Weekly Roundup Friday 23 March 2012

Why is it that US airlines that don't fly to Mexico increasingly have bilingual signage, but this Mexican airline's sign in Orlando is only in Spanish?

Good morning

Anna and I are now back from our time in the Orlando area, and – as promised – here is a huge newsletter and lots of other articles to compensate for the very short one last week.

Last week’s hotel stay was a helpful reminder, of sorts, to be stranded in a hotel with appallingly slow and sometimes totally stopped internet service.  We take these things for granted, and plan our business lives around the assumption that we’ll have ready access to internet, especially if hotels offer/promise it, and if we find ourselves without it, our business (and often personal too, especially for today’s generation of compulsive Facebook updaters) lives collapse.

That’s not to say I’d swap internet access for some of the other things that this article suggests people would prefer to do without, but I did miss it, for sure.

Anyway, it is great to be back home with my lovely 50Mb/sec fiber optic internet connection, and so on with this week’s goodies.

  • Thoughts on Epcot
  • Busch Gardens, Tampa – Even More Expensive than The Magic Kingdom?
  • You Get What You Pay For – Payless
  • Airline Fuel Surcharges Attract DoT’s Ire
  • FAA to Revisit its (nonexistent) Ban on Electronics Use
  • Ryanair’s Exit (row) Strategy
  • The Flight from Hell
  • Boeing Waxes Poetic
  • How to Avoid Painful Blocked Ears
  • EU vs the Rest of the World
  • More Bad Cruising News
  • This Week’s Security Horror Story
  • And, Lastly This Week

Thoughts on Epcot

Our very expensive time at The Magic Kingdom (discussed last week) was sort of balanced by a similarly expensive time at Epcot, but a much more pleasant time; with almost nothing requiring extensive waits in line, and me generally not begrudging the cost of things nearly so much.  Epcot remains my firm favorite out of all the Disney attractions, and by looking at the different demographic of people at Epcot (many more adults, many fewer children), I guess I speak for most adults when I say that.  Future World was home for the children, whereas the guests strolling around World Showcase tended to be adults.

As you may know, Epcot is a bizarre schizophrenic coupling of two totally different halves – a ‘Future World’ that is a limited and commercialized enactment of the underlying Walt Disney vision for his ‘Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow’ and then the World Showcase, being a series of miniature encapsulations of a selection of different countries.

Perhaps it is because I like Epcot so much that I felt a twinge of anxiety while walking around the half empty World Showcase part of Epcot – while Disney has lavished who knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars on regular enhancements to the Future World section of Epcot, nothing of note has been added to World Showcase since the opening of the Norway pavilion in 1988.  About the only change has been opening more stalls selling trashy trinkets or food and drinks.

I really like World Showcase, and wish Disney would proceed to fill up some of the empty spaces where additional country attractions could be added, but it is almost 25 years since the last country was added and there seems little reason to anticipate additional countries any time soon.  Might Disney actually close World Showcase entirely and replace it with more ride type attractions for children?  Who knows; but for sure, they need to do something to recoup what is by all accounts a stunning $200 million loss on their latest movie (John Carter).

For the first time I took the Mission: Space ride in Future World; it is probably just as well I didn’t know what to expect prior to experiencing it.  The ride is on a centrifuge and you get to experience 3G of acceleration – about the same as the Space Shuttle astronauts did, and the air-sickness bags alongside each seat aren’t there just for show or effect, but due to being really needed by some passengers.  Two people have died after experiencing the ride, and a number have been hospitalized.  Anna loved it, and I endured it.

Busch Gardens, Tampa – Even More Expensive than The Magic Kingdom?

Last week I complained some about Disney’s high prices.  But Disney was spectacularly one-upped by Busch Gardens in Tampa, which we visited on the Saturday.  The Park Admission was $82 for me, $74 for Anna (plus tax), but that was just the start of things.  Instead of a free Fast Pass system such as at the Disney attractions, you could buy a card entitling you either to one ‘fast pass’ type ride at each of ten major rides, or unlimited ‘fast pass’ rides at the ten rides.  The one ride per attraction card was $35 each (no discount for children), the unlimited pass was $55 per person.

