Weekly Roundup Friday 20 April 2012

The ultimate video game? I certainly thought so. See our discussion below on boys and their toys.

Good morning

Happy 60th birthday this week to the illustrious Boeing B-52, still operational as a heavy bomber, sixty years after it first took to the skies on 15 April, 1952.

744 of the planes were built, including 102 of the final B52-H model, of which 85 are still in active duty and another nine are in the Air Force Reserve.

Current projections suggest the planes will continue in service until perhaps 2040.  The plane has already outlived many other bombers, including the B-58, the XB-70 and the FB-111.

There are some great things, both in the feature article and below, so make yourself comfortable and settle in for the read.

  • Reader Survey Results
  • The Incredible Shrinking Aairline
  • A Future Alternative to Air Travel?
  • New Attack on TripAdvisor
  • This Week’s Security Horror Story – More TSA Mission Creep
  • TSA Zero Tolerance Policy – For Allegations?
  • The Curious Case of the Disconnected ID Checking Machines
  • The Ultimate Boy’s Toy
  • Slightly Strange Things
  • And Lastly This Week

Reader Survey Results

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

I made the request after reading an article that claimed airline experience had actually improved last year.  I was dubious, so asked you for your opinion.

Many thanks to all who answered.  I’ve analyzed the results two ways.

First, here are the aggregate results.

As you can see, only 2% of Travel Insiders feel  that air travel has significantly improved, while another 14% feel it has slightly improved.  Almost half (44%) feel it has remained about the same, and two and a half times as many people feel it has got worse (40%) than those who feel it has got better (16%).

It seems clear from this that, at least based on our sample, the air travel experience has struggled to stay about the same and probably has slightly deteriorated for most travelers.

But wait, there’s more.  I also asked you to categorize yourself as to if you are a frequent, moderate, or infrequent traveler, and I did a second analysis, splitting the perceptions by type of traveler.  There is an appreciable difference in perceptions among the three different types of travelers, as you can see from this second chart.

As you can see, the most frequent fliers are more than twice as likely to give thumbs up to improved airline service (but even so, more of the most frequent fliers still give thumbs down than give thumbs up) than are the least frequent fliers, and the moderate fliers fit more or less neatly in the middle.  How to explain this divergence of opinion?

My guess is that many of the changes we’ve seen implemented over the last year or so have had disproportionate effect on the infrequent fliers.  Frequent fliers don’t need to pay extra for early boarding, for luggage, or for a nice seat, because they get all these things for free as part of their elite level frequent flier perks.

It is the infrequent fliers who suffer the full burden of each extra fee the airlines impose.  Hence their harsher criticism of the deterioration in air service experience.

Probably airline executives could care less about how infrequent fliers feel.  But they should be concerned that their core constituencies – moderate and most frequent fliers, feel that the air travel experience is continuing to deteriorate (by almost exactly a 2:1 margin).

The Incredible Shrinking Aairline

American Airlines has announced its latest job cut plans.  It seems that in total about 14,200 jobs will be eliminated, representing about 16.5% of their total workforce – one in every six employees.

I have no opinion as to if this is fair and appropriate or not.  But it does beg the question – if the airline can get rid of a huge 16.5% of its staff now, why didn’t it do so last month, last year, or last decade?  Who was asleep at the switch allowing the company to be saddled with such an extraordinary surplus of staff?

Which CxO level officers will be held accountable for this gross mismanagement that represents probably $750 million a year in unnecessary staffing costs for as many years as you care to count?

How do AA’s shareholders feel at learning the airline has been carrying a $750 million a year unnecessary cost burden?  Where is the shareholder outrage and revolt?  Where are the lawsuits?

And also – why is no-one else asking this same question?  I’m not just being glib or facetious.  If these staff are truly not needed, why were their positions created in the first place and allowed to exist for so long subsequently?

Of course, the flipside to that is that if these truly were essential staff in the past, what magical event is occurring now that makes them no longer as essential as they were prior to the layoff notices?

A Future Alternative to Air Travel?

Here’s an interesting article about a fascinating alternative to air travel – what is termed Evacuated Tube Transport.

Six person capsules would travel through tubes at incredible speeds of up to 4000 mph, and would do so very efficiently due to the air having been largely pumped out of the tubing, with fuel/energy efficiencies 50 times greater than electric cars or trains.

That’s 45 minutes from coast to coast.

As for the tubes themselves, it is said the cost to build them would be a tenth the cost of building high speed railway lines.

Wow.  What’s not to like about this?  Well, there are a couple of challenges.  The first is that these systems would seem to be largely landlocked, and wouldn’t be as practical in the depths of the oceans, and would need to be built (and maintained) to incredibly tight specifications – the slightest mis-alignment would surely cause spine shattering jerks to the passengers.

And the second challenge is that if we can’t agree on building ordinary simple oil and gas pipelines, what chance do we have of agreeing on building these rocketship-speed tube systems?

