Weekly Roundup Friday 2 December 2011

The Air Transportation Association changes its name, logo, and slogan; but probably not much else

Good morning

It has been a very eventful week.

Normally one hopes that things start to slow down at and after Thanksgiving, but this week has seen a rush of things happening, most notable being the two things which happily are more non-events : AA’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing which (at least so far) has had little impact on any of our travels; and the 24 hour strike by the UK Immigration officials, where – amazingly – things worked out incredibly well such that the lines were shorter rather than longer than normal for people entering the country.

They should go on strike more often!

Please read on for

  • Travel Insider Fundraising Challenge – Last Day to Raise $1975
  • AA’s Former CEO Gets a New Job Already
  • FAA Worried About AA
  • FAA Not Worried About Lack of Oxygen Masks in Plane Toilets
  • FAA Not Very Worried About Batteries
  • FAA Still Worried About Electronics
  • Flying Not Fun – Fewer People Flying
  • Making Flying Fun Again Part 1
  • Making Flying Fun Again Part 2
  • What Not to Watch On a Flight
  • Netflix and Video Streaming Costs
  • More Customer Review Site Issues
  • US Big Brother to Watch Canada
  • The Most Ecologically Correct Tourist Attraction in the World

Travel Insider Fundraising Challenge – Last Day to Raise $1975

Another sadly non-event has been the response to the extraordinary challenge offered by a generous reader, who last week offered to match, dollar for dollar, any additional contributions received between then and the end of the day today (Friday 2nd).

He and I both hoped this would encourage you to respond, particularly if you’ve been reading the newsletter for some time now and have not helped out in the past.

The good news is that 19 readers did respond, and between them sent in $525, including Kathy who with her extra support has now ‘graduated’ to become another much appreciated super supporter.

But of these 19, 12 were people contributing for at least the second time this year already, six were people who have contributed in past years but had overlooked the fund raiser we held in September this year, and only one person was a new supporter for the first time.

Our benefactor has offered to match up to $2500 in contributions, so there is still $1975 of available matching funding.  If you’d forgotten to respond back in September, or if you’ve been undecided about helping out or not, can I please ask you to send something in today.  It only takes a couple of minutes to make an online contribution.

Here’s the link :  2011 Fundraising Information

AA’s Former CEO Gets a New Job Already

AA’s bankruptcy announcement on Tuesday is discussed in a subsequent article, but there are a couple of items of follow-up.

It was interesting to see that former CEO & Chairman Gerard Arpey announced his ‘retirement’, effective immediately, and the AA board simultaneously announced the appointment of his successor, former President Tom Horton.

But what of Arpey’s retirement?  You’d probably think that a man who for eight years managed a company’s slow decline into bankruptcy wouldn’t be good for much else other than retirement.  But barely a day elapsed before it was announced that he had joined Emerald Creek Group, a Houston based private equity firm, as a partner.

Emerald Creek’s President described Arpey thusly :

Few executives, in any industry, have confronted as many complex, difficult issues as Gerard has — and fewer still have led their companies through tough times with as much skill, character and grace.

Wow.  That’s a very different perspective than the one I had.

Oh – just one thing.  Emerald Creek’s President is Larry Kellner, and if you think that name is familiar, it probably is.  He is the former CEO of Continental Airlines, leaving CO shortly before it was bought out by and merged into UA.

Birds of a feather?

FAA Worried About AA

As I go on to explain in the subsequent article about AA’s bankruptcy, little will change, at least in the short term, for those of us who fly AA and belong to its frequent flier program.

But for AA itself, one thing has already changed.  The FAA has said it will start inspecting the airline more closely – not due to any specific concerns, but rather out of an abundance of caution, just in case the airline’s financial situation results in lower safety standards.

How very cautious of them.

Slightly longer term, we as passengers will doubtless see ‘rationalizations’ and ‘improvements’, with of course the rationalizations often seeming stupid to us as customers, and the improvements usually seeming like cutbacks and deteriorations.

Meanwhile US Airways has piped up already, with speculation at their probable interest in merging with AA.  Poor old US Airways – always the bridesmaid, and never the bride, at past airline unions.  Maybe this time it will luck out?

