be allowed on any future Easyjet flights until they’d secured a doctor’s note declaring it safe for the infant to travel.

Now this was not just a simple case of having to get off the flight, rush to a doctor, get a note, and rush back to the airport for the next flight out.  You see, there were no further available flights from Jersey for three days, causing the family to spend an unexpected $1000 in hotel bills, and causing the mother (7 months pregnant) to miss a checkup back home, and causing all the other issues that you can doubtless guess at too.

Did the pilot do the right thing?  Judge for yourself – you can see a picture of the infant and her scratched cheek in this article.  (Always assuming, of course, that there is some sort of altitude related complication for scratches on one’s cheek!)

But to add a surprising postscript to this story – because words fail me in how to comment further on it – here’s a heartwarming story of a person who did get on a flight, albeit a Delta flight in the US rather than an Easyjet flight from Jersey.  Sometimes the most unlikely people end up surprising and delighting us.

More Electronics for Pilots; Maybe for Passengers Too?

There has been a flurry of airlines announcing their plans to deploy iPads to replace the bulky heavy written materials that pilots currently have to carry with them.  All the various manuals, rule books, maps, and other materials can weigh as much as 35lbs, and might total 3000 pages.  An iPad and associated ancillary items weighs only about 2 lbs, takes up less space, might be easier to work through to find materials as and when needed, and are enormously simpler to keep up to date and consistent.

The Wall St Journal has a great roundup on this subject, and cites some amazing claims such as how American Airlines believes this will save it $1.2 million in jetfuel every year.  At that rate, in three years it will have paid for the iPads.

No doubt you’ll be noting how pilots are allowed to bring more electronics into the cockpit – the very nerve center of the plane and close to where all these hypothetically super-sensitive electronics might be located and liable to malfunction at the merest sight of something electronic – while we passengers remain stuck in the ‘no electronics below 10,000 ft and often not above that either’ zone.

Good news.  The FAA is now hinting that, inasmuch as its regulations have anything to do with the airlines’ insistence on the no electronics rules the way they do, it may be about to liberalize its regulations almost to the point of now requiring airlines to allow passenger electronics (but not cell phone calls) on planes, during every stage of a flight from boarding to deplaning.

An advisory panel has drafted a report that seems to support this, but won’t make a final formal recommendation to the FAA until September, and who knows how quickly the FAA will then move to implement its recommendations.

Details here.

Lists of Biggest Travel Co’s, Best Landmarks and Best Airlines

We love the lists that various organizations compile in all sorts of categories, because they invariably end up with at least one ‘ringer’ on the list; at least one winner that seems to make no sense at all.  Or, if it does make sense, is something we’d absolutely not have guessed about.

Let’s see how well you do.  Based on market capitalization, what is the largest travel company in the world?  Consider travel agency groups, airlines, hotel groups, rental car companies, cruise lines, and so on.

There are of course many ways to judge company ‘size’ – other ways involve staff employed, total gross revenue, and net profit.  But we’re not here to debate the measuring stick, merely to ponder the answer.

The answer, according to this list :  The largest travel company in the world is China Airlines ($58.2 billion market cap) followed by Eva Airways ($55.1 billion) and then the Las Vegas Sands Hotel Group ($41.8 billion).  Surprised?

A more pedestrian type of list would seem to be one of the ongoing series of lists generated by Tripadvisor, this one being the 25 top landmarks around the world.

If you’re like me, you probably found few surprises on most of the list, until you got to number 12.  Sandwiched neatly in the middle, surrounded by other attractions that are tens, hundreds and thousands of years old (the top three landmarks being Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal) is (drum roll please) the fountains at the Bellagio in Vegas.  Hmmm….

Here’s one more list – one which I’d find impossible to create myself, because it is an oxymoron.  It is a list of the best economy class cabins on airlines.  How can one talk about ‘best’ in the context of economy class?

Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to be a very rational or well thought out list.  It deems Air New Zealand to have the world’s best economy class, and talks in glowing terms about the airline’s distinctive ‘Sky Couch’ feature.  This is where you can fold the armrests out of the way in a block of three seats, and extend the seat cushion, to make a block of three seats into a ‘sky couch’ on which two passengers can allegedly rest and relax.

This is close to impossible, however.  It is both too short to stretch out on (only about 50″ long) and too narrow for two people to lie side by side on (something under 30″ wide, not all of which is usable if the seats in front of you recline).

As for its list of other features about Air NZ, it fails to point out Air NZ’s sometimes rigorously enforced 15lb limit on cabin bags (my carry on bag always weighs more than this), something that hardly earns it a spot as the very best coach class airline at all.

Oh, Air NZ is also one of the villainous airlines that squeezes ten seats into each row on some of its 777s, making for an appallingly narrow 17.1″ seat width.

While I believe all coach class cabins are merely variations on a theme of awfulness, I see no reason why Air NZ should be considered to be ‘the best of the worst’.

(Of course, some lists are just so strange as to – well, judge for yourself.)

The One (?) that Got Away

Each week I get self-congratulatory emails from the TSA boasting of how they managed to find firearms in passengers’ carry on bags.  But there are two things these ‘we’re so clever’ emails omit.

The first point they are silent on is that invariably these are not ‘artfully concealed’ firearms being smuggled on to planes by terrorists intent on doing evil things.  Instead they are guns that the owners simply forgot they had in their bags (which is embarrassingly easier to do than non-gun owners might think).

The second point is that there is no understanding at all as to how many extra guns were not detected.  All we know is that when the TSA tests itself, even to ridiculously low standards, the tests consistently reveal at least 20% of all test objects get through the screening process without being detected.

