Weekly Roundup Friday 30 March 2012

How quintessentially English is a black London taxi? These days, less so than you thought.

Good morning

Another week with quite a lot of additional content, and it is hard to know which of the other three blog entries I posted during the week to point you to first.

And, in a totally different context, it was a busy weekend, with the first stirrings of spring causing me to spend part of both mornings mowing the lawn for the first time this year.  I guess that is a good thing.

So, let’s see all the goodies awaiting for you in this part of the week’s roundup :

  • Other Items in This Week’s Roundup
  • The Latest Strange Responses to EU Airline Taxes
  • Britain’s Air Passenger Duty Costs More than it Raises
  • London Taxis
  • (Un)Welcome to the US
  • When ‘More Affordable’ Actually Means ‘Over Twice as Expensive’
  • Airplane Good News and Bad News
  • It’s Not Just the Titanic Down There
  • TSA Venality Exposed (Yet Again)
  • If You Can Steal Something Out of a Suitcase, Can You Also Sneak Something Into It?
  • Complain about a Lost Cell Phone, Get Punished
  • Should We Be Scared About Crazy Airplane Captains – With or Without Guns?
  • More Passenger Problems Too – But Where Are the Federal Air Marshals?
  • And Lastly…..

Other Items in This Week’s Roundup

Of course, if you’ve not yet considered our North Korean tour, you definitely should give that some positive thought.  The blog entry on that also has a link to a brilliant article that attempts to explain North Korea’s role in world politics – I think it does a better job of doing so, and with less obvious hidden agenda, than any other analysis I’ve seen to date.

And, as ultimate inducement, if you do join our North Korean tour, you’ll be going somewhere and doing something that our President has not done – he had to content himself early this week with staring across the DMZ through a pair of binoculars; not that this stopped him from then making the usual ritual condemnations, the same as almost all presidents before him.

Alas, our leaders seem determined to paint North Korea blacker than black – while it is definitely not a perfect country by any means, there are complex issues and shared culpabilities for the present challenges confronting the country and its relationships with the rest of the world.  Definitely something you need to go and see for yourself!

On a very different theme, my ire last week about paying $2.10 a gallon more than the going rate for gas close to Orlando Airport has resulted in an article this week about four different ways you can save yourself from being similarly trapped and tricked.  Perhaps use your gas savings to help pay for your tour with us to North Korea?

And I give a serious attempt at answering the question ‘why are the airlines so awful’.  Why do the airlines persist in redefining the meaning of ‘bad customer service’ – why do they hate us so much; and – more to the point – how can they get away with it?  Any other industry would see a company in crisis if it treated its customers the way the airlines treat us…. oh, wait – the airlines are in a constant state of crisis, aren’t they!  For a more complete (a massive 4,000 words and with charts to illustrate the issues) answer, do read my two part article series.

The Latest Strange Responses to EU Airline Taxes

This week sees another chapter, sort of, in the strange international responses to the EU’s regulations that tax airlines on all their flying to and from the EU, not just that part within the EU.  India has now banned its airlines from paying these fees.  Okay, so that sounds fairly assertive, doesn’t it – an action that will call the EU’s bluff and force the EU to either ban Indian airlines from EU airspace or to give in gracefully.

You could be understood for thinking that, but there’s one small detail obscured in the headline statement.  The thing is that the EU fees, while already being incurred, have a sort of a one year free grace period, and no money becomes payable until 2013 at the earliest.  So rather than forcing the issue, India’s action is merely the precursor to something that is probably still a year away from bubbling to the surface.

An even stranger reaction came here in the US, where the airline lobbying group, ‘Airlines for America’ (better perhaps to be named ‘Airlines for themselves’) announced triumphantly on Tuesday that it was withdrawing its lawsuit against the EU concerning this tax.  Their President said

Our legal action was critical in bringing to light that the EU ETS violates international law and is an exorbitant money grab, which are now key points in the governments’ unified opposition to the scheme.  There is a clear path for the United States to force the EU to halt the scheme and protect U.S. sovereignty, American consumers, jobs and international law.