FAA Not Worried About Lack of Oxygen Masks in Plane Toilets

Talking about the FAA, their selective approach to risk management is really peculiar.  On the one hand, we have their decision to step up inspections at AA, even though there’s not a whisper of a suggestion from anyone that AA’s normal and perfectly satisfactory maintenance standards are at risk of slipping.

But, on the other hand, they’re so concerned that oxygen generating equipment for the oxygen masks in airplane toilets might be adapted by terrorists and used to start fires, that they are mandating the equipment’s removal.  This means that if there’s an emergency decompression event on a plane, people in the airplane toilets may well die.  At 33,000 ft, people have between 30 – 60 seconds of consciousness before passing out; if you don’t get a mask on within that time, and particularly if you are quietly shut in a toilet, who knows what the outcome will be.

The FAA confusingly says there is no terrorist threat at present, but insists the devices be removed, while acknowledging that it will probably take up to four years for a replacement system to be put in place.

So which is the greater risk?  Terrorists or emergency decompressions?  Well, that’s a good question, albeit hard to answer.  We are reasonably certain that no terrorist has ever attempted to jury rig a bomb out of an oxygen generator or start a fire with one in a toilet, so it seems the risk factor from terrorists is low.

And as for emergency decompressions?  Exact numbers aren’t known, because the airline reports on such events seem to be incomplete and the FAA numbers are inconsistently low, compared to what is known from other sources.  But whatever the number is, it is greater than 70 times a year.

So now we could have a couple of times every week whereby the passengers in a plane’s toilets are at risk, and this could continue for up to four years.  Compared to zero times a year that we are risking terrorists trying to set fire to a plane in its toilet.

Please would the FAA explain to us exactly how this move makes us safer?  More details here.

By the way, a small piece of trivia on this topic.  Did you know there are two oxygen masks in each toilet?  I wonder why…

But wait, there’s more.

While the only known problem with the oxygen generating canisters was with a load of them in a plane’s cargo (the 1996 Valujet crash into the Florida Everglades that killed 110 people), there are other devices that are much more likely to catch fire, and we’re not just talking about shoes and underwear.

FAA Not Very Worried About Batteries

The greatest danger is from the rechargeable batteries in most modern portable electronics.  The problem with these Lithium batteries remains a major concern.  You’ve doubtless occasionally read about portable devices catching fire or even ‘exploding’ due to what is usually a short inside the battery, causing it to discharge rapidly, heat up, give of gases, swell up, and then pop (‘explode’).  People have sometimes suffered quite severe burns from the heat generated in such rapid discharges.

That’s kinda okay if it is your device in your carry-on, where someone can notice the problem and extinguish any fire that results.  But what if it is stowed in your suitcase in the cargo hold?

This seems to be an example of a known risk where the convenience cost to mitigating the risk is so large that the airlines and the FAA have chosen instead to look the other way and pretend it doesn’t exist.

The most recent example of this type of event was an iPhone which ’emitted dense smoke and gave off a red glow’ shortly after a flight landed in Australia.

It also seems these battery problems may occur no matter if the device is turned on or off.  Which brings me to another pet peeve of mine – the requirement that all electronic devices be turned off from prior to the plane pushing back from the terminal until the plane passes through 10,000 ft, and then again on the descent until after the plane has landed.

FAA Still Worried About Electronics

The ridiculousness of the FAA’s requirement for electronics to be off at low altitude and on the ground (and the airlines’ eagerness to over-enforce it) is immediately apparent from its lack of symmetry – why is a device dangerous when a plane is pushing back from the gate and taxiing on the ground, but not after it has landed and is, umm, doing exactly the same thing, only in the opposite direction?

Here’s a must read item that looks some more at this piece of outdated Luddite-ism on the part of the FAA and the airlines.  The article starts off by pointing out something we all know – there are probably a multiple number of electronic devices that are either accidentally or deliberately left running, on every flight, and to date, there are no known cases of these devices having caused the plane to crash and burn.

