Weekly Roundup Friday 1 July 2011

Good morning

They say that one definition of ‘home’ is that it is the place you always feel good at returning to, no matter where else in the world you’ve been and what else you’ve been doing.

By that standard, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m happily home once more.  Traveling is good, but returning home is always great.

Well, the actual air travel to get home isn’t necessarily good.  My return flights from London to Seattle on Delta featured a mix of good and bad experiences.  The first flight from LHR to Detroit was uneventful and ordinary, except for a late arrival into Detroit.

This late arrival was all the more surprising due to the plane flying unusually slowly on the journey, even as the projected arrival time into Detroit lengthened and lengthened.  As you can see from the image at the start of the newsletter, the 767 plane was, at least for some significant amount of time, flying at a through-the-air speed of only 516 mph, appreciably less than it can easily cruise at.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m ever running late, I’ll speed up to a sensible safe speed, still below the speed limit, rather than continue along in the slow lane with other cars passing by.  Is Delta slowing its flights down to save money on fuel?

Alas, upon arrival in Detroit, and handing my bags back to Delta after clearing Customs, I discovered my flight on to Seattle was cancelled.  There was no email notification, no text message, nothing at all from Delta about this.  But happily I had already been automatically rebooked on alternate flights that delayed my return by only 1 hr 13 mins.  And a very pleasant helpful DL agent even gave me $18 in meal vouchers without my asking for them.

Although I got back to Seattle as rebooked, my bags did not, and herein lies the real disappointment.  My bags were not rebooked to fly on the same flights as me; instead, they were put on a totally different routing – even though there was 90 minutes or more in DTW for the bags to be retagged onto the flights I was now to travel.  Think about that.  Someone obviously had to change how my bags made it to Seattle from the cancelled flight to an alternate, but instead of putting them on the same flights as me, they chose to put them on a different flight entirely.  Why?

More annoyingly, no-one told me about this.  So, upon arrival into Seattle, after close on 24 hours of travel, I then had to wait at the carousel with an increasing sense of despair until finally going to Delta’s baggage office 30 minutes after the flight had landed (along with many other similarly affected passengers) only to be told that my bags were on a later flight.

Why couldn’t DL have told us that our bags were not arriving on the flight we were on?  There were several points of contact on the two flights from DTW through SLC and on to SEA where they could have done this.  They could also have paged us at baggage claim.  But instead they forced us to endure a further 30 minutes of delay after arriving before we then had to go to their baggage office and anxiously wait our turn to find out where our bags were.

We all understand that sometimes bags go astray.  That’s part of travel, and something we have to accept.  But there’s no reason why the airline can’t be more pro-active in advising passengers of such problems when they occur.

Talking about Delta, they got a bit of unfair and ill-informed criticism late last week, when an internet rumor flashed around the world that a partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines would result in Delta refusing to transport Jews.

Happily, nothing could be further from the case.  USA Today – who regrettably first published before subsequently withdrawing an article about this – explains the situation here and here.

The nicest, quickest and easiest part of the entire journey was going through DTW’s Immigration and Customs.  I again got to enjoy the ‘Global Entry’ fast track process.

Instead of waiting in line to be interviewed by an Immigration Officer, and then waiting in line after reclaiming bags to be interviewed by a Customs Officer, one simply goes to a machine, lets it read one’s passport, check one’s fingerprints, and take a photo, then answer a few questions (just a few of the much lengthier set of questions on the typical Blue Immigration/Customs Arrival form).  After this, you get a printed out slip of paper, and after you get your bags, you go to a fast lane through Customs where all you do is hand in your piece of paper without even slowing down as you walk through.

This is an amazingly good service that massively reduces the hassle of getting back into the country.  It doesn’t operate at all airports, so here’s a list of the airports and terminals it is available.  It costs $100 to apply, and your membership in the program is good for five years.

And now for something that you’ll probably not read elsewhere.  If you belong to the NEXUS program, you can use your membership in that program as an automatic entitlement for Global Entry without needing to reapply for Global Entry or pay the Global Entry fee.  This means that the $50 NEXUS fee also saves you the $100 Global Entry fee.  You don’t even need to present your NEXUS card.

If it is convenient to get a NEXUS membership (which is a great benefit when traveling in and out of Canada anyway) this is the lowest cost way to end up with Global Entry benefits too.  Definitely recommended.

You can also use your SENTRI membership to access the Global Entry service, but SENTRI costs $122.50, so you don’t get Global Entry membership this way for less.

Alas, although Global Entry makes things easier for US citizens and permanent residents, there’s no sign of any improvements in how the US handles normal tourist and business visitors.

My continuing comments about how the US mistreats intending visitors brought a response from a long time reader who owns a number of travel agencies in Britain.  Not only is he the type of person we should be encouraging to visit as often as we can persuade him to come, but he is also a valuable influencer as to what destinations his travel agencies promote to their customers.

He writes :

The US Border Control officials are by far the worst I have encountered in all my travels.  I have entered over fifty countries and some of them many times.  I cannot recall any that are more official, unfriendly and who additionally have the knack of making me feel criminal than the United States.  I write this with regret as the US – after my homeland of Britain – is my preferred country to travel in.

