Weekly Roundup Friday 11 May 2012

All that remains of a Sukhoi Superjet 100 after it crashed into the side of a mountain in Indonesia this week.

Good morning

Happy 75th birthday to the Golden Gate Bridge, which opened in May 1937.

It has become one of the world’s most instantly recognizable bridges, and is approaching its two billionth vehicle crossing sometime very soon.

Although having the longest span in the world when built, it lost that title in 1964 to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and nowadays is the ninth longest suspension bridge, with a 4,200 ft main span length.  The longest suspension bridge is now the Akashi-Kaikyo bridge in Japan with a 6,529 ft main span length, the longest US bridge remains the Verrazano Narrows bridge in New York with a 4,260 ft main span length.

Since opening, the bridge has closed three times due to extreme weather, the longest time being in December 1983 (3 1/2 hours).  Its original construction cost was $37 million (as against a projected cost of $27 million); in 2003 an estimate suggested it would cost $1.2 billion to replace.

Among other distinctive claims, more people die by suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge than at any other site in the world.  About 98% of the people who jump die, due both to the 245 ft distance down to the water level and the cold waters that flow underneath.  The exact count is not known, because many of the bodies are taken with the tide out to sea, never to be found again, with one study suggesting as many as three times more people jump than are officially estimated and recorded.

Many thanks to all who sent in their opinions for last week’s reader survey on nonrefundable airfares.  I’ve taken the responses and written a separate article on the topic, which you’ll see as the second part of today’s newsletter compilation.  Meanwhile, please keep reading for :

  • The Worst Time for a Crash
  • Air Canada Doesn’t Have a Crash, but …..
  • Are Airplane Seatbelts Still Adequate
  • Israeli President Spurns El Al and Flies on Air Canada Instead
  • How Much Would You Pay for Unlimited First Class Travel for Life
  • World’s Best Airports
  • Dallas Hotels Shoot Themselves in the Foot
  • Carnival Cruise’s Paranoia
  • Someone Orders Suspected Terrorist Off JetBlue Flight – an 18 Month Old Baby
  • And Lastly This Week….

 The Worst Time for a Crash?

There’s never a good time for an airplane to crash and kill all on board.  But some times are probably worse than others, and the crash earlier this week in Indonesia seems to be an example of a very bad time to have a crash.

The Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100 was being flown by Sukhoi’s top pilots, and hosting a group of Indonesian air industry VIPs on a demonstration flight as part of an attempt to sell the plane to Indonesian airlines (an attempt that apparently, at least up to that point, was proceeding successfully).  All 47 people on board perished.

However, the crash is starting to seem like it may be more due to pilot error than a problem with the plane itself.  While the early reports are still extremely sketchy, it seems this may have been an example of ‘controlled flight into terrain’ – translation :  The pilot flew the plane into the side of a mountain he didn’t realize was in front of him.

For reasons not yet known, the pilot asked for permission to descend from a barely safe altitude of 10,000 ft down to a more dangerous 6,000 ft flight level in an area where there were nearby mountain peaks much higher than 6,000 ft and visibility was poor.

The plane’s wreckage, on 7,200 ft high Mt Salak, is thought to be at about 5,800 ft.  At the time of writing, neither black box has been found, so everything is conjecture.

The plane was originally designed with inputs from Boeing, and is intended as a competitor in the 100 seat passenger jet segment.  It is the first civilian plane designed by Sukhoi, best known for its fighters.

Air Canada Doesn’t Have a Crash, but…..

…. the passengers are suing, anyway, after an incident in January 2011 where an apparently groggy co-pilot woke up at the controls, misunderstood what he was seeing out the windows, and plunged the plane into an emergency dive to avoid what he thought was an incipient crash with what he thought was another plane.

The passengers are apparently suing not just for the terrifying 46 seconds that followed (until the pilot in command, who was actually and officially flying the plane at the time, managed to take control back from the strangely behaving co-pilot) but also for being lied to, consistently, by Air Canada as to what had happened.

Air Canada told passengers it was merely turbulence that caused the plane to porpoise down and up again, and it was only after an official accident report was published by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board that people found out the truth.  16 passengers and flight attendants suffered injuries, with seven requiring hospitalization after the plane arrived in Zurich.

Here’s an interesting story about this event and situation.

