Weekly Roundup Friday 8 July 2011

Good morning

I hope your 4 July weekend was a pleasure.  Certainly the Pacific Northwest is now in the grip of glorious summer weather, and I hope the same is true of you too (if you’re in the northern hemisphere, of course).  As for our Antipodean friends, well, your time will come again, soon enough.

Happy birthday to the FAA, which turned 75 on Wednesday.  From an initial start comprising 15 air traffic controllers in three control centers, it now has more than 15,000 controllers working in more than 300 air traffic control centers.

Although the FAA is now nearly 75 years old, and although many more planes now fly very much faster than ever before, it is not totally inaccurate to equate its current methods of air traffic management as more in line with those first adopted 75 years ago, augmented by the introduction of radar about 60 years ago, than as being a reflection of modern technologies and capabilities.  As you’ll know any time you’ve been on a vaguely delayed flight due to some sort of air traffic control issue, the system today is straining at the seams.

Less obvious are some of the more obscured costs to the airlines.  In particular, in these oh-so-fuel-sensitive times, the inability for the airlines to fly in the straightest/shortest line from take-off to landing is costing huge amounts of money for the extra flying time and jetfuel burned.  It is fair to say that the GPS units in our cars give us a more accurate route management system than that used by the FAA.

There is a solution – a combination of new technologies that are called, in total, Nextgen – the Next Generation Air Transportation System.  But implementing this represents as a huge $30 – $40 billion cost, and no-one is willing to pay for it; neither the federal government nor the airlines (notwithstanding the billions of dollars in savings they would get as a result).

So why aren’t all concerned rushing to get this new, long overdue and desperately needed system in place?  The answer to that is very complicated; but if you are interested, here is an excellent and detailed article.

Happy birthday also to Thomas Cook.  It is 171 years since the first ever excursion offered by Thomas Cook (a rail journey from Leicester to a temperance meeting in Loughborough, on July 5 in 1841.  500 people travelled a distance of 12 miles and back at a cost of one shilling each (5 new pence)).

His first trip for profit was in 1845, another railway journey.  In 1855 he promoted his first international tour (to Europe).  The first American tour took place in 1866.  In 1868 Thomas Cook introduced a system of hotel coupons (which he had tested the previous year) in an attempt to get fixed prices for accommodation at selected hotels in all major cities.

In 1872/73 Thomas Cook organized and led the first round-the-world tour.  He was away from home for 222 days and covered more than 25,000 miles.  In 1874 Cook’s Circular Note, an early form of the travellers check, was launched in New York.

Thomas Cook himself died in 1892 but his name and company are still going strong.

The airlines themselves are quick to point out all the problems and difficulties associated with their business operations.  But invariably – in the west – such problems and difficulties never seem to impact on the airline executives, who get generous compensation and seldom suffer any direct personal consequences of their airlines’ mistakes and failures and losses.

But, how about in other countries, and how about the negative consequences of your airline’s success?  What is that, you say?  Read this story about rapacious Russia, where the western partners in a new and promising airline, Avianova, have been summarily evicted from the airline’s offices by their Russian oligarch ‘partner’ and threatened with prosecution for vague offenses if they try and assert their rights to the 49% of the airline they legally own and have been closely involved in managing.

Twenty years after Russian independence, and clearly the gangster elite remains as much in control and above the law today as it ever has in the past.  Western investors are well advised to exercise extreme caution before putting their money – and indeed their lives and liberty – at risk in an investment with so-called Russian ‘partners’.

Some aspects of economics are vague and fuzzy and ambiguous.  Is the best way out of our current economic problems to boost government spending or to curtail it?  Should we raise taxes or lower them?  Cogent arguments exist in favor of all these different and opposing points of view, such that in the end, politicians generally do what they feel is best (ie most likely to get them re-elected) and while we might disagree with some of their actions some of the time, it is not always possible to 100% prove them wrong.

But then there are things they do which are just plain so stupid as to be impossible for them to defend.  And I’m talking off-the-scale stupid in this case.

As I’ve sometimes explained myself in the past, one of the best ways for any government to generate extra income is by spending money on tourism promotion.  A Michigan study suggested that each dollar spent on promoting tourism returns $3.29 in additional income.  I don’t know about you, but if someone came to me and said ‘David, for every dollar you give me, I’ll return you $3.29’ then as soon as I’d assured myself it wasn’t a scam, I’d be emptying my pockets and passing over everything I had.

So, think about this.  You’re in charge of the budget of a state, and you’re short of money.  What do you do?  Leave your state tourism budget unchanged?  Increase it, and get a 329% return on the extra money you spend?  Or zero it out down to nothing, and watch your state lose out on tourism business while states all around you continue to happily spend on promoting their states against you?

No prizes for guessing what happened in Washington State.  They took their tourism budget – $7 million last year and already emasculated down to $1.8 million this year – and killed it entirely.

