Oct 042013
That blob, obscured by the flames from its burning batteries, was a Tesla.

That blob, obscured by the flames from its burning batteries, was a Tesla.

Good morning

October 1 not only saw our government slightly shrink in size, but also marked the 71st anniversary of the first jet flight in the US, back in 1942 as described on this page.

Perhaps as a side-effect of being slow into World War 2, the US lagged behind both Germany and Britain in the development of jet technology, but few could argue that we’ve subsequently caught up (although let’s not overlook the ongoing presence of Rolls-Royce in Britain and the much smaller participation of German company MTU in the IAE consortium).

Still on the manufacturing front, the last week also saw the anniversary of the first production line Model T leave Ford’s Piquette Plant in Detroit, back on 27 September, 1908.  I wonder if Henry Ford ever guessed at the robot driven assembly lines of today, and the computerized cars they produce?  Of using aluminum as a material (back then it was more expensive than silver)?  And as for modern thermo-plastics, they were yet to be invented.

This last week also saw the unexpected passing of Tom Clancy, an author who probably single-handedly did more to define and popularize the ‘techno-thriller’ genre than anyone before or since.

A decade or so ago I sort of zoned out with the ongoing profusion of formulistic books bearing his name in big letters although largely written by others, but I still remember the excitement and rush to read his books during his first half-dozen or so releases.

Strangely, it still seems that his first work – The Hunt for Red October – was one of his best works.  And so, as a tribute to Mr Clancy, I uncovered this parody of the book, written by a group of real CIA employees, and full of insider jokes – if nothing else, it gives us an unintended glimpse of what life might really truly be like as a CIA staffer.

Surely the CIA isn’t that bureaucratic?  Or is it?

The other momentous event of the last week was Amawaterways giving us four more cabins for the Christmas cruise, after another group cancelled.  Two couples urgently grabbed two of the cabins, but two remain, both ultra-value D cabins.  If you’d like to take one of these steals of a deal and come along too, the note I sent out on Friday night is repeated, below.

Also below is a review of another business/travel type backpack.  By that I mean not a capacious outdoor camping one, but a medium-sized one that looks demure and discreet.  I’d reviewed a similar backpack in May, and now have two for side by side comparisons.

I’m definitely a convert to the concept of traveling with a backpack rather than a hand carry tote/briefcase/bag, but it seems that the perfect backpack for travelers has yet to be designed.  We’re close, but both products lack some simple but important features.  Meantime, and noting that ‘the excellent is the enemy of the good’, either of the two reviewed products would make a great improvement over most carry bags.

Our continually updated news site continues to get the latest and greatest travel related news out there in a timely manner (last week saw over 70 items added).  I’m enjoying it as much as anyone, because the team of ‘docents’ who are selecting news items to list on the site often uncover great pieces I’ve not seen myself.  Chances are there are plenty of pieces you’d enjoy reading, too.

It is also my sense that the nightly newsletter listing of each day’s new stories is proving popular.  It is getting a very high percentage of ‘opens’ and of clicks on to some of the featured stories.  If you’d like to get each day’s news pushed to you, then by all means sign up for the free news newsletter (the ‘Free Daily Newsletter’ option at the top of the News page).

And now that you might be getting a feeling for what the site is and what it does, if you’d like to become one of our elite team of volunteer docents, please do let me know.

And now, items on :

  • Survey Results – Tipping Flight Attendants
  • Frontier Airlines Sold
  • Another Spectacular Battery Fire – But This Time Not on a 787
  • More Cross-Channel Rail Service
  • Interesting New Travel/Cruise Blog
  • Chinese Touring Costs to Rise
  • Travel Implications of the Government Shutdown
  • More Reasons to Doubt the Success of Apple’s Latest iPhone Launch
  • Exciting Android News
  • And Lastly This Week….

Survey Results – Tipping Flight Attendants

Last week I asked your opinion on tipping flight attendants.  Unsurprisingly, most of you responded that you’ll never tip flight attendants, ever.  But do you see the surprising part of the results?



To me, the surprising part of the results is the 20% of people who don’t currently tip, but would do so in the future to conform to peer pressure.

Or maybe it isn’t really surprising at all – I think all of us, even the most strong-willed, tip as much to conform to social expectations as we do in a voluntary and unplanned act expressing surprise and appreciation at an unusual level of service.

So if the flight attendants can persuade enough of the 68% who adamantly refuse to tip, they’ll get another 20% of passengers tipping as a bonus.

As a quick comparison, here are the results from our survey, a couple of years ago, of tipping hotel maids.  Clearly, Travel Insiders are potentially – but selectively – generous.



Frontier Airlines Sold

After having had a ‘For Sale’ sign dangling out their corporate office window for an embarrassingly long time, it seems that Frontier (currently owned by Republic) is finally getting a new owner.

The new owner is Indigo Partners, and if that’s not a name that immediately signifies anything to you, it might help to explain that Indigo Partners is the investment firm largely belonging to  Bill Franke.  And if his name is not known to you, let me explain that he was, until immediately prior to buying Frontier, the Chairman of Spirit, which he bought in 2006 and transformed into a very low-cost (and very high fee) airline.

Franke was the CEO of America West from 1993 – 2001, and was also an early investor in Ryanair.  His other airline interests include holdings in Tiger Air (Singapore), Volaris (Mexico), Mandala Airlines (Indonesia) and the indelicately named Wizz Air (Hungary).  So he’s far from an airline industry novice.

The expectation is that he now plans to out-Spirit Spirit with his new airline, probably going closer to the Ryanair model of almost throwaway fares and massive fees for everything – but without the (in)famous Ryanair attitude.

Frontier and Spirit are similar in size (each has about 1.5% of the US market) and have few overlapping routes.  The really surprising thing is that Franke wasn’t able to arrange things so the two airlines merged, which would create a carrier of more significant size with a greatly expanded route network.

Frontier under its new ownership can be expected to become a more active player in the industry than it has been of late.  Frontier is almost exclusively a Denver hubbed airline – approximately 93% of all its flights either start or end in Denver.

It will be interesting to see if giant United will choose to use its dominance of Denver (40% share) to squish Frontier (22% share) before it becomes too big to squish, now that it may start to show some resurgent signs of being a bother to United.

And the other always wildcard in that equation is the number two airline at Denver, which you might be surprised (if you don’t live in Denver) to learn is Southwest, which has quickly amassed a 25% market share.

Here’s some more about Franke and the sale.

Another Spectacular Battery Fire – But This Time Not on a 787

During Boeing’s battery crisis earlier this year, wunderkind Elon Musk, founder of the Tesla company, offered to help Boeing with their battery problems.  He claimed his company had considerable expertize and a great deal of success and assured safety with its Lithium-ion battery-powered electric cars.

He also didn’t hesitate to tell Boeing in public what he thought their problems were, and to suggest that the solution would be to build batteries the same way Tesla does in its cars.

Anyway, that was then.  And as for now, well, an embarrassing incident occurred on Tuesday evening this week, here in the Seattle area, when a Tesla’s battery caught on fire and made a spectacular blaze.  And, this being 2013, another passing motorist caught it on video, and immediately shared it on YouTube for the rest of the world to see.

Amazingly, the fire department was on the scene within three minutes.  They soon discovered that using fire hoses and water made the fire worse, not better!  It took them 2½ hours on the scene to be sure they had the fire contained and controlled.

It is interesting to note the comment of the video taker, as heard on his video.  From the far side of the four lane road, he said ‘Wow, I can feel the heat in here’.  Lithium fueled fires burn hotter than the surface of the sun.

The cause of the fire isn’t yet clear.  The driver says he heard a noise and thinks he must had hit some debris on the road, which somehow was flung up by the tires and initiated the battery fire.  That’s a possibility, although no likely debris was found; another possibility is that the noise and slight judder/impact he thought was coming from debris hitting the car’s underside was actually one of the cells in the battery exploding.

But there’s no right answer to what caused the fire.  A spontaneous explosion is really bad, but to have batteries that can burst into flames whenever a car hits some piece of road debris – a far from unique occurrence for us all – is equally bad.

While this was in a car, not in a plane, there’s a chilling lesson that we should take from it.  These lithium-ion batteries are enormously dangerous, and even the ‘best practices’ of Tesla – battery cooling, and having lots of tiny cells, separated from each other, in the hope of preventing a ‘domino’ effect of one battery’s conflagration causing a chain reaction of surrounding batteries then bursting into fire too – failed to prevent a fire that was very hard to put out and burned very hotly for up to 2½ hours.

To extinguish the fire, fire fighters had to tip the vehicle on its side and cut into the battery compartment so they could access the batteries and somehow extinguish the fire.

None of this could be done on a plane in mid-flight.  It seems to have only taken a minute or two from the first indication of something being wrong to flames leaping out of the car – if this was on a plane, there’s no way the plane could land in time, even if it was happily flying over an airport at the time of the event.  And, yes, the intense heat would definitely not just melt plastic but also set it (and also aluminum) on fire.

While it was Tesla with egg all over its face on Tuesday night (and a falling stock price the next days as a result), the implications for Boeing and its 787 are obvious and surely of the greatest concern.  Just how safe can their new battery boxes possibly be, with so much energy that could suddenly let loose from the batteries.

This article discusses the matter some more.

More Cross-Channel Rail Service

Earlier this year, Deutsche Bahn – the German rail operator – announced it would be the first external railroad to access the Eurostar track between London, through the Chunnel, and to the continent.  Its service is expected to start in 2016, and is thought to involve trains between London and several European cities – almost certainly Frankfurt, and perhaps Cologne and even Amsterdam.

Not to be outdone, Eurostar, the current exclusive passenger train operator through the Chunnel, has said that it will add service between London and Amsterdam too (with stops in Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schiphol on the way).  Total journey time between London and Amsterdam is expected to be about four hours, which is comparable to what it takes to fly.

The London-Amsterdam city pair is the most flown one of all London-Europe city pairs, with about 3 million passengers a year.  That’s a lot of plane loads (probably at least 40 a day) and if even only half that switches to trains, well, it will be a few more opened slots at Heathrow if nothing else.

The service is not expected to get underway until December 2016.  More details here.

Interesting New Travel/Cruise Blog

One of our Travel Insider Super Supporters, Steve Wellmeier, has recently ‘gone out on his own’ and is now providing a range of marketing and other services to small cruise ship lines and other niche travel companies; indeed in his first month I see he has already picked up five clients.  As a ‘loss leader’ he shares some of his expertise, analysis, and advice on a new blog; the pieces are of special interest to people within the travel industry, but of general interest to everyone else as well.

He is also our most prolific docent on the new News site, too.  Not sure how he fits it all into each day, but clearly he does.

You might want to visit his blog, especially if you’re in the travel industry.

Chinese Touring Costs to Rise

Anyone who has ever gone to China knows to expect a constant barrage of ‘opportunities’ to buy things – a typical day of touring always seems to involve copious time at a jade or silk or art or other store.

The reason for this is fairly transparently obvious – the tour company, and/or the individual tour guide, gets a kickback from the store based on the value of goods sold to the people in the group.  The kickback can be 30% and possibly even more, depending on the store and the goods it is selling.

Indeed, when I put together tours that include China, it is a struggle to explain to the tour companies that I’ll pay extra for the tour so as to avoid the tourist traps.

This doesn’t just occur in China, of course.  There used to be – and for all I know still are – companies in Japan that would send Japanese people to Australia to spend a week around Brisbane, almost completely for free; they made all the money they needed to cover the costs of the travel they were giving away, plus to make a good profit besides, from the commissions/kickbacks they got from the stores they aggressively shuffled the visitors through.

And before you start to feel too superior, it happens in this country too.  Free flights or coach tours to casinos, for example.

Personally, I think it is not a bad thing at all.  The fools who spend sometimes astonishing amounts of money on overpriced junk subsidize the sensible people who don’t buy a thing but get to enjoy a cheap tour.  Where’s the harm in that?

But China has now come out with a new law making it illegal to reduce the price of a tour based on the anticipated receipt of ancillary income.  This has made the cost of tours skyrocket, sometimes by more than 50%.  Details here.