So when I read this story of a US Airways flight attendant being caught by the Italian airport security screeners in Rome, with a .40 cal SIG pistol in her carry-on bag, it seems obvious that this was not a gun she somehow acquired in Italy and was taking back to Charlotte, but rather one she had taken with her from the US to Italy at the start of her travels.  And that begs the question – how did she get it through security when flying out of the US?

One also wonders if this was the first time she had done so.

Interestingly, she also had ammunition for the gun in her checked suitcase, including five shell casings that had been fired.  What was she shooting at in Italy?

Will we expect the next self-congratulatory note from the TSA on handguns discovered to include an asterisk and a footnote that they also failed to detect a large-sized SIG semi-auto pistol on at least one occasion?

Talking about footnotes, here’s an item about a woman who slashed herself with a razor blade at JFK, which of course begs the question – how did she get razor blades through security?

This Time, the Flight Attendants Have Proof

One of the questions we always ask, but which is never answered when flight attendants run amok, making ridiculous allegations against passengers, is ‘Where is your proof?  Where are affidavits from other passengers?  Where are videos and pictures taken by passengers with cameras?’

Adding further weight to our belief that any time anyone misbehaves on an airline these days, not only do other passengers intercede forcefully, but many more passengers pull out their phones or other camera-equipped devices and start filming is this story of a shamefully behaving foul-mouthed woman who refused to stop talking on her phone as the plane prepared to depart from Fort Lauderdale on Sunday.  There seems to be plenty of proof out there about this woman’s actions.

So, all the more reason that the way-too-compliant pilots and police should insist on confirming proof before accepting anything they are told by a flight attendant.

James Gandolfini Proves that Holidays Can Be Dangerous

Former Sopranos star James Gandolfini dramatically demonstrated the danger of holidays by dying of a heart attack in Italy last week.

Holidays – dangerous?  How so?  As a doctor points out in this article

When you’re on vacation, you don’t eat the same way that you do when you’re at home.  People tend to indulge, and that can lead directly to a heart attack.

The article goes on to allege that summer vacations are a time when we eat too much, drink too much, do too much physically, and possibly forget to take medication as scheduled.  I’ll plead guilty to two of the first three….

Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

A Lawyer to Hate and a Lawyer to Love

Whenever you find a local government official who can instruct an officious attorney to do whatever the official wishes him to do, because the official is not spending his own personal money, you have a recipe for potential disaster just waiting to happen.

In such cases, ordinary citizens can find themselves relearning the adage ‘You can’t fight city hall’ – or, more to the point, you can fight, but you can’t win.  City hall has an unlimited budget to bully their citizens whichever way they capriciously wish.

A case in point occurred recently when a resident of West Orange, NJ, started up a website, westorange.info, apparently with the desire to publish free information about his city.  Nothing unusual or bad about that, surely.

Well, the town council disagreed and feared that this new website, with almost no content or anything, would somehow drain the traffic away from their expensive official website (and what would be the harm of that anyway, you might be wondering).  So they told their city attorney to sort out the problem and get the other site taken down.

Which brought about the city attorney’s officious bullying letter to the website owner, and the beyond brilliant reply back from the website owner’s attorney (who graciously agreed to represent the website owner, free of charge).  You can read the correspondence here, and you can further read what happened at the next city council meeting here.

And Lastly This Week….

Following on a mini-theme of the last few weeks, here’s another interesting article with before and after pictures of 13 airlines that ‘rebranded’ – ie, changed the logo on their planes.

In some cases, the ‘rebranding’ is almost impossible to spot.  Generally, it seems, the more trivial the change, the more pompous and meaningless the ‘inspiration’ quoted.

Talking about logos and rebranding, what to make of this doubtless inadvertently relevant seeming exhortation on United’s emergency toilet paper.

Last week we featured a short video showing the Chinese approach to loading an airplane.  It is true that it made us think of certain other formerly communist countries, and so this week, we can offer you the Russian approach to unloading a train’s baggage wagon.

I’m not entirely sure of my publishing schedule for next Thursday/Friday; Thursday being 4 July of course, and the week after that sees me on a 7 day 3000 mile roadtrip.  I do hope you’ll have a wonderful Independence Day celebration.

Until next week, may you enjoy safe travels, and although you might conceivably be traveling somewhere to see fireworks, the TSA would like to remind you not to bring your own with you….







Jun 142013
To help us 'Keep calm and carry on'?  Sign spotted just past security screening at the Minot ND airport by reader Michael.

To help us ‘Keep calm and carry on’? Sign spotted just past security screening at the Minot ND airport by reader Michael.

Good morning

Happy anniversary to Valentina Tereshkova – on Sunday it will be 50 years since she became the first woman in space.

Ms Tereshkova now wishes to be the first woman on Mars.  We wish her good luck – and a long life, because who knows when or even if we’ll see a (wo)manned mission to Mars.

And a happy birthday today – we hope – for the Airbus A350 – described in this article as ‘the aircraft Airbus did not want to build’.  It is expected that the plane will fly for the first time at about 10am (local time in France).  There is widespread expectation that Airbus hopes to have the A350 fly over the Paris Air Show next week as a high-profile introduction of its new plane to the world’s airline buyers.

Continuing the series of mini-features on Sri Lanka, another question asked by several people has been about the weather.  What sort of weather can we expect during our wonderful Travel Insider Tour to Sri Lanka next February?

I carefully chose February for our tour because it seems to offer the very best weather of the entire year (to say nothing of being a great time to escape the US for a couple of weeks).  Although a small island, Sri Lanka actually has a complicated weather pattern, with both monsoon seasons and also inter-monsoons.  An inter-monsoon is not a period of no monsoon, but a ‘bonus’ period of more monsoon weather, between the main monsoon seasons!