So the next time a conference/convention organizer looks around for where they should hold their next gathering, Washington won’t appear as one of the venues represented.  The next time a tour operator says ‘I’d like to feature some WA tours in my upcoming brochure, can you help me with some images and contacts’ there will be no-one to make that request of and no-one to respond.  The next time someone searches for ‘places to visit and things to do in Washington’ on the internet, there’ll be no state coordinated information resource appearing in the Google results.  And so on, and so on.

Washington now becomes the only state not to promote tourism.  When Colorado eliminated its tourism office between 1993 and 2000, its overnight tourist stays dropped by one third.  And while some of the other states have been cutting back on their tourism budgets, none have eliminated them, and about half the states have been sensibly increasing their budgets (most notably LA – from $19 million to $32 million, MI from $19 to $27 million, and AK from $12 to $19 million).

The thing is that the loss of income as a result of the elimination of the Washington State Tourism Office will be fuzzy and vague and difficult to attribute to any one thing.  So politicians can safely cut that budget item without losing too many votes, even though the harm to the state as a whole will be measurable.  At the same time, of course, the pet programs that are guaranteed vote winners, but which are bankrupting the state, remain untouched.

More details here.

Talking about encouraging tourism, I’ve written at length the last some weeks about how the US goes out of its way to discourage tourists from other countries.  At the same time, other countries are bending over backwards to make it easier for foreign visitors to go to their country and spend money there.

The latest example of this is in South Korea, which will now allow foreigners arriving by cruise ship to stay in the country for up to three days without needing a visa.  This contrasts with the US which put a group of elderly British tourists through an up to seven hour wait before allowing them to be readmitted to the US (see item in blue near the bottom of this blog entry).

We’re being shown up by every other country in the world, who almost without exception seem able to do better than us at treating visitors with courtesy and respect. 

I wrote a month or so back about how to drive in Britain, including a page all about going around the traffic roundabouts that are so common there.

Here’s an interesting item that reports on the growing popularity of roundabouts in the US, and includes the surprising claim that traffic roundabouts are more ecologically friendly and reduce carbon emissions.

If you don’t like roundabouts, and if you don’t care about carbon emissions, there’s another approach to making your way from Point A to Point B.  A flying car.  Yes, I know – flying cars have been talked about and promised for decades, and have yet to materialize in any practical or mass produced form.

But here’s an article about a flying car – the Terrafugia Transition – that is getting closer to reality than most of its predecessors, having just received DoT approval to be driven as a car on the road.

However, don’t say goodbye to your daily commute just yet.  As currently engineered, the vehicle can carry a total load of only 330 lbs (the total of passenger weights and luggage weights), and has a projected cost of $250,000.

Word is starting to leak out about Apple’s upcoming new iPhone 5.  It seems that it will have a better camera and will be slightly smaller than the present iPhone, and will have a somewhat faster processor.

But other than these tweaks, there is no indication of any exciting new ‘must have’ feature being added to the phone, and certainly if you already have an iPhone 4, it might be a model that you can skip.  It may be announced around the September time frame and probably will go on sale within a month or so of announcement.

While Apple and Android continue to duke it out for top honors in the smartphone marketplace, there’s one contender who is remaining sadly at the very back of the race.  Notwithstanding a huge marketing budget and launch ‘push’, massive marketplace visibility, and even a reasonable range of phone handset models and good wireless company support, Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 languishes in the ‘also ran’ category.

In the most recent three month period ended May, just 1% of new smartphone sales were based on the Windows Phone 7 operating system.  This is an extraordinary fail on Microsoft’s part.  Details here.

There’s no justice in this world – or, if there is, it is remarkably capricious and uneven.  Consider these two situations, for example.  In the first case, a passenger on a flight from Auckland to Singapore couldn’t be bothered going to a bathroom and so simply urinated in the plane’s aisle, hitting other passengers as he did so.  What happened to him as an outcome?  He was let off with a warning.  And what happened to the passengers he urinated on?  The airline (Jetstar, a Qantas subsidiary) apparently laughed at them for 20 minutes before they could even compose themselves enough to talk normally, and refused any compensation.

Now for the other situation.  A woman noticed a very rude and unhelpful member of the US Airways ground staff at Philadelphia, and took a picture of the staff member’s name badge with her iPhone so as to remember the name for the purpose of writing a complaint letter to the airline.

The passenger then boarded the plane, and some time later, the ground staffer who had been photographed boarded the plane and demanded the woman delete the photo.  The woman complied, whereupon the ground staffer then told the captain that the woman was a ‘security risk’.  The spineless captain capitulated and allowed the woman to be marched off the plane and not allowed back on the plane, and the US Airways manager at the airport refused to allow her to travel on any subsequent US Airways flight.

Excuse me.  Taking a picture of a person makes you a security risk?  On what planet do these US Airways employees live?