But do you think that people won’t still be marched through the tourist traps?  Of course they will, but instead of a share of the money the shoppers waste going to subsidize the cost of the tour for the entire group, now that money just goes to the tour company as pure profit.

Meanwhile, the much higher upfront costs of tours is reducing the number of people who travel.  That’s bad for everyone – the tour companies, the airlines/hotels, and the stores who hope to be visited by the now non-travelers.

So who wins as a result of the new law?  No-one.  Perhaps the Chinese government should shut down, too.

Travel Implications of the Government Shutdown

Talking about government shutdowns, the possibly good news is that most of the ways in which we’re forced to interact with our government, whether we wish to or not, at least while traveling, are continuing unabated.

But don’t think for one minute this is the government being magnanimous.  Oh no, not at all.  Instead, it is the government reluctantly doing what it is supposed to do – applying funds directly levied and received to the purposes for which they are intended.  The TSA, the CBP, the ATC and suchlike are all paid for from user fees, not general taxation, and so are removed from shutdown.

But what about people wanting to travel and see public sights, monuments, and the like?  Although in past shutdowns these types of places remained open, inexplicably this time the government is ‘closing’ things like some of the DC memorials.

Why does a granite or other type of stone memorial, in the middle of a piece of public land, need to be barricaded off in this shutdown, but not in past shutdowns?  And how about the foreign graveyards in other countries – why on earth do those need to be cordoned off?

The same goes for national parks.  The only government presence I see in most national parks are the wardens at the entrance booths, taking $20 per car that drives in.  Indeed, in winter, many times the booths aren’t manned and everything operates on an honesty system.  Why couldn’t the same arrangement be extended for what is likely to be a short rather than long shutdown.  Alternatively, if they stayed open, how many staff would the fees thereby collected cover?

This isn’t our friendly government doing all it possibly can to minimize the effects of its shutdown on the citizens it serves.  This is a vengeful government deliberately doing all it can to inflict harm on us.  The government no longer serves us, and no longer pretends to serve us.  (This is not a criticism of the non-policy making federal employees, many of whom read this newsletter, and who are as much innocent victims of the government shutdown as are the rest of us.)

One also reads of the government threatening the annual Army-Navy Football Game.  Sure, that’s not a big part of my annual sports watching (assuming I actually watch any sports at all, of course….), but one has to admire United Airlines for stepping in and offering to fly the Navy team to where the game would be played, rather than let the government ‘punish’ us all by preventing the game from occurring.

There’s been some anguished hand-wringing in public that – gasp – we are having to rely on the airlines to police themselves and their safety standards at present, without FAA inspectors every which where to keep an eagle eye on them.  But that’s a lot of nonsense being put out by people with vested interests.  The truth is that most inspection is ‘self inspection’ already, and furthermore, safety is simply good business sense for the airlines.  They don’t do it for altruistic reasons, they do it for reasons of selfish self-interest.

More Reasons to Doubt the Success of Apple’s Latest iPhone Launch

The basic ‘facts’ appeared to be overwhelmingly positive.  In the first weekend of sales for last year’s iPhone 5 sale, 5 million phones were sold.  In the first weekend of sales for this year’s launch, 9 million phones were sold – a stunning 80% leap upwards from last year’s figure.

Apple was certainly crowing with delight at these figures after revealing them last week, and most reports faithfully echoed Apple’s enthusiasm.

It felt wrong to me.  At street level, and from what insiders were telling me, there just wasn’t as much excitement as last year.  But, hey, 9 million sure beats 5 million, right?

Well, actually, possibly not.

I commented last week about two obvious differences that invalidated the comparison.  Two new models were launched this year, rather than one last year, and into two additional launch markets this year (11 countries rather than 9) including, ahem, the largest country in the world, China.  I said I wanted to see same-store sales to get a better understanding of how the phones were truly selling.

But there is another factor as well.  The number reported for ‘sales’ is not retail sales.  It is sales from Apple to distributors/wholesalers/stores, not the number actually sold by the stores themselves to end users.

In all past years, every last iPhone has been sold out by the end of the weekend, making the number of phones sold to the public the same as the number of phones sold by Apple to distributors, etc.  But this year, for the first time every, some millions of phones remained unsold at the end of the weekend.  So the 9 million needs to be adjusted down to truly count the actual retail sales, not the wholesale sales ‘into the channel’.

According to this article, only 5.5 million phones were actually sold to the public, the other 3.5 million went into channel filling and remained unsold at the end of the weekend.

So – this year, even with two models instead of one, and even with 11 countries instead of 9 (now including China for the first time), and even after allowing for the general growth in the smart phone market as a whole (probably about 20% for that alone) Apple barely managed to lift its sales from 5 million to 5.5 million – a 10% increase.  They had twice as many phone models, 22% more countries (and massively more than 22% increase in population covered) and the market as a whole had grown by 20% or more in the year since the last launch, and with all those boosts, they only got a 10% increase in sales.

Tell that to the Apple fanboys.  The iPhone launch this year wasn’t an extraordinary triumph.  It was a dismal disaster.

Exciting Android News

In exciting good phone news this week, the rumors are getting stronger, telling us to expect Google to announce its new Nexus 5 probably around October 20.

And we’re starting to see a raft of really exciting Android tablets – Dell is bringing some out, and even French company Archos, that always seems to be a day late and dollar short, is bringing out some exciting new models too; all priced way way below the iPad and also all outperforming the iPad on specs.

Meanwhile, at the truly bottom end of the market, Walmart is selling an 8″ screen sized Android tablet from Ematic (model EGP008)  that sells for only $130.  That is a stunning value point for a reasonably good tablet.  Apple’s smaller screened but otherwise comparable iPad Mini costs almost three times that.

Apple’s response to its ongoing huge loss of tablet market share?  Oh, information leaked this week that it was having problems getting new improved screens it desperately needs to release a new improved iPad Mini.  The current iPad Mini has been hugely outgunned by Android tablets right from when it was launched last year, and the latest generation of Android tablets are way ahead of the iPad in terms of value, performance, and market share too.  It now seems possible Apple may not be able to get a new iPad Mini into the market in time for Christmas sales this year.  Ouch.

In not quite so exciting news, it seems that the otherwise appealing Samsung Galaxy Note 3 may have been designed to ‘cheat’ on the standard industry speed tests that are used to rate and compare all smartphones.  Naughty Samsung.

And Lastly This Week….

We sometimes write of pilots being caught napping at the controls.  Well, not only naps.  Sometimes deep sleeps, taking them an hour or more past their destination, followed by some staggeringly implausible excuses as to how they forgot to land at the airport and instead fly over it, while ignoring increasingly anguished and urgent radio messages.

But this article points out that no plane has ever crashed or otherwise been harmed due to having its pilots asleep.  Clearly then, and this is also the article’s conclusion (but for more serious reasons), you are never safer than when both pilots are asleep in the cockpit!

Talking about pilots, here’s a fascinating article that writes about a little known feature of how pilots used to navigate their way across the country in the ‘good old days’.

Not such a joke is the inauguration of Obamacare this week.  My private personal health insurance is being cancelled as a result, and no-one can currently tell me what it will cost to replace it, other than ‘much more’.  So I’m a loser on the deal.  As is everyone else I know – either finding their work hours cut back, or their health insurance gone, or finding a new 1.78% tax on the house they were selling to go towards the costs of Obamacare.

I really don’t know who benefits from this costly new system, but it sure isn’t anyone I know, rich or poor, currently insured or not.

So, whether it be due to parlous health care coverage or just because, until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Aug 232013
My daughter Anna struggling to stay awake on the Qantas night flight to Sydney.

My daughter Anna struggling to stay awake on the Qantas night flight to Sydney.

Good morning

A very quick newsletter this week.  As advised last week, I’m on the road currently, and had not expected to be able to get anything to you, but I managed to write a couple of things.

First, I neglected to mention the incipient price rise of our Sri Lanka tour last week.  Having neglected to do that, I was guilted into allowing another person to ‘slip under the wire’ and it seems only fair to extend that offer to anyone else who is close to choosing to come.

You probably know a lot about the tour from my general comments so far, and here’s the main tour detail page, with a link from that to a daily detailed itinerary that shows the cornucopia of delights in this wonderful tour.  To take advantage of the current price, and to join 28 of your fellow Travel Insiders on what promises to be a lovely experience in an ‘up and coming’ travel destination, please send in your application to join by the end of this weekend.

Our travels on Tues/Wed/Thu/Fri were unavoidably lengthy, with the most boring part of the entire experience being the ten-hour layover at LAX on Tuesday.  This was made worse by spending three hours shivering in front of the a/c outlets in the Intl Terminal – you’ve probably not had to spend three hours in the public area of that terminal, but if you have, you’ll know there is almost no seating anywhere, other than for an area that does double duty as a mezzanine level food court.  Perhaps to discourage people from staying too long there, the terminal’s a/c ducting blows cold air directly at the seating.

We’d not have had to stay three hours there, if it weren’t for Alaska Airlines claiming they were unable to issue boarding passes all the way to Sydney.  So we had to wait three miserable hours until the Qantas counters opened at LAX allowing us to get boarding passes to go through security and on to the Oneworld lounge.

The Oneworld business class lounge in Los Angeles was okay, but nothing extraordinary.  There were 11 Apple computers for people to use, and another six places for people to use their own computers, but all these places suffered from a privacy problem – the screens faced directly into the main area and walk-ways.  Some other lounges have more private little study cubicle type spaces; which also provide some sound privacy – as I type this in the lounge, I’m struggling not to listen to one side of an interminable rambling conversation between an Australian guy, six spaces over from me, and someone else on the other end of his Skype connection.

I’m impressed he could maintain a conversation.  The Wi-Fi bandwidth in the lounge varied between inadequate and non-existent.  A test using speedtest.net at a particularly slow point revealed a 969 msec latency (30 or more times slower than what you’d hope for), a download speed of 0.07 Mbits/sec and an upload speed of 0.06 Mbits/sec – 500 times slower than my data line at home.  It seemed (and no surprise here) that as the lounge filled up, and more people started using the Wi-Fi for everything (a lot of people Skyping, probably because most people in this lounge were international rather than domestic travelers) the Wi-Fi got worse and worse.

Come on, please, Oneworld.  Give us some decent bandwidth.

There was some reasonable hot food and a bit of cold food, plus a coffee machine, soda fountain (out-of-order), generic ordinary beers and sodas, and a very limited range of well drinks, of only generic types (eg no single malt whisky at all).  There were a couple of white wines, three red wines, and some sparkling wine too, but alas, unlike ‘the good old days’ no champagne to be found anywhere (and, yes, I did look most assiduously!).

We also spent some time in the Qantas lounge at Sydney.  I was expecting great things, because Sydney is Qantas’ headquarters and flagship lounge.  Unfortunately, I hated it.  Not just disliked, but actively hated  it.

There were three reasons for such a passionate dislike.  First, its location, with a gratuitous amount of unnecessary walking to access the lounge – not something that normally matters to me, still blessed with good perambulatory abilities; but for Anna, proudly hobbling along on her first pair of high heel shoes (or for older less mobile passengers) it was an unneeded extra inconvenience.

Secondly, the lounge is filled with nonstop ‘elevator music’ – new world, spacy, and simultaneously offensively bland but also surprisingly prominent music.  In particular, as people with even an ounce of skill at programming background music would know, you don’t use voices for ‘quiet background music’, you stick to instrumental.  Oh, and go easy on the drums and trombones too, please.  But this music was mainly vocal and often with an aggressive rhythm section and prominent brass sections, and while trying to concentrate on work, the ugly music really interfered.  And that’s before one has to also experience the loud flight departure announcements too.

Thirdly, and in common with LAX, there were no workstations, just a long bench for people to work on their laptops.  And instead of chairs – indeed, Qantas used to have height adjustable swivel/tilt chairs in its lounge – you now have circular squabs.  The squabs are too low or the counter is too high (maybe both) and the result is an ergonomic nightmare.