Are Airplane Seatbelts Still Adequate

Talking about airplane crashes, there’s an interesting article here that wonders if the seatbelts in planes remain sufficiently strong for today’s heavier passengers.

The seatbelt standards were set 60 years ago, at a time when the average man weighed 170lbs.  Today the average man weighs 195lbs (and the average woman 165 lbs).  But there has been no change to the specifications, or to the dimensions and weight of test dummies used to validate compliance.

While you might think, particularly when juxtaposed with the previous article, that seatbelts of any nature on a plane are a bit like a thimble being used to try and bail the water out of the sinking Titanic, the reality is that most airplane crashes are survivable, and most airplane passengers survive.  Sturdy seats and appropriate seatbelts can have a material difference in terms of how many people survive the plane’s crash landing and are able to then evacuate the plane in a timely manner.

I’ve an interesting and potentially life saving series of four articles on How to Survive a Plane Crash.  Well worth speed reading through.

Israeli President Spurns El Al and Flies on Air Canada Instead

It is easy to forget, when we see pictures of our own peripatetic President and his family clocking up the miles on Air Force One and other official planes that not all other heads of government have their own fleet of planes.  Even the Prime Minister of England simply hops onto a regular commercial flight when flying somewhere.  So too does Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Normally it is considered good form for a country’s head of state to fly on some type of national flag carrier airline, which for President Peres would of course be El Al.

Although Mr Peres doesn’t travel with quite the retinue of attendants that our President does, there is one formality that Israeli protocol requires whenever their President or Prime Minister travels somewhere – a kit of medical gear and an oxygen tank should accompany him, in case of medical emergencies.

For his recent trip to Canada, El Al announced that it would charge Mr Peres (or, more likely, the Israeli government in general) almost $5,000 for the oxygen tank.  El Al had never levied this charge before.

Mr Peres refused to pay the outrageous fee, and booked a ticket on Air Canada instead.  Good for him.

How Much Would You Pay for Unlimited First Class Travel for Life?

Some years ago, several US carriers would occasionally offer passes giving the bearer (and, potentially, any companion of the bearer’s choosing, too) the opportunity to fly, as much as they wanted, free of any restrictions whatsoever, in first class.  Domestic or international, as often as they wished, it was all included – indeed, the deals were so amazingly generous that they would also accumulate frequent flier miles on all their flights.  And all those nasty taxes and fuel surcharges that we get stung with on our ‘free’ tickets these days – they were all included, too.

How much would you pay for unlimited first class travel for you and a companion, for the rest of your life?  Keep in mind that a single roundtrip to Europe would probably cost you $10,000 or more, each, if you were paying for them, and think not only of the trips you usually make, but how your lifestyle would change if you could fly, free, any time you wished (one of the pass holders took 16 roundtrips to London in a 25 day period).

After enjoying a bit of day dreaming about such an amazing lifestyle, time for the bad news.  Such passes are no longer sold (although if you’re a senior airline executive or a pilot, you have pretty much the next best thing, especially if you get some sort of entitlement written into your employment contract and retirement benefits).

Here’s a fascinating story about people who had passes, and how the airlines have tried to worm their way out of allowing these unlimited benefits to continue.

World’s Best Airports

Skytrax has just announced its annual list of the world’s best airports.  No American airports made the top ten list, although Vancouver came in at number 9.

The top ten is :

  1. Incheon, Seoul
  2. Changi, Singapore
  3. Hong Kong Intl
  4. Schiphol, Amsterdam
  5. Beijing Capital Intl
  6. Munich
  7. Zurich
  8. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  9. Vancouver Intl
  10. Central Intl, Japan

Question to the US aviation industry :  At what point will you stop making excuses and start to feel embarrassed at the dominance of Asian airports and airlines in surveys of the best airports and airlines?  Do you have any remaining pride and appreciation for excellence?

Here’s one interesting example of what one Chinese airport – in Dalian – is doing to improve passengers’ airport experience during flight delays.  This is the sort of ‘outside the box’ thinking that we used to pridefully term as American innovation; now it seems innovation is no longer an exclusively American prerogative – indeed, we have largely abandoned it, ceding it instead to Asian countries and enterprises.

Dallas Hotels Shoot Themselves in the Foot

It is