The temperatures are warm pretty much year round, so the main focus is on avoiding the heavy rains experienced during the monsoon and inter-monsoon seasons.  As you can see from these charts, February is the month with the lowest number of rainy days in Colombo, Kandy and  Galle and the second lowest number of rainy days in Anuradhapura.  As the charts also show, most days in most places we’ll probably be enjoying daily temperatures reaching up into the low to mid 80s.

So the weather will be mainly warm to hot and hopefully predominantly dry rather than wet.  In other words, close to perfect.

Please do visit our pages of information about this wonderful Sri Lankan tour, and then please do choose to join us on what promises to be a great experience.

There are three other feature articles this week, following the weekly roundup.  Two positively review useful travel products, and one registers my outrage at our inability to fairly and decently welcome visitors to the US, and the huge costs this represents to our US economy as a whole.

In the newsletter itself, we have items on :

  • A New Airfare Pricing Paradigm?
  • Airlines Wonder How Many Tweets are Too Many?
  • Jetblue Unveils Ambitious Future Enhancements to Its Trans-con Jets
  • Fanciful Planes of the Future
  • The Real Planes of the Future – More Seats, Less Room
  • Boeing Publishes its Latest 20 Year Outlook
  • Delta Announces a New Reason for Flight Attendants to Boot You Off the Plane
  • The TSA Has Wasted a Billion Dollars.  Wants to Waste More.
  • Why It is Serious When Airport Perimeter Security Guards Are Asleep
  • More on Dodgy Disney ‘Disabled’ Guests
  • Las Vegas to Experience Massive New Growth Spurt?
  • And Lastly This Week….

A New Airfare Pricing Paradigm?

Something that has been a cornerstone of our western concepts of fairness within the free markets that companies and individuals buy and sell things, is a reasonable expectation of transparency of pricing and the ability of different people to be able to pay a similar price for the same product.

Back in the days of airline regulation, such concepts were enshrined in airfares.  The airlines had a regular fare, a family fare and a group fare, and that was pretty much it.  These days, as you vaguely probably perceive, there can be a dozen or more fares applicable to any given itinerary, depending on when you buy the ticket, what level of penalty you’re willing to pay, and whether the airline is opening or closing short-term discount fares and restricted inventory categories.

However, there has still been an underlying unified concept – any person could as readily qualify for any particular airfare as could any other person, as long as they met the rules of the fare, and all the fares and all their rules were all published for everyone to see and choose from.

With the growing sophistication of customer databases, the airlines are ready for the next evolutionary leap.  They want now to be able to customize individual airfares to individual travelers.  Now for the big question – will the airlines do this to give us all the lowest possible fare, or will they do it to charge us the most they believe we will pay?

Okay, so it isn’t a big question at all, is it.  Of course the airlines will make use of their better knowledge of us, our incomes, our discretionary spending, and our varying degrees of need and desire to travel to make sure that the fares it offers us are within a hair’s breadth of the maximum we’d reluctantly pay.

Furthermore, none of these fares would be published.  We’d never know if we were paying more or less than normal for our travel, because every fare offered to every person would be different, depending on their circumstances.

For example – and these examples are, currently, fictitious, if an airline was able to track us making phone calls to people it knew to be elderly relatives in a far away city, and if it saw from the location of those people’s cell phones that they were in the emergency care ward of a hospital, and if we then called to request a last-minute ticket to travel to that city, the airline would know it could charge us top dollar for the ticket.

But if the airline saw we’d been calling leisure focused hotels in three different cities, and then asked for airfares to only one of those three cities for travel some weeks in the future, it might guess that we were seeking a bargain price and price its fares accordingly.

And if the airline could tell that we’d also spoken to other airlines, it would know to be more competitive.

If the airline saw we’d already made a substantial non-refundable deposit on a tour, charged to our credit card, it would know it had us over a barrel – we needed to be somewhere at a certain time to connect with another commitment.

These are all fanciful examples, but they’re only one or two degrees away from possible today, and as the NSA scandal of the previous week has pointed out, in some cases in different contexts, they are already happening at present.

There is one big hurdle in the way of the airlines implementing such plans, with or without their ability to track all our phone calls.  And that is the DoT requirement for airlines to have publicly filed official tariffs of their fares, open to anyone and everyone to view and buy.

The airlines are now seeking the ability to offer private unique unpublished individual fares, a concept known as IATA Resolution 787 and also described by the innocuous title of ‘New Distribution Capability’.

Don’t be fooled.  The airlines never seek new ways to offer us better fares and values, only and always the opposite.  Here’s a slightly larger-than-life portrayal of what this means, a line by line rebuttal of the airlines’ latest dissembling about what they will and won’t do, and a detailed resource of articles if you wish to wade through them telling you more.

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

Airlines Wonder How Many Tweets are Too Many?

Here’s an interesting article full of things I find impossible to comprehend about the current nonsense that so much of the marketing sphere is focused on – so-called ‘social media’.

The point in particular that puzzles me is the number of tweets that some of the airlines are issuing each day.  The article approvingly points out that American Airlines is sending out 898.5 Twitter messages every day.

This, to me, clearly shows the craziness that permeates social media.  What normal person would be able to read 900 messages a day?  If we assume a person can read twenty messages a minute, that would require 45 minutes every day just to keep up with the message flow from American Airlines; and for most of us, it would be surprising if more than one or two of them had any interest or relevance.

Even worse, it isn’t a single 45 minute use of time once a day.  These messages are sent individually, and so represent 900 different interruptions to one’s thinking and concentration, and so in total, massively more than 45 minutes of time spent.  If they are spread evenly over, say, 15 hours of the day, that works out to exactly one message coming in, every minute!