Sounds great, doesn’t it.  But what about the dropped lawsuit?  How does filing then withdrawing a lawsuit prove anything at all (other than the capricious ill considered actions of the party filing and withdrawing the suit)?

Their lawsuit wouldn’t have been withdrawn, perhaps, because every other lawsuit brought by other airline groups against the EU (all heard in the EU, of course) have failed?  The EU court has already ruled against A4A (last year), stating that international aviation’s inclusion violates neither international law nor the EU-US open skies accord.

Their complete jingoistic release can be seen here, and glosses over the fact that although the US government may have made some vague noises of concern, it is currently doing nothing at all to combat these new taxes.  At least Russia is threatening to not allow EU airlines to overfly its airspace, at least China has put many billions of airplane orders on hold, and at least India has instructed its airlines not to pay the tax from next year.

But what is the US government doing?  Nothing at all.  But this seems to strangely delight Airlines for America.

Britain’s Air Passenger Duty Costs More than it Raises

Talking about taxes, here’s an interesting article that suggests Britain’s Air Passenger Duty Tax is costing the country 91,000 jobs and £4.2 billion ($6.7 billion) a year in economic activity.

It seems that the government collects £2.8 billion in tax from the fee.  It is not clear if the £4.2 billion is a net differential or if the £2.8 billion needs to be offset from it, but either which way, it is another clear example of a tax ending up costing more than it returns.

Note also how this tax has evolved and increased.  When initially introduced in 1994, it was a mere £5.  Today it varies depending on the distance flown (there are four different levels of tax collected), and goes up as high as £85 ($136) – a remarkable amount to pay the British government for a flight that has nothing to do with Britain apart from taking off from, and eventually landing back in the country.

London Taxis

Talking about British taxes, that makes me think, by a small word association game, of London taxis (pictured at the start of this newsletter).  You know – those amazing custom built black diesel vehicles that can almost literally turn on a dime, have a huge amount of internal space for up to five people and luggage, and which are driven by drivers with an encyclopedic knowledge of the rabbit warren cum maze that are London’s streets.

I was reading this article and discovered, to my surprise, that ‘London’ taxis will now be made in China (rather than Coventry in England).  Progress is a funny thing, isn’t it.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.  I went to the website of the company that makes (or now has made for it) the London cabs to get an image of a classic black London taxi, but while their ‘media resources‘ page has high quality color pictures of its board members, it has no images of the products it makes.  That’s a very telling sense of relative importance and priorities, isn’t it.

(Un)Welcome to the US

Back to the topic of punitive taxes that inflict more harm than good on the taxing country, did you know the US is apparently now charging $14 to people from countries that allow travel to the US without a visa.  This fee goes in large part to now fund the promotion of the US as a tourist destination, worldwide.

Many people think it unfair that we Americans can travel to their country for free, but we in return charge them $14 to come here, and there are now moves afoot to charge us Americans in turn a $14 fee when we visit the EU or possibly some other countries too.

Just as annoying/insulting as the $14 fee however, are the questions that we ask intending visitors.  Are they planning crimes or immoral activities?  And so on – as if anyone so planning would answer ‘Yes’.  Our stupid questions and offensive fee serve to simply alienate more of the few remaining friends we have in the world.

More details here.

When ‘More Affordable’ Actually Means ‘Over Twice as Expensive’

Would you like to see the sort of material I have to wade through in an effort to identify good deals for you?  Here’s an email I got this week :

Hi David – I hope all is well! I wanted to make sure you knew about this new offer from GroundLink.

GroundLink, the next generation of car service, exists to make ground transportation efficient and stress-free for the constantly-traveling road warrior.  To honor these busy professionals, GroundLink is hosting the “Road Warrior 300,000 Miles Sweepstakes” where they’ll gift three different travelers 100,000 airline miles each to the airline of their choice.

All participants need to do is book a ride via GroundLink’s app, website, or call center and take the ride before June 30th to be automatically entered. The first drawing will be at the end of April, with two additional drawings in May and June.