They also had dining programs.  An All Day Dining pass sounded good in theory – sort of an all day and all you can eat buffet around the park in theory, costing $33 for me, and $15 for Anna.  But it was so full of fine print and exceptions and exclusions as to be impossibly complex to understand and of minimal practical value and left a bad taste in my mouth (to misapply a metaphor).  I didn’t buy them – just as well, because the mouth wateringly wonderful barbeque food they sell at one of their food outlets was specifically exempted from being included, but this exemption was only disclosed at the outlet itself, not at the place selling the dining vouchers.

I’d considered bringing some food with me, and perhaps a bottle or two of water so as to avoid their usurious charges for food and drink.  But – get this – Busch Gardens forbids people from bringing any of their own food or beverages into the park!  I guess that is what they were searching bags for.  At least Disney allows you to bring your own food and drink with you.

So it was just over $250 for parking, two one day admissions, and the one ride per each of ten attractions ‘fast pass’ (we didn’t actually get to go on more than half the rides during the day), plus food and drinks on top.  We also had to occasionally spend money on rental lockers to place loose items in before going on rides.

I love the rides at Busch Gardens, but it is a terribly muddled layout, such that some places we kept inadvertently returning to, and other places we could never find our way to.  Sure, I know that theme parks don’t want a boring ‘grid’ layout, but I also know it is easy to find one’s way through Disneyland/Magic Kingdom/etc, but hard to do so at Busch Gardens.

The place is not nearly as professionally run as Disney.  We got misdirected when going through their messy car parks, and ended up in the disabled parking area with no easy way to return to the general parking.  At the end of the day, Anna begged me to go on one of her favorite rides one more time, and I said ‘okay, if the wait is less than 45 minutes’.  Well, the wait was 50 minutes, but close enough to 45, so I agreed to endure another long line for another short ride, but first we had to detour to rent a locker to put our loose items in once more.  A minute later we returned to the ride entrance, only to find that in the space of a minute, the posted wait time had changed from 50 minutes to 75 minutes.  How can that happen?

I felt a bit sorry for Bush Gardens.  Urban encroachment is all around them, and the underlying land value now must be enormous.  How long before its new owners figure out they could make more money by pulling down the rides and building high rise condos instead?

Other high quality experiences were a visit to the Fantasy of Flight museum (I’m working on a detailed review) and an airboat ride.

Overall, and the same as every time I go to the Orlando area, I marveled at the continued pace of growth and development.  The environmental impacts on Florida’s fragile Everglades by the seemingly unstoppable growth of the Orlando region must surely be of huge concern, and there’s no evidence of growth appreciably stopping.

You Get What You Pay For – Payless

There was a certain bookend symmetry to our time in Florida.  It started off with a disappointing experience renting a car, and ended with an even worse experience.

As I so often (and so foolishly) do, I ended up renting almost the cheapest car I could find on Kayak; this time a small car from Payless.  I’d forgotten my most recent previous experience with Payless – a line of people waiting to complete their rental agreements in Las Vegas moving so slowly that I estimated it would take me more than an hour to get to the head of the line (I cancelled the reservation on the phone and rented a car with no delay from an immediately adjacent competing company instead).

This time I was third in line, and the line was moving ‘fairly fast’ such that it only took me ten minutes or so to get to speak to an agent.  But it took her a good 20 minutes to work through the paperwork for my dead simple reservation, including asking me questions that I’d already provided the answers to when making the online booking.  Why is that?