Oh, one more thing that came to light – quite literally.  The early morning sun rose almost directly in front of the window which the bench for computer workers faces.  There are no blinds or shades, so I’m typing this with the near blinding light of the early morning sun streaming in my face.  The things I do for you, dear reader!

How can an airline mess up so spectacularly with its lounge design?

But to switch now from the very disappointing SYD lounge to the flight experiences, it was almost eight years since I’d last flown in a Qantas business class cabin (and only did so this time by way of frequent flier award tickets).  I wasn’t sure what to expect – Qantas has been imploding and destroying itself over the last decade, ceding its one-time primacy on international routes out of Australia and hollowing out its core routes almost to the point of non-existence.

But to my delight, the old 747-400 we flew LAX-SYD was immaculately maintained inside, the seat/bed comfortable, the food excellent, the drink selection varied, and the service wonderful.  I might write in greater length subsequently, but for now, suffice it to say that it was as good a flight as I’ve ever enjoyed on Qantas.  Sure, I could see areas where cost cutting was intruding, but if one overlooks those issues, it was close to a perfect flight, complete with ontime departure and early arrival.

Talking about frequent flier awards, it is interesting to notice the latest perfidy involved in redeeming awards.  I’ve noticed this creeping in for the last few years, and saw it very starkly while trying to book my flights this time.  With many airlines, if you look for coach class award availability, you’ll see no seats available.  So you instead look for business class award availability, and you find good availability, but upon examining the availability further, it turns out that most of the ‘business class’ flights are actually in the coach class cabin!

But even if 75% or more of the total miles flown end up in coach class, you don’t get any discount off the full business class award mileage cost.

Just another little way the airlines have reduced the value of their ‘loyalty’ programs.

We’re now in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Amazingly, the country has had 3,000 earthquakes over the last month, and while most of them have been very minor, some have been more considerable in strength.  Anna is hoping she’ll get to experience her first felt earthquake.  Hopefully she’ll accept a jetboat ride, a luge ride, and a few other activities in Queenstown as an acceptable second best.  :)

I should add that I’m in the early stages of devising a New Zealand tour, for Oct/Nov 2014.  Keep some time free if you’d like to enjoy a visit to my home country with me then.

There’s also a freestanding item about the alleged danger of lasers shining at pilots, and, below, items on :

  • A Shameful Response to the SFO FD’s Killing of a Passenger
  • This Week’s 787 Problem
  • Hey BA – What About AA?
  • Probably a Naughty Thing to Do; But International Terrorism?
  • Keeping Abreast of the Latest Airline Security Threat
  • The Dangers of Train Travel
  • A Solution to My Seven Internet Connections Problem
  • TSA to Buy 3.454 million rounds of Pistol Ammo
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Shameful Response to the SF FD’s Killing of a Passenger

In among the fury of focus on Asiana’s pilots (and indeed, all Korean pilots and pretty much all Asian pilots in general) there has been only a very muted commentary when the story eventually emerged that one of the passengers who died subsequent to the 777 crash at SFO did so as a result of being run over by a fire truck rather than because of any injuries actually received in the crash itself.  Don’t you think this is something that deserves some commentary – have you ever heard of other airport fire departments running over evacuating passengers before?  Of all the unusual and unnecessary ways to die in a plane crash, surely beneath the wheels of an airport fire truck is the worst of all.

Indeed, there’s also been very little commentary about what seems to have been a surprisingly long time from the plane crashing to the first fire trucks and aid units arriving on the scene and starting to fight the fire and assist the passengers.  There was a bit of eyeball rolling at passengers on the flight trying to call for help on their cell phones, but little discussion on why it was it took so long for ‘first’ responders to arrive; indeed I noticed  but can’t now find one article which suggested that the ‘first’ responders on the scene held back approaching the plane until they had been joined by second and third waves of support.

How did we find out about the 16 yr old Chinese student being run over by a fire truck?  Helmet camera video footage was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle.  Yet another example of the omnipresence of video cameras these days and the benefits of having them everywhere.

So what does the SF Fire Department do in response?  Yes, it does change one of its policies/procedures, but alas, the change will do nothing to protect future evacuating passengers.  Instead, it doubles down on an earlier ban on the use of helmet video cameras, ostensibly due to concerns about privacy.

In truth it is indeed all about privacy – hoping to keep their actions and mistakes private.  This is a doubly-shameful response.  First, it removes an important element of accountability, and second, it impairs the efficiency and the safety of the firemen.  The helmet cameras are not only for offline recording purposes, they can also be used to broadcast realtime video to a command post and other firemen, so that there is a better awareness of what is happening and where the problems are in any situation they are responding to.

More details of the self-serving excuses for removing helmet video here.

This Week’s 787 Problem

Boeing has now determined that the 787 engine extinguisher wiring problem discovered last week isn’t its fault.  Oh no, Boeing says it is blameless – it is the fault of one of its suppliers.

Apparently Boeing does not feel that as the final assembler of the planes, and as the company who brands the plane, that it should quality control or test or accept liability for anything that it hasn’t 100% made itself.  And when one considers just how precious little of the 787 Boeing actually did make itself, that’s a fairly sweeping exemption it is claiming.

This article touches on Boeing’s ‘not our fault’ claim and also mentions in passing that during the course of checking for the fire extinguisher wiring problem, United found a different ‘pinched wire’ problem elsewhere on one of its six 787s.

Another ‘teething problem’ and not Boeing’s fault, of course.

How many more problems are airlines continuing to find with their 787s, and how many more will they continue to find in the future?

Hey BA – What About AA?

The BA/AA link-up over the Atlantic, and their more general cooperation as founding and key members of the Oneworld alliance, is nothing new.  The ability of each airline to codeshare on the other airline’s flights is also nothing new.

So how can we now understand BA’s decision to now work more closely with an AA competitor – Jetblue?  BA and Jetblue announced their intention to interline on 18 BA flights and more than 50 Jetblue routes (we are presuming that ‘interline’ means primarily the act of checking bags through without a need to get them off the carousel and recheck them when changing airlines).

While we’re delighted to see cooperation that makes it easier for passengers to mix and match the airlines they fly, it is curious why BA is helping an AA competitor, indeed, an airline that not only competes with its US partner, but also an airline which is minority owned by its own competitor, Lufthansa.

More details here.

Talking about code shares, while gazing at the departure board in the Intl Terminal at LAX, I noticed a flight shared among six different airlines.  Air India, Air New Zealand, Austrian Air, Brussels Air, Lufthansa and United, all sharing the same plane bound for Frankfurt.

That seems like a lot, of course, but it also begs the question.  If you’re sharing a flight six different ways, why stop there?  Why not give it a flight number for every airline in your alliance?

Probably a Naughty Thing to Do; But International Terrorism?

A full-time Task Force Officer in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating the actions of a gentleman on a flight from MSP to SLC, presumably out of concern that what no-one seems to be taking too seriously at present (ie no charges yet filed and no dramatic airport arrests and imprisonment) and which apparently would be no more than a misdemeanor if prosecuted and convicted may have obscured an incipient act of international terrorism.

If you really want to know about the gentleman’s problem, you can read more about it here.  Oh, and in an update, the gentleman is now being prosecuted for ‘lewd and obscene behavior’.

Surely, a curious thing for the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to be investigating?

Keeping Abreast of the Latest Airline Security Threats

We’ve speculated before about the potential for hell-bent and hell-bound terrorists to secrete explosives inside their body, and it seems that in addition to the obvious ‘cavities’ (such as they are) terrorists are now considering a new means of getting bombs on board – using them in lieu of breast implants.

I was going to look up details of how big a typical and large size breast implant may be in terms of how many ounces of liquid they contain, but I’m hesitant to do it while sitting in a very public position at the Oneworld lounge at LAX.  Apart from doubtless generating some slightly inappropriate pictures, the search topic might alarm some of the more paranoid people about me, so if you really want to know more about this, you’ll have to go research it yourself.

But I’ll guess it is not impossible for an implant to contain a pint and possibly even a quart of material.  What would the effect of that be if detonated on a plane?

Well, for sure, it would make a terrible mess, with quite literally blood and guts flying all around the place, but the force of the blast would be absorbed in significant measure by the terrorist’s body, and if anything, the typical shape of an implant might cause the blast to focus more inwards rather than outwards.

Perhaps if a terrorist pressed herself tightly against a window and then blew herself up, she might succeed in blowing a window out, but that’s not going to cause the plane to fall out of the sky.

As this article points out, breast implant explosives would not be detectable by any current means.  Not metal detectors, not explosives detectors, and not whole body imaging machines either.

The article also mentions a new type of undetectable explosive that can be soaked onto a person’s clothing.

One doesn’t want to think too carefully about the type of security countermeasures and responses needed to combat these new threats.  It is a good job that we are winning the war on terrorism, isn’t it.

Meantime, this article complaining about silly security measures at Paris/CDG seems to suggest that business class passengers get less scrutiny than coach class passengers.  Let’s hope the terrorists can’t afford business class tickets.

My daughter and I were selected for extra security checks as we were about to board our flight down to Los Angeles from Seattle.  A TSA agent pulled us to one side and asked to see our ID.  After giving our passports the most cursory of glances, he then waved us on to the plane.  What exactly was the point of that, one wonders?

On the other hand, Anna was given a ‘free ride’ – sort of – through security at LAX.  She was told ‘Oh, you are under 12, so you don’t need to take your shoes off’.  Apparently children under 12 are not a security risk, and would never be duped by adults to unwittingly carry explosives through security?

So, although she had already taken her shoes off, she put them back on again, but when going through the metal detector (children also get to go through the metal detector rather than whole body imager) she beeped.  A TSA agent said ‘Oh, it will be her shoes’ and instructed her to take them off.

So what exactly was the point of not having to take her shoes off – indeed, being told to put them back on – if, when they beeped due to metal inserts, she then had to take them off?

The Dangers of Train Travel

Remember the curious one week closing of 19 American Embassies around the Middle East and Africa a couple of weeks ago?

It seems that part of the reason for this was the NSA having listened in on an Al-Qaeda conference call, but now that the experts have decided it is safe to open our embassies again, it is being suggested that after we ‘foiled’ their possible attack on our embassies  by cleverly closing them for a week, the terrorists have shifted their target, and now have Europe’s high-speed rail network in their sights.

You might think that the appropriate response would therefore be to stop operating ‘high risk’ trains for a week.  But apparently the Europeans are not quite so easily panicked, although in truth, high-speed trains do have appreciable vulnerabilities with the potential for bombs either on trains or on the thousands of miles of largely unprotected tracks.  Imagine the mess if one had to start going through TSA style security to board a train.

More details here.

Turning now to slow speed rail, it seems there are dangers a plenty, even with the slowest trains, albeit different sorts of dangers.  Can you guess how many people a day die on the Indian rail network?  The answer is higher than you might have thought, as you’ll see in this article.

A Solution to My Seven Internet Connections Problem

So, my eight nine year old daughter (she turns nine ‘today’ – 24 Aug in New Zealand, but still 23 Aug in the US) and I have seven devices between us that ‘need’ internet connectivity.  A laptop each, an iPad each, and a 7″ Android tablet each, too.  Plus I have a phone; Anna grudgingly agreed to leave hers behind.  While that sounds like a lot of devices, it is far from unique these days and the chances are you often have multiple devices needing internet connections with you on your travels too.

The problem arises in some of the hotels we’re staying at, which charge a fee per day – per device.  It is bad enough paying $15/day to access the internet, but imagine the extra pain when that is multiplied seven-fold and becomes $105/day.

Fortunately, there’s a solution.  Connectify, an ingenious piece of software that runs on any Windows 7 or 8 computer.  It takes any internet feed into my laptop (either Wi-Fi or Ethernet) and rebroadcasts it as a new Wi-Fi LAN – its greatest cleverness is in being able to use the Wi-Fi unit in the laptop simultaneously to connect to the hotel’s Wi-Fi source and also to connect to other devices as the internet source, itself.  So the hotel sees only the single device connection, while we get connectivity on all our devices.