GroundLink has rewritten every step of the ground transportation journey – from booking to payment to tracking to availability, making your travel experience easy, reliable, trackable, and nearby. They’re more affordable than other car services and even taxis. GroundLink is more than a car service – it’s your driver. And he’s waiting to take you to your next destination.  For more information on GroundLink, visit, www.groundlink.com.

Please let me know if you’re interested in any additional details, and I’d be happy to provide them.

All the best,


Sounds good, yes?  ‘The next generation of car service’, and being more affordable than other car services and even taxis.  What a deal.

But rather than accept the claim at face value, I did some research first.  And so, here’s my reply :

Hi, Hilary

I just tested your client’s service.  I pay $55 each way for airport transfers with a local limo company; I’m not sure what year Lincoln Town car they use.  Your client charges either $123 or $137 – oh, and if I’m taking my daughter with me, they’d ask another $30 for a car seat (you can buy car seats for less than this).

Cheaper alternatives exist – I’ve found taxi companies offering fixed fee transfers for $45 or less.

So please explain to me your claim that they are more affordable than other car services or even taxis.


Her further answer was oblique and involved apologizing for my ‘problem’ and offering a discount off a future ride with the limo company.  As well meaning as that was, and while she says they are cheaper in downtown New York, one has to wonder how the company can claim to be cheaper than taxis when, at least in the Seattle region, they are not cheaper but instead more than twice as expensive.

Airplane Good News and Bad News

Some good news and bad news for airplane manufacturers, designers, and passengers.

Bad news for the A380.  This week there were two problems with A380s causing flights to abort.

Both problems were self-evidently important, and I’m not sure which was the worse.  One involved what is quaintly called an engine ‘surge’ – an expression that sometimes is used to describe what looks like, to uninformed passengers, more like an engine explosion than a surge, and very alarmingly, this was on one of the Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines – the engines that had earlier had a major reliability problem on the A380, causing the grounding of all so-equipped A380s for an extended period of time.

The other problem was with cabin pressurization.  That might seem more benign – the plane simply has to descend to a lower level if the pressurization system fails, but the problem there is if it is a flight eg across the Pacific, and many hours from an emergency landing point.  The plane, flying at a lower altitude, burns a great deal more fuel, and it is conceivable there could be some parts of some routes where the need to descend to a safe altitude could cause the flight to run out of fuel before reaching a landing point.

More details here.

On the good news front, an always interesting story that regularly surfaces from time to time, usually with different names, places, details and claims, is that of a successor plane to the lovely Concorde; a plane that was sadly retired prematurely, and to the great regret of all who had ever been privileged to experience a flight in it.

This week’s ‘a plane to replace Concorde’ story is interesting, because it talks about an innovative new solution to the sonic boom ‘problem’ – a problem that of course had no relevance at all to the almost entirely-over-the-water flight from the US east coast to London, but which prevented the Concorde from flying at its supersonic speeds (just over twice the speed of sound) over populated landmasses.  This massively restricted the routes it could fly.

As you can see in this article, the new design calls for a plane with two staggered wings, one above and slightly ahead of the other.  If that sounds familiar, it is very much the same as the design of World War 1 fighter biplanes (but the biplanes traveled at speeds typically under 100 mph, not twice the speed of sound).  This wing design is said to reduce the problems of the sonic boom, making a future supersonic plane much more practical.

I’ve always said that the problems of sonic booms and the other perceived limitations of supersonic flight are only problems because there has been an unwillingness to invest money in studying and solving the problems.  We spend many billions of dollars on developing new subsonic planes such as the 787, but are unwilling to spend a similar amount on creating really revolutionary supersonic planes that – in abstract theory – promise to redefine and revolutionize the international air travel world every bit as much as happened forty years ago with the first 747s.

It’s Not Just the Titanic Down There

As we approach the centenary of the Titanic sailing, and with James Cameron going to the deepest point in the ocean last weekend, there’s a lot of attention being given to the depths of our oceans.

Finding the Titanic wreck was an amazing feat, but to my mind here is an article about an even more amazing feat – finding the rocket motors that powered Apollo 11 on its history making mission to land the first men on the moon.