I noticed a very interesting thing.  At one point in the process, she got up, ambled leisurely over to the other end of the counter, poked through a box of car keys, selected one, and came back with it, this being the key to the car I was renting.  She then proceeded to ask me if I wanted any insurance covers on the car, and I refused them all, something that she somehow managed to misunderstand as meaning I wanted just the basic car coverage ($16 a day – the same amount as I was paying for the car rental itself), and she then got annoyed at me when I corrected her and refused that cover too.  She made no comment, but picked up the key and strolled back to the other end of the counter and exchanged it for a different key to a different car.

I didn’t argue the issue either, but it was clear to me that by refusing the insurance coverages, and by insisting on no coverages after she ‘mistakenly’ left one included, I was then penalized/punished by being given an inferior car.

When I finally got to the Kia car, then marked up the inspection report (as given to me, it suggested the car was in pristine perfect condition) with all the damage that was all over the car, and returned it back to the counter, Anna and I finally got our bags in, settled in, and I turned the ignition on.  Hmmmm.  The ‘full tank of gas’ showed only 1/8th full.  Another delay while the car was taken to be truly filled and brought back.

Anyway, enough of that part of the experience.  At the other end of the experience – well, no need to tell you again.  Read the article further on in today’s compendium of articles.

Airline Fuel Surcharges Attract DoT’s Ire

Readers will know that one of my pet hates is airline ‘fuel surcharges’ – rip off fees added to a base ticket price (and often added to ‘free’ frequent flier tickets too) that are excused as having some strange relationship to the price of jet fuel, but which are vastly greater than the extra cost of jet fuel the airlines might incur for flying us where we want to go.  Fuel surcharges are sometimes even more than the so-called ‘base fare’, and also appear and disappear capriciously on some special fares.

The US DoT has responded to this chicanery by publishing a warning that from mid April it will start enforcing a new rule requiring airlines to impose surcharges only as far as they ‘actually reflect a reasonable estimate of the per-passenger fuel costs incurred by the carrier’ and requiring them to be ‘calculated based on such factors as the length of the trip, varying costs of fuel and number of flight segments involved’.

I’m sure there’ll be loopholes and fuzzy accounting practices that still give the airlines considerable leeway in what they apply as fuel surcharges, but this is at least a good step in the right direction.

Thank you, DoT.

FAA to Revisit its (nonexistent) Ban on Electronics Use

Our government regulators, and the DoT in particular, is on a roll this week.  The FAA (part of the DoT) indicated that they are taking a new look at the vexed and increasingly contentious issue of passenger use of electronics on board planes during the take-off/climb and final descent/landing stages of flights.

The present situation is that there are actually no FAA rules prohibiting the use of any electronics at any stage of any flight at all, and some types of electronics (hearing aids, for example) are specifically permitted.  Instead, the FAA requires each airline to make its own safety determinations, and the elaborate testing procedures, combined with the slightest hint of possible liability if they make a mistake, has caused the airlines to avoid the issue entirely by simply creating their individual but strangely identical blanket bans, usually disguised as being an FAA regulation, whereas in truth it is not.

The FAA regulations merely say ‘airlines can set their own rules’ and ‘you must follow the rules the airlines set for themselves’ – quite a different thing, but a point of distinction that you’d be unlikely to impress upon a harried flight attendant when she’s demanding you turn your electronic device of choice off ‘due to FAA regulations requiring all electronics to be off before we push back from the gate’.

The new move on the part of the FAA is to see if it can coordinate some industry-wide testing, so instead of each airline having to individually test each and every device on each and every type of plane they operate, the industry as a whole can do some blanket testing.

There’s no clear timeline as to when or if anything will happen, and there’s far from any clear indication as to what the outcomes may be, but at least it is a step towards addressing the current baseless refusals to allow electronics that is presently mindlessly enforced with way too much enthusiasm.

Ryanair’s Exit (row) Strategy

There was an interesting story about Ryanair this week.  Their assiduous chasing after every possible penny in passenger fees is legendary, and one of their many fees is a £10 charge for an exit row seat.