As I said, the concept would seem to confound all logic.  But the airlines seem to believe the more tweets they send, the more – well, there’s the issue.  The more what, exactly, do they expect in return?

Jetblue Unveils Ambitious Future Enhancements to Its Trans-con Jets

Jetblue has slowly and steadily built up a good quality airline in the 13 years since it started operation, and while it has won a valuable chunk of corporate traveler business in the process, it has done so with all coach class planes.

It did move things around a bit to create a few rows of seats with extra legroom, similar to that offered by a number of other airlines, but other than that, its planes are all one class.

Until now.

It was revealed this week that Jetblue’s new A321 planes, to be operated on coast to coast flights, are planned to have both business class seating and also ‘mini-suites’ on them as well.  The configuration will be four suites, 12 business class seats, and 143 coach class seats.

That’s got to excite business travelers with the budget to afford such a premium indulgence, and ups the ante on the currently amazingly almost competitive trans-con services, where, most amazingly of all, the airlines seem to be almost at the point of competing on quality rather than on price.

Assuming FAA approval is granted to the cabin layout, Jetblue hopes to have the new planes in service starting from early next year.  More details here.

Fanciful Planes of the Future

As part of the run-up to the Paris Air Show that takes place next week, and as part of the Ted conference in Edinburgh this week, there have been some futuristic speculative flights of fancy about possible future airplane designs.

I love to see such things, of course, but sometimes am left enormously saddened when the vast degree of stunning impracticality sinks back down over the concepts.

For example, here’s a great seeming idea – flying wing airplanes that have detachable passenger compartment fuselages, with the passenger compartments doing double duty as train carriages.

Now that’s truly a bi-modal type of transportation, and echoes faintly the ‘boat trains’ of yesteryear and the Amtrak Auto-trains on the East coast currently.

But is it practical?  Almost certainly not.  Designing something to be simultaneously suitable for high-speed rail travel at ground level and to be flown through the upper atmosphere, three times faster, is, to put it mildly, difficult, and is sure to involve a weight penalty that airlines would refuse to accept.

While the idea of just taking one’s seat at a train station in one city, then staying there while your compartment is first trained to an airport, connected to a plane, flown to another airport, connected to another train, and taken in to another train station sounds like a great idea, one has to wonder if the time it takes for the passenger compartments to be switched from trains to planes and back again would not be such as to make it simpler for passengers to simply get off the train at the airport, walk to the gate, and get on a plane instead.

This also overlooks the large number of people who won’t start or end their journey at the respective downtown train stations.  There will be connecting passengers, plus passengers arriving by car at the airport and wanting to depart by car from the other airport.  How will they get into the passenger compartments?

A simpler solution would be to have trains going close to airport gates on the secure side of terminals – let the security screening be done at the train station or perhaps, make the trains greater than normal size and have people transition through security while on the train.

The biggest problem and most addressable time cost for typical journeys these days is the ‘arrive at the airport two hours early’ nonsense.  Many times, we spend more time at the airport than we do actually being flown from there to the other airport – how about applying some ingenuity to the hassles and delays of traveling through the airport.

Methinks that such issues are amenable to lower tech, simpler, and more effective solutions than these futuristic hybrid plane/train carriages.

Here’s another new concept plane that has a futuristic design and some fancy elements within it, and which uses lots of buzz words and modern concepts, ranging from 3D printing to seats that ‘harvest energy’ from the passengers.

But once you get past the fanciful ‘artists impressions’ and graceful sweeping lines, all this new concept seems to be is another broadly typical sort of plane, flying at the same speeds as currently, and once the airlines replace the spacious high-tech expensive seating with regular dense airline seats, we’re looking at a flying experience close to indistinguishable from current planes.  And all the associated negative hassles at the airports remain unchanged.

Alas, real innovation will require something very different to either of these two proposals.

The Real Planes of the Future – More Seats, Less Room

As we noted sadly, above, no matter how fanciful future plane concepts are, and no matter how extravagant airplane manufacturers and even airlines are with their initial cabin layouts for planes, commercial reality inevitably sinks in and all the extra space gets taken up with more seats.

Not only have we seen the pitch – the distance between rows of seats – get smaller, we’ve seen an even nastier development with the wide bodied planes.  Happily, there’s no way an airline can squeeze seven across seating into a narrow-body plane, but when you have eight or nine or ten across seating, it becomes very tempting to add one more seat across each row, in addition to scrunching up the seat pitch.

Airbus this week suggested that rather than develop a new stretched A380, as has clearly been its earlier plans, the better approach would be for airlines wanting a higher capacity A380 to simply add more seats to the present A380 configurations.  Thanks a lot, Airbus.

We’ve already seen DC-10, 747 and 777 seating add an extra seat per row, and 787 seating is currently ambiguous with either 8 seats across (eg ANA and JAL) or nine (of course, United).  Are we to see the A380 now add another seat to its economy rows, going from ten to 11 seats (on the lower deck)?

Meanwhile, both American Airlines (remember the glory days of their ‘More Room in Coach’ seating, almost a decade ago now) is quietly working out how to add extra seats to some of its 737s and MD80s, and Southwest has added another row of seats to its 737 fleet, reducing legroom by an inch in the process.

As you surely know, at the same time that airline seats are getting smaller and smaller, we ourselves are getting bigger and bigger, and the number of free/empty seats on planes is disappearing, making it increasingly likely that we don’t have any ability to at least spill into an empty seat on one side or the other of us.

Therein lies the problem that traps all fanciful future airplane designs.  Airlines don’t want airy spacious planes.  They want flying sardine cans.

