Weekly Roundup Friday 7 October 2011

The sprawling Fermilab campus and above ground evidence of its former Tevatron accelerator

Good morning

Please read on to enjoy in this week’s roundup, or click a link to (hopefully – this is experimental) be taken directly to the section of interest

Wow.  What a week it has been this week, especially so at The Travel Insider where we’ve been busy wrestling the various demons associated with our new blog format.  But I think we’ve got most of them safely under control, and you’re welcome to have a look at its new style look – https://blog.thetravelinsider.info .

1.  New Blog Format and Interactivity

There will also be some changes in how the blog entries get translated into your newsletter, too – changes which I hope will be for the better.  You can see some of them in this newsletter, including featuring reader comments that may exist on items written earlier in the week.

One of the great strengths of The Travel Insider is the amazing resource of knowledge contained within our readers – yes, people like you.  Please share your own knowledge by adding to the content in (or even correcting) my articles by commenting on them if you’ve something to say.  Your interaction is welcomed by your fellow readers (and by me too).

A good example of this was my commenting in last week’s newsletter about the plane which briefly flipped on its back, out of control, and plunged 6300 feet in no more time than it takes to read this paragraph.  Two readers quickly commented and then clarified their explanations about how such a mistake could be made – you can see their comments at the end of this article.

I’m also experimenting with the newsletter layout – how best to make the sometimes overwhelming amount of content you get each week be manageable?  To date, I’ve used the concept of alternating colors between topics.  I’m experimenting with topic headings instead.  Which do you prefer?

I hope you like these changes and agree they are enhancements.  As always, your comments are appreciated.

2.  Reader Instant Poll

The week has seen six articles added to the blog – two travel related and four technology related.  The previous week was also rather lopsidedly focused on technology; in past weeks, sometimes the opposite has also applied.  It has sort of depended on what is happening as to what the mix of travel items and travel-related-technology items have been; and I’ve never felt obligated to keep to some sort of specific mix as to how much of each topic should be featured.

Obviously, I am equally interested in travel and technology; but equally obviously, that may not be the case for you.  So here’s a quick instant reader poll – please click on the link which best describes your own thoughts on the matter.  It will help me know how best to provide you interesting, relevant and helpful content into the future.

And noting our current annual fundraising drive (see next item down!) and the reality that while I want to make the newsletter as broadly interesting for as many people as possible, the reality is that I have to prudently give greater weight to the preferences of the people who make The Travel Insider possible – possible for me to produce, and possible for everyone else to share in and enjoy too, so on this particular occasion, may I ask you also to indicate if you are a supporter or not.

Needless to say, if you haven’t yet helped out this year, you can do so right now before voting, or immediately after voting too.  🙂

Simply click the link that best describes your opinion – it will create an empty email with your answer coded into the subject line.

I am a Travel Insider Supporter and I am happy with things as they are

I am a Travel Insider Supporter and would prefer more emphasis on travel topics

I am a Travel Insider Supporter and would prefer more emphasis on technology topics

I am not a Travel Insider Supporter and I am happy with things as they are

I am not a Travel Insider Supporter and would prefer more emphasis on travel topics

I am not a Travel Insider Supporter and would prefer more emphasis on technology topics

I’ll report back to you next week on the results of your responses.  Thanks for helping me better understand that essential part of The Travel Insider – you, its readers.

3.  Annual Fundraising Appeal

The third week of this year’s annual fundraising campaign has enjoyed another great turn out of support.  Thank you.

In the first week, we had 103 people choose to help out, the second week saw 107 people join, and this third week we had another 100 people add their support, making for a total of 310 people responding and very kindly contributing to the annual fund raiser.

Special thanks, of course, to this week’s super supporters :  Jane, Joe, John M, John R, Neville, Oleksandr (our first Ukrainian supporter), Willie (from Scotland), Clayton, Charles, Alan, Billie Jo, and Richard.

The week’s quotable quote from a supporter comes from a gentleman who sent in $25.  He writes :

Would like to contribute more, but, I’m 82, live at the Veterans Home, and on Social Security. (No, I’m not asking you for a donation!!!) I enjoy your weekly letter. Thanks….

Do I have to complete the obvious thought process?  If this gentleman can spare $25, can you too choose to help out in some amount?  Don’t inconvenience yourself, but please do send in some easily affordable sum.

Another reader reminded me of an easy way for some of you to contribute.  I’m pleased to send you an invoice/receipt for an annual subscription.  If your employer might reimburse you for a travel magazine type subscription, or if it is deductible on your tax return, take advantage of this ability to give more, and at less cost to yourself.  Everyone wins in such a case.