This is an excellent product – an essential product in times like this.  It is available in both a free and a paid form; both work well, but of course the paid version works slightly better.

I reviewed it a few years back, and it remains as excellent now as it was then.  Highly recommended.

TSA to Buy 3.454 million rounds of Pistol Ammo

TSA ‘officers’ don’t carry weapons, at least not at present.

So how to understand their tender proposal to buy 3.454 million rounds of pistol ammunition?  What could they possibly do with so much ammunition, when their officers aren’t armed?

There’s also an amusing typo in the proposal – they ask for quotes to buy .347 SIG ammo.  It should be .357 SIG (which is also an unusual choice of caliber in any event and a totally different cartridge to the famous ‘357 magnum’ revolver round).

Some studies have suggested that the Homeland Security Dept in general is now using more ammunition per employee per year than the army, and the HSD isn’t actually fighting any wars.

Someone really has to explain what the TSA needs with 3.454 million rounds of unusual caliber pistol ammunition.

And Lastly This Week….

If you’ve ever wondered how much a new plane costs, here’s an interesting series of price comparisons between similar Boeing and Airbus models.

Two things to keep in mind.  The first is that the purchase price is, in many ways, the least important part of an airline’s evaluation of potential planes to purchase.  All sorts of other things are also important – the plane’s range, its fuel efficiency, its ability to carry both passengers and cargo, its maintenance costs, and how it can be integrated into the airline’s fleet, for example.  Other issues also apply to new planes, the same as new cars – financing terms and discounts.

Both Airbus and Boeing will readily discount their new planes by about 30%, and sometimes by close to 50%.  And Boeing has a major plus when it comes to financing, due to the assistance of the US Export-Import bank, but only when the purchaser is a foreign airline rather than a US airline.  The US carriers consider it unfair that their airline competitors are being financed by the US government, and therefore indirectly from the taxes they themselves pay.

So, this simple set of price comparisons isn’t extremely useful, but it makes for an interesting quick overview.

Something often talked about – more commonly in a joking/resigned manner of ‘They’d never do it but I wish they would’ is actually being timidly rolled out on some airlines.  Child-free zones.  It does raise an interesting question, though – with almost no child discounts ever offered anymore, how can an airline fairly restrict where a child sits?  Details here.

Lastly this week, public conveniences in China are not always of world-class standard (although that’s a rather vague sort of measurement, isn’t it!).  So perhaps any measures adopted to improve their cleanliness are to be welcomed, even if sometimes the actual measure somewhat misses the mark of what is sensible and prudent.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Aug 152013
The new Hyperloop transportation system is a re-imagined application of an earlier concept, hopefully in a more perfect and practical form.

The new Hyperloop transportation system is a re-imagined application of an earlier concept, hopefully in a more perfect and practical form.

There have been a number of ‘teaser’ pre-releases over the last several months about a revolutionary new transportation technology that Elon Musk (of Tesla and SpaceX fame) is supporting, and this week saw his official and detailed release.

The earlier concepts suggested passenger pods swishing through vacuum tubes at speeds twice that of airplanes.  The ‘vision’ released this week – and now termed the Hyperloop –  is more practical.  The tubes will no longer be vacuums, and the speed is now up to about 760 mph, but Musk says that will still get people between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 35 minutes, and with a total cost to build the system between the two cities of about $6 billion.  He suggests his system could be up and running in as little as ten years.

This contrasts with California’s high-speed rail concept, which will cost more than $60 billion and more likely more than $100 billion, with journey times vaguely referred to as ‘under three hours’ – in other words, four or five times slower, and completion currently not expected until almost two decades from now (a date that will inevitably slip).  Oh – one more thing.  Although apparently pressing ahead with the $60 – $100 billion extravaganza, California has no money to pay for it and no idea where the money will all come from.

Rather than welcoming the concept and suspending the ridiculous high-speed rail boondoggle while reviewing Musk’s admittedly far from ‘shovel ready’ concept, the powers that be in California are preferring to ridicule it and stick with what they know and apparently/inexplicably love – ridiculously expensive and disappointingly slow traditional trains.

We’re not endorsing the Hyperloop without reservation ourselves, and we quite like the somewhat cynical tone of this piece, which also provides the clearest explanation we’ve seen of the project.  But Musk could be wrong by a cost factor of ten and a speed factor of four and still have a better system; we think it deserves serious study rather than eyeball rolling ridicule.

Musk is, after all, the only person to provide a commercial private industry space craft service to the space station, and the only man to get a high quality high performance electric car successfully to market.  That’s not to say anything he touches is assured of outstanding success, and quite likely his numbers will prove to be as optimistic as his earlier projections for both his electric cars and space capabilities have proven to be.

But he does get things done which others initially derided as impossible and impractical, and we think his latest project deserves attention and support.

We would also point out one negative comment we feel to be grossly unfair.  The article we linked to above asks ‘who would want giant tubes running through their community’?  I guess the writer has only ever seen a sedate 79 mph Amtrak train.

The answer to his question is ‘any and all communities would vastly prefer a relatively quiet and unobtrusive, safe, closed tube system as compared to the massively noisier and more obtrusive high-speed rail system, together with the massively larger swatch of land taken for two lanes of high-speed rail track’.  The writer really needs to experience the disruptive effects of a 200+ mph passenger train exploding past to understand what that is like before he condemns the concept of nice quiet contained tubes!

So we are cautiously supportive of the Hyperloop.  Just because something is totally different to other things doesn’t mean it should be rejected.

While talking about fanciful and futuristic forms of transport, here’s another interesting concept, but this time much further away from becoming a practical reality – an ion drive airplane.  To give you the ‘money pitch’ first, this new type of ‘no moving part’ thrust technology promises a greatly more efficient form of propulsion than present jet engines.

A regular jet engine gives about 2 newtons of thrust per kilowatt of power; an ionic wind thruster would give about 110 newtons per kilowatt.  No need to fuss over what newtons are, the key point is an ion drive gives you at least 50 times more of them.  This would be similar to your car, maybe currently with 20 mpg, now being able to provide 1,000 mpg.

The technology is also quiet and non-polluting (other than for whatever process is used to generate the electricity to power the drive), and, as we said above, has essentially no moving parts.  But it is rife with current challenges and is a huge way from appearing on any airplane, any time soon.

However, it is an exciting glimpse into a possible future that we may or may not live to see.  More details here.

Both these new technologies are speculative.  And not all future visions come to pass.  Such as, for example, most of the fascinating visions of the future showcased in this retrospective pictorial.

It is interesting, isn’t it, how the future, as it unfolds, simultaneously excites, surprises and disappoints us.

Lastly, maybe we don’t need ion drives and hyperloops to enjoy truly high-speed travel.  Why not nothing more fanciful than a diesel truck?  Here’s a valedictory piece about one that can travel at 285 mph.

Aug 082013
Rock paintings in the Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka - one of the six World Heritage sites we'll visit on our tour next February.

Rock paintings in the Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka – one of the six World Heritage sites we’ll visit on our tour next February.

Good morning

We seem to now be firmly ensconced in the ‘dog days’ of summer (a term originally derived from the time when the ‘dog star’ Sirius is prominent in the sky, 24 July – 24 August), and it is great to have a series of lovely warm days unfolding, each after the other.

Talking about lovely warm days unfolding (artful segue here!), my mention of our Sri Lanka tour last week encouraged another couple to join, and also uncovered an embarrassing problem.  The signup form on the webpage wasn’t working.  Ooops!  That is now fixed.  :)

So if you tried to join last week and were frustrated, please try again now.  And if you’re still thinking, perhaps I can tell you some more about it now.

Our tour is a very complete opportunity to see and experience Sri Lanka’s key sights and attractions.  In particular, we take you to all six of the World Heritage sites of outstanding cultural significance, giving you a a wonderful appreciation of the country’s rich and varied past – in the case of the Golden Temple of Dambulla, dating back over 22 centuries.

Of course, not everything we see and do will be that old.  We’ll also get to see the new energized Colombo, while staying at some of the country’s best hotels.  Full details of our great tour can be found here, and the (now working!) form to join the tour is near the bottom of that page.

What else this week?  There’s a feature article about how, notwithstanding the airlines having their best quarter since 2000, apologists are suggesting there’s no room in US skies for any more airline competitors.  Unbelievable.  Plus, below, articles on :

  • A Couple of Thoughts About the 787
  • 15 Minutes?  Or 3 Hours?
  • The NTSB Makes a Non-Statement About the Southwest 737 Crash
  • JetBlue Going Up Market
  • Air Canada Going Down Market
  • Beware the Fire Fighters
  • China’s Airplane Manufacturing Ascendancy Not Yet A Sure Thing
  • And the Same for Russia, Too
  • Pssst – Hey, Buddy.  Wanna Buy An Airport?  Almost Never Used, Real Cheap.
  • Epic Netflix Fail in New Zealand
  • Senator Durbin Attempts to Kill the US Cruise Industry – Again
  • Disrupting and Energizing
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Couple of Thoughts About the 787

Several readers, over the last few weeks, have written in and theorized that some of the 787 problems may be the result of deliberate sabotage by disaffected union employees at Boeing’s Everett plant.

While it sure wouldn’t be the first time that a union has ‘cut off its nose to spite its face’ I truly don’t think this is the issue here.  If Boeing saw a preponderance of problems with Everett-assembled planes, it would be on its union workers like white on rice.  As best I’m aware, there is nothing to suggest that there are more problems on the Everett assembled planes than the SC assembled planes.

Furthermore, I don’t get any sort of sense, locally (and I live more or less halfway between Boeing’s plants in Renton and Everett) that the union employees would ever consider doing something like that.  The union employees are very concerned at Boeing’s continued steady shift of work out of this area – either outsourcing to another country entirely, or alternatively shifting work to South Carolina or other ‘right to work’ locations in the US.  The union employees are in a quandary – how to keep their good paying jobs?  The answer to that – and I think they have enough awareness to appreciate this – lies more in a positive process of showing the value-add that union members bring to Boeing, compared to the non-union employees in SC.

I don’t even think that many of the problems are to do with assembly issues.  I think they are much broader, and more serious, design issues.

There is also more than meets the eye about the suggestion that the ELT was the source of the fire on the 787 at Heathrow a few weeks back.  Honeywell has now politely cleared its throat and pointed out that its ELTs have special safety features designed to prevent runaway overheating leading to a fire.  Maybe that’s part of the reason why ELTs have never before been implicated in any on-plane fires on any of the other thousands/tens of thousands of planes they are installed on….

In other words, we still don’t really know why the 787 caught fire.  Details here.

15 Minutes?  Or 3 Hours?

Talking about the 787’s propensity to catch fire for various assorted and generally unknown reasons, the plane continues to be certified as safe to fly as far as three hours away from the nearest emergency landing spot.

Does that mean that if a 787 catches fire in the air, it will officially still be safe and flyable for at least three hours?

Unfortunately, no, its ‘ETOPS’ three hour certification does not mean that at all.  Although a slight over-simplification, the largest part of an ETOPS certification is the implication that bad things are unlikely to happen, rather than that they will be survivable for three hours.

So how long is normal for a plane to remain safe after an onboard fire?  Opinions differ on this, and here’s an interesting article that considers the issue (free registration required to read it).  The article’s two conclusions?  Its headline reveals its first finding – the risk of fire in a plane is increasing rather than decreasing.  To support its second conclusion, it points to a new training video recently released jointly by both the FAA and its UK counterpart (the CAA) which claims that an out of control fire (either out of control due to its location or its intensity) will result in the loss of the plane within an average of 15 minutes.

Ummm – yes.  That’s 165 minutes before an ETOPS 180 certified plane might arrive at a landing place.  Putting the urgency of getting the plane on the ground in the event of a fire in even clearer focus, the FAA said that a delay of as little as two minutes is likely to make the difference between a successful landing and a complete loss of the aircraft and its occupants.