Boeing Publishes its Latest 20 Year Outlook

It is always fascinating to read Boeing’s annually issued 20 Year forecasts – its ‘Current Market Outlook’.  These represent more or less an unshaded best guess forecast for what the next 20 years of new plane sales (bought by all airlines from all airplane manufacturers) will comprise.

Although the surveys tend to be silent on the specific types of planes, there’s little in them to suggest that Boeing is anticipating any new ‘game changing’ aviation developments in the next twenty years, and, alas, it is probably right about that.

The company has just released this year’s forecast, which is not profoundly changed from last year.  The largest part of the market remains the single aisle market (ie 737/A320 series), with an expected sale of 24,670 new single aisle jets over the next 20 years – 1,235 a year.  In total, Boeing suggests that 35,280 planes will be sold – an average of 1,764 a year, and bases that on an underlying projection of annual increases of 5% in both passenger and air freight numbers.

This compares with average annual sales of 1284 planes a year over the last five years, although the last two years have seen booming sales of over 2000 planes each year (due to pent up demand finally being satisfied for new versions of the A320 and 737).

The largest market for future airplane sales?  No surprises there.  36% of sales go to the Asia-Pacific region, followed by just over 21% to Europe, and only then, North America with just under 21%.

Of particular interest to me is the large wide-body category – planes holding more than 400 seats, for which Boeing sees the smallest number of sales being made – 760 in total, or 38 per year.

Based on current sales levels, that will be a bit of a struggle to achieve, and also based on current sales levels, it seems that this market will almost entirely belong to Airbus.

It is interesting to see how Emirates dominates this market; indeed just this week the airline announced their latest upgrade in plane type, replacing 777s on the LAX-Dubai route with A380s.  This is typical Emirates strategy – they start new routes with smaller planes, then grow them up to A380s as quickly as they can.

Emirates seems to prefer operating fewer big planes, whereas most of the western airlines seem to prefer to operate more small planes.

From our point of view as passengers, it is of course more convenient to have twice as many flights and times of departure to choose from, but from the airline point of view, you’d think it to be more profitable to operate half as many flights, each with twice as many people on them.

Hmmmm – maybe that’s why Emirates is so profitable and growing so quickly, while most western carriers are not.  Could that be the secret of their success?

Of course, there’s more to Emirates’ success than a fleet laden with A380s.  Good service and friendly staff have to be an important ingredient too, and – just possibly – a stubborn refusal to join any of the three airline alliances might actually help them too, saving Emirates from the need to drag itself down to the level of competitors.

Delta Announces a New Reason for Flight Attendants to Boot You Off the Plane

Here’s some really worrying news.  Delta has proudly announced that it will give its flight attendants (and all other ‘customer-facing’ staff) a new non-second-guessable reason for choosing to capriciously boot us off flights and getting us arrested by overly-eager law enforcement bodies.

The airline has become part of the US Customs & Border Patrol’s ‘Blue Lightning Initiative’.  This is designed to help airlines and their staff to identify potential instances of human trafficking, and all Delta’s customer-facing employees will complete a training program by the end of 2013.

On the other hand, if you are being plagued by little Johnny, behind you, kicking your seat back nonstop, and being passively encouraged to do so by his parents, maybe you could get them both taken off the flight by claiming that they are acting suspiciously and voicing your concern that they might be a trafficker and traffickee.

As for CBP, see my subsequent article.  Could we suggest to them that these additional efforts, praiseworthy as they may be, should not displace their focus on their prime mission, which is allowing lawful people to conveniently enter the country and spend their money here in the US.

The TSA Has Wasted a Billion Dollars.  Wants to Waste More.

Entrusting ‘ordinary’ people to spot criminals of any sort, and detaining people based on nothing more than behavior deemed to be suspicious gives us the chills.  But, more than violating many of our constitutional freedoms, it just doesn’t work, whether it be airline employees expected to detect human traffickers, or – well, TSA ‘Behavior Detection Officers’ trained to detect terrorists in airports.

The TSA has spent nearly $1 billion on its BDO program, but according to the Homeland Security Department’s own Inspector General (the TSA is part of the HSD, so this is an internal and presumably sympathetic review), the TSA can not establish any degree of effectiveness in the program at all and can not reasonably justify the program’s expansion.

This is an unsurprising evaluation, although from a surprising source.  The program is believed to employ 2,800 people, but it has never detected a terrorist.  Sure, it has hassled ordinary normal passengers, thousands at a time, and during the course of this, has come across various people ranging from parking scofflaws to ‘deadbeat dads’ and others with warrants outstanding, but not at any level measurably different to what would happen if you randomly accosted people at sports stadiums or anywhere else.

As for the terrorists, none have been identified after $1 billion and something in excess of ten million man hours of BDO screening activities.

The TSA makes an impenetrable non-defense of its program by saying

Behavior analyses [sic] techniques add an additional layer of unseen security measures for the safety of all passengers that begins prior to arriving at the checkpoint

I say – take the billion dollars and repurpose it to the CBP (also part of the hydra-headed HSD) so that we can at least process arriving visitors in a reasonable time.  Stop wasting it on hassling innocent people.

Details here.

Why It is Serious When Airport Perimeter Security Guards Are Asleep

Here’s an interesting article, complete with pictures and even video of sleeping security guards at JFK, and making the point that the management of the company finds it easier to look the other way than to fire the guards and hire replacements.

Now you might think there’s little reason to be concerned about these people quietly sleeping away their shifts.  After all, the airport has perimeter fences and various other protective measures to protect against intrusion (although the article also points out the case of a jet skier who wandered onto the airport grounds and it was only after he approached an employee asking for help that anyone took any notice of him).