One experience stands out.  About ten years ago I arrived at Newark Airport NJ.  After the expected frustrating wait of too long, I was asked by the official to go to an anonymous door in the building for a ‘second interview’.

I had no idea what this was about and the official was not at all forthcoming.  My memory of the interview was one of intimidation and aggression.  I was accused of being an illegal immigrant.  I asked why and was told that I had entered the US a number of years before and there was no record of me leaving.

 I said I had indeed left (which sort of stands to reason – how could I be re-entering if I’d never left?) and explained that I lived and worked in the UK and have my own business there.  I also more importantly had  a wife and two daughters  and we all lived together in Scotland.  The response was one deep suspicion and impassiveness.

Now I know there are illegal immigrants and a bona fide need for caution and control at the border.  But surely part of the training must be for Border Control to spot the suspects and still maintain a bit of human interpretation of who are the good guys?

Long story short, I had to formally apply for a non-immigrant visa before I could return to the US again.  Next time, I had another similar hassle entering Boston from Toronto.

I used every contact I had in the travel industry and got absolutely nowhere.  No-one would speak to me about the problem.  At one point an official person said that there was no process or resource committed to sorting out problems such as mine.

It’s a disgrace that the self styled leader of the free world, and source of most computer information innovation can’t resolve such a basic problem.

Yes, the writer (who I feel forced to protect with a veil of anonymity – how terrible that in the home of the First Amendment people increasingly feel scared to publicly voice their opinions for fear of official ‘payback’) is absolutely correct.  It is a disgrace and reflects very poorly on us all.

I wrote last week about airline surveys and the ‘best airlines’ featured in those surveys.  This week an airline anoints itself as the ‘world’s favorite airline’ (a slogan used by BA in the 1980s and 1990s).  The airline in question is Ryanair, and it bases its claim on having carried more international passengers in 2010 than any other airline.

Ryanair carried 71.2 million passengers in 2010.  This was followed by Lufthansa (44.4 million), Easyjet (37.6 million) and Air France (30.8 million).

In contrast, the former ‘world’s favorite airline’ (BA) carried 26.3 million, placing it at sixth place.

While this is an interesting measure, it is not the only way which an airline can measure its size (and/or its claim to be the world’s favorite airline).  Although Ryanair did indeed carry this many passengers, the average length of flight it took its passengers on is undoubtedly much shorter than the length of flight that Lufthansa took its passengers on.

Other size measures that are sometimes used for boasting purposes include obvious ones such as turnover, number of planes or employees, number of routes and cities served, and profitability.

The Paris Air Show has now ended and the final statistics seems to be that Airbus won 586 firm orders and 318 provisional orders, compared to 47 firm orders and 93 provisional orders given to Boeing.

In total, since December last year, Airbus has now rung up over 1000 orders or commitments for its new A320neo.  To put this number in perspective, last year Airbus sold 574 planes of all types.  The A320neo, no matter how much Boeing tries to ignore it, is proving to be a runaway best seller for Airbus.

I mentioned last week Airbus’ creative imagining of a hypersonic jet that may appear at some time in the distant future.  Another futuristic proposal announced at the Paris Air Show was for a different approach to hypersonic flight, with a smaller and slightly slower plane, flying at Mach 3.5 and carrying only 20 passengers.  It could travel across the Atlantic in 90 minutes and have a range of 6,000 miles.

The British company developing the plane – known as the SonicStar – says it will have minimal sonic boom impact, and will be relatively fuel efficient too.  Although there is some uncertainty about the company’s funding, they say that a plane could be operational as soon as 2021, a mere ten years from now.

More details on their website.

Never mind the Paris Air Show.  Perhaps the biggest – and most significant – airplane sale of the year is expected to be announced in the next month or so.  American Airlines is believed to be on the verge of placing an order for between 250 and 280 single aisle planes to replace its older MD-80 and 757 planes.

AA has been an all-Boeing airline since retiring some old A300s in 2009.  It never followed up its order for A300 planes with orders for more Airbus models, and Boeing has given it special preferential treatment in an attempt to keep the AA fleet exclusively Boeing.

But according to this WSJ article, AA is not providing to be a loyal friend of Boeing – or of Airbus either.  Apparently the airline is believed to have first created a draft deal with Airbus, and then, after getting its best offer from Airbus, then passed it on to Boeing and asked Boeing to better the Airbus deal.  It seems reasonable to expect that AA may continue to play the two airplane manufacturers off against each other, highlighting how the airline industry has a strongly vested industry in seeing both manufacturers remain healthy and viable.

This Bloomberg report says the AA board may make a decision on its airplane purchase as soon as July.  Anything other than a 100% win by Boeing would represent a major new victory for Airbus in the battle for A320/737 orders, and would both vindicate the Airbus A230neo plane and vilify Boeing’s continued delays in announcing a 737 replacement.

I’ll make two predictions.  The first is that an early announcement by AA is likely to give an appreciable share of its order to Airbus, and that much of the Boeing order would be convertible to future 737 replacements when they are finally announced.  The second prediction is that if AA delays an announcement beyond July, it could suggest that Boeing is rushing to get its 737-replacement strategy finalized, and has succeeded in getting AA to wait until it can compare the new Boeing product with the new Airbus plane.