So what are the airlines and airplane manufacturers doing about this?  Nothing, and some experts worry that the new carbon fiber planes are more vulnerable to fires than older aluminum ones.  The only place in a plane with smoke detectors are the toilets, and there is no way to fight fires behind the plane’s wall/ceiling/floor panels.

To be fair, the risk is not new to the 787.  The growing traffic in devices with high energy density (ie lithium type) batteries – variously as battery freight, as devices containing batteries as freight, and as devices passengers bring in either their checked or carry-on luggage, is expected to lead directly to more and more battery initiated fires that are nothing to do with any airplane’s wiring or the plane’s own batteries.  The article, by a highly respected aviation writer, is a good read and worth going through the registration process to access.

Do you still feel good about being three hours from anywhere to land?

The NTSB Makes a Non-Statement About the Southwest 737 Crash

Perhaps responding to various criticisms that it was being unusually silent (in contrast to the Asiana 777 crash), the NTSB issued an update about its investigation into the 737 crash at LGA.

But, if you read their release, all it contains are some trivial statements of didactic fact.  Most people would not realize, by reading it, that it is unusual for a switch in roles between which pilot is flying and which pilot is monitoring the flight when the plane is somewhere less than 400 ft above the runway and mere seconds from landing.

Furthermore, we’re not told about any of the conversations from the cockpit voice recorder.  What did the pilots say at that point?  Why did they switch?  Has the NTSB interviewed the pilots and what did they say in explanation?  Enquiring minds would like to know.

It is curious how everyone was so quick to vilify not just the hapless pilots of the Asiana 777 but also every other Korean pilot, and most other Asian pilots in general, after the Asiana crash.  But now we have an inexplicable accident of an American piloted plane, everyone is politely looking the other way and avoiding any similar commentaries about the standard of US pilots in general, or these two pilots in particular.

Another part of this double-standard is the horror expressed by many ‘talking heads’ (or should I say, ‘empty heads’ that the Asiana pilots had little experience landing in San Francisco.  Guess how many times the Southwest pilot had flown into LGA before?  No, not one thousand times.  Not one hundred.  Not even ten.  Just once before, and that one previous time, he was not the pilot on the controls, he was the ‘monitoring’ pilot.  Where are the shrieks of indignation?  Who will be the first to demand there is a law prohibiting pilots from landing a plane at an airport until they’ve landed a plane at the airport a hundred times before (yes, I know the contradiction present in that suggested law!)?

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe there are indeed valid points of general concern about the approach to cockpit management in Korean jets.  But I’d like to see our own airlines and pilots held to the same public standard and scrutiny as is the case of foreign pilots.

Bottom line for now?  The NTSB’s ‘investigative update’ notwithstanding, the public is no closer to any understanding of what went wrong or why, and the media remain passively uncurious.

JetBlue Going Up Market

The battle for premium traffic on the coast to coast routes continues to heat up, with the latest shot being fired by Jetblue.

Until now a one-cabin all-economy airline, early next year will see Jetblue adding four private ‘suites’ and 12 lie-flat seats on its flights between New York and both Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Eleven new A321s will be configured with these new accommodations.

Sounds wonderful – and so it should.  Premium class tickets can cost $2000 each way.

Jetblue’s A321s will reduce from their standard 190 coach seat capacity to 159 seats due to the extra space taken up by the first class seats and suites.  But – and there’s always a but, isn’t there.  The space for the first class cabin comes not only from the reduced number of seats, but also, alas, by a tighter seat pitch in coach class, reduced down from the previously generous 34″ to a lesser but still decent 33″.  The new coach seats will be slightly thinner too, so your leg room should remain similar to at present.

American, Delta and United are also adding lie-flat beds into selected trans-con flights.

Details here.

Air Canada Going Down Market

Remember, if you can, the totally inexplicable objections to the A380 as being so huge, and carrying so many passengers that it would overwhelm airports?  We were told to fear massive checkin lines, security lines, boarding delays, and inexorable waits for luggage at the other end.  None of this has come to pass, indeed with three jetways onto an A380, and four aisles on two decks on board, it can load and unload faster than most 737s.

I could never understand why people made such claims, because they were and still are risible nonsense of the worst kind.  It is true that the double-decker A380 is magnificently enormous, but it is not true that it has a disruptive number of seats on board.  A typical A380 has somewhere between 400 and 500 seats in it, a typical 747-400 has about 400 seats.

But now, underscoring still further the moderate passenger capacity of the huge A380, Air Canada deserves congratulations for squeezing 50 more passengers into a 777 (458) than Korean Airlines (407) or Singapore Airlines (409) have in their A380s.

Consider yourself starkly warned.  Avoid Air Canada’s new sardine can 777s, because you would be the sardine.

Details here.

Beware the Fire Fighters

What is the worst thing that can happen to you (apparently) if you have a major fire in Nairobi?  It is the arrival of the fire brigade.

There was a fire at Nairobi airport earlier this week, and the fire brigade’s arrival did little to improve things, according to this article.  Alas, things got even worse when the police arrived.

China’s Airplane Manufacturing Ascendancy Not Yet A Sure Thing

I occasionally predict a future where China starts building its own airplanes and selling them successfully around the world.  Currently its ‘flagship’ new plane project is the C-919, a mid-size single aisle plane that will hold 158-174 seats (the same plane, just different cabin layouts).  They project adding larger twin aisle planes with about 300 and 400 seat capacities further into the future, giving them a broader range of planes analogous to those offered by either Airbus or Boeing.

To date, the plane has received a reasonably encouraging number of orders (about 380, all but 20 from Chinese airlines, and the other 20 from GE’s leasing unit, probably to help sell its engines onto the planes).  But China has now announced just over a year push back in the timing of the C-919’s first flight, although officials are not calling it a delay.  They say that the plane is still proceeding on schedule, but that the schedule was calculated wrongly!

In doing so, China shows that it has already mastered one critical part of being an airline manufacturer – the ability to obfuscate when it comes to describing delays.  Details here.

However, whatever the background and term used to describe the change in flight date from some time in 2014 to now the end of 2015, it is clear that Airbus and Boeing have won at least another year’s reprieve before any Chinese planes become credible competitors to their sales everywhere else in the world.  But they should not relax.  The threat to both of them remains as ultimately strong as ever, just delayed by a year or so.

And the Same for Russia, Too

Whereas China hopes to build a new aviation industry from scratch, Russia hopes to revive its formerly ‘successful’ industry that used to make many planes in Soviet times.

But Russia’s regularly trotted out promises about being about to break into the passenger airplane market again continue to fail to be realized.  Its latest shining hope on the horizon, the Sukhoi Superjet 100, has been met with disinterest in the marketplace and apparently few ‘real’ sales.

Interestingly, while the 787 seems able to suffer any number of near-disastrous events without any impact on the desire of airlines to buy the plane, the Superjet 100 has suffered two incidents, one almost certainly pilot rather than plane error, and the other of uncertain underlying cause, and that has been enough to dampen interest in the plane.

Here’s an article that explains the current failures and disappointments in the Russian aerospace industry.

Pssst – Hey, Buddy.  Wanna Buy An Airport?  Almost Never Used, Real Cheap.

Perhaps suffering from runway length envy, the city of Ciudad Real in Spain built itself a huge airport.  The city has a population of about 75,000, and is well served with transportation, having a high-speed rail link with Madrid, about 100 miles to the north (45 minutes by train), and is close to major motorways and toll-roads.

Nonetheless, any city with any aspirations of course wants to have its own full-size international airport, and so local developers proceeded to raise money and build an airport capable of landing A380s.  Very impressive, and the airport cost €1 billion to develop.

There was a small problem.  Although the developers doubtless studied the potential for self-enrichment very closely, no-one seems to have bothered to investigate the viability of the airport itself.  A ‘Field of Dreams’ airport?  Alas, that was not the way it turned out.

After minimal service to/from the airport for a while, the airport ended up with no airlines flying to/from it at all.  It has now fully closed.  Creditors hope to auction it off, perhaps for €100 million plus an assumption of the project’s debts, but if that doesn’t happen in the present round of reserve-priced auctions, it will end up going to the highest bidder with no floor price at all.

So, a wonderful airport, almost unspoiled by passengers or planes.  If you’re tempted, you can read more details here..

Epic Netflix Fail in New Zealand

I occasionally express gloomy concern about the viability of the Netflix ‘all you can watch for $8/month’ video streaming service.  Sure, I love the service and use it myself all the time, but there’s a huge vulnerability lurking just around the corner, ready to spring out and destroy Netflix.

I am referring to the cost of receiving the streamed movies – data charges that might be levied by our ISPs if we start to ‘abuse’ our ‘unlimited fair use’ monthly streaming accounts.

With the slowly rolling out Netflix enhanced HD video stream, watching video can now consume up to 2.3GB per hour of movie.  That will move us much more quickly towards triggering ‘excessive use’ penalties.

The situation is already bad in NZ.  It seems that in New Zealand, it is common to be charged for data used, and in particular, if you are staying in a NZ hotel, you might find yourself being charged by the GB rather than by the night for your internet data use.

So, there you are, staying in a NZ hotel, and you decide to watch a standard two-hour movie on Netflix.  At the (not very) Good setting, that would be 0.6 GB of data.  At the Better setting, it would be 1.4 GB.  At Best, it would be 2 GB, and at the new HD setting, it would be 4.6GB.  How much would it cost to watch?

I’m shortly to be staying in a NZ motel that charges $25/GB.  That’s maybe an okay price to pay for normal internet access, downloading emails, etc.  But to watch that movie?  It would cost NZ$15/35/50/115 to watch a single movie (ie from US$11.50 – $90).  I’m sure not going to be watching much Netflix during my time in NZ!

The ‘good’ news, such as it is, is that the $25/GB rate is the motel’s rapacious over-charging.  Most residential customers in NZ pay 50c – $1 per GB of data over their initial allowance, dropping the cost of a two-hour movie down to no more than NZ$4.60.  But even that becomes appreciable, and discourages people from watching videos whenever they wish.

As we add more and more data-hungry devices into our lives, and consume more and more data, and as the earlier massive unused bandwidth carrying capacity around the nation starts to fill up, it seems almost inevitable that we’ll start being charged for data usage on our home internet connections, just the same way we’ve seen ‘unlimited’ data plans on phones disappear.

Senator Durbin Attempts to Kill the US Cruise Industry – Again

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) is at it again, trying to kill our cruise industry.  He has re-introduced his ‘Clean Cruise Ship Act’ – an act that would prohibit cruise ships from discharging any wastewater, no matter what degree of treatment it had received, within 12 miles of the coast, and restrict the discharging of wastewater all the way to 200 miles from the coastline.

Peculiarly, the standards he would have imposed on cruise ships are appreciably more stringent than the standards imposed on shore based enterprises that discharge waste water into the sea.  If passed, the impact on the Alaskan cruise industry in particular could be somewhere between massively harmful and fatal.

He has tried this before, unsuccessfully, in 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009.  To date, he has yet to amass any co-sponsors or measurable support for his latest go-round.

Oh – the strangest thing about Durbin’s obsession with killing a profitable industry that employs a large number of Americans, both on the ships and ashore?  The Democrat senator hails from Illinois, and his state is at least 1,000 miles in every direction from any ocean or cruise port.

Disrupting and Energizing

I was having a pleasant chat with a member of the local police department’s bomb squad this week, and learned a couple of delightful new terms.  They don’t ‘blow up’ or even ‘detonate’ bombs.  They either ‘energize’ or ‘disrupt’ them.  The guy said, only half-joking, that it was easier to get approval to disrupt a bomb than to detonate it, to energize it rather than to blow it up.

Two floors of Palm Beach Intl Airport were closed for 2.5 hours on Sunday while police decided if they needed to, ahem, disrupt or energize a suspicious package that started beeping in the terminal building.  Apparently the authorities have been watching too many cartoons, where of course, bombs always beep before exploding, and so the local bomb squad came and investigated the package (with an alarm clock inside) before deeming it safe.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

The camera never lies?  Well, that’s nowadays more a joke than a truth, but at least we understand that a photocopy of a document is, to the limits of the copy quality, an exact ‘photograph’ of the original document, right?