 It is outrageous that this out of control rude/nasty ground crew member – a woman with the name of Tonialla G – should be able to take a lady off a flight and then have her banned from future flights too, merely because the passenger was quietly offended by Tonialla’s behavior and planned to make a complaint.

US Airways’ official response is to claim the photographer lady was using foul and explicit language and was removed at the request of the captain.  They don’t explain why she was denied travel on other flights, and also didn’t know exactly what it was she was alleged to have said, which makes their claim sound more like a standard bit of male-cow excrement rather than a factual statement in detail of what occurred.

Details here and here.

Still, at least this lady got to board the plane, albeit only for a brief period.  Read now about this gentleman – a senior hospital doctor – who asked for a manual pat-down rather than go through the X-ray scanner at Manchester (UK) airport.  The security staff refused his request and had police escort him out of the airport, not allowing him to fly under any circumstance at all.

This experience is interestingly at odds with a new European Parliament resolution stating that whole body scanners should only be allowed if the health, dignity and privacy of passengers is protected.  The resolution added that passengers should have the right to refuse body scanning and opt for alternative screening methods that guarantee the same level of effectiveness while respecting their rights and dignity.

Clearly, based on the treatment given to the doctor in Manchester, such legislation is needed.

Talking about whole body X-ray scanners, while these devices do a good job of looking under your clothes, they can not see under your skin.  I’ve written several times, and many months ago, about the future possible danger of terrorists smuggling bombs onto planes ‘internally’ – you can let your imagination run wild as to what and where and how they might choose to internally smuggle bombs.  Yes, fake breast implants surgically implanted is indeed one possibility, while others, well, don’t necessarily involve surgery.

How would the bomb be detonated?  The best way would be to have a two part explosive, with the other part in a syringe.  When the terrorist wished to detonate the bomb, he (or she) would stick the syringe through their skin and into the bomb, and inject the second part of the explosive into the first.  After a short time for the chemicals to mix (if you see a passenger jumping up and down or doing somersaults, this may be a worrying indication) the explosion would then occur.  Syringes are permitted on board planes, eg, for diabetics.

Generally this threat isn’t quite as fearsome as it may seem, because placing an explosive inside a body allows the body that now surrounds the explosive to act as a shock absorber.  Remember the war film where the hero throws himself on a grenade just before it explodes, bravely sacrificing himself to save his comrades?  The same logic applies – the force of an explosion would be greatly reduced by the amount of force needed to burst out of the body.

That is not to say that such devices are harmless.  Absolutely not.  And now it appears the TSA are becoming anxious about the possibility of such devices being used by terrorists.  But there’s one huge big problem – there is no easy way for the TSA to screen for and detect such devices if they are inside a person.  Sure, syringes could be given more focus (but the terrorist solution to that is to have one person traveling with the syringes, a second person with the inserted explosive), and about the only other thing to do would be to examine everyone naked for any recent surgical scars (and even that wouldn’t work well, because with modern microsurgery attempts, it is possible to insert things into the body through very small holes that can be hidden eg around one’s belly button or areola).

It seems that any such terrorists may be on a plane flying in to the US from a foreign country, and the US has asked foreign governments to step up security of passengers on flights coming in to the US.  However, about the only thing that screeners can do is attempt to talk more to the passengers as they go through security in an attempt to get a feeling for if they are possible threats or not.

It is unclear how effective an attempt to engage a non-English speaking Yemeni terrorist wearing a full burkha in casual conversation will be (see this week’s feature picture), and of course, our overriding refusal to ‘profile’ passengers means that any such casual screening will have to be at least equally focused on little old (white) ladies and very young children as much as it is on muslims from Yemen and the other hotbeds of Al Qaeda muslim terrorism.  More details – such as they are – here.

A bit of puzzling trivia to close out the week.  Here’s an interesting article about the decline in people renting carts at airports (due to people traveling with less luggage, and the luggage they travel with probably having wheels on it.

But the thing I find truly puzzling is how an airport such as LAX has gone from a net earnings of $2.75 million a year from their share of cart rentals to now losing $950,000 a year after offsetting smaller cart rental fees against the cost to them of providing free carts to arriving international travelers.

The puzzling thing is this :  How can it cost $950,000 a year to provide free cart rentals?  Maybe you have ten minimum wage people tasked with cart collection (say $200,000 total cost).  So where does the other $750,000 go?  Indeed, it is probably much more than $750,000 because LAX presumably still gets some cart rental income from the carts in the other terminals.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.

2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 8 July 2011”

  1. I have always thought it marvelous that upon arrival in a European city, you are able to get luggage carts free of charge. It sure makes it nice when you have spent all night on a plane and are tired and may not have the local currency.
    However, upon arrival in the US, one must pay for a luggage cart. I don’t find that very welcoming to our foreign visitors!

  2. Pingback: Weekly Roundup Friday 12 April 2013 » The Travel Insider

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