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)

  • Expedia
  • Kayak
  • TripAdvisor
  • Hotel Tonight
  • Priceline
  • Orbitz
  • Airbnb
  • HomeAway

Top iPad Apps (from most to least popular)

  • Expedia
  • TripAdvisor
  • Kayak
  • Orbitz
  • Travelocity
  • Hotel Tonight
  • Priceline
  • Skyscanner

Top Android apps (from most to least popular)

  • Kayak
  • Expedia
  • TripAdvisor
  • Orbitz
  • Priceline
  • Hotel Tonight
  • Skyscanner
  • Travelocity

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







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

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

Good morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better Seat Belts Needed on Planes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salk’s Airport Transit Guide now Available on Android

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

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

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

You’ll find it $5 very well spent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TSA by the Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Dogs at Security

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

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

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

I hope Rep Chaffetz has read it, too.

TSA Randomizer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shifting Sands of the eBook Marketplace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better in a Pocket than on a 787!

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

Scary stuff.

And Lastly This Week….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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

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

Good morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

United Scores a 787 Hat Trick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Details here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airline Competition – This Week’s Most Quotable Quote

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

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

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

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

The DoT Pretends to Fine Naughty Delta $750,000

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

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

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

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

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

The Return of People Express Airlines?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Unusual Reason to Order Family Off Flight Ever?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Electronics for Pilots; Maybe for Passengers Too?

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

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

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

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

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

Details here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One (?) that Got Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Time, the Flight Attendants Have Proof

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

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

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

James Gandolfini Proves that Holidays Can Be Dangerous

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

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

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

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

Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

A Lawyer to Hate and a Lawyer to Love

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

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

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

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

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

And Lastly This Week….

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

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

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

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

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

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







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

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

Good morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the newsletter itself, we have items on :

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

A New Airfare Pricing Paradigm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

Airlines Wonder How Many Tweets are Too Many?

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

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

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

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

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

Jetblue Unveils Ambitious Future Enhancements to Its Trans-con Jets

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

Fanciful Planes of the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boeing Publishes its Latest 20 Year Outlook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Details here.

Why It is Serious When Airport Perimeter Security Guards Are Asleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Dodgy Disney ‘Disabled’ Guests

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

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

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

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

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

Las Vegas to Experience Massive New Growth Spurt?

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

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

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

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

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

And Lastly This Week….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







/* ]]> */