The other notable thing about Ryanair is that many/most of their passengers are driven purely by budgetary issues, and will willingly endure anything so as to get the cheapest possible flight somewhere.  As a result, on some flights, a Ryanair plane will depart with no-one at all sitting in any of the exit rows.

Apparently this is a bit of a grey area, but there are some suggestions that airlines are obliged to have some passengers in exit rows, able to instantly assist in the case of an emergency landing, and both the Irish and British authorities are now pressuring Ryanair to seat some passengers in the exit rows, whether they’ve paid for the privilege or not.  Ryanair is currently unpersuaded on this point.

The Flight from Hell

Ryanair doesn’t have the monopoly on unpleasant flying conditions.  This week’s contender for the dubious award of ‘the flight from Hell’ has to go to a United flight from San Francisco to Shanghai.

The flight ended up with a two day stop in Anchorage due first to toilet problems that became apparent not long after leaving San Francisco, and then mechanical problems on the replacement plane.

Add to that the sadly typical sorts of airline appalling messups such as holding passengers on the plane until after all restaurants had closed before allowing them off the plane to eat (but eat what and where?), giving them hotel vouchers at hotels that still insisted on passenger credit cards to allow them into rooms, with many of the (presumably Chinese) passengers having no credit cards, countless broken promises about when the flight would depart, and it truly was a flight from hell.  Details here.

Boeing Waxes Poetic

Boeing has been talking up its planes.  Nothing surprising about that – it is what it must do all day every day so as to make sales.  But some of what it says is such appalling nonsense that one wonders where it possibly comes from.  Boeing’s director of differentiation strategy (wow – a thirteen syllable title :  rule of thumb – the longer the title, the less the person actually does) was waxing poetic about the 787 last week, including such gems as :

With the new philosophy, we want to celebrate that we are in the sky.  The innovations are designed to connect the travellers more strongly with the flying experience


The idea is that passengers “never lose connection” with the aerial landscape

This article goes on to refer to that age-old fantasy of airplane manufacturers – the illusion of spaciousness on a plane that no matter how unrealistic the airplane manufacturers get, the airline operators will simply cram full of as many seats, each as close as can be to the next, as possible.  There are some interesting things in the article along with the ‘glossy brochure’ stuff, however.

How to Avoid Painful Blocked Ears

Here’s a related article that reports on an amazing discovery that scientists have apparently just made.  People are less discomforted when the airplane cabin pressure changes more slowly rather than more rapidly.  Wow – who would have thought that?  How many years and millions of dollars of research did that require?

As you’ll see in another article in today’s compilation, I also review a fun book by a flight attendant.  She recommends an interesting product as an antidote to people who have blocked ears and therefore problems with flying (particularly descending) that I’ve vaguely heard of but never tried – Ear Planes.  Read my review of her book for more on this.

Talking about the flight attendant’s book, a reader chipped in with information that apparently the infamous Steven Slater – the JetBlue flight attendant who got in a fight with a passenger, then cursed out the entire cabin of passengers over the PA, grabbed a can of beer, popped open an emergency exit and descended gracefully down the slide, left the airport and drove home (where he was subsequently arrested, charged, and apparently eventually fined something like $10,000 in restitution) – is now working on a book about his experiences with the working title of ‘Cabin Pressure’.

I don’t admire Mr Slater at all or agree with what he did, and I suspect his book will be much less readable than the one from AA flight attendant Heather Poole I’m reviewing this week, but you can be sure that if/when his book does see the light of day, I’ll be quick to provide you a review on that one too.

EU vs the Rest of the World

The war of words between the EU and the rest of the world’s airlines continues unabated.

Connie Hedegaard, the EU Climate Commissioner, had some suggestions to offer to airlines and countries who didn’t think it fair that she and her EU could tax them on their non-EU flight operations.  She said a simple solution would be to extend the EU carbon tax to make it a world-wide one.

Way to go, Connie!  In Vegas, that would be described as ‘doubling down’.  More details here.