Furthermore, these days, airplanes are increasingly full of Wi-fi signals, and probably many of the people who have their cell phones on during a flight do not have the ‘airplane’ mode selected, filling the planes with cell phone signals too.  Indeed, some planes (not in the US) even support on board cell phone service.

Oh – and up front, closest to the electronics in the cockpit?  The pilots are increasingly using electronic devices – laptops, notebooks and tablets – instead of traditional manuals and maps.  Question – what do they do for maps and manuals during the ‘no electronics on’ periods of flight?

Why is it these planes all fly perfectly well above 10,000 ft, even while full of electronic signals and devices all powered on, but below 10,000 ft we enter a danger zone?

The FAA – the same FAA that is unconcerned about leaving passengers in toilets without oxygen masks – says that a 2006 test showed simultaneously that there was no evidence that electronic devices either did or did not interfere with modern airplane electronic control systems.  Being as how it is very difficult to prove any type of negative, you might think that the test actually did fairly conclusively prove the safety of such devices, but the FAA says that out of an abundance of caution, it is sticking to the old rules, even though there’s no real reason to do so.

These days many of us don’t travel with a ‘real’ book or magazine any more.  Just a Kindle or iPad.  So for half an hour or so on every flight, we”re left with nothing to read – there’s seldom any sort of in flight magazine to fight the boredom.  That leaves us with nothing to do except, perhaps, go to the toilet.

Thanks a lot, guys.  My last thoughts, as I expire from lack of oxygen in the toilet, will be ones of gratitude that at least the plane didn’t crash and burn due to an electronic device being left on illegally.

The FAA’s approach to safety seems to be extraordinarily inconsistent.

Flying Not Fun – Fewer People Flying

Certainly it is true that these pin-pricks become increasingly tiresome, and flying these days is absolutely nothing like fun.  But what’s a person to do?  Not travel at all?  Drive instead?

Actually, these two options are increasingly popular.  Do the airlines not realize that part of the reason they’re struggling to maintain their traffic numbers in a country with a steadily increasing population is due to more and more of us doing all we can to avoid the unpleasantness of flying.

Several points in support of that.

First, here’s an interesting article that points to significant declines in the numbers of people traveling this Thanksgiving and Christmas, with an even more significant switch in the ratio of people driving compared to flying.  In 2005, 53% of people drove and 44% flew for their Thanksgiving travel.  This year 63% drove and 33% flew.

If you’re an airline executive, you’ll be puzzled by this.  If you’re an airline passenger (or a former airline passenger), you’ll be nodding your head in agreement.

Here’s a different article that predicts that the number of people who actively use video calling will increase from 63 million in 2010 to more than 380 million in 2015 (I guess that is a worldwide count).

Now I’m not going to bang the ‘video conferencing will end the need to fly and see people’ drum, because it isn’t that simple.  But I do know from personal experience that I can stay emotionally, intellectually and professionally closer to people when I can mix up the phone calls and emails with an occasional video call too, and I don’t feel quite the same need to ‘press the flesh’ in person.

Video calling won’t kill off the airlines, but it sure doesn’t help them, either.  It’s just another contributing factor that helps us wean ourselves away from our former love of flying.

Making Flying Fun Again Part 1

So, what to do as a solution?  What would you do if you were an airline executive?

Well, I guess you’d utter a lot of platitudes about ‘making flying fun again’, while doing nothing meaningful to actually make the experience pleasant and fair.  Sort of like, well, sort of like what David Cush, head of Virgin America, said last Friday.

See if you can see the specifics of anything he plans to do that will make flying fun again for you in the article.

And at almost the same time he is quoted as wanting to bring back the joy into flying, he is uttering bland corporate nonsense affirming the self-claimed right of flight attendants to enforce a dress code on planes in this article.  He sure has a strange idea of what it takes to make flying fun.

Interestingly, it seems his own boss – Sir Richard Branson, an extroverted fun lover if ever there was one – seems to disagree with Cush.  He says (in the same article)

If an airline’s going to be so unreasonable for kicking someone off a plane for wearing saggy pants or being slightly overweight, to me, it just seems impolite of the airline to behave in that way

So much for making flying fun again.