No.  Wrong.  Some particularly ‘clever’ photocopiers, with a digital rather than analog system for taking the image off the platen and transferring it to a sheet of paper, now do some ‘helpful’ things to ‘improve’ the image quality.  Like, for example, using OCR to read the text and then using built-in fonts to print the text onto the copy for better quality.

Unsurprisingly, the result is that some Xerox model photocopiers are being too ‘helpful’ and are ‘correcting’ numbers and changing them from what they truly are to what it thinks they should be.

I’m a Notary Public and one of the things I occasionally do is certify documents as being true copies of originals.  To date I’ve done that by scanning the documents and making sure they look the same in general terms; and maybe overseeing the photocopying myself.  But now I’ll have to line by line, character by character, proof read the original and the copy.  Or refuse to certify photocopies any more.  Thanks, Xerox.

Most of us have a vague understanding of what computer hacking is, right.  It is something we read about, perhaps while seated on our ‘throne’ in the smallest room in our house.  Thank goodness at least some places in this high-tech society remain sacred and inviolate, safe from all these new high-tech problems.

But – wait.  Maybe nothing now is safe?  Details here.

Truly lastly this week, they might be having problems building airplanes, but they sure can build buildings.  Here is a set of stunning before and after photos of the world’s fastest growing city – growing at a rate of 10% each year for the last 20 years and now home to 23.5 million people.  Shanghai.  Whether you simply admire the photographic skill in matching up the shots, or whether you are stunned at the transformation, it is well worth a look.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Aug 022013
The ruins of Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka 1100 years ago and now one of 6 World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka.  Our tour visits all six.

The ruins of Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka 1100 years ago and now one of 6 World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka. Our tour visits all six.

Good morning

Depending on your perspective, it has been either another very bad or very good week for the 787.  Very bad in the sense of a continued procession of problems, very good in the sense that none of the planes have yet to fall out of the sky.  But if things continue as they are, it seems only a matter of time before that too happens.

So how bad is the 787 situation?  That’s a very good question, and my fear is that no-one really knows the full scope of the issues out there.  I say that because we feature this week a separate article about a 787 failure that the airline in question (Qatar) tried to keep secret, which raises the ugly issue – how many other secret 787 problems are out there?

We also have another separate article about improved free internet access at Starbucks, shifting shares in the smartphone marketplace (I’ve not yet commented on the disappointing announcement of the Motorola X on Thursday) an article about how automation might be making our pilots more dangerous rather than more safe, and plenty more below.

Could I also remind you of our Sri Lanka tour next February.  We currently have 25 Travel Insiders participating in this wonderful experience, and have room for a few more.  If you’ve been thinking about this, I’d like to encourage you to sign up quickly, for the strongest of all reasons :  Money.  When I set the tour price back in March, I had to guess at some of the costs for next year.  I now have firm costs for everything, and some of my guesses were a bit optimistic.  Ooops.  No wonder the tour price is so incredibly much lower than the price some companies have been offering similar tours!

I’ll keep the current $2445 tour price open to people who join and deposit prior to 18 August, but on 19 August, the price will increase.  I’ve mentioned in the opening of past newsletters some of the distinctive features of the tour, including the outstanding hotels we’ll be staying in, the friendly people and safe environment, Sri Lanka’s prominence as a spice supplier and the spice markets we’ll visit, its similar prominence as a tea supplier and the tea plantations we’ll visit, the beautiful train journey we’ll enjoy, and our wildlife safaris to see elephants and leopards.

Several people have asked about air travel and air fares to get to Sri Lanka.  Many of us are buying our tickets to Singapore and back either from Singapore or Bangkok, and I’m negotiating a group fare for travel between Singapore and Colombo and back to Singapore or Bangkok on SriLankan Airlines.  That seems to make for easier connections.  But others are traveling to Sri Lanka through India, Malaysia, and other places, so you’re free to travel any way you wish.

There are lots of choices, and I do hope that, however you get there, you’ll choose to join us on our Sri Lanka Nature’s Paradise Tour.

Talking about pricing, last week I reviewed a great new travel pillow, the Cabeau Evolution Pillow.  Its price has been see-sawing over the last week on Amazon (sometimes it seems Amazon plays as many pricing games with products as the airlines do with their ever-changing fares), but as of late yesterday (Thurs 1 Aug) the price seems to have settled at $39.95 complete with free shipping – standard shipping for all, or fast shipping for Prime members.  If the thought of paying $10.20 in shipping fees turned you off last week, now you can get the product with no shipping charge at all.

Still more items on 787 problems below, alas, plus other points too :

  • 787 Crises Narrowly Averted
  • Two Air India 787 Problems in One Week
  • Does Anyone Know How Many 787 Problems There Have Been?
  • What Happened to the LGA Southwest 737 Crash Investigation?
  • Delta’s Baggage Fees Cost More than the Bags and their Contents
  • It’s Only 61¢ a Time, but $2.5 Billion Over Five Years
  • Most Popular Travel Apps
  • It’s Only a Million People, And 17 Years Overdue….
  • Warning – Don’t Try This at Home (or at Work either, apparently)
  • We Can’t Afford to Keep the White House Open to Visitors, But We Can Afford….
  • TripAdvisor – Sometimes Easy, Sometimes Hard to Add New Restaurants to Their Listings
  • And Lastly This Week….

787 Crises Narrowly Averted

Airlines are now inspecting their 787s for wiring problems similar to that which seems to have started the fire on the Ethiopian Airlines 787 at Heathrow a couple of weeks ago.  ANA says two of its 787s had wiring damage, and UA reported finding pinched wires on one of its 787s as well.

We should be pleased these issues were discovered while the planes were on the ground.  Details here.

Inexplicably, Boeing has now asked all operators of all its planes with the same Emergency Locator Transmitter installed to check the wiring on those ELTs too.  We say ‘inexplicably’ because there are thousands – maybe even tens of thousands – of these devices installed on other airplanes, and they have been flying with them for years, maybe even more than a decade, and to date, no other airplane has ever had a problem with the ELT or its wiring, whereas four of the 65 or so delivered 787s have now uncovered problems with their ELTs.

Why is it that one in every 16 ELTs on 787s has problems, but none of the thousands/tens of thousands of other ELTs on other planes have any problems at all?  We also note that none of the inspections on other airplane ELTs have reported any incipient problems either (that we are aware of).

What is the unique element in the 787 that causes these problems?

Two Air India 787 Problems in One Week

Air India only has seven 787s – well, it was about to become eight, but we’ll come to that in a minute.  However, even one 787 is all an airline needs in order to experience problems with them, and Air India is sadly no exception.

First it had a fire in the rear galley area of a 787 on 25 July on a flight between Delhi and Kolkata.  The crew were able to put it out with fire extinguishers and the plane landed safely.  John Goglia, formerly of the NTSB, writes in Forbes that this is thought to be the third time that this particular plane has had these types of problems!  Air India called it a minor incident and did not take the plane out of service, but merely removed power to the rear galley oven.

Some of us would disagree with describing a fire on a carbon-fiber hulled plane a minor incident, all the more so as it is not clear what caused the fire.  When did you last have a fire in/around your oven at home, and if you did, was it a minor incident?  Was it caused by something inside the oven, or the wiring outside the oven?  Airplane ovens are supposed to be massively more fire-resistant than your at-home oven.

And then on what was to be the formal acceptance/hand-over flight of Air India’s eighth 787, the plane suffered an electrical control panel problem with a component that powers the cockpit displays, brakes, and other critical functions.  Ooops.  The plane’s delivery has now been delayed while Boeing replaces the control panel assembly.  Details here.

No doubt this too was a ‘minor incident’.

But all these minor incidents seem to us very much like playing Russian Roulette – when the gun merely goes ‘click’ rather than ‘bang’, that too is a minor incident, but does that encourage the person to then pull the trigger again and again?

Does Anyone Know How Many 787 Problems There Have Been?

Phew – are you keeping up with the apparently never-ending flood of 787 problems?  We know that we sure aren’t because we sure can’t – we’ve no way of knowing how many ‘minor incidents’ we’re missing.  More to the point, is anyone, anywhere, keeping a definitive list of 787 problems?

I often see lists – for example here or here, but none of them are complete (both the two lists just linked to omit the mysterious Thomson Airways 787 turnaround, for example).

When you factor in what now seems to be covered up 787 problems (see the article following the newsletter roundup about the Qatar 787), and problems with planes prior to them being delivered to customers, one has to wonder just how many 787 problems there truly are.

You know the saying about rats.  If you see one, you know you’ve an entire family living under/in your house.  One has to wonder if there’s a similar concept at play with 787 problems.

What Happened to the LGA Southwest 737 Crash Investigation?

Still on the subject of airplane accidents and the mysteries surrounding them, do you remember the Southwest 737 that crashed when lending at La Guardia, just over a week ago (on 22 July)?  We know that apparently it landed nose down rather than nose up, putting too much weight on the nose gear which unsurprisingly collapsed.  But that’s about all we know.

The NTSB issued a bulletin on 25 July telling us not a great deal, and indicating that it had good records from both the black boxes – the data and voice recorders.  It said it would be transcribing the voice tape on 26 July – last Friday.

But, since then, what?  Nothing.

Now normally, we’d hesitate to comment on NTSB procedures or the pace at which they worked through an investigation, but it is interesting to notice the difference between the frenetic pace of disclosures and press conferences they convened after the Asiana 777 crash in San Francisco just a couple of weeks earlier, and what is now happening with the Southwest crash at La Guardia.  As Christine Negroni fairly asks, are we seeing a double standard at work?

Or has the NTSB been hushed up as a result of some pressure groups complaining about their release of too much information in the early stages of the Asiana crash?  Does Southwest have more sway over the NTSB’s public actions than Asiana?

Why have the NTSB gone silent?

Delta’s Baggage Fees Cost More than the Bags and their Contents

Airlines keep putting up the fees they charge for checked bags, and I guess it was only a matter of time before the fees exceeded the value of the bag and its contents.  That time has now arrived.

If you are traveling with four bags, and if the fourth bag weighs 71 lbs and if its combined measurement for its length, breadth and height exceeds 63″, then you’re going to be paying $600 EACH WAY to fly that bag with you, within the US ($200 each for an extra bag fee, an overweight fee and an oversize fee).

Oh yes, highlighting either the nonsense or the unfairness (or probably both) of these fees, you might actually pay a lot less than that to fly the bag with you a much longer distance internationally.  Truly, airline fees are without rhyme or reason.

Anyway, there you are, with your heavy large fourth suitcase, and you’re being told it will cost you $1200 to take it with you to your destination and back again.  Never mind that you – weighing three times the bag’s weight, and measuring way more than 63″ combined height and girth, are flying on a ticket that only cost you (say) $300 for the journey, and that gets you frequent flier miles and a tiny drink, too.  Your bag – smaller and lighter, and not getting a seat or miles, is going to cost four times as much.

That $1200 would buy a lot of clothes at your destination, wouldn’t it.

Apparently a passenger on a Delta flight from Seattle to New York figured the same, because, upon learning that Delta would charge him $1400 to transport four bags with him, one way to New York, he simply left the bags in the terminal and flew without them.  Details here.

This encapsulates the rapacious nonsense of airline fees today.  Charge a bag more than a passenger, and more than its contents are worth.  Probably few of us object, in any context, to paying a fair fee for a fair product or service in return.  But $1400 to transport four bags – something that probably would have cost Delta more like $14 to do?

No wonder we hate the airlines and avoid them whenever we can.

It’s Only 61¢ a Time, but $2.5 Billion Over Five Years

It seems that AT&T have taken the adage ‘Look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves’ to heart.  They’ve added another 61¢ fee onto the monthly accounts of their cell phone users, labeled as a ‘Mobility Administrative Fee’, and described on their Additional Charges explanatory page as

The Administrative Fee helps defray certain expenses AT&T incurs, including but not limited to: (a) charges AT&T or its agents pay to interconnect with other carriers to deliver calls from AT&T customers to their customers; and (b) charges associated with cell site rents and maintenance.