Meanwhile, China has increased the number of plane purchases from Airbus it has suspended from 10 up to 20.  Another sort of doubling down.

Of course, suspending a purchase that isn’t due to be completed for several years is as yet a meaningless gesture, as Ms Hedegaard (and everyone else including presumably China) fully realizes.

More Bad Cruising News

Another little bit of bad news for the cruising industry this week, although not nearly as headline grabbing as the two Costa incidents earlier this year.  The Silversea ruises ship Silver Shadow apparently collided with another ship (a container ship, not a cruise liner) off the coast of Vietnam.  No passengers were injured, and the vessel itself suffered only minor damage and was able to continue on its scheduled itinerary.

There have also been ships with engine problems, and even the Queen Mary 2 has had some electrical problems.

Meanwhile, the Chairman and CEO of Carnival Cruises – the parent company of Costa – is urging travel agents to in turn persuade passengers who are ‘sitting on the fence and waiting for a big cruise sale’ not to do so.

I’m sure his advice is impartial and unbiased.  Not!  Well, I am sure that if everyone rushes to buy cruises, there’ll be no desperate sales promotions and deals, but I’m also sure that if sales slump, the deals will start flooding into the market (or is that a bad metaphor to use?).  More details here.

This Week’s Security Horror Story

There’s an obvious security horror story to offer you – a passenger bought a Mexican pinata thing at a gift shop in the secure area of Toronto’s Pearson Airport to take home with him as a gift for his daughter.  He then boarded a connecting Air Canada flight to take him the rest of the way home to Nova Scotia, only to have a flight attendant confiscate the item as a security risk.

If you can follow the logic of how an item that is freely sold in the secure part of the terminal can simultaneously be a security risk, then you’re obviously eligible to work for Air Canada as a flight attendant.  Or perhaps as an official spokesman – when confronted with this lunacy, their spokesman trotted out the well worn meaningless nonsense ‘The safety and security of all our passengers is always our top priority’.

Has this guy – Peter Fitzpatrick – nothing between his ears at all?  A flight attendant confiscates a child’s pinata toy (in the shape of a horse or llama or something) as a security risk, and all he can do is talk about the safety and security of passengers?  Is he unable to say ‘Yes, well, that was pretty stupid, wasn’t it, eh’?  How much money does he get paid to utter such non sequitur platitudes?

And note to flight attendants and authors – be sure to cover this sort of idiocy on the part of your colleagues in your next book.  We know you already hate many of us – these sorts of actions are why we in turn are very wary of you, too.

More details here.

May I also draw again from my recent travel experiences for a different sort of horror story.

If there’s one overriding experience we all share in Orlando, it is probably that of standing in lines.  For up to two hours at a time, sometimes in searing heat, sometimes even in tropical deluges and thunderstorms.

By the time we get to the airport, we’re about all done when it comes to lines – but we’ve also learnt some basic things about what makes a line ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – as has Disney, with their experts even having been called on to assist the TSA in the past with managing their own lines and queuing systems.

So why is it that the most chaotic non-lines I’ve encountered anywhere in the country, in many years, are at Orlando Airport?  Surely if there’s one airport in the entire country that would have its lines down to a fine art, it would be MCO?

This picture I took (see immediately above) doesn’t even start to tell the story of the huge throng of people in an amorphous and line-less mess all shoving and pushing their way towards the first point of the TSA screening process – where TSA agents check your IDs.  It was an awful experience of fighting and watching other people shamelessly sneak in front of you every which way.

Finally, after having made it to a TSA agent and having your ID checked, you then pass triumphantly to the other side of their desk, only to be greeted with – another line-less mess.  Six feeds from TSA screeners somehow had to then merge into one single line, with anarchy and sharp elbows and a total lack of any social graces being the necessary skills.

Hey, guys.  It is more than ten years since 9/11.  How long do you need to get a sensible acceptable line put in place to handle the average ordinary Monday afternoon traffic leaving Orlando?

