Apr 122012
 

Titanic excitement hits max this week with the 100th anniversary of its sailing and sinking.

Good morning

I was excited to read about JK Rowling’s next book, ‘The Casual Vacancy’, being released in September – especially because it is a book for adults.  But upon going to the information on Amazon, I saw that the book, with a recommended retail price of $35, is currently showing a street price of $21 for the hardcover book and $20 for the eBook.

Furthermore, the $21 hardcover price is ‘only’ a 40% discount off list price.  My guess is that by the day of publication, the discount will be upped to 45% or maybe even 50%, dropping the price of the hardcover book below that of the eBook.  This is far from a unique situation – it has become, over the last two years, an all-too-common occurence.

But – and here’s the good news – it might soon no longer be the case any more.  Read the item further down in this week’s collection of stories for why.  And continue on through our weekly compilation for items on :

  • Airline Service Improves in 2011?
  • A Not Very Urgent Bomb Threat?
  • A Not Very Urgent Response to an Urgent Emergency Landing
  • What Guests Want in their Hotels
  • Wi-Fi Security and VPN Solutions
  • AA Passport Nazis at ORD
  • An Unexpected Problem with new Biometric Passports
  • More Mission Creep at DHS
  • DHS Might be Growing, But TSA is Shrinking?
  • And Lastly This Week

 Airline Service Improves in 2011?

If this article and the survey it reports on is to be believed, airline service actually improved last year.

It reminds me a bit of the scientist who proved that it was impossible for a bee to fly.  Maybe the abstract metrics used in the survey show upticks, but does that really match the ‘feeling’ and overall subjective sensation we have as passengers?  Or am I being unkind, and things really are improving?

What do you think – let’s do a Travel Insider Reader Survey to see.

Please would you choose from the matrix below and select the one option that best describes yourself and your perception of domestic (ie US only) airline service in 2011 compared to 2010.

You should first decide if you are a frequent, moderate, or infrequent flier.  For the purpose of this survey, we will define frequent fliers as being if you flew 20 or more flights in 2011, with each flight being defined as a takeoff, some flying time, and then a landing.  A moderate flier would be someone who flew 7 – 19 flights in 2011, and an infrequent flier would be someone who flew at least two and no more than six flights.  If you flew no flights at all, I am envious, and if you flew only one, I’m almost as envious, but please don’t answer the survey.

Then please decide if you think airline service – which we’ll define as everything to do with a flight, including making a reservation, checking in at the airport, baggage handling, boarding, seats, food and drink, delays, being bumped, and so on – everything to do with the flight except for TSA security – was appreciably better, perhaps very slightly better, appreciably worse, perhaps very slightly worse, or pretty much the same and not really measurably changed either for the better or for the worse between 2010 and 2011.

Please then click the one link that relates to you and your opinion.  I’ll provide the results next week.

A Not Very Urgent Bomb Threat?

For the second time in two days, a Korean Airlines flight from Vancouver to Seoul, this time on Tuesday, was the subject of a bomb threat, called in after the flight had already taken off.  The plane turned around, and was ‘escorted’ back into Canadian airspace by a couple of US fighter jets, but instead of landing back at Vancouver, the flight landed instead at the remote Comox Air Base on Vancouver Island.  Passengers ended up having to stay overnight while they and the plane was searched for the non-existent bomb.

The threat was phoned in about 25 minutes after the plane took off from Vancouver.  The flight path would have taken the plane more or less over Comox on its route to Korea, and there are about 15 minutes of flying time between the two airports.

In other words, the plane was about ten minutes away from Comox when the bomb threat was phoned in.  If it had turned around immediately, it could have potentially been on the ground at Comox in perhaps as little as 15 minutes.

Guess how long it took for the flight to land?  According to this article, the total flight time was three hours (25 minutes before the bomb threat, another 150 minutes instead of 15 minutes after the bomb threat).

This begs two questions.  First, what took so long?  Why did it take more than two hours longer than it could have to get the plane down?  If the bomb threat was credible enough to cause them to turn the plane around and for the US to scramble fighter jets to ‘escort’ the plane back to Canada, shouldn’t everyone also have been scrambling to get it down as soon as possible?

Second, if the bomb threat was being treated in such a lackadaisical manner, why didn’t they fly the plane all the way back to Vancouver – a mere 15 minutes further away?  I’m sure the passengers would have much preferred a night in Vancouver than a night somewhere in the Comox area.

A Not Very Urgent Response to an Urgent Emergency Landing

An Air Traffic Controller at Denver International Airport decided that an emergency call for priority clearance to land a plane by the pilot of flight UA5912 was a hoax and so ignored the pilot’s several radio calls.