You could also consider it your own mini-economic stimulus or job creation scheme (indeed, the Starbucks analogy I’ve used to compare the value of The Travel Insider to that of a cup or two of coffee is relevant again – as this article indicates, Starbucks is now soliciting $5 donations to apply to job creation schemes).  Because, for sure, without your help, I will be out of a job.  I do need your help, and hope you’ll choose to respond to this request.

Lastly, a comment from a third reader who said ‘If all content was free and no-one paid for it, then there won’t be any content’.  That is true – somehow, somewhere, I must get some income from someone.  Please play your part and pay your part.

Our target is for 500 supporters.  We’re now at 310.  Can you please help us close the remaining distance and reach our goal.  Many thanks indeed.

4.  A Runway for No-one

The state that became infamous for a ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ is now following up on that with a ‘Runway for No-one’.

The runway is to serve the small town of Akutan, with a population of 100 and swelling to 1000 in the summer fishing season, but it is being built not adjacent to the town, but on a neighboring island, separated by six miles of the Bering Sea.  Oooops.  In addition to the $64 million cost of the runway, a further $11 million is being proposed for a hovercraft to ferry passengers between one island and the other.

Similar hovercraft have proven unsuitable in similar conditions elsewhere in Alaska, and authorities are also wondering about providing helicopter service.

More details here.

5.  Southwest Attempts to Justify the Unjustifiable

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about an unfortunate business class passenger on a BA flight to London who ended up being sentenced to three months jail in England as an unexpected bonus of his flight.  If you haven’t read the item yet, you probably should – consider yourself duly warned as to what could befall you too on your next BA business class flight if you’re not sufficiently submissive to the flight crew.

Here now is an article full of offensive dissembling by Southwest who claim they train their flight attendants on how to best deal with disruptive passengers, but manage to trip themselves up in their attempts to be politically correct.

The airline claims that most times, passengers are only removed from a flight if they exhibit ‘aggressive behavior’ – so apparently the simple act of wearing clothing which a flight attendant objects to, or kissing your girlfriend (and being a girl yourself) falls within Southwest’s definition of ‘aggressive behavior’?

And as for the homily about how passengers are only removed after the captain has formally made a decision to do so in consultation with all three flight attendants on the plane, what I’d like to know is how many times has the captain refused a request by any one flight attendant to do so?  Seems to me that the ‘better safe than sorry’ adage (which Southwest even hints at when it says it is better to keep disputes on the ground, not in the air – in other words, if there’s a thought there might be a problem, they’d rather offload you before the flight commences) means the captain will always accept a request to formally offload a passenger.

And as for Southwest’s proud boast about training their flight attendants to handle problem passengers and situations?  The article ends with this quote from Southwest’s senior director of operational training which rather explodes their entire fiction :  ‘You can’t train for every specific situation’.

Let’s hope the same inability to train for every specific situation doesn’t apply to Southwest’s pilots, too.

6.  BA’s JFK-London City Service Turns 2

Happy second birthday to British Airways’ route between London City Airport and JFK.  This was an innovative service when it started in 2009 (ie in the middle of a business depression) and at the time, I was far from optimistic about its ongoing success.

But two years later, it is still going, with two flights a day in each direction, six days a week, and while some cynics might wonder just how much BA is subsidizing the service by moving traffic from its other trans-Atlantic flights, the fact remains that BA has chosen to continue operating it, so presumably it makes some degree of sense to someone, somewhere.

On the other hand, one also has to note that BA hasn’t extended the concept to other US-UK routes such as, for example, Washington or Boston.  So its actual success remains a matter of conjecture, but its longevity is now a matter of record.

It is a very unique route, because BA operates a tiny A318 in a 32 seat all business class configuration.  It flies non-stop from JFK to LCY, but on the return, stops in Shannon on the way for the plane to refuel and for passengers to clear through US Immigration and Customs, allowing them to be treated as domestic arrivals when reaching JFK.

BA requires only a 15 minute advance check-in for the flight, and while it can’t promise how quickly you’ll be out of the airport subsequent to arrival, I’ve never been so quickly shepherded through Immigration, Baggage Claim and Customs as I was the time I flew it into LCY.  It gave me a sense of how ultra-VIPs must feel – not just being ushered through the airport, but also on the plane, with only 31 fellow passengers.  It really was almost like being on a private business jet.

I’ve a detailed review on the BA JFK-LCY service starting here.  If you fly business (or even first) class between London and New York, maybe it is an interesting alternative to the ‘same old, same old’ at Heathrow and wherever in New York, complete with all the usual routine hassles and time consuming challenges.

7.  Strange Airline Bedfellows

Talking about British Airways, as the number of truly distinct and different airline groupings in the world continues to diminish, we sometimes see curious couplings of airlines who ostensibly compete in some areas, but who then become colleagues in another.  An obvious example was Singapore Airlines choosing to buy 49% of Virgin Atlantic Airways – something that always seemed to involve an extraordinary mismatch of corporate cultures.