I think we all grumbled, but secretly accepted and understood how things were a bit chaotic ten, nine, maybe even eight years ago.  But this is now March 2012.  How much longer does it take for the TSA to get their line management systems in place?  We deserve better than this.

In other TSA news, their new $140 million luggage screening facility at LAX’s International Terminal is now operational, but is processing bags at only between 1500 – 1800 bags/hour, as compared to the designed/expected rate of 3200 bags/hour.  Ooops.  You don’t get much for $140 million these days, do you…..

No wonder that we now have 16 airports across the country that have replaced the TSA with private screening companies, and another 17 that are clamoring for permission to do the same.  There’s only one catch – to replace the TSA with private screeners, they need to get permission from – yes, you guessed it, the TSA.

And you probably guessed the second part of this – the TSA is going all passive aggressive and not responding to requests to be replaced.  Fancy that.

And, Lastly This Week

I’m a New Zealander, and we New Zealanders tend to look upon our Australian neighbors with an element of bemusement and sometimes bewilderment.  On this occasion, I’m not quite sure if the Aussies have come up with the most brilliant idea in tourism ever – or possibly the stupidest.

An Australian brewer has leased a beautiful island off the Queensland coast – currently describing itself as ‘an untouched tropical holiday getaway for the family and the romantics’ for three years, and is turning it into what the brewery hopes to become ‘the ultimate destination for mates’ (ie guys only).  Plenty of beer and blokes, not so many broads, I guess.  Details here.

Still – it could be worse.  Instead of a tropical island resort, presumably to be overflowing with beer, visitors could instead be in a ‘prison hotel‘.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







4 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 23 March 2012”

  1. David:

    Micky Arison is Chairman and CEO of Carnival Corporation. Not Carnival Cruise, Pres Jerry Cahill.
    Carnival Cruise Line is an operating company, just like Costa, Princess, Holland American, etc.

    Of course, before the Concordia incident, very few travelers even knew that Costa was owned by Carnival Corp. Ah…the power of branding!

    Always enjoy reading your newsletters.


  2. Renting a car at MCO is different. But I rented a Premium SUV (large family group) from Dollar about 3 months in advance. I went in late Feb. Total price of $521.43 incl all fees and taxes for 11 days. When I looked a week before my trip, it was about $1000. Rent far ahead as one can always cancel with no fees. Yes, they tried the old “you want just basic insurance” trick, but I declined. My car was in very good shape and the nice thing about Orlando is the cars are just a 5 min walk away vs. a shuttle. Not sure how much you paid for last minute, but bet it was a lot more.

    Agree on MCO TSA lines – crazy when busy. There is a better way – move the screening back a bit and have more space for lines. Still, what looks like a 30 min like usually is only 10 min or so.

  3. Re ear discomfort and cabin pressure:
    1. I routinely wear a wrist barometer/altimeter watch when flying (I am a scuba diver). I can report that Virgin Atlantic (A340s) typically run at 5500-6500 ft cabin pressure, JetBlue (A320s) runs at 6000-7000 ft.
    2. You are more likely to experience discomfort during descent. Though rapid ascent during diving is not recommended for other reasons (bends, pulmonary gas embolism), there is no pain in the ears.
    3. For relief, try swallowing, and if that does not work, pinch your nose, close your mouth and gently try to breath out. Nearly always works in a diving descent, should always work for an aircraft descent (at least a normal one). It also helps to blow your nose if congested, and for that matter a nasal decongestant may help too if this is a regular problem. That remedy is often used by divers!


  4. Regarding the conversion of TSA positions to private companies. I don’t know about you but I remember when airport security was boosted after 9/11 and many or most airport screeners were working for contractors. Think back but I recall the outrage among passengers regarding “pat-downs” which were not only instrusive but were actually sexual harrassment. Back then these outrageous actions brought calls for government involvement in airport screening.

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