The pilot landed his plane without approval/response from air traffic control, stopped the plane in the middle of the active runway, and had passengers do an emergency evacuation, due to smoke in the cockpit.  Only five minutes later did a controller take the matter seriously and direct emergency services to the plane.

More details here.

Although it appears that the problem was due to inattention on the part of the air traffic controller, it begs the question – pilots have secret codes and protocols to follow to indicate terrorist related emergencies.  Don’t they also have codes/protocols for other emergencies too?

What Guests Want in their Hotels

Free Breakfast?  Free Parking?  A Luxury Mattress?  Shuttle Service?  What is the most compelling amenity for hotel guests?  A recent survey, reported in USA Today here, found that the amenity most considered a ‘must’ by people when choosing their hotel was none of the preceding items; it was instead (and no surprise here) free Wi-fi.

Wi-fi is becoming close to ubiquitous in hotels these days, but the service is not without its occasional problems or glitches.  For example, my experience last month in Orlando, where the bandwidth was so appallingly congested as to make internet access impossible for hours at a time in the peak evening times (presumably when everyone was either busy updating their Facebook pages with pictures from their day at Disney World or trying to stream movies and watch them on the computers).

It seems that usable internet bandwidth, at least in places like hotels, is sometimes nose-diving downwards.  Back when all we used the internet for was email and web surfing, the bandwidth needs of many users all online simultaneously was modest and congestion was gracefully handled.  But now that we use the internet for large uploads/downloads, for video chatting, for Skype and other phone calling, and to watch movies (with the last three applications being all sensitive to internet speeds and creating major service problems if the internet isn’t performing to spec) the amount of bandwidth needed to be allowed has massively increased, and probably faster than many hotels have yet responded to.

Then there are more fundamental and sadly timeless examples of appalling internet service.  I was at a hotel recently which required you to log in through a web page to access their Wi-Fi service.  This in itself is an annoyance, because every time you restarted your computer, you had to relogin.  But the inexplicably stupid part of this procedure was the login process itself.  You had to sign into the system with a unique user ID, and you could choose from any of 50 different IDs (from memory they were something like guest01 – guest50).

The problem is that the hotel has 41 rooms.  It is conceivable that you’d end up with more than 50 devices all wanting to access the internet (in my room there was my laptop, my phone, my iPad, and my daughter’s iPad and phone too – five units in the one room).

This potential shortage of user accounts is further manifest in the lack of any order to account IDs.  One is free to simply choose whatever of the 50 accounts one wishes, but if someone else is using it, you have to try again.  And again.  And again.  All the way, potentially, through 50 failed tries!!!

This is massively stupid for many reasons, and can’t be excused as being some old system that needs updating.  It is a new system that within the last month replaced the earlier perfectly good system at the hotel.

Each guest room should be assigned their own account ID (ie their room number) and each account ID should allow multiple logons.  What is so complicated about this?

Perhaps it can be understood better when it is understood that this is another manifestation of the dysfunctional approach to the internet taken by Wyndham Hotels.

Wi-Fi Security and VPN Solutions

The other matter of very relevant concern when it comes to Wi-fi internet is lack of security.  You might think ‘Oh, great, free internet’ and happily log on to a Wi-fi connection somewhere.  But unless the connection requires you to enter in a user ID and password, you’re now broadcasting your internet session in the clear.  This could potentially include your account details and passwords.

It doesn’t take any great sophistication, or much money, for someone to then ‘tap’ into your Wi-fi transmissions and intercept your sensitive personal data.  There are even free add-on apps for Firefox that you can download and add to the browser program and they will automatically monitor and report on anything of interest they find.

Furthermore, if someone was wanting to harvest a collection of user information, they are most likely to go to places with a high density of Wi-fi users – to hotels and airports, to Starbucks stores, and other places where there are likely to be lots of naive people blissfully using free internet services.

Even with the small security step of requiring a logon, your information is still far from fully secure compared to the better security if you were plugging in to an ethernet connection.  Early types of Wi-fi ‘security’ (especially WEP type security) are far from secure these days.

The best strategy, whenever you’re connecting to the internet through a connection of unknown provenance and security, either wired or wireless, is to use some type of VPN – Virtual Private Network – that can be thought of as wrapping all your communications into a secure envelope of encrypted data.  If you are a corporate traveler, your company might have a VPN service already set up and available for you to use.

If you’re traveling as an individual, there are lots of third party VPN services out there.  A quick internet search just now revealed this one that charges $3.75/month; in the past I’ve seen plenty with higher prices, and perhaps a bit more research would find others with lower prices.

It is important, when choosing a VPN, to choose one that offers good quality bandwidth that doesn’t slow down your internet experience.