Making Flying Fun Again Part 2

There’s another thing the airlines could do, en masse.  No – I don’t mean abolish their unfair policies on change fees and baggage charges, although that would surely help.  Neither do I mean give us a decent sized seat and room around it, although that would definitely impact positively on the fun factor too.

What the Air Transport Association (the US carriers’ industry lobbying group) has instead decided to do is to change its name and offer us a new slogan.  Oh, wow – let me call my travel agent right now and buy some tickets to fly somewhere.

Yes, the ATA is now the A4A (logo and slogan at the top of this newsletter).  Airlines For America (and there you were, thinking the airlines were against us rather than for us – perhaps particularly a few months back when the FAA ticket taxes expired for a brief while and the airlines instead took the unpaid taxes and kept them for themselves).

Am I the only one who thinks a new name for the airlines’ lobbying group won’t change a single thing for us as passengers, and points to a lack of interest in creating customer facing positive initiatives, while instead focusing on getting the best deal they can out of the government regulators?

What Not to Watch On a Flight

I mentioned both the growing presence of Wi-Fi on board planes, allowing one to connect to the internet while on a flight, and also the growing use of video calling.

But if one is using one’s computer, while on a flight, one always has to be somewhat sensitive to privacy issues.  Do you really want the person alongside you, or a row back, to see the proposal you are working on, the spreadsheet you are editing, or, ahem, other more personal things you may be doing?

And so how to describe this passenger, other than as completely lacking not just in morality but also in prudence?

Netflix and Video Streaming Costs

It isn’t just video calling that is enjoying growth as a result of our ever faster internet connections, wherever we are.  It is also the internet streaming of television programs and movies, with Netflix and Amazon being just two of the better known of an ever growing larger and larger number of companies offering such streaming services to our home televisions and computers.

If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should.  The picture and sound quality is amazingly good.  I’ve written about these services several times before, most recently here, and this link gives you a free one month trial of the Netflix unlimited movie streaming service (it costs $7.99 a month subsequently).

But I’ve also regularly worried out loud about what will happen when our internet service providers say ‘enough already’ and stop allowing us unlimited internet data for a single flat fee.  There’s an interesting issue at work here – many of the companies providing internet service are the identical same companies who are now losing business due to Netflix (and other similar companies).

They are the companies we originally knew of as our cable companies, and they are now providing us (much of the time) with our internet connection too, and we are using their internet connection to reduce our reliance on their cable programming, and to reduce the fees we pay to them as a result.

So these companies are doubly motivated to charge us for our bandwidth – not just because they could, but also because ‘we owe it to them’ to compensate them for the revenue they’ve lost from us due to the shift in our viewing habits.

This article is interesting, particularly where it points out that some ISPs are already charging for ‘excessive’ internet bandwidth, at a cost that probably means a typical Netflix movie would cost about 50c to watch due to the amount of data transferred.

For sure, 50c is cheaper than renting or buying the DVD, and much more convenient too.  But how long before maybe 50c for ‘excessive’ bandwidth becomes 50c for all bandwidth, and how long before 50c becomes $1?  Don’t say it would never happen – look at how our cable fees have steadily increased over the years.

So – video streaming?  Enjoy it while its still unlimited for a single flat fixed fee.  But don’t rely on it staying that way forever.

More Customer Review Site Issues

Talking about the transforming effects of the internet, one of the amazing elements of the internet is the growth of ‘user review’ sites, of which the best known for many of us is doubtless TripAdvisor.

TripAdvisor is increasingly a controversial service.  No matter how much they try to police their reviews, it seems that an unknown but sizeable percentage are fake – either falsely positive (written by the hotel or whatever other travel service provider themselves) or falsely negative (written by a competitor) or semi-falsely positive (the company bribes its customers to write good reviews).

I’ve sometimes enjoyed a chance to air my grievances on TripAdvisor, but I’ve always waited until I’ve safely checked out of the hotel in question before doing so.  I’ve heard stories of people who ill-advisedly wrote negative reviews while still at a hotel, and have been booted out of the hotel and had the balance of their stay cancelled by an irate management.