Could anything be even stranger than that tie-up?  Well, possibly yes.  How about Ryanair – the airline headed by loudmouth and foulmouth CEO Michael O’Leary, and arch-competitor British Airways with its stiff upper lip approach to managing its corporate communications and general approach to business.

That could well be the case if, as expected, BA buys a 25% share in Aer Lingus.  Ryanair already holds a 29% stake in the company.

Can you imagine the board room meetings that would follow?  Details here.

8.  Four of London’s Top Hotels Now Share a Common Owner

It isn’t only airlines that are melding into conglomerate groups with fewer and fewer independent unaligned companies.  The same is happening in hotels, and not just in the middle market franchise operated hotel brands.

The owners of The Ritz Hotel in London have now purchased three of their main competing luxury hotels – The Berkeley, The Connaught, and Claridges.

There are still a few alternatives such as The Dorchester and The Savoy (although they are each aligned with other hotel groups).  But not as many alternatives as just a month ago.

9.  The Collapse of US Technology Leadership

You’re probably not going to like me for saying this, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with the US at present (and I’m not talking about anything political).

Fifty years ago, no-one could dispute that we were the greatest nation on earth, and we led the world in just about every category of human endeavour.  But what has happened in the last 50 years?

We’ve seen not only a hollowing out of traditional manufacturing industries, and we’ve seen white collar jobs chase blue collar jobs offshore, but the ‘clean green’ new industries that were to replace these, we were told, are now being lost too.

Here are three examples.

1.  Fifty years ago we were a nation united in a bold mission to put a man on the moon.  We had a clearly understood defining statement – to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and we succeeded at that.  We followed up with the only re-usable Space Shuttle, had our own space station (Skylab) in orbit during the 1970s, and then something happened.

We now no longer have any manned space flight ability at all, we are the junior partner in the International Space Station (we get allocated two out of every five astronaut slots), and we have at best fuzzy and indistinct goals for any return to space at any time.  More details here.

2.  American scientists developed the nuclear bomb back in the 1940s and the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s – these being two of the most visible results of our supremacy in nuclear and sub-atomic particle physics.  For the last several decades, we have had the most powerful particle accelerator in the world – the Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois.  This is a device that helps physicists explore what makes up matter itself.

In 2010 a new particle accelerator, almost four times more powerful, was opened in Europe, and our new ‘second best’ status was abruptly downgraded still further at the end of September 2011 when our Tevatron was closed down entirely.  American scientists now have to go to Europe to do any research.  More details here.

3.  Whether you believe Al Gore invented the internet or not (and some doubt exists as to if he even made the claim) there is no doubt that the internet evolved from DARPAnet – a US military network, and for much/most of its life, the internet’s development and growth has been a very US-centric matter.  But now we’re not only passing over the management of key internet matters to an international committee, we are falling behind on basic internet connectivity in terms of your and my ability to connect to the internet.

The average internet connection speed in the US is 5.3 Mbps.  Now that might sound fast to you, but it is slower than that in Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Romania.  The US scores only 12th in terms of percentage of the country connecting at faster than 5 Mbps in a first quarter 2011 survey by Akamai, and drops to a 32nd position when considered in terms of percent of connections faster than 2 Mbps (figures 11 and 12 from here).  Overall it is rated as merely the 14th best country in terms of internet service to the population.

Need I continue?

10.  TSA Tests its Fast Pass Program – Have You Tried It?

This week saw the commencement of the TSA’s test program that may give less screening to known bona fide travelers.  The test program operates at four airports (Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Miami), and allows fliers who are Delta or American frequent fliers, or who have a Global Entry, Nexus or Sentri card, to participate in a ‘fast lane’ type process that in theory reduces the screening such passengers would be subjected to.  Leaving laptops and liquids in bags, shoes on feet, and not needing to remove jackets/coats have been cited as some of the benefits.

Sounds good, but the exact details of what steps in the screening process one avoids are at best unclear, and are of course draped in that wonderful statement – for security reasons, participants will still be subject to random and unpredictable checks.

In the past, the TSA definition of ‘random and unpredictable’ has tended to mean ‘close to 100% and chaotic, without reason or sense’.

Here’s an article that dutifully attempts to describe in positive terms the program, but the interesting thing is it that the two frequent fliers interviewed for the article both were subjected to security screening alerts.  One had his carry-on searched by hand, the other had to go through a metal detector which went off due to a money clip in his pocket.

So what exactly does one avoid?

If any readers have experienced these new security ‘fast track’ procedures, it would be very interesting to know of your experience and observations.

11.  An Incomplete Solution to Our Country’s Tourism/Visa Issuing Problem

I’ve written several times recently about how we are costing our country 1.3 million jobs and $859 billion in income by making it difficult for foreign visitors to come and visit.  Each of these visitors, spending on average sometimes $6000 and more, can be considered as a walking stimulus package that costs us nothing but benefits us greatly.