AA Passport Nazis at ORD

I vividly remember one time arranging to meet a colleague in Hong Kong, but being ‘stood up’.  They were unable to fly to meet me there, because the airline they were flying on from the Philippines refused to accept their passport.  It had apparently been through the washing machine, and was slightly the worse for wear, although (as I subsequently saw for myself) all the essential information was still clearly in place and readable/recognizable.

Adding insult to injury was the airline’s refusal to then refund them their ticket price, and even though it was the airline staff, at the checkin counter, who made the decision to refuse to accept them on their flight, the airline then claimed that they were ineligible for a refund due to failing to show up at the airport!  The airline couldn’t reconcile that claim with comments in the record made by airport people recording their refusal to allow the passenger to fly, and ‘stuck to its guns’ in refusing any type of refund.

But that’s another story, which I’ve told before.  However, I was reminded of it when reading this story of a person with a similar problem at O’Hare.  An AA staffer decided the passenger’s passport was unacceptably worn – even when the person’s traveling companion showed the staffer that their passport was more worn and they’d been already given a boarding pass for the flight.

This person, like me, has dual citizenship so went home, got his alternate passport, only to have that refused as well, due to a small tear (less than half an inch) on one of the passport’s pages.

Read the story and weep.  And pray that you never encounter the AA passport nazi if your own travels have you flying internationally out of ORD.

An Unexpected Problem with new Biometric Passports

Talking about passports, most of us haven’t yet fully experienced traveling internationally with a biometrically encoded passport and having the biometrics checked when we enter each country we visit.

The way this system works is that unique personal identifiers such as finger prints and iris scans are linked to our passport and the identity it records.  In the olden days (ie as recently as a decade ago) entering a country was fairly straightforward.  The immigration officer would check your passport number and your name weren’t in any watch lists, and would check that you more or less matched the photo in your passport.  If you sort of looked like the photo, and if the passport number and your name didn’t sound any alarms, you were admitted.  Easy.

But now, a biometrically encoded passport creates a unique record of its owner and also a link between the owner and the identity information in the passport.  This means if your passport is lost or stolen, it will be very difficult for someone else to impersonate you, because their biometric data wouldn’t match the information recorded about you and your passport.

But it means something else as well.  Once you’ve entered a country as John Smith, and that country has stored your biometric identifiers and described them as belong to John Smith, if you ever return back to the country, this time with a different passport and name, you’ll still be recognized as John Smith, because your biometric identifiers remain unavoidably unchanged.  You’ll quickly find yourself needing to explain to curious border guards why last month you were John Smith with an American passport, and this month you are Peter Robinson, with different hair color, etc, and a Canadian passport.

For most of us, such things are of little concern.  But if you’re a member of the CIA or other intelligence service, you’ve lost your ability to assume different identities for different purposes.  The very countries and intelligence services that were creating these new systems to detect other people traveling under false passports have suddenly realized that the new capabilities are also reporting on their own agents, too.

Here’s an interesting article that discusses this in greater depth.

More Mission Creep at DHS

The Department of Homeland Security was formed as part of the response to the 9/11 events.  It is the parent organization for the TSA, and in addition to the new TSA, it has other already established organizations now as part of its umbrella, ranging from Customs to FEMA to the Coast Guard and even the US Secret Service.

DHS has over 240,000 employees (almost one third of which is the TSA) making it the third largest government department (only the Defense Department and the Dept of Veterans Affairs are larger).  In total, over 22 different government agencies now form part of DHS.

On its website, it describes its goals

The Department’s mission is to ensure a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards. Our efforts are supported by an ever-expanding set of partners. Every day, the more than 240,000 men and women of the Department contribute their skills and experiences to this important mission. Our duties are wide-ranging, but our goal is clear: a safer, more secure America.

But this simple statement is now being complicated.  It appears that in addition to making us safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards, DHS also has a duty to bring about ‘environmental justice’.  Excuse me – environmental justice?

A ten page document, published by the DHS in February this year, sets out exactly what environmental justice is and how the DHS is responding with alacrity (and, doubtless, a growing cast of many thousands of new employees) to meet this new self-imposed challenge.

After all, they are from the government, and they are here to help us.

There’s one further interesting/amusing thing about this.  I’ve often marveled at how incredibly up to date Wikipedia is about almost everything – I see a news item about something and turn to Wikipedia and find the new development already incorporated into relevant Wikipedia entries.

But, as on top of things as Wikipedia is, it seems the continued growth of the DHS is too much even for Wikipedia to keep up with.  Although the DHS website refers to having more than 240,000 employees, Wikipedia is reporting ‘only’ 216,000.  That was apparently the head count at some point in 2010 – in little more than a year, DHS has managed to grow by over 24,000 people.

DHS Might be Growing, But TSA is Shrinking?