But who really cares about another minor fee when we know our phone bills are festooned with fees already?  That’s clearly how AT&T hopes we’ll respond.  However, according to this article, those fees add up mighty fast.  Assuming no growth in AT&T’s subscribers, that represents $2.5 billion in additional net profit over the next five years.

Looking at AT&T’s shameless list of fees and justifications for them, one gets a feeling of deja vu.  Looks a lot like my last rental car invoice.

Most Popular Travel Apps

Maybe you’ve just bought your first smartphone or tablet, and are wondering what apps to now load onto it.  Here are three lists of the top apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, based on their sales/downloads over the last six months.  We’re not necessarily recommending them all, and indeed, there are a few we’ve never tried that we’ll have to check out ourselves (and some of our favorites are missing).

But as a quick pointer to some apps you should at least check out, here goes :

Top iPhone Apps (from most to least popular)

  • Hotels.com
  • Expedia
  • Booking.com
  • Kayak
  • TripAdvisor
  • Hotel Tonight
  • Priceline
  • Orbitz
  • Airbnb
  • HomeAway

Top iPad Apps (from most to least popular)

  • Hotels.com
  • Expedia
  • TripAdvisor
  • Booking.com
  • Kayak
  • Orbitz
  • Travelocity
  • Hotel Tonight
  • Priceline
  • Skyscanner

Top Android apps (from most to least popular)

  • Kayak
  • Expedia
  • TripAdvisor
  • Hotels.com
  • Orbitz
  • Priceline
  • Hotel Tonight
  • Skyscanner
  • Travelocity
  • Booking.com

It’s Only a Million People, And 17 Years Overdue….

In 1996 a law required the then Immigration and Naturalization Service to be able to track foreign visitors, and match their subsequent departures with their initial arrivals.

In 2004 a further law reaffirmed that requirement, now falling on the broad shoulders of the Homeland Security Department.

But a new Government Accountability Office report finds that the DHS still can not reliably match departures with arrivals, and there’s more than a million people who they’ve lost track of.

But – don’t despair.  The DHS says it is on track to report to Congress, in time for the 2016 Budget Cycle, on the costs and benefits of implementing such a system.  That’s right – they were told to do it nearly ten years ago, and their predecessors were told to do it 17 years ago, and so their response is to say that in maybe two years time they’ll tell Congress if they think it is a good idea or not.

So nice to know that DHS does what Congress tells it, isn’t it.  Details here.

Warning – Don’t Try This at Home (or at Work either, apparently)

Whatever you do, don’t Google the term ‘pressure cooker’ and then within a short while, Google the term ‘backpack’.  If you do, then you too might suddenly have six mystery law enforcement officers pay you a visit, wanting to know more about you and your interest in such things, as happened to these people.

Since the initial story went viral, various security organizations clearly decided they needed to respond with some sort of explanation – be it credible or not – as to how it is they knew what private people were searching on Google, and one of the police departments that had apparently earlier denied involvement said it knew about what was going on because one of the two searches was done on a work rather than home computer and the man’s employer tipped them off.  Details here.

But note that the woman’s account clearly states that she Googled the term ‘pressure cooker’ from home, and doesn’t specify where her husband was when he Googled the term ‘backpack’.

The truth is out there somewhere, but I’m far from sure the official answer is the complete truth.  On the other hand, my researches have me searching far and wide on a regular basis, and I’ve yet to be visited.  Yet….

We Can’t Afford to Keep the White House Open to Visitors, But We Can Afford….

Maybe we should hold a competition to see who can come up with the most egregious ending to this sentence.  Examples abound of the hypocrisy that sees our own government ‘punishing us’ for trying to, in the most gentle way possible, mildly ease back on their propensity to spend (waste!) money they don’t have without care nor consequence.  The sequestration fraud forced upon us as our punishment is of course intended to chasten us and make us realize that every dollar the government spends is essential and none can be reduced.

To my mind, the most shameful example of this ‘punishment’ was closing one of our nation’s proudest symbols of our freedom and our democratic process – the White House.  It is more than that, by removing visitors from the White House, the President has ever so slightly distanced himself still further from the people he serves, and that’s a bad thing.  He is an elected public servant, not a monarch.  He serves us, we don’t serve him, and having a closer less staged interaction with real people might remind him of that.

It isn’t like this in most other countries.  For example, one time in Berlin, I literally bumped into Chancellor Angela Merkel as we both crossed a hotel lobby in opposite directions.  We both did a double take, and proceeded on our opposite paths.  Years ago, when I was in New Zealand, I was able to telephone the Prime Minister, have him take my call, and chat with him about an inconsequential matter.

Anyway, I’m not going to take cheap shots about the lavish costs of the President’s imperial holidays while his closing of the White House messes up our own holiday sightseeing hopes.  Instead, my contender for best ending to the sentence is :  but we can afford to give half a billion dollars to the Palestinian Hamas terrorist organization.

TripAdvisor – Sometimes Easy, Sometimes Hard to Add New Restaurants to Their Listings

TripAdvisor is continually plagued with problems to do with fake reviews.  That much we all know.

But they have another type of problem too, or so it has now been revealed.  As background to their new problem, I can tell you I’ve had no end of trouble getting restaurants added to TripAdvisor – they magnificently hide the way to request a restaurant to be added, and my last attempt had them telling me the restaurant I asked to be added was rejected because the restaurant failed to meet their guidelines for inclusion.

This astonished me, because their restaurant inclusion guidelines are starkly brief and simple :

We list restaurants that are open to the general public. For chains we list each location as an individual restaurant.

The restaurant in question was probably the best restaurant in a tiny town, and I had provided its name, street address and phone number (they had no website) and confirmed it was open to the public for lunches and dinners, seven days a week, and had a decent menu and sit-down dining with table service.  What else could they possibly require?

I think the answer to the question – which they never answered, although they have now told me they are adding the restaurant – is that they require the restaurant to have a website they can check out.  TripAdvisor is probably too lazy to phone or look up restaurant details in a phone book to confirm.  If a restaurant has a website, it is bona fide, if it doesn’t, it isn’t.  That’s my guess.

So, with that as background, please enjoy this story that reveals another weakness of the ‘great’ TripAdvisor.  I’m sure Oscar’s has a wonderful website…..

And Lastly This Week….

It is almost a year ago now that 35 of us were undertaking an extraordinary set of experiences in North Korea (the link takes you to my photo journal of our tour).  Those of you interested in North Korea might find these luscious photos of this year’s Mass Games of interest.  Truly, North Korea is quite unlike anywhere else in the world (and, equally truly, those differences aren’t all good).

Here’s a rather disappointing story that claims to offer ‘the five golden rules for enduring (aircraft) design‘.  But someone should send a copy to Boeing, just in case.

Something that happily often is enduring, and also often offers great design, is/are railroad stations.  What is it that makes railroad stations such grand buildings in a form never equaled by the stark functionality of airports (and the less said about bus terminals, the better!)?

Here’s a nice pictorial compilation of some great railroad stations, although (like many of such lists) there are strange choices for what was included and excluded.

Not exactly an example of great design however, is this article profiling five puzzling international borders.

Truly lastly this week, if you want a better seat on your flight, should you try bribing someone to get it?  This article doesn’t really answer the question, but at least exposes some of the issues.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Jul 262013
China has announced plans to build the world's largest undersea tunnel across the Bohai strait.

China has announced plans to build the world’s largest undersea tunnel across the Bohai strait.

Good morning

There’s a lot of material this week, with not just one or two but four additional feature articles added to the weekly roundup.

I hope you like me switching some articles out of the main flow of the newsletter and in to their own separate pieces – do please let me know if you feel strongly one way or the other.

In the four articles below, we have a first look at the lovely new Google Nexus 7 (and a last look at a once aspiring-to-greatness tablet), a suggested way to prevent future train tragedies like that in Spain on Wednesday, a hint that maybe Emirates might offer flights between the UK and US, and – best of all – a review of a new type of travel pillow that now becomes my new favorite travel pillow.

Plus, oh my gosh, stories about four airplane problems in a row – I’ll be as happy as you when we can end this appalling string of airplane disasters and near disasters, as well as other items on :

  • Fascinating Pictures of the Asiana 777 Interior
  • LHR 787 Fire Cause Now Found?
  • Breaking News :  Unexpected Reason for Southwest 737 Nose Gear ‘Failure’ at LGA
  • Another 787 Aborted Flight, and Will the 787’s Reputation Recover
  • How to Easily Make the Airbus A380 10%, 20%, or Even More Fuel Efficient Than Currently
  • China Is At It Again
  • An Innovative Solution If the Name on Your Ticket is Wrong
  • A Dismaying Indictment of One of the Best Cruise Lines
  • The New Google Chromecast Device
  • Is the Telephone the Next Device to Become Obsolete?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Fascinating Pictures of the Asiana 777 Interior

Ever wonder what it is like inside a crashed plane that subsequently suffered a major fire through much of its interior?

Well, wonder no more.  Here’s a fascinating set of pictures of the interior of the Asiana 777 that crashed at SFO a couple of weeks ago.

LHR 787 Fire Cause Now Found?

Reports emerged late this week that the underlying cause of the fire in the Ethiopian Airlines 787 has been traced to a pair of wires that were crossed over each other, then squashed together by the Emergency Locator Transmitter battery compartment cover when it was closed over them.  This caused the wires to short, which started the fire.

Clearly this would not be a design fault of the 787 airplane, much to Boeing’s relief.  On the other hand, who installed the ELT?  Quite possibly, Boeing.  And the willingness of the plane exterior to allow itself to be burned through and the implications of the resulting survivability of such an event, were it to have taken place in the air, remain disquieting.

I’m sure the investigators know what they are doing and that their finding is correct.  But, I’m also surprised that the problem manifested itself while the plane was sitting, lifeless and still, on the ground.  A problem such as that would seem much more likely to be exacerbated by the vibration of the plane while flying, causing the wires to abrade through their insulation much more readily.

Some investigators also continue to wonder if high temperatures caused by the plane sitting in the sun without any cooling may have initiated a battery ‘meltdown’ inside the ELT.  Or maybe they just softened the insulation, speeding its failure.

Details here.

Earlier links to higher humidity and condensation levels than are normal on other planes haven’t resulted in any key findings, but remain an interesting subject of ongoing concern.

Breaking News :  Unexpected Reason for Southwest 737 Nose Gear ‘Failure’ at LGA

Most people assumed that the nose gear failure that occurred when a Southwest 737 landed at LGA on Monday this week was due to the nose gear not properly descending or not locking up, but on Thursday evening news emerged suggesting that the plane landed not in the typical ‘nose high’ fashion but in a ‘nose low’ fashion.

Normally planes with the now almost ubiquitous two sets of wheels under the wings and one set under the nose (rather than under the tail as was the case decades ago) land with the nose high and first put their main wheels on the ground.  When the plane has settled onto its main landing gear, then the pilot allows the nose to go down to the ground too, so there is very little stress on the nose gear and the major ‘bump’ (such as it is, most of the time) of the landing happens on the strong main gear.  (Old fashioned ‘tail dragger’ planes try to land level, evenly on all three wheels simultaneously.)

But if this plane came in, nose low, then a much greater stress would have been placed on the nose gear, and it would be unsurprising to then have it buckle and collapse under this stress.

The NTSB deduced this from looking at video and ‘other evidence’ of the plane’s landing.  It estimates the plane was slightly nose-high until the last two or three seconds, and landed with about a 3° nose down angle (planes normally land with about this much angle of nose high rather than nose low).  It declined comment as to why this happened, but now has the black boxes and should be able to form a better understanding of events after analysing the data contained therein.

16 passengers suffered minor injuries; there were no serious injuries or fatalities.

Details here.

Another 787 Aborted Flight and Will the 787’s Reputation Recover

It is getting to be so commonplace as to be almost no longer newsworthy.