Here now is news about a new law being introduced by Congressman Joe Heck (R-Nev) to ‘make the US visa application process easier’.  Sounds good, right?

Well, alas, no.  This draft law does not touch on the main problem at present.  Sure, setting new targets for shorter waiting times for visa interviews is commendable, but the current targets are often being missed without any penalty or consequence, so what is the point of making the targets shorter if there is no muscle in the mandate?

But, most of all, what does it matter if a person waits 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 months for a visa interview (which is usually nothing more than a couple of basic questions and as such surely completely unnecessary) if the outcome of the visa interview is a refusal to issue a visa?

This is our country’s biggest problem – we need to allow more people to visit.  Sadly, the Congressman’s well-intentioned bill seems completely silent on these issues.

12.  Cell Phone Things

There’s quite a lot of material in the rest of the week’s content about the new iPhone 4S and related Apple announcements, and while the iPhone 4S has massively underwhelmed just about all commentators, let’s see our glass as half full rather than half empty.  At least it isn’t one of the world’s worst phones, even if it seems unlikely to become one of the world’s best phones.

Here’s an interesting list of one writer’s pick of the world’s worst phones.

And talking about cell phones in general, the city of San Francisco has taken time off from its preoccupation with circumcision to require that cell phone stores post warning signs stating that ‘Studies continue to assess potential health effects of mobile phone use’ and possibly to have warnings printed on the outside of boxes which cell phones come in as well.

Hardly gripping stuff, and you’d think it unlikely to cause any potential phone buyer to pause for even a micro-second in their rush to the counter to get the latest and greatest phone.  But the cell phone industry group CTIA have filed suit to block the measure, claiming amongst other things that such warning signs would cause direct and irreparable harm to their members.

Irreparable harm?  Really?  Do they mean, sort of like cancer of the brain?  Details here.

13.  9/11 Related Items (Funnies)

Around the tenth anniversary of 9/11, there were a series of incidents of passengers being arrested for acting suspiciously in airplane lavatories – it subsequently being revealed that the ‘suspicious act’ seemed to involve nothing more threatening than, ahem, simply going to the toilet and using it normally.

However, noting the new focus on lavatory behavior on planes, one has to admire this man for his courage.  He may well have ended up making the news in quite a different manner.

Talking also about 9/11, who here doesn’t of course know the terrible calamities caused by two planes crashing into the two World Trade Center towers.  But not all plane crashes into buildings are equally calamitous – a WW2 bomber even once flew into the Empire State Building and caused only minimal damage.

But perhaps winning a prize – should there be one to be won – for the least damage caused by a plane flying into some sort of structure would surely be this plane and its crash in Australia.

14.  How to Survive a Plane Crash

And with all this talk about plane crashes, can I truly now close this week’s roundup (but there’s still a huge amount more to read, following) by pointing you to our earlier series on How to Survive a Plane Crash

This information could truly save your life one of these days.  How much is that worth to you?  Please do choose to become a Travel Insider Supporter and ensure that this and so much more information remains available to you into the future, the same as it has over these last ten years.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels (and after reading our survival article, you’ll know what to do if problems arise)




3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 7 October 2011”

  1. In response to your TSA article regarding GOES ‘Fast Pass’ program.
    As a program participant, I recently returned from LHR arriving ORD. This was my first utilization
    of the program’s ‘Global Entry’ kiosks….of the five machines, only two were functioning…several passes of my passport on the working one, finally eliminated the “See Immigration Agent”error window.
    After finally being issued my ‘pass card’, I was embarrassed to meet my traveling associate at the baggage carousel, who had already passed through immigration for several minutes and jokingly asked, “what took you so long”…..
    One can make their own conclusions……

    1. Arriving home from Iceland to at least a 400 person backup at SeaTac’s tiny immigrations area this month, I was pleased to find two working kiosks (no other users) and to be greeted in the Customs checkout area by a red carpet with a rope which was held open for me by a uniformed Customs agent, allowing me to bypass the 40 or so pax waiting in line to exit. He also informed me that I didn’t even need the customary Customs form, just my receipt (entering Canada you still must fill out a form). Feeling like a VIP, I was out of the international terminal in, oh, 2 minutes, while my hubby languished in line…

      I owe my knowledge of this program to David and also to the cost savings of $50 when acquired in conjunction with a NEXUS pass. Which I am passing on to the Travel Insider…

  2. Just a quick point of clarification.

    Louise (thank you very much for the $50, Louise!) and Al are both referring to the new expedited Immigration and Customs clearance/entry procedures for arriving back in the US, not the new TSA program for passing through security when going to board a flight.

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