BA Pilot – Hero or Zero?  A BA pilot threw a mystery cell phone out the window of his plane rather than take the plane back to the terminal to hand it in to authorities.

On the face of it, this sounds like an extreme measure.  But when you think about it some more, it actually sounds very sensible, which is more than can be said of the reaction by the airport officials.

It seems that probably a passenger on a previous flight had left their cell phone on board.  The phone was discovered as the plane was taxiing to take off, and none of the passengers on board claimed it.  Perhaps due to concerns that it might be an arming mechanism for a bomb (or that it might contain a bomb within its internal electronics) the pilot was told he had to return to the gate to hand the phone in.  He asked if a ground staff member could meet the plane on the taxi-way so as to save time and money, but this request was refused.

He then asked if he could simply throw the phone out the window, and after this request was refused, he decided to do so anyway.

This was actually very sensible of the pilot, defying the idiocy of the ground controllers, and BA themselves confirm there is no formal BA procedure requiring pilots to take their planes back to the gate to hand in mystery cell phones.

But the ground controllers didn’t like being defied, ordered the plane back, and caused a three hour delay, taking the pilot off the flight and requiring a substitute crew.

Well done to the pilot, and a big raspberry to the idiotic and uncooperative ground staff.  More details here.

Talking about security raspberries (as it seems we do every week) how about this item, which rates high on the ‘yuck’ factor.  When will the TSA come to understand that not everyone is as likely to be a terrorist as some other people may be, and start to use some common sense in their approach to managing things?  Answer – alas, probably never.

There has also been some interesting disclosures this week about some apparently increased incidence of cancer rates in TSA workers, which some people are quick to attribute to working near the new X-ray scanners.

While I’m definitely of the opinion that the X-ray scanners are potentially harmful, I’m not entirely sure that we yet have enough evidence of any nature to be able to attribute the cancers to the scanners.  There are lots of other possible explanations at this stage, starting off with coincidence, and following on through all sorts of other possible points of commonality.

On the other hand, the TSA’s continued refusal to allow its staff to wear radiation dosimeters to report on the amount of radiation exposure they are experiencing doesn’t help to eliminate X-ray scanners as a potential cause.  Why – if the scanners are harmless – does the TSA refuse to allow any monitoring of them?

More details here.

Something for nothing?  The Swedish ferry operator, Stena Line, has proudly announced it is adding two wind turbines to the bow of its latest ferry, the Stena Jutlandica.  It says the wind turbines will supply the ferry with energy and reduce fuel consumption.

There’s a name for such devices that create energy from nothing.  Perpetual motion machines.  Unfortunately, they don’t exist, won’t exist, and can’t exist.

While it is clearly true that the turbines will create energy, and it may also be true that they reduce the amount of engine power needed to move the ship forward, that is only part of the story, not the complete story.

The rest of the story is that simple low-tech streamlining would reduce the amount of engine power needed even more than the power being generated, seemingly for free, by the expensive and maintenance intensive wind turbines.  Free power?  Not at all – instead, it is a very clumsy inefficient process whereby the power received from the wind turbines is appreciably less than the extra power saving if they were thrown overboard and replaced with low tech streamlining instead.

Talking about nautical things not being quite as they seem to be, the CDC has cited the Queen Mary 2 for failing to meet its minimum hygiene standards.  Inspectors found dozens of violations during their inspection and the word filthy was used five times in the report.

It is very rare for a ship to fail a CDC inspection – the last failure was a private ship back in February 2010.  Much more common is ships getting perfect scores – 16 so far this year.

Shame on Cunard for failing the CDC hygiene inspection.

Here’s an interesting article about China’s explosive growth of high speed rail.  The Chinese government hopes to have 28,000 miles of high speed rail track constructed by the end of 2015.  That’s an absolutely amazing and unprecedented rate of development.

Talking about trains, have you ever heard the story about how the standard 4’8½” gauge (or spacing) between the rails on US and most other countries’ rail track was chosen due to historical reasons, it being the same as the width of a Roman chariot?  Here’s a fascinating article that rebuts this urban legend, and note also its interesting tangential reference to ‘Independence Day’ as having been originally on 2 July, not 4 July.

In further support of this latter claim, here’s a quote from a letter written from John Adams to Abigail Adams on 3 July 1776 :

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.

And as for the 4 July origination of the Declaration of Independence – well, it seems that it was probably signed on 2 August, rather than 4 July.  Here’s some more about this.

But let’s not let such details interfere with a great weekend.  I hope you’ll let enjoy great weather, have an outdoor barbeque or something similar, and pause for a minute to reflect about the greatness of our nation, and how we should rise to the challenges currently confronting us all.

But at the same time, let’s not also lose sight of the irony that ‘the land of the free’ now generally no longer allows us to set off our own fireworks to celebrate our freedom.

Lastly this week, scoring near the top of the list of things not to bring on board your next flight with you would be this umbrella.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.

1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 1 July 2011”

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