The TSA hopes to rein in its burgeoning budget for the next year, with a 3% overall cut in spending.  Now you and I could both think of many different places and ways that the TSA could save that 3% – for example, its flash mob type VIPR raids on Amtrak stations and its semi-random freeway stop and search road blocks.

Or its ridiculous BDO project – the airport ‘Behavioral Detection Officers’ numbering in the many thousands, but who have yet to ever detect a single terrorist (even though known terrorists have repeatedly transited through airports with BDO staffing).  Or the ongoing expenditures on Xray radiation machines that have now been proven not to detect concealed explosives, but which remain unproven as potential radiation risks to us as travelers.

So can you guess where the TSA has deemed the best place to cut its costs will be?  They are suggesting they cut their budget for ‘checkpoint support’ by a stunning 41%.

Now we all know that no government organization will ever willingly cut any part of its budget by 41%.  Clearly the only reason the TSA will cut expenditures on the most public facing part of its huge many headed monstrous organization is to create a public outcry about the explosion in waiting times that will be brought about as a result of far fewer staff manning airport security checkpoints, so that it can then get extra funding for airport checkpoints, while leaving all its favorite but useless and expensive programs untouched and its budget as a whole increased rather than decreased.

More details here.

And Lastly This Week

An item on one of our favorite topics – a new approach to comfort for late night revelers in London.  If you’re a man out and about in London between the hours of about 10pm and 6am, there’s every possibility you might wish to answer nature’s call.  Alas, many of the regular public conveniences are closed at night, but to address that problem, London has some futuristic pop up toilets that rise out of the ground automatically at about 10pm and then sink back into the ground again at 6am, leaving only a discreet circle on the sidewalk to hint at what lies below during the daytime.

For more on this, and a link to a video which shows one such convenience rising up, please visit this article.

And now, truly lastly this week, a video about what not to do at home.  Well, actually, you couldn’t – unless your home happens to be Maho beach on St Martin.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

 

David.

 

 

  4 Responses to “Weekly Roundup Black Friday 13 April 2012”

  1. The entire TSA is a joke designed to make airports all the less appealing. If minimum wage workers are the frontlines of our so-called homeland security, we obviously are not attracting the best and the brightest, and in many cases, their decisions to search are arbitrary and ludicrous. How likely is it, statistically, for an 80 year old woman to be transporting an incendiary device. Where is she going to put it? In her underwear? I think not. As for people who set off the metal detector because they have had spinal surgery and have the rods and screws holding them together and/or those with artificial hips, knees, or other body parts, certainly a note from a doctor should do. And then there are those who have suffered cancer: radiation at any level, but noticeable the TSA radiation screeners, shudder at the thought that their refusal brings about a bodily pat-down that practically serves as a gynecological exam. Has the number of hijacked or planes blown up increased statistically since metal detectors were instituted in about 1972? Give me proof, or just let me on the damn plane. In any case, someone who wants to blow up a plane is exceeding more intelligent than a metal detector or TSA rep has the capability to comprehend. And the 3-1-1 rule? New York City police taugt me self-defence in the 1990s, and even keys have the capacity to blind anyone. I find “homeland security” an absurd concept, badly executed, and probably completely inaffective except as a make-a-job for the otherwise unemployable. If the U.S. wanted to have its jobless rate truly decline, industry could find people whose native language is English and who have some knowledge of the products in question to answer the phone and actually provide SERVICE. People who can lift up to 50 pounds could serve very well at airports for those who pack more than they can carry or for those who are disabled.

    End of rant, but true to a fault.

  2. In your note about Passports being rejected you say <>

    If your second nationality, like mine, is US then note that <> http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1753.html

    I found this out some years ago when on a visit to the UK (left on my US Passport of course and entered the UK on my UK one) and suddenly noticed my US Passport had expired!

    I called the US Embassy about it and although I could have gone there and gotten a renewal …. with long waits …. when I said I had my UK Passport and a permanent travel visa they told me that it was not permitted for me to use it to enter the USA now that I had US citizenship. They said just to go ahead and tell the immigration officer in JFK what had happened.

    Everything went smoothly and politely and, behind the scenes, they just checked me out and said to get it renewed when I got home ….

    So one should not try to enter the USA under a different nationality if one has US Citizenship.

    Maybe you have multiple US passports as I did with British in the the days when you needed this if you traveled to Red China and to Taiwan ……. the Israelis just pretended the Allenby bridge didn’t go anywhere and put their stamp on a slip of paper ……

    • Is it just me:

      You said

      This person, like me, has dual citizenship so went home, got his alternate passport, only to have that refused as well, due to a small tear (less than half an inch) on one of the passport’s pages.

      the State Dept says

      Most U.S. citizens, including dual nationals, must use a U.S. passport to enter and leave the United States.

  3. […] Last week I asked if you felt that airline service had improved, stayed the same, or got worse over the last year or so. […]

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