Another 787 flight was aborted late last week, with a JAL flight from Boston to Narita having to turn around as a ‘standard precautionary measure’ and return to Boston after a possible fuel pump issue.  It took five and a half hours from take-off to return landing again, including time spent burning off fuel before landing.

Details here.

So, with this slew of ongoing problems, including fires that would have likely caused crashes if in the air a long way from potential landing spots, an almost 100 day grounding of the entire fleet, and as yet still unresolved issues, who really wants to discover that their next long over-the-water flight will be on a 787?

And, more to the point, will the current aversion to flying on a 787 extend into the future?

This article is headlined ‘Why You Probably Won’t Remember the 787’s Rough Start’ and you can guess from its headline what its commentary suggests.

In addition to trotting out the now totally risible claim of ‘teething problems’ (tell me how many other new model planes have had repeated fires and a 100 day grounding) the article also dares to compare the 787 with both the de Havilland Comet and the McDonnell Douglas DC10 as part of its suggestion that ‘this too shall pass’ and we’ll all forgive and forget.

I say ‘dares to compare’ because many commentators consider that even though both the Comet and the DC-10 proved themselves to end up as excellent and safe airplanes, and even though many people will concede that their problems weren’t entirely ‘their own fault’, it is also generally considered that the problems with the Comet were a major part of the death of de Havilland, and the problems with the DC-10 were one of the causes of the demise of McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing, of course).

One commentator makes the brave claim that within a year or two, the problems currently engulfing the 787 will all be forgotten.

I disagree.  The 787 is shaping up to be ‘an unlucky plane’.  Napoleon famously said he wanted lucky rather than capable generals, and if I had to choose a plane to fly on, I think I’d prefer a lucky older plane than an unlucky state of the art modern plane.  Wouldn’t you?

Time will tell which of us is correct.  It will be interesting to see, and of course currently, every day, I wake up with the slight frisson of anticipation – will there be a new 787 headline awaiting me when I start to do the rounds of the usual aviation sites?

How to Easily Make the Airbus A380 10%, 20%, or Even More Fuel Efficient Than Currently

As you probably know, airlines will do just about anything to wring even one or two percent more fuel efficiency from their planes.  They’ll spend millions of dollars on new winglets; they’ll take pillows out of the passenger compartments, they’ll replace pilots’ manuals with iPads, carry less drinking water (and less fuel), and so on.

As you also probably know, Boeing and Airbus occasionally come up with reworked designs for their airplane families, and proudly claim anywhere from 5% to 15% improvements in fuel efficiencies as a reason for airlines to upgrade their fleets.  Sometimes these upgrades come as a result of many billions – sometimes way over ten billion – of dollars of R&D on the part of Airbus and Boeing (as is currently the case with new models for the 737, 777, and A320 families).

So how revolutionary is it for Airbus to now say ‘Hey, guys, we’ve come up with a way for you to get 10% or more better fuel efficiency from your A380s, and it won’t cost you or us a thing!’?

It is true that the A380 stubbornly continues to disappoint in terms of the number sold; indeed Airbus is currently staring at the need to reduce its production line speed due to the weakness of future A380 orders and the timeline for their deliveries.  So something like this might jumpstart the market massively, or so they hope.

So, what is this marvelous innovation Airbus has uncovered?

Alas, it is not marvelous at all.  Airbus is simply suggesting that the airlines cram more seats into the planes. It is true that adding a certain percentage more seats is very similar to reducing the fuel costs, per passenger, by the same percentage, and it is also true that there is potential to cram more seats into the A380s – another seat per row in coach class, more rows in total; and possibly taking out some of the space-hogs like bars and other open areas; maybe even rejigging the shares of space used by first, business, premium economy and coach classes.

One has to view this suggestion also as being somewhat an admission of defeat by Airbus.  It implies they are accepting that the business case for the A380, based on current typical configurations, is proving to be insufficiently compelling.

Happily Emirates – the world’s largest A380 operator – has said it has no plans to go to 11 abreast coach class seating.  Let’s hope the other airlines feel the same way.

There’s one other interesting comment in the linked article, where they report

[its spaciousness] …. has created a buzz around the A380, with carriers reporting that passengers will change their travel plans just to sample the superjumbo experience….

This ties in to the question about whether people will continue to avoid the 787.  If we see passengers making itinerary changes to positively select an A380, doesn’t that suggest it is far from improbable that at least some passengers will also make itinerary changes to avoid 787s?

China Is At It Again

There China goes, yet again, impressing the rest of the world with its extraordinary growth and industrial strength.

Scarcely a month after a Chinese company was awarded a concession by the Nicaraguan government to design, build and manage a new canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to compete with the Panama Canal, the Chinese how now decided to show us they can also build the world’s longest undersea tunnel.  It would run 76 miles from Dalian to Yantai (see map above), and would shorten the distance between the two regions by 620 miles.

The primary purpose would be for freight.  Currently the world’s longest undersea tunnel is between Honshu and Hokkaido islands in Japan (34 miles) followed closely by the Channel tunnel (32 miles).

More details here.

An Innovative Solution If the Name on Your Ticket is Wrong

If the name on your ticket is wrong by more than one or two letters, the airline will probably refuse to change it, and will insist you get a refund on the ticket in the wrong name and then rebook the ticket in the right name.

There is of course no law or reason why the airline can’t change the name on your ticket as many times as it wishes.  Back in the ‘good old days’ when I was a travel agent, I’d regularly book seats in the name of ‘Mr A N Other’ and hold them until I had exact names.  The airlines knew what I was doing and looked the other way – it allowed me to keep a ‘secret supply’ of seats at hard to travel times of year.

But the airlines decided to stop all this, presumably as a way to now occasionally trap people into needing to spend money, and to prevent people from reassigning their ticket to someone else.  There’s of course no reason why anyone shouldn’t be allowed to reassign their ticket to anyone else – imagine if, when you bought a ticket to a concert event, it could only be used by the person named on the ticket.  Laughably ridiculous and unfair, right?

But if you try to get an airline to help you out with a bona fide problem with your name, they refuse.  They don’t say ‘we could, but we won’t'; they say ‘we can’t’ as if there were an immutable law of nature that they can’t fight against.

So, what do you do if you get trapped with a ticket that is not in your name and an unhelpful airline laughing at your problem?  The cost of getting a partial refund on a discounted ticket, and then needing to rebook at full fare could easily run into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

One possibility – offered in all seriousness – is to change your name to that on your ticket, and update your driver’s license or passport to show the new name, then change it back to your proper name when you’ve completed your travels.

This UK consumer affairs program offers exactly that advice, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work in the US or elsewhere, either.  The enormous pleasure you’d get at beating the airlines at their own game would make it all worthwhile.

Indeed, if you were to transfer a ticket correctly in your name to someone else who changed their name to yours, that would work too.  And with all the strange names and gender ambiguity out there these days, who would dare comment if ‘David Rowell’ turned out to be a woman?

A Dismaying Indictment of One of the Best Cruise Lines

We know that some cruise lines are ‘cheap as chips’ and others do a good job of gouging their passengers, charging for every little thing over and above the cruise fare – remember the good old days when the fare alone was almost all you’d need to pay for a fun-filled week away in the sun?

But we try to cherish some hopes that there are a few cruise lines that have chosen to take the high road (or whatever the nautical equivalent is), and to provide a good honest fair product in return for an albeit very high daily rate for their cruises.  In particular, we’ve dared to hope that Silversea Cruises is a highest quality operation, more or less living up to its advertised promises of luxury and world-class cuisine.

So what to think of an utterly appalling story which hints at an enormous dark underside to the much vaunted CDC Vessel Sanitation Program inspections; and not just on the Silversea Silver Shadow, but probably throughout the industry.

Read this and be massively dismayed, as well as massively horrified, and massively amazed – not just at what apparently goes on to cheat the inspections, but at how the CDC inspections have no consequences and the CDC can’t do anything more than to politely ask ship owners to correct deficiencies.

By coincidence Senator Jay Rockefeller introduced a new bill, The Cruise Passenger Protection Act, this week, but as best I can determine (I’ve been unable to find the full text, merely summaries) the bill has nothing to do with health issues and standards in it and his own self-serving press release is light on details or links to the text.

Meanwhile, in more cruise news you don’t really want to know, three past passengers of Carnival have filed a class action lawsuit claiming that hundreds of passengers have contracted the MRSA ‘flesh eating bacteria’ from hot tubs on their ships.

A motion to dismiss, filed by Carnival, was denied in the US District Court in Florida, and the passengers are hoping that other passengers will join them in their suit.

MRSA is a particularly nasty mutation of the Staphylococcus Aureus that is resistant to most antibiotics, and very difficult to treat.  The bacteria causes an aggressive and sometimes debilitating infection.

The New Google Chromecast Device

Immediate below this is a separate article about the new version Google Nexus 7 tablet, announced on Wednesday this week.  It is a great new tablet for sure, but the announcement event was a bit of a disappointment.  Some of us where also hoping for a new Nexus 10 tablet (now claimed to be appearing very soon) and a new Nexus 4 cell phone too.

We didn’t get either of those, but we did get something unexpected.  Google’s new Chromecast device.

What is it?  It is another way to get internet streamed video from the internet, via your in-home Wi-Fi, and to your television through an HDMI port.  I say ‘another way’ because some televisions now come with some type of this capability built-in, as do some DVD and Bluray players.  There are also excellent standalone devices such as the Roku players which do the same thing.

Google has made false starts in this marketplace before – with the inexplicably go-nowhere Google TV product, and the even stranger massively overpriced Nexus Q device that never even made it to the marketplace at all.  But the new Chromecast dongle has one massively important thing going for it which neither of these other two devices, both costing some hundreds of dollars, did.

The massive positive feature of the Chromecast product?  Low price.  It lists for a mere $35, whereas most other devices cost twice that or more.  On the downside, it doesn’t have the huge broad lineup of channels that Roku has, but it may have good integration allowing you to play video from your phone (iPhone or Android) or tablet or computer.  It also has connectivity to Youtube, of course, and a tie-in with Netflix also.  Netflix has even upgraded its streaming quality to reflect the higher quality capabilities of this device.

I’ve ordered one and will let you know more when I receive it and try it out.  The device quickly sold out of its initial production run, hinting at either a more successful product or yet again Google’s inability to predict market demand for one of its products, and I’m waiting for Amazon to advise a delivery date – probably three or four weeks into the future.

Is the Telephone the Next Device to Become Obsolete?

Okay, you might think this to be the stupidest question with the most obvious answer you’ve seen, well, at least so far today.  Of course the phone isn’t at risk of being obsolete, right?

But, stop and think about it.  For example, when did you last use more than your monthly allowance of minutes on your cell phone?  How often do you make or receive phone calls these days compared to emails or text messages?  And would you generally prefer people to contact you by phone or email (and, vice versa, how would you prefer to be able to contact other people)?

I’m sure you remember when the phone ringing was an exciting and important event, and you of course answered it immediately.  Now, for many of us, we selectively (and reluctantly) answer it or not.  We might let the call go to voicemail, we might know that if it is important, the person will send us a text or email.  If we see no caller ID on an incoming call, we might feel annoyance and possibly even refuse to answer it.

Is life without the telephone as unthinkable as we might consider?  Or is it the way we are headed?

Here’s a fascinating and interesting read on the subject.

As for me, I just checked.  So far this year, I’ve been using my cell phone for an average of 3 minutes call time a day.  But I use it for email, texts, and data in general ten or one hundred times more minutes every day.  And the same at my desk.  The phone seldom gets used these days, and most of the time when any of us do use it, it is ‘unhappy making’ time rather than happy time.  It is time spent on hold or talking to call center staff in far away countries, or fobbing off calls we don’t wish to receive.

You can take my phone and keep it.  But don’t deprive me of my internet and texting services, please!

And Lastly This Week….

The camera never lies – something we rely upon when looking at online pictures of hotels we are considering staying at, and so on.  Or does it?

We know you can do tricks with camera angles and wide-angle lenses, but beyond that, we start to get into the black magic of Photoshop and other similar tools.  Such as, for example, this.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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







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