However, there is a security risk that continues to escalate, and may one day result in a plane being downed.  That is the risk associated with a terrorist firing a surface to air missile at a plane in the several minutes after it first takes off from the airport.  At this stage the plane is flying low and slow with no spare speed or altitude, and emitting a massive heat signature, making it completely impossible for a heat seeking missile to miss the plane.  The fact the plane probably has nearly full tanks of fuel guarantees that in the unlikely event any passengers might survive the plane’s post-missile-hit plunge to the ground, they will be immolated by the spectacular fireball that will follow the plane’s crash.

These vulnerabilities were vividly illustrated in the video footage of the 747 crashing immediately after taking off from Bagram just over a month ago.

There is nothing new about the SAM threat; indeed, there have been one or two civilian planes downed by SAMs every year since 1975.  But what is new is that the ‘rebels’ we strangely decided to help overthrow our then loyal and obedient ally, Libya – rebels who were in main part previously fighting against us in Afghanistan – have now been looting the stores of SAMs after taking over Libya, and it is believed that as a result, these ‘rebels’ – or, to use the more accurate term, al Qaida, now have Soviet SA-7 missiles – wonderfully portable little missiles that would be ideally suited for attacking passenger jets at takeoff close to airports.

As this article points out, the missiles are so small and portable they can be packed in a duffel bag, and they have become so plentiful they can be purchased for as little as $5,000 a piece.

The good news is that a single missile hit on a large multi-engined passenger plane does not guarantee the plane’s instant annihilation.  But it sure doesn’t help, and the odds of the plane surviving even a single hit are perhaps 50:50 (here’s an example of an A300 surviving a missile strike).  Of course, with missiles as little as $5,000 each, maybe terrorists might choose to shoot two at a plane….

So maintaining a safe perimeter around airports becomes simultaneously more important and also impossible – especially the New York airports which are surrounded by light industry and warehousing, such that terrorists could simply drive up on a public street close to the airport in any vehicle, open the door (or sun rof), produce an SA-7 and fire it, then drive off again, all in a total of no more than two or three minutes.

Let’s hope the gratitude of these ‘rebels’ proves to be such that they don’t decide to use the SA-7s they’ve looted against the countries that helped them do so – primarily us, France, and the UK.

In a last-minute update, it seems we’re about to repeat our mistake (nothing new about that) and now provide support to Al Qaida in Syria, too, according to USA Today and most other sources.

More on Dodgy Disney ‘Disabled’ Guests

It has been an open secret for years that the easiest way through a Disney theme park is to have one of your group pretend to be disabled, and it is has been a slightly more closely held secret for some time that, if your conscience balks at the thought of pretending to be disabled yourself, you can simply hire a real disabled person to accompany you on your day at a Disney park.

But it is only now, after the latest round of high-profile exposures in the press, that Disney has ‘discovered’ that some of the disabled people it treats so well aren’t truly disabled.  So what is Disney doing about this?  Nothing.

Correction, it says it is ‘thoroughly reviewing the situation and will take appropriate steps to deter that type of activity’.  But as anyone knows, ‘thoroughly reviewing’ is a code phrase that actually means ‘we’ll do nothing for a long time while ostensibly conducting an unavoidably time-consuming thorough review, in the hope that people will forget all about it and we’ll not have to respond any further’.

It is a phrase beloved of airlines when called upon to explain the unexplainable and inexcusable.

For more, including tips on how easy it is to be designated as ‘disabled’ (my favorite being the child with a doctor’s note diagnosing him as having mild ADHD), please see here.

Las Vegas to Experience Massive New Growth Spurt?

The world’s largest shopping mall (15 million square feet – 50% larger than the current world’s largest mall – which lies empty, and 2.5 times larger than the largest actually in operation mall).  The world’s biggest Ferris wheel (800 ft, 50% larger than the current biggest in the world and almost twice the size of the London Eye).  An additional 45 hotels.  And a new convention center of 6 million square feet (twice the size of the already enormous Las Vegas Convention Center).  Plus lots more.

All these things are planned to be included in a new development that is variously described as ‘off the strip’ or as being located ‘not too far’ from the Las Vegas strip.

How far ways is ‘not too far’?  The reports are vague about its exact location, but we know it would take place on 1200 acres of land currently belonging to the Bureau of Land Management.  As best I can tell from their own records, ‘not too far’ is probably actually not all that short a distance at all and more like 20 miles.

But with everything else big, so big, in these newly announced development plans, a mere 20 mile separation between the Vegas strip and this new development is surely nothing, and you could certainly see the strip in the distance from the top of the proposed very tall ferris wheel, giving some sort of feeling of connection.

Color us skeptical about these plans.  But Vegas truly is a place where the impossible occurs, so who knows.  The developers hope to start construction within 15 months.  More details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Airlines are becoming much more imaginative with their airplane color schemes.  Even AA has abandoned its plain unpainted aluminum look (albeit with mixed results), and the trend, probably started by Qantas in 1993 with its gorgeous Wunala Dreaming plane (here’s a picture of it, chosen at random off Wikipedia, but interesting because the 1998 picture – taken when Qantas was probably at the very top of its form – also shows two other planes, both belonging to now defunct airlines – and for that matter, taken at a now defunct airport that is being transformed into a cruise ship terminal) has now been often copied.

Usually Wunala Dreaming type projects have been ‘one-off’ projects, but even the standard airplane liveries have become more imaginative.  So news this week of Air New Zealand’s plans to change its planes from its traditional Teal color (before it was known as Air NZ, the airline was known as TEAL – Tasman Empire Air Lines, so the color had a significance) to a new black and white color scheme might seem to be going against the trend, but more likely, their new designs (including a few planes that will be painted all black with limited white imagery) will be startling and distinctive.