But do read the article and dream about what could be.

New Attack on TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor continues to ruffle feathers, giving both validly irate people a chance to vent their frustrations with hotels and other travel service providers, and also unfortunately sometimes falling victim to fraudulent reviews that are either inappropriately positive or negative.

Clearly however, it is becoming an increasing force in the market, and has some hoteliers running scared.  I’ve written before about how a group of British hoteliers are creating a secret black list of guests – if a guest writes a negative review about one participating hotel, then the other hotels will probably refuse to allow that guest to stay with them, no matter if the review was fair or not.

A new wrinkle this week touches on another growing phenomenon – accommodation providers that contractually seek to ban you from publishing any negative reviews as part of your accommodation contract.  Here’s a story about a vacation rental property owner who unilaterally deducted a $500 ‘fine’ from his recent guests’ credit card after they wrote a negative review of their experience.

Don’t you think it would simply be better and maybe even easier for hoteliers to respond to guest complaints and to provide an honorable and honest experience to their guests in the first place?

Still, we should be grateful.  At least we can complain about hotels, and hoteliers clearly take notice of our complaints, and at least we have plenty of hotels to choose from.

But airlines?  There’s precious little point in TripAdvisor having an airline section, is there!  The airlines don’t care, and we have almost no choices, other than between airlines that are essentially equally bad as each other.

This Week’s Security Horror Story – More TSA Mission Creep

Okay, on a good day, I can maybe understand some of the expansion of the TSA out of our airports and in to the rest of our lives.  Looking after shipping security is something that someone should do, and while you might say ‘Why not the Coastguard’ the answer to that is perhaps in part to be found in the fact that both the TSA and the Coastguard are now branches of the Homeland Security Department, so it is almost a six of one and half a dozen of the other issue, although the Coastguard (and mercifully not, at least so far) the TSA get to deploy neat weapons on neat ships and boats.

But there are some things that surely should be – surely must be – totally off limits to the TSA.  Where should the TSA’s authority start and finish?  They are, of course, a federal agency, and so it seems reasonable to apply one limit to this federal agency – interstate transportation infrastructure is something they could perhaps get involved in, but not transportation that is limited within a state, and doubly not transportation that is limited to a region, and trebly not transportation that is within a single city.

I’m thinking in particular of city buses.  Surely city buses are way down on any terrorist’s list of targets; if a terrorist is to go after road transportation, you’d think he’d start off with tankers full of inflammable liquids or poisonous chemicals/gases.  Or, alternatively, a massive huge fully laden 18+ wheeler that could be used to drive into bridge supports and other somewhat vulnerable things close to roads.

Sure, a bus might have as many as 50 people on it, but if we are to set our terrorist risk threshhold so low that any grouping of 50 people in one place justifies TSA involvement, we should start to expect Xray screening when we go into movie theaters, malls, and many other places.

So, back to the buses.  It is perhaps understandable how the TSA could interpose itself on interstate buses, as a federal agency; but city buses?  Can someone tell me how it is that the same TSA which claims it can’t afford to fully staff its airport checkpoints next year and will cut them by 41% (see ‘DHS Might be Growing, But TSA is Shrinking’ in last week’s newsletter) is now riding buses in Houston?

Here are two articles discussing this – one in the UK’s Guardian newspaper that is a somewhat more wideranging discussion of TSA mission creep, and one from a US source that some people might reject, but which is simply reporting the facts.

Our freedoms – the freedoms that made the USA what it was – are slipping through our fingers.  How can we reclaim them?

TSA Zero Tolerance Policy – For Allegations?

On the face of it, here’s a positive act on the part of the TSA.  A TSA baggage inspector has been arrested and charged with the theft of iPads from passenger luggage at DFW.

With chests fully puffed out, the TSA issued a statement describing the man’s arrest as part of a ‘zero-tolerance policy for allegations of misconduct or theft’.  Bravo.

But.  Ooops – let’s think about this a bit.

First, the TSA employee had been stealing iPads for eight months that we know about.  It took the TSA eight months (and a lucky break) to find this guy.  That’s not a very secure environment, is it.

Remember, always, that if it is possible to take something out of a passenger’s bag without being detected, and to then smuggle it out of the airport, it is similarly possible to smuggle something in to the airport and put it into a passenger’s bag.  Can you say ‘bomb’?

How is it we can’t take the smallest penknife onto a plane, or more than 3oz of liquids, but TSA employees (and other non TSA baggage handlers too) have free access to our luggage, and are able to secrete much more than 3 oz of liquid in a suitcase just before it goes onto a plane?

And now, what about the zero tolerance policy on allegations of misconduct?  What is with that?  Quite apart from zero tolerance always equating to zero sense, is the TSA saying that it will arrest its own employees on the basis of allegations rather than facts?  If that is so, can I point them to a lengthy list of allegations of employee misconduct that have been leveled against their staff, which almost always without exception have been met with passive inactivity by the TSA.