Here now is a new TripAdvisor problem.  Apparently some people are threatening to write bad reviews and demanding a blackmail payoff from the travel service provider.  ‘If you don’t upgrade me, I’ll write a bad TripAdvisor review’ sort of thing.

If this is true, it would suggest the consumerism pendulum has swung too far.  How can we end up with a TripAdvisor service that is a positive and reliable force for good, with none of the downsides that TripAdvisor sometimes seems to display?

Although TripAdvisor is perhaps the best known customer review service, there are dozens of others, many of which narrowly specialize in one particular field such as attorneys or doctors or dentists or whatever.

Here’s an interesting story about a dentist’s patient who wrote a seemingly fair but negative account of his experience on two sites – Yelp and DoctorBase.

The twist in this story is that the dentist had forced her patient to sign a ‘confidentiality’ form prior to agreeing to treat the man’s urgently sore tooth, and now is suing the patient for breach of contract, plus also claiming that she owns the copyright to his review and is asking $100/day for breach of copyright, too.

The details of this amazing story are here.

One more thing about social networking.  In the past, I’ve sometimes enjoyed the ability to add my own comments to articles posted on newspaper websites and elsewhere, and usually have slightly obscured my identity when doing so.  Many sites also have buttons you can simply click on to show that you like/agree with a comment or dislike/disagree with it, and I’ve often done that as a quick and simple way of providing feedback on an issue too.

But there is a growing trend on the part of publications to require people to log onto their comment system via a Facebook identity.  All of a sudden, all your thoughts become part of Facebook’s permanent record of you, your actions, your beliefs.

And it isn’t only Facebook that will be observing and recording such things.  Read this chilling story about services that go out and build a file of your internet actions to pass on to potential employers and other people/companies considering some sort of business (or even personal) relationship with you.

It is one thing to make a casual throwaway comment that perhaps was even intended as a joke, or which needs to be read in the context of other comments made prior to yours in a conversation chain.  But when you make such comments, do you really write them in the anticipation of a future employer reading it in the cold light of day, five or ten years later?

Should I add that your comments on The Travel Insider are always welcome, and can be as anonymous as you wish, and definitely will never be linked to Facebook!

US Big Brother to Watch Canada

Talking about privacy concerns, Big Brother – or at least, the US version thereof – is about to be watching you more intently than before.  A new US-Canada Border Plan is scheduled to be signed next week in Washington between Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and US President Barack Obama.

The Border Plan will allow the US to track everyone arriving into and departing from Canada, whether by land, sea or air.

It is unclear if this means the US will track everyone, from or to any other country, arriving/departing from Canada, or only those people going between the US and Canada (but don’t they do this latter thing already)?  All the news stories seem to be copying from the same press release with the exact same ambiguous verbage about what this will be.

Being as how the US already insists on passenger details on flights that simply fly through US airspace, even without landing in the US, and will even refuse planes permission to overfly US airspace if there’s someone on board they don’t like; it seems far from impossible that the US is now asking for full details of everyone entering/exiting Canada from anywhere/everywhere, in return for the relatively open border between the US and Canada.

The Most Ecologically Correct Tourist Attraction in the World

Lastly for this section of this week’s newsletter, what do you immediately think of when I say ‘Eiffel Tower’?  Probably you think of that distinctive structure in Paris, arching up into the Paris sky in a sort of gracefully muted metallic rust color.

Well, treasure that image, because it is about to change.  The French are going to spend over $100 million to cover the Eiffel Tower with 600,000 plants, making it into the most ‘ecologically correct’ tourist attraction in the world, or so they claim.

They must be special plants – that is an average cost of $167 per plant.  Couldn’t they have got a quantity discount for 600,000 of them?

The plants will be in baskets, and will be watered via a state-of-the-art irrigation system made out of 12 tonnes of rubber tubing.

Only in France…..

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 2 December 2011”

  1. As to oxygen in the toilets, could a switch in the cockpit or galley not be available to turn the oxygen on for the toilets? Sure, some cost and extra thing for crew to do — but could prevent deaths (there are usually multiple toilets in a plane) and yet disable oxygen access otherwise.

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