If you’re a lover of airline nostalgia, you might enjoy roaming through our multi-page history of airline slogans, and here’s a new interesting collection of airline logos as they’ve evolved over the years (click the image for a larger image to open up).

You’ll probably agree that most of the time, logos have steadily improved in legibility, but there are a few unfortunate exceptions.  And, in the case of Emirates and Qantas in particular, one wonders why they bothered changing from the previous logo to the current one.  The same can be said for some trivial tweaks to other airline logos in the past, too.  A fascinating page of imagery.

Finally, there’s been a lot of discussion about the revelations over the last week over the extent of NSA and other surveillance programs and how they are vacuuming up so much about our personal and private lives, all in the name of national security.

But did you know there’s one protected category of people, free from official surveillance?  Muslims.  You might find this surprising – haven’t all the terrorist attacks these last twelve or more years against us have been by, hmmm, muslims?  But while the state is busy surveilling you and me every which way, it turns away from any suggestion of investigating muslim threats, due to muslim pressure groups complaining.  Details here.

I wonder, if we complain, does that mean we’ll be freed from surveillance too?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and, for sure, a very Happy Father’s Day to all dads.  If your children give you half as much joy as my daughter does me, you are truly blessed.







Jun 132013
One illustrated example of the capaciously pocketed ScotteVest jackets.

One illustrated example of the capaciously pocketed ScotteVest jackets.  Yes, that’s a full-sized iPad in one of the pockets.

It is fairly difficult to be too creative with how you promote something as seemingly generic as a jacket.  But Scott Jordan, founder and inventor of the ScotteVest range of products, continues to come up with new ideas and innovations.

In the past we’ve seen him send people around the world on extended journeys with the requirement that everything they travel with be contained within the capacious pockets of one of his jackets, causing him to get in public spats with airlines who feel (quite rightly) that his products are depriving them of the ability to charge excess baggage fees – or, for that matter, any baggage fees at all.

With as many as 26 pockets, it is possible to stuff a huge number of different of things into the jacket, something that has worked to my advantage when confronted by airline check-in staff wanting to weigh my carry-on bag and insist I check it due to it being too heavy.  The look of triumph on their faces turns to dismay as they watch me take things out of the bag and stuff them into pockets, then more things into more pockets, and so on.

As for me, I marvel at the idiocy of an airline policy that won’t let me take things onto the plane in my carry-on bag, but which will let me take them on in my jacket.  It is worth the price of a ScotteVest jacket just to be able to experience that small triumph against combined airline tyranny/idiocy.

More recently, Scott came up with a series of sales tools to help people resell their jackets on eBay – a bizarre concept perhaps, but apparently a popular one, with a quick check now showing 39 different ScotteVest projects being sold on eBay, and on Thursday, he announced his latest innovation.

As implied by the headline, he is now promising up to $1000 of reimbursement if you suffer a loss from pickpockets, if they succeed in taking something out of an inside zipped up pocket of a ScotteVest jacket.

You can see details of the guarantee here, and here’s a link to their home page.

I’ve seen people become extremely paranoid due to concerns about being pickpocketed, and adopt all manner of inconvenient hiding places for money.  That’s not to say pickpocketing isn’t a tangible risk – one expert says there are as many as 6,000 people pick-pocketed every day in Barcelona alone (here’s a great article that makes for very scary reading).

I’ve had my ScotteVest jacket for almost four years and it is still going strong.  I’ve even worn it in Barcelona and not suffered any pickpocket losses, either.  You should consider doing the same – it is truly much more convenient (and not nearly as gauche) to safely and simply retrieve cash, credit cards, ID, and other essentials you don’t want to lose out of a jacket pocket than to rummage down the front of your trousers or to unbutton the top buttons of your blouse.

Jun 132013
One team, one fight?  How about less fighting and more of the service we pay for.

One team, one fight???  How about less fighting and more of the service we pay for.

What part of welcoming foreign visitors and businessmen to the US do we not understand?

Is it the bit about the billions of dollars they will spend in our country, or the part about the millions of new jobs that would be created if we restored our country’s share of international travel to the historic levels it used to be, prior to when new ‘keep the foreigners out’ policies were enacted?

Do we currently have such a booming economy and trade surplus that we don’t need billions more dollars?  Do we currently have such full employment that we don’t want to add millions more jobs?

While other countries do all they can to attract and encourage international travelers to come visit, the US acts in a contrarian manner, harming itself for no good purpose.

Read this article in the Wall St Journal about the growth of lines and delays suffered by visitors to the US.  It is thought that the US is now the worst country in the world for visitors to enter (and that’s before we add the extra indignities, hassles, problems, and expenses of getting a visa to come here in the first place!).

The root cause of the problem?  Even though we’d done the worst we can to keep them away, foreign visitor numbers are up 12% over the last three years, but the Customs & Border Patrol have not hired any more agents.  Why not?  Passengers pay way over the odds in direct taxes and fees that more than cover the cost of the CBP staff.  And therefore, a growth in passenger numbers directly flows through to an increase in fees paid.  What is happening to the extra money the CBP is receiving?  Why is it not being spent on a matching increase in staff?

Every arriving passenger pays $16.30 for the privilege of being serviced by CBP agents, plus another $5 Agricultural inspection fee, another $5.50 Customs fee, and a further $7  Immigration fee.  Oh, and they pay another $16.30 to leave the country again.