Thank you, Jeff Bezos, for your interest in this.

TSA Venality Exposed (Yet Again)

Last week I asked for your comments on something that I was increasingly noticing – it seemed to me that more and more of the TSA’s expensive machines that dose us with potentially dangerous Xrays (while not detecting metal objects on our sides) have been out of service and not being used at airports around the country.  I even got to speak on the subject last weekend on the country’s largest syndicated travel show, Rudy Maxa’s World.

Then this week the USA Today published a piece confirming that many Xray machines are not being used.  A GAO study found that some machines were being used less than 5% of the time during the 12 months March 2010 – February 2011.

The machines, costing about $250,000 each, are said to require a team of five TSA staffers to operate.  Each TSA staffer earns, on average, $63,000 a year.

And, as we all know, it takes more time to get ready for one of those machines (you need to take everything out of your pockets); more time to go through one, and then you have to wait after going through it until you have been cleared.  Compare this to a metal detector that you simply walk through without stopping, and continue on to collect your carry-ons.  It seems reasonable to say that the Xray scanners take at least five, maybe twenty times longer to process each passenger, and require five people instead of one on a metal detector.

Okay.  So that is all pretty clear and straight forward, right.  So how now to reconcile this reality with the fantasy land view of the world the TSA seeks to share with us.  In this article about new full body scanners (not the Xray type) being added to Atlantic City’s airport the TSA says

The technology should decrease overall wait time for screening and increase efficiency as the process for an average passenger should only take seconds.

This is utterly and completely wrong.  We all know that we can walk through a metal detector without stopping.  We all know that we have to go into one of the full body scanners, raise our hands, spread our legs, stop and wait while we’re being scanned, then walk out of the machine, then stop and wait again while the machine processes the image and someone decides if the image suggests we have something hidden on our person or not.  The metal detector takes no more time than required to walk through its one foot width.  The full body scanner takes half a minute, maybe more.

How can the TSA claim that the full body scanners will decrease the time it takes for screening and increase efficiency?  This is so completely wrong as to transcend any possible excuse of misinterpretation.  It is an outright lie.

If You Can Steal Something Out of a Suitcase, Can You Also Sneak Something Into It?

Talking about TSA venality, here’s a terrible story about the ease with which baggage is being rifled through and stolen from at JFK.  There are more than 200 luggage thefts a day, every day at JFK.

Now, here’s the thing :  It seems that dishonest people can pass the screening and get jobs working in the secure baggage areas of JFK, then successfully break in to luggage, remove items, and smuggle those items out of the airport.  So if ordinary petty thieves can do this without any fear of detection, 200 times a day, every day, how difficult does it seem it would be for terrorists to also get jobs at the airport, to smuggle items (ie bombs) in to the airport, and to place them in passenger bags about to be loaded onto planes?

While the TSA spends its millions and billions on protecting planes from passengers by taking away our bottles of water and tiny pocket knives, just one or two floors lower down in the airport building, merry mayhem is taking place with our baggage and the TSA seems entirely uninterested.

Does that sound sensible to you?

Complain about a Lost Cell Phone, Get Punished

Here’s another different story about a ‘mysterious disappearance’ of a cell phone while a passenger went through a security check point at San Francisco Airport.

Quite apart from the airport authority, the TSA, the SFPD, and the contracted screening company all saying it was not their responsibility, how do you like the part when the passenger’s friend attempts to assist and explain, and so – to ‘punish’ him for interfering, he has to have all his person effects rescreened, just to prove that he isn’t the thief!

Should We Be Scared About Crazy Airplane Captains – With or Without Guns?

You probably heard about the JetBlue captain who ‘lost it’ on a flight this week.  He started acting strangely in the cockpit, abruptly left the cockpit, tried to get into the occupied first class lavatory, then started raving about Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorists and suchlike, then demanded that passengers recite The Lord’s Prayer.  Ironically it was only when the matter of The Lord’s Prayer was raised that passengers scrambled to subdue him, which they successfully did.

Here’s a good summary of the situation.