Imagine, next time you’re upset by a TSA employee’s behavior, you ask to see their supervisor and say ‘You have a zero tolerance policy towards allegations of employee misconduct.  I allege that this person committed an act of misconduct, and I demand you arrest him immediately’.  How far do you think that will get you?

Indeed, here’s a lot more than just an allegation of misconduct.  Here’s a US Judge referring to misconduct by Customs & Border Patrol officers (another part of DHS and so presumably also with a zero tolerance policy towards allegations of misconduct) :

Its mission statement—which none of the officers could recall at the trial—is to serve the American public with vigilance, integrity, and professionalism. They displayed none of these. The agency says that integrity is its cornerstone; that its officers are guided by the highest ethical and moral principles. A gang of armed security officers bullied this family—a family who cooperated with the officers to their detriment. Our homeland will not be secure by these rascals. They played agency games, abused the people they are to serve, and violated their oaths to support the Constitution.

That’s a scathing verdict by a US judge.  It is a lot more than an allegation of misconduct.  So which of these officers is being suspended or terminated?

 The Curious Case of the Disconnected ID Checking Machines

You probably know the first step of going through airport security – you shuffle in line until reaching a desk where a TSA officer looks at your ticket and ID, then stamps your ticket and gives you both back, allowing you to wait in line to get X-rayed.

The TSA is now trialing a new system that will sort of automate the process.  A machine will scan the boarding pass bar code and also your identification, and make sure the two match up.

So far, so good.  The machine might even detect some forged IDs.

But – see if you can guess what the obvious thing is that the machine should do, but doesn’t do?  You’d expect the machine would also verify your ID against all sorts of watch list and do not fly type databases.  That would make sense, wouldn’t it.

But, ummm, no.  The machine doesn’t do that at all.  It simply checks that the name on the boarding pass is the same as the name on the ID.  It doesn’t check any external databases at all.

If you’re wondering then about the purpose of the doubtless expensive machines that neither add security nor save staff (everything is still administered by a TSA officer), then you’re not the only one.  Remember this is the same TSA that is struggling with a tiny budget reduction and threatening that it will have to reduce its airport staffing by 41% as a result.

The Ultimate Boy’s Toy

Many of you have probably had fun playing with Microsoft Flight Simulator, or one of the many other flight simulation games out there.  Microsoft’s incredibly realistic product, which sadly seems to have been frozen in place with its development team closed down in 2009, has long been one of the drivers of PC upgrades for many of us – the game would successively be more and more sophisticated, requiring faster and faster processors, and bigger and better screens.

There have also been very many accessories marketed to enhance the experience.  Feedback joysticks which respond with backpressure and even shaking, additional control columns and clusters, rudder pedals, super speaker systems, and even special chairs and desks to imitate more closely the cockpit experience.

There have also been a few ‘over the top’ implementations of this that leave normalcy well behind.

A guy in Australia is said to have spent almost US$250,000 on building a full motion 747 simulator over a ten year period in a warehouse – as proudly shown on his website here.  That might seem like a lot of money, but it is nothing compared to the cost of a ‘real’ full motion simulator, which can run well over $25 million a piece (like the 777 simulator I am pictured in, in the top picture).

Another approach has been revealed by a gentleman in California, who purchased the nosecone of an old 737-100 and re-equipped it with the latest avionics, all located inside his garage at home.  His 737 simulator has apparently cost him about $150,000 (so far) but unlike the Australian example, has no motion.  I guess that is next on his list.

Slightly Strange Things

Talking about boy toys and simulated flying things, here’s an interesting article about a previously mooted and possibly to be revived new project in Las Vegas – a full size model of the Enterprise spaceship of Startrek fame.

Still on the topic of slightly strange things, how about these four weird hotels, one of which is built inside an old 747.

And talking about hotel weirdness, did you read about the guy who was robbed during his hotel stay in Salt Lake City?  Mr Philip Clawson has now filed a suit against the hotel seeking $150,480 for damages and emotional distress, but one wonders if there isn’t some contributory negligence on his part.

Because, you see, he wasn’t just robbed once.  Or twice.  He was robbed four times during this stay.  And each time by the same person.  More details here.

And Lastly This Week…..

Lastly this week, bathrooms.  On planes.  And things to do inside them – particularly while on 14 hour flights between San Francisco and Auckland.  No – it isn’t what you are thinking – this is something you can do yourself.  And – No!  It isn’t that, either.

Click for a fascinating photo story.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 20 April 2012”

  1. About AA dropping 1/6th of it’s workforce. Now that they are in bankruptcy, they do not have to pay attention to the Unions if the judge approves. If they had tried to fire all those people before filing Chapter 11, they would have been attacked, struck, and/or harassed by the Unions.

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