The CBP’s apparent refusal to appropriately spend the money it receives on providing a fair level of service to the people who compulsorily paid the fees assessed is beyond appalling.  How can they not provide an abundant level of staffing in return for the $50.10 every passenger – both US citizens and foreigners – pays them?  Did you see $50.10 worth of value and staffing/infrastructure cost the last time you flew out of the country and back again (and don’t forget that you paid separate and additional fees for TSA screening, airport infrastructure, and just about every other imaginable thing, too)?

Where is any sense of management and concern among our country’s leadership?

Most of all, what has happened to our nation’s sense of decency and pride?  How is it that this country – once one of the most open and welcoming of countries, and once one of the best governed and most sensible of counties – now acts in a manner that would put a third world dictatorship to shame?

If you can get foreigner to speak openly and honestly to you – I can because my accent causes them not to identify me as a US citizen – they will eagerly tell you how their experiences getting visas and then entering the United States are the worst in the world.  Many people refuse to visit the US and refuse to fly any routes that require them to transit through the US.  They’d rather fly ‘the long way round’ to get somewhere than to go through the US, and who can blame them.

Ask them about their experiences traveling to other countries, ranging from ones we consider to be ‘bad’ to ones we have always thought ourselves to be superior to.  Cuba – lovely friendly people.  North Korea – passively disinterested bureaucrats and an easy process.  China – a civilized friendly easy process.  Russia – lazy bored staff, some delays, but again an easy process.  The EU?  Just walk on in.  Even our immediate neighbor to the north, Canada – a positive experience.  But the US?  Rude aggressive staff, ridiculously complex procedures to get visas, and the risk of multi-hour delays to be processed through Immigrations and Customs.

As observed before, we are now in the ridiculous situation where illegal aliens get a warmer welcome to the United States than legal visitors.  Why is the Senate not developing easy obvious solutions to this massive harm we’re inflicting on ourselves (ie mandating the CBP to staff to a level to ensure no-one waits more than perhaps 20 minutes), instead of tying itself up in knots arguing about illegal aliens?

Jun 122013
The excellent Airport Transit Guide app - now improved and extended.

The excellent Airport Transit Guide app – now improved and extended.

Usually I find it hard to write positively about products that ignore my suggestions for improvements, but in this case, the product is all the finer for having ignored the suggestions I offered to the company’s owner.  Please read on, I’ll explain.

One of my favorite ‘tools’ that helps me appear as an all-knowing Travel Insider is Ron Salk’s Airport Transit Guide.  For many years this was an annually updated tiny book that one could travel conveniently with, giving one valuable information on how to get between airports and the cities they serve.

I first reviewed the print version of Salk’s Airport Transit Guide way back in 2005.  At that time it was a $10 book, and I happily pointed out how, the first time I used it, it saved me over $50 by telling me an easy and much less expensive (than taxi) way to get from the train station to the airport in Munich.

I’ve kept a copy close to me ever since.  Then in 2010 Ron released the latest version of his guide as an iPhone app, also selling it for $10.  I reviewed his iPhone Airport Transit Guide here and was delighted to see its positive transition from a print to an electronic form.  Sure, the 144 page small-sized book didn’t take a lot of space and weighed only 3 oz, but adding the app to my iPhone helps reduce the bulk of everything I travel with even more.

Since that time, I’ve regularly used it, both for myself, and occasionally for answering reader queries; and Ron, for his part, has continued to update it on an ongoing basis, keeping the data fresh and up-to-date.

He has also dropped the price, and what was a high value product for $9.99 is now an even better bargain for $4.99.  How amazing that a product which, ten years ago, was selling for $10, is now improved, updated, and extended, and now only $5.

Which leads to the two suggestions of mine that Ron Salk – a long time Travel Insider Supporter – has ignored.  I’ve told him that he should take the price back up to $10, and I’ve also told him he should start charging an annual subscription for his ongoing updating.  But he has ignored both my suggestions, meaning that a single $5 investment on your part continues to get you a wonderfully valuable app and with ongoing updates stretching who knows how far into the future, all included.  With the print edition, most people would happily buy each year’s new edition for another $10; with the electronic one, so far, we’ve all received up to 2.5 years of free updating (it is now on its fourth electronic version) in return for a single $10 or, more recently, $5 purchase.

As the headline says, his app is all the better for ignoring my suggestions!

New Version Now Released

The main reason for bringing this to your attention now is the release of the latest (1.3) version of his app.  If you’ve already purchased the product, you’ll of course have been prompted to update it for free; if you’ve not already purchased it, maybe now is a good time to do so.

The new version not only has updated information, but some new features too.  It now has the ability to search for an airport by name or airport code, rather than needing to scroll through the alphabetical list of airport names.  This is particularly helpful if coming across an unrecognized airport code somewhere – as you surely know, airport codes don’t necessarily even start with the same letter as the airport name.  The app also has a few extra airports added, and of course has been refreshed with some further hundreds of updates.

It also now has added links to airport websites, so if there are other things you wish to understand about an airport, you can click from the Airport Transit Guide to open up the airport’s official website.   The linking to the airline websites is a bit clumsy, so if you prefer, you can also simply copy and paste the link from the Guide into your browser (and if you’re like me, you’ve loaded Chrome onto your iOS device and use that in preference to Apple’s default browser).

You can see more about the product in my two earlier reviews (linked above), and Ron also now offers it in a free trial version with data on two representative airports so you have a chance to try before you buy if you need further reassurance about its value and convenience.

One piece of advice – and a frequently extended request – that Ron is accepting, however, and that is to release the app for Android phones, too.  He says it will be available for your Android devices by the end of this month.  Yay.

So, if you’ve an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, you can get Salk’s Airport Transit Guide right now, for only $5.  If you’ve an Android device, you’ll only need to wait a few more weeks.  And if you have a Blackberry or WinPhone device – oh, wait.  No-one has those, do they?  :)