A couple of readers have wondered about this, and are now anxious about pilots being trusted with guns.

Let’s put this into context.  Any pilot can easily crash the entire plane, without needing any gun at all.  He simply waits until his co-pilot leaves the cockpit (eg for a bathroom break) then locks the cockpit door, shoves the throttles fully forward, pushes the stick forward, and in a minute or so either the plane’s wings will rip off and/or the plane will crash spectacularly into the ground.

Believe it or not, a pilot roaming around the cabin waving a gun is much less a risk than a pilot crashing the plane from the cockpit.  Worst case scenario, the pilot gets to fire off a dozen or so rounds; let’s say half of them hit passengers, maybe causing one or two deaths, one or two nasty injuries, and one or two flesh wounds.  The plane remains perfectly safe and flyable, the tiny holes in the fuselage from the bullets make no difference at all to anything, and while it is a shame for the half dozen or so passengers who caught a bullet or two, the 150+ other passengers are shaken but unharmed.

Compare that to crashing the plane at full speed – can you say ‘World Trade Center’?  No-one would survive, and the collateral damage on the ground could be even greater.

So I don’t think we need to worry about giving guns to pilots.  We’ve already entrusted them with a much more dangerous weapon – the plane itself.

More Passenger Problems Too – But Where Are the Federal Air Marshals?

Later this week, a woman went berserk on a US Airways flight, and was restrained by passengers.  This article provides more details, and also asks a very relevant question – where are the Federal Air Marshals?

Have you ever read a story of Federal Air Marshals acting to restrain crazy passengers (or crazy crew members)?  Nope.  About the closest they ever got was when they shot a crazy guy, on the ground, in the back while he was leaving the plane.  Hmmm – maybe it is just as well they never seem to be on flights with problems!

And Lastly…

Lastly this week, a tacocopter?

No more phoning in for a pizza and waiting for the driver to bring a soggy cold pizza to you an hour later, after he gets stuck in traffic en route.  A tacocopter could get your must-have tacos to you in much less time – if only the FAA would approve it.

More details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 30 March 2012”

  1. WOW… I shy away from newsletters and before my trip to SE Asia I unsubscribed to all except yours due to the fact that I always get great info from it.
    This one is chockfull of interesting stuff. I loved the article that went with the (un)welcome to America. During my recent trip I experienced (un)welcomes in a few countries. Guess what puts me on edge is that you really have no power over them. I have a post on my blog about my entry to Vietnam.

    I have been in the US legally for over 25 years and even when presenting my Alien Card (aka: Green Card) upon return to what I consider my country, I invariably get a “so you were married to an American?” (Yes, for over 10 years -a man I loved and a man I am still friends with, over 15 years after our divorce.) Oh and, by the way, my card is in my maiden name – they know everything about me from that computer base they look at! Invariably there is an undertone of suspicion. Crossing the border of my chosen home country always makes me sweat.

    Will consider joining one of your trips as soon as I recover from my recent one to 7 countries in Asia.

  2. Hi, David:

    I thought you’d get a kick out of my experience several years ago with a London cab driver.

    He had been very rude to me on the 1.5-mile run from Harrods to my hotel….in the rain. He was the next in queue and probably hoped I wanted to go to Manchester!

    After seven minutes of hearing him complain under his breath about Americans, I had him stop, told him he needed to take a vacation, got out of the taxi, and walked the three remaining blocks to my hotel.

    Upon returning to Austin, I wrote the London police department with my story and the driver’s name/number.

    Within a week, I had a response from them apologizing for my experience and saying the driver would be called in for an interview and that I would receive a personal apology from him.

    A week later, a hand written letter of apology arrived from the driver!

    Can you see this happening in any city in this country?


  3. Regarding the U.K. taxes, I think it may be even worse than mentioned. I just “priced” an SFO/LHR award ticket for the fall on United, and in the fees/taxes breakdown I found that the U.K. Air Passenger Duty is $207.60 for a either business or first class ticket vs. $103.80 for economy, so it looks to me that there’s also a 2x charge for the premium classes. I’m certainly willing to go to another country on holiday.

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