Happy New Year – Friday 30 December 2011

Add a few more medals, badges and insignia, and you have the ideal new uniform (and employee) for the TSA (picture from charliechaplin.com)

Good morning

Another year inexorably rolls to its close this weekend, with New Year’s Eve conveniently on a Saturday night, possibly encouraging more of us to stay up for midnight celebrations.

If you choose to do so, I hope you’ll have a memorable, fun-filled, and safe celebration.

Until then, here’s a lot of great material as our ‘last gasp’ in 2011 :

  • New Year Resolutions
  • Travel Insider January Group Shoot
  • Travel Insider 2012 Touring Schedule
  • Titanically Tempting Fate?
  • Tripadvisor Now an Independent Entity
  • Expedia Attacks Tripadvisor?
  • Expedia Itself Under Attack, Too
  • Extension to ETOPS and Computer Testing
  • New Developments in Airplane Technology
  • Least Likely to Succeed New Airline?
  • More Unlikely to Succeed Airline Stories
  • Airport News
  • More Fast Chinese Trains
  • Is Your Passport Worn?
  • How to Smuggle Explosives and Drugs Past TSA Sniffer Dogs
  • Conflicting Accounts of Airplane Electronics Dangers
  • 2011’s Technological Failures

New Year Resolutions

It is a time of year when we all are (or perhaps should be) evaluating our past year and years, and thinking ahead to our future year and years, and of course it is traditional to set New Year resolutions.  I had a minor epiphany last week which is reflected in my own New Year resolution, and wanted to share it with you.

As background, you’re probably aware of my involvement in firearms training, as both a trainee and trainer, and my perception that such skills are all about saving lives – our lives, those of our loved ones and others who rely on us for protection and support – rather than being about taking lives.  A recent study suggests that firearms are lawfully deployed more than 2,700 times every day by US citizens and happily, almost 99 times out of 100, situations are peaceably resolved without the need to escalate to actually using them.

So I was discussing some of these matters with an acquaintance a few days ago, and he said ‘You know, David, the chances of us ever needing to use a firearm in any scenario are close to zero.  Neither of us have ever needed to do so in the last several decades, and probably neither of us will need to in the future, too.’

What he said is irrefutably true.  Now for the epiphanous part of his commentary.  He continued ‘So here we are, spending substantial amounts of time and money on firearms and self defense training.  But in reality we’re much more likely to have our lives, and those of the people we seek to protect, negatively impacted by ordinary accidents or health related issues, which we currently pay much less attention to.’

He is absolutely correct.  So my new year resolution is to exercise more, to follow a healthier lifestyle, and to take some additional first aid courses too.  My loved ones and I are all much more likely to die from a heart attack or stroke or random accident than we are from a bad guy’s bullet, and some simple lifestyle tweaks are much more likely to reduce our vulnerability to such things than would additional firearms training reduce my already happily inconsequential vulnerability to violent criminal attack.

I urge you to do the same – to adopt and then observe a resolution to simply improve the quality of your health, and to take a first aid course or two.  Learn CPR, learn the Heimlich maneuver, and learn some basic first aid.

Travel Insider January Group Shoot

That’s not to say that our Front Sight Group Shoot in mid January will be abandoned, however.  Indeed, I’ve a very special offer to pass on – Front Sight is holding a special end of year promotion, only through the end of Saturday.  I can get you a lifetime membership that will allow you unlimited attendance at all their courses, for ever, and at a ridiculous cost that literally is ‘too low to show’.  You’ll have to email me for the details, and you’ll have to be ready to pay for it immediately if you want one.

If you get one of these, you could supplement our four day Group Shoot with the Glock Armorer’s course the day before (I’m attending this too), and the 30+ state concealed weapons permit class the day after.  As well as all their other courses, at any time, as often as you like.

Please do let me know if you’d like a membership and/or if you would simply enjoy attending the mid January Travel Insider Group Shoot at Front Sight.

Travel Insider 2012 Touring Schedule

Still on the topic of new year resolutions, maybe 2012 is the year you’ll resolve to travel more and experience the world.  If so, you might want to consider a Travel Insider tour.  We have four international tours projected for 2012.

Scotland’s Islands and Highlands, June 2012 :  You can see full details of this tour already online here.  This will be our third Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour, with the previous two both being extremely enjoyable.

Eastern Europe Danube Cruise, late summer :  This will be a cruise from Budapest to almost the Black Sea, with an option for a few days in Prague prior to the cruise and an extension on to Istanbul after the cruise.  This will be the second Travel Insider tour along this route.  Details pending.

Black Sea cruise, late summer :  This will be a cruise around major destinations on the Black Sea, and will be timed to coincide with the Eastern Europe Danube cruise, making it possible to do both as a ‘Grand Expedition’.  This will be our first ever Black Sea cruise.  Details pending.

Christmas Markets Cruise, late Nov/early Dec :  We will return back to our always popular Christmas Markets Danube cruises between Budapest and Nuremberg, with optional time in Prague.  This will be, I think, the seventh such cruise, and it is always a wonderful experience.  Details pending.

Titanically Tempting Fate?

It has – unsurprisingly and happily – been a fairly quiet week, and thankfully with no major winter weather related travel hassles to mess up the holiday season.  Let’s hope our luck holds good for the balance of the holidays and of course, indefinitely into the future, too.

Talking about weather and luck, the coming year sees the centennial of the Titanic disaster, and there are a number of commemorative cruises being scheduled to recreate the Titanic’s voyage.  Well, there is hoped to be one major variance, of course – no iceberg collision and subsequent sinking.

Here’s one article about the popularity of the voyages.  But read what the promoter of the featured cruise has to say :

Mr Morgan, who pointed out that the engineering and safety rules of modern ships mean that icebergs now pose no danger to the cruise…..

My golly, but isn’t that too eerily reminiscent of the situation 100 years ago?  Back then, it was a claim of being unsinkable, and now it is a claim that icebergs pose no danger.  The more things change, the more they remain the same?

Can we not learn from past false pride, but instead must we be doomed to repeat our past errors?

Tripadvisor Now an Independent Entity

I regularly write about Tripadvisor and its problems with fake reviews.  The company has now been split out of former parent company Expedia, and has been listed on Nasdaq (symbol TRIP).

Here’s an interesting article about the split, and in particular, I was surprised to see the huge long list of subsidiary sites of Tripadvisor.  Tripadvisor bills itself as ‘the world’s largest travel site’.

One has to sort of wonder about Tripadvisor’s future, however.  Tripadvisor seems to make money either from advertising on its pages or by getting commissions on travel products purchased from links on its pages.

Up until now, 35% of its revenue has come from its parent company, Expedia, which has been the largest buyer of advertising on its site.  But now the two companies are separate and independent, how long will it be before Expedia makes more balanced decisions about where and how to advertise online?

Of course, Tripadvisor will become more free in terms of selecting advertising partners too, so it is hard to predict whether true marketplace forces will see Tripadvisor’s revenues continue to increase as they have been in the past, or if they may decrease (or possibly stay very similar).

Tripadvisor’s biggest weakness – the reliability of its user reviews – is facing a new attack from an unexpected source.  Its former parent, Expedia.

Expedia Attacks Tripadvisor?

Expedia has just released a new product in New Zealand and Australia; what it terms verified reviews of hotel rooms.  The clever added-value item of this product is that Expedia only allows people who have bought hotel accommodation (through itself, of course) and stayed for real in the hotel to subsequently write reviews of the hotel.

This isn’t a 100% solution – sufficiently motivated malefactors can simply buy a night of accommodation at a hotel they wish to write about, and ordinary people can still write ridiculous complaints (or offer equally ridiculous praise) that is not based in anything that reasonable sensible people would consider relevant or important.

But it will massively cut down on the possibility of fake reviews.  It won’t of course eliminate them, but it should substantially reduce them.  It is expected that after the new service has been trialed downunder, it will be extended worldwide to the rest of Expedia’s network.

It also cleverly makes use of something that is available to Expedia but not to Tripadvisor – an inventory of people traveling to hotels and able to make ‘real’ reviews.  It is a bit like how Amazon labels some of its product reviews as coming from verified purchasers of the products being reviewed.

Expedia will continue to offer links to Tripadvisor reviews of hotels, so it isn’t totally spurning its former subsidiary, but Expedia is definitely changing the ground-rules that apply to sites such as Tripadvisor, and are now putting pressure on Tripadvisor to come up with some similar type of validation process.

Expedia Itself Under Attack, Too

Expedia itself however is far from in fine shape, and it is interesting to note that recently most of its growth has been in its former Tripadvisor subsidiary rather than within its core business.  And now – along with other online travel agency sites – it is feeling new pressure from Google, due to Google becoming more aggressive at presenting search results first from its own new airline/airfare site before giving results from sites such as Expedia.

If Expedia has to buy in traffic rather than getting it for free from Google, its financial situation could change enormously, causing its customer acquisition cost become a major rather than relatively minor part of its operation.  Add to that the fact that airlines, hotels, etc, don’t like online travel agencies any more than they do traditional travel agencies – indeed, if anything, they hate them even more – and Expedia is under continual pressure from its suppliers who are keen to take its business away from it on the one hand, and its sources (ie Google and probably before too long Bing too) who are keen to redirect traffic through their own travel resources on the other hand.

As indication of this, one analyst estimates it costs the airlines on average about $11 for a booking made through an online travel agency, compared to $1 or less for a booking made through their own website.  We all know the airlines would do anything to save $10 per sale, so it is unsurprising they are keen to marginalize other websites; and in any case, even if the cost was the same, they’d rather have ‘captive’ customers who can’t conveniently shop other airlines, and so for that reason too they hate the presence of any site or service that makes it easier for us to make informed shopping decisions.

The airlines told Google they’d withhold their flight data if Google made it easy for visitors to click from there to online travel agencies.

Surprisingly though, it is Google rather than the airlines that is currently subject to an FTC investigation.  Wouldn’t you think it should be the airlines that need to be investigated for such stand-over tactics?

Extension to ETOPS and Computer Testing

There’s been a major change to airplane capabilities a week or so back.  Way back in February 2007, the FAA said that US registered planes need no longer be subject to its own (ie FAA) regulations as regards how far twin engined planes can operate away from the nearest emergency airport.  This is referred to as ETOPS – Extended range Twin engine Operations.

(Some people suggest ETOPS should mean ‘Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim’.)

Prior to that time, the FAA would certify twin engined airplanes as being safe to operate at ranges of typically up to 120 minutes or even up to 180 minutes away from the nearest emergency airport, and on rare occasion, even further.  In the more distant past, ETOPs limits were much shorter, for example down to 60 minutes in the early days of the 737 and DC-9.

But in 2007, the FAA sort of said ‘we’ll trust the airplane manufacturers to decide for themselves how far away from the nearest airport it is safe to operate their twin engined planes’.  Subsequently some planes were rated for 240 minute ETOPS operations.

And now several 777 models have been certified for a stunning 330 minutes of ETOPs operation – this is essentially long enough to plug almost all the ‘gaps’ in the world (regions that formerly were no-fly zones due to being more than 120/180/240 minutes away from the nearest airport) with only a very few remaining exceptions in the very southern parts of the world.

This will make it possible for airlines to fly their planes more directly on some routes where formerly their flights had to meander in a less direct fashion so as to keep within however many minutes of emergency airports in line with their ETOPS rating.  In particular, routes can now go more directly over the north pole, and more directly from the South Pacific (ie NZ and Australia) to South Africa or to both North and South America.

It is claimed this will make for shorter journeys and cheaper flights.  Yes, the journey times will on a few routes reduce, but will the prices go down?  Not very likely.

How comfortable would you be in a twin engined plane that had just suffered a failure in one of its engines, and being told that the plane will take another almost 5½ hours of flying time, variously over empty water or rugged mountainous land, to get to an emergency landing facility?

On the other hand, Boeing assures us that this question is hypothetical, due to the outstanding reliability of its planes and their engines.

So there’s no need to worry.

One of the reasons we’re told that modern airplanes are so amazingly reliable, and indeed, not only are they claimed to be amazingly reliable, they are also claimed to need less testing to confirm their reliability, is due to the designs having undergone the equivalent of’ tens of thousands of flight hours, in the form of computer modeling and simulations.

Computers can test and predict things way much better than old fashioned real world testing, we’re told.  And – oh yes – they can also do this very much more quickly, and for tiny fractions of the cost of doing it ‘for real’.

So that’s a good thing, right?  Well, if you have any involvement at all with computer software, this is probably the point where you’ll be running away screaming, and vowing never to fly on any such ‘safe’ plane ever again.

And if you don’t have any involvement in computer software, then first of all my envious congratulations to you.  But, secondly, how about reading this story of a plane that was largely designed and tested by computer – the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

As the article indicates, recent real-world testing has uncovered thirteen major design flaws that represent a billion dollar plus cost to rectify on the few fighters already produced, in addition to however much more to correct on future yet to be produced planes.

The Pentagon had pressed on with building untested planes due to its expectation that computer simulation would ‘take the guesswork’ out of testing.

Wrong.  And wait, there’s more.  There were 13 major design flaws.  But 725 design changes in total were required as a result of real world problems not predicted by the computer modeling.  More may yet be uncovered.

Still feel good about your twin engined flight straying up to 330 minutes away from emergency landing fields?

New Developments in Airplane Technology

Continuing a theme of airplane technological development, here is an interesting article full of illustrations and details of rather fanciful possible future airplane designs, ranging from 3,000 passenger ‘city planes’ to convertible ship/planes, giving a new meaning to the old term ‘flying boat’.

Alas – and unsurprisingly – none of them originate from Boeing.

Less fanciful – indeed, scheduled to start service in mid 2012 – is this amazing new surveillance drone, boasting a 1.6 Gigapixel camera, which would allow for it to track up to 65 targets simultaneously, and from a distance of up to 25 miles – even targets as small as individual people.  This plane – the A160 Hummingbird – is indeed a Boeing product.

Least Likely to Succeed New Airline?

Talking about airline and airplane innovation, here’s a nomination for the airline least likely to succeed.  Sure, it is a crowded field with many candidates, but pride of place perhaps should be given to a new airline yet to commence operations, but which seems to be intending to start all business class service on the route between London City Airport and JFK, flying as yet unreleased new planes from Bombardier.

BA has apparently succeeded on this route, but a new airline with no other routes or commercial relationships, hoping to establish an initial service on this route?  Suffice it to say the last half dozen or so years have been marked by repeated attempts of new startup airlines to attempt new primarily business class services between London and the US (ie Eos, Maxjet, Silverjet), and none have lasted more than a year or two, and none have been directly competing against a very similar all business class service (at least initially – AA did create some direct competing services to quickly finish off its competitors the last time around, withdrawing them again as soon as they’d squashed the competition).

Here’s an interesting report about this likely ill-starred airline, including the bizarre description of how the person named as the company’s director, who answered an email sent to him at the company’s website address, denied all knowledge of the airline, or any affiliation with it, but was unable to explain how it was that he therefore had received an email.

More Unlikely to Succeed Airline Stories

Virgin Atlantic’s surprise ‘coming from behind’ bid for BMI – the once British airline currently owned by Lufthansa and with its main claim to fame being its ownership of 9% of the hotly coveted Heathrow take-off/landing slots – has now been rejected in favor of a much higher offer from IAG (which, as you may or may not know, is the new parent company owning both BA and Iberia).

I’d written about this two weeks ago, expressing surprise at the thought of Lufthansa choosing to accept a lower bid – presumably so as to avoid strengthening its stronger competitor, BA, and preferring an easily approved sale to VS over a possibly harder to get approved sale to BA.  My doubts as to if LH would take such a far-sighted position and as to how likely to succeed Virgin’s bid might be now seem to have been true.

IAG now has 53% of Heathrow’s slots.  This is far from the dominant position that some US carriers have at some US airports, but Heathrow is more than just another city airport – it is the primary gateway to Britain and for some inexplicable reason has a largely undeserved allure with passengers unmatched by other airports elsewhere in Britain (and elsewhere in Europe in general too).

If Virgin Atlantic had succeeded in its surprisingly low-ball bid, the win and the slots had the potential to re-energize the airline, an airline which frankly no longer seems to be quite the fighter it once was, and which has been rumored to be exploring buy-out/takeover options.  But with a loss rather than a win, and a resultingly strengthened arch-competitor/enemy in the form of BA, one feels that VS’s demise seems more assured than before.

This would be a great shame.  For all its pretentiousness (pretentiousness about not being pretentious, that is) the airline has been a force for good and has helped keep prices somewhat competitive and services somewhat decent on the US/UK routes.  We continue to wish them well, and IAG’s buy-out offer remains subject to approval by the EU authorities.

You may not have even heard of Pinnacle Airlines.  It is one of the US carriers that hint at what could – possibly even should – become the broad general model for the US airline industry.  It is a regional carrier that operates flights under contract for Delta, United and US Airways.

We see a potential future where name brand ‘airlines’ no longer own or operate their own planes at all – a bit like how name brand hoteliers seldom own their own hotels any more, or how name brand fast food restaurants rarely own their outlets either.  The airlines will become marketers; other unnamed companies will own and operate the planes.

There was a time when these ‘behind the scenes’ airplane operators were doing very well and often better than the major name-brand airlines they contracted with, but something seems to have shifted in the bargaining equation, and that is generally no longer the case.

Pinnacle has now said there is a high probability of it filing for bankruptcy in the foreseeable future.  In anticipation of this event, its share price has dropped 88% during 2011.

Airport News

The world’s highest airport is about to be built in Tibet, beating the previous height record by 337 ft.

The previous record went to Bamda Airport in Qamdo prefecture.  The new airport will be in Nagqu prefecture, and will be 14,554 ft above sea level.  Planes taking off from that height will have massively reduced payload capabilities, and will need enormously extended runways to get aloft (the air pressure is only about 60% of what it is at sea level at that height).

The airport will take three years to build, will cover 660 acres, and will cost a mere $285 million.  You’d barely get a terminal building or a car park for that price in the west.

In other airport news, the Ontario provincial government has announced that its Air Rail Link Project, connecting Toronto’s Pearson Airport with Union Station in downtown Toronto, will commence in spring 2012.

The project comprises a 2.1 mile spur off the GO line from Hwy 427 to the airport, making for a total 14.5 mile journey, with trains operating every 15 minutes.  It seems there will be two intermediate stops and a journey time of about 20 – 25 minutes from end to end (not too dissimilar to the taxi time).

The total project is expected to be complete in time for Toronto hosting the Pan Am games in 2015.

More Fast Chinese Trains

Although China had an unsettling accident on its rapidly growing high speed rail network in 2011, resulting in all trains being temporarily slowed down to a maximum speed ‘only’ 186 mph, it continues to press on with developing even faster trains – and more track, too.

China this week started testing a new super high-speed train, capable of traveling at 310 mph (500 km/hr), and announced plans to add almost 4,000 more miles of high speed track to its network in 2012.

It is interesting to compare the Chinese and Californian high speed rail projects.  A single 800 mile high speed rail line in California will take until 2033 (at the earliest) to be completed, and a cost of (at least) $100 billion.  China expects to have built 12,500 miles of high speed rail service by 2020, at a cost of $1 trillion.

The costs are surprisingly in line with each other – sure, the costs in China are lower, but not profoundly so.  But China will get 15 times more track built, in less than half the time.

More information here.

Is Your Passport Worn?

A reader was not allowed to fly from the Philippines to Hong Kong last year, because the airline (Cathay Pacific) deemed their passport was ‘too worn’ to be acceptable.  Cathay refused to refund their ticket as well, claiming that the person had failed to show for the flight and thereby forfeited the cost of the ticket, even though their own computer record had an entry from their airport duty manager confirming their refusal to accept the passport due to its worn condition.

I’d put that down to some sort of strange and unique set of circumstances.  But be warned – it could happen to you, next time you’re going to Mexico, if your passport is in less than pristine condition.

This news originates from Canada’s excellent Westjet airline, who is warning passengers to make sure their passport is in good condition, because – if not – passengers stand the chance of being refused entry into the country.

Westjet says Mexican customs and immigration officials may deny entry to anyone with a damaged passport.  Rips, tears, missing corners or water damage to the cover or inside pages are all no-nos.  Westjet said Mexico ‘definitely takes the most stringent approach concerning passport damage of any country the airline flies to, including the United States and Caribbean destinations.’

Several passengers have been turned away so far this season, either prevented in Canada from boarding a flight to Mexico or denied entry on arrival, because of the state of their passports.  If Mexico denies someone entry, the airline bringing the person in is responsible for getting them out immediately, and may also incur a substantial fine.

Which points out the subtle fact obscured in Westjet’s ostensibly helpful announcement.  So as to avoid fines and needing to urgently fly passengers home, Westjet itself is likely to become more strict and stringent in enforcing what it perceives to be Mexican immigration rules than will/would the Mexican immigration staff themselves.  In effect, the fussiest passport quality inspectors become Westjet’s gate agents, rather than Mexico’s immigration staff.

Of course, they will be doing this ‘for our protection, comfort, safety and convenience’.

Be warned this problem may spill over to other airlines too.  If your passport goes for a swim, or through the washing machine, you probably should get a replacement before your future travels, whether to Mexico, Hong Kong, or anywhere else.

How to Smuggle Explosives and Drugs Past TSA Sniffer Dogs

Remember the good old days when ‘airport security’ involved low-paid staff wearing cheap uniforms, and only on duty at airport screening stations?

Well, the new improved TSA continues to expand in all sorts of unexpected ways.  They’ve several times ‘upgraded’ their uniforms to make themselves look more self-important, while really only parodying themselves each time they make themselves look more vainglorious ‘official’ and authoritarian.

But that’s not all that is expanding.  Their mission creep continues unchecked, and this article points out that the TSA is about to increase its so-called VIPR teams from 25 up to 37, giving them a 50% increase in the ability to operate random checkpoints on highways, bus and train stations, ferry terminals, sports events and even – yes – high school prom nights.

Quite apart from the appalling situation where any police force in a free country would happily name itself ‘VIPR’, the fact is that none of the VIPR attacks on our Fourth Amendment rights to date have actually netted any terrorists.

Is it any wonder?  Read this article which reports on how one of the VIPR’s sniffer dogs alerted, suggesting it may have detected the odor of a bomb on an innocent citizen.

So what happened next?  Was the innocent citizen – a 57 year old lawyer who had been signaled out by the dog, then strip searched?  Uh – no.  Was he even given one of those swab testings to see if a machine would then detect explosive residues?  Again – no.

The lawyer said ‘I have a dog at home’ and the dog handler decided, without any further investigation, that his dog was simply responding to the smell of another dog on the man’s clothing.

What is the point of stopping people and having dogs check them out, if you then wave them on after the flimsiest of possible excuses after your dog has alerted, indicating a possible problem?

It is the same as if you go through an airport X-ray machine and after the machine beeps, you simply say to the TSA person ‘Oh, sorry, I forgot my keys’ and are allowed to continue on past, without even needing to pull the keys out of your pocket and show them.

One is left with the terrible conclusion that such VIPR attacks on our freedom are nothing to do with finding terrorists, and all to do with conditioning us to accepting things that a decade ago would have been unacceptable.  We used to express our horror at random police stops and searches occurring in the former Soviet Union, complacently sure in our own minds that this was one of the freedoms our brothers, fathers, husbands and even we ourselves had fought and sometimes died for to safeguard, in successive world wars.

We are becoming a subjugated country, a police state, and for no good purpose or reason.

Conflicting Accounts of Airplane Electronics Dangers

Talking about needless regulation and control of our freedoms, the off again, on again debate/argument about the safety of personal electronic devices on airplanes continues to unfold.

A week or so back, that renowned and respected authority on all matters electronic, USA Today, loftily weighed in with its finding that the possibility of potential dangers and interference from electronics on planes was too great to accept.  It cited various unscientific claims from pilots and others who said that somehow they (the pilots) just ‘knew’ that some particular glitch in the plane’s navigation or control systems must have been due to some type of passenger electronics.

No proof of these claims was ever offered, and no-one has been able to create a controlled experiment where the turning on or off of a specific piece of consumer electronics in a plane’s passenger cabin directly and repeatedly results in a change in the airplane’s flying characteristics or instrumentation readings.

Without scientific proof, the claim of passenger electronics interfering with a plane’s safe operation remains little more than innuendo and unscientific conjecture.

This week there’s a better researched article in the New York Times that includes a fascinating fact for a change, rather than more unfactual innuendo.

In the course of concluding that consumer electronics are completely safe on a passenger plane, the article points out that at present, the FAA requires a plane to be able to withstand electrical fields of up to 100 volts per meter.  Compare that with the interference generated by a Kindle – 0.00003 volts.  In other words, it would take 3.3 million Kindles all operating on a plane simultaneously to create the minimum level of electrical interference at which a plane has to be certified to withstand.

Actually, as the article also points out, it would take even more than that, for complicated reasons that can be summarized as saying that two devices produce less than twice as much interference, and ten produce much less than ten times as much, and so on.

So, more like 100 million Kindles, perhaps would be needed to jeopardize an airplane’s avionics.  Vastly more than Amazon has sold in total, and more than could physically fit inside the plane.

The article also points out that for strange historical reasons, passengers are allowed to use voice recorders at all times, but these emit as much interference as a Kindle.  Why is the voice recorder allowed and the Kindle not?

There is of course no answer to this question, other than the one which the NY Times concludes seems to be the case – ‘Because I say so!’.

Yes, we claim to be the most advanced country in the world, with the most advanced airplanes in the world, but we are unable to rationalize why we have selective bans on some completely safe electronic items on them.

Let’s also flip this around – if airplanes are so vulnerable to electronic interference, what is to stop tomorrow’s terrorist from simply bringing a subtly modified iPad onto a plane, then turning it on as the plane takes off, causing the plane to unavoidably explode into a spectacular fireball?

This sounds fanciful, but it is a serious question that unavoidably flows from the claim that electronics are dangerous.  We have already passively accepted the fact that even cupcakes are potential threats that could destroy a plane (see the linked story) and so the TSA, with a perfectly straight face, sometimes ban them from being taken onto flights, even though no-one has ever, ever, demonstrated the danger inherent in a cupcake.

Why do we allow consumer electronic items on board if they pose a risk to the plane’s safety?  Is it realistic to trust a terrorist not to deliberately turn such a device on at a time of maximum vulnerability?  If there’s a risk, wouldn’t a clever terrorist modify an electronic device to make it massively more powerful?

If we can’t trust ourselves any more with cupcakes, can we really be trusted with Kindles?

Let’s now circle back to the undeniable fact that there sometimes have been unexplained glitches inside the electronics of modern airplanes.  These glitches, which seem to occur on what looks to be a random basis, are invariably held out to be ‘proof’ that somehow consumer electronic devices in the plane must be interfering with the plane’s control systems.

I’ve always thought there to be a massively more obvious explanation – these pseudo-random errors are much more likely to be the result of bugs in the software, rather than electronic interference.

And now, at last, here’s an interesting article that explains how one such mystery – which has often been cited as ‘proof’ that passenger electronics interfere with airplane avionics – has finally, three years later, been shown to have been the result of a subtle and elusive programming bug that has been present on all Airbus A330 and A340 planes since 1992.

Can I leave my Kindle on now, please?

2011’s Technological Failures

Concluding on this same theme, here’s an interesting list of what one person believes to be technology’s greatest mistakes in 2011.

Some of these seem so obvious, even with only the slightest of hindsight.  And some of them seem so unnecessary and avoidable.

Clearly, the human element remains the weakest part of all technology.  In the air and everywhere else.

In closing, I do hope 2011 has been good to you, and I doubly hope that 2012 will be even better.  It promises to be an ‘interesting’ year with all the ambiguity that the word ‘interesting’ sometimes obscures.

I hope we’ll share it together, in good health and in good cheer.

Until 2012 and next Friday, please enjoy safe travels







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All the very best for now, and welcome to the growing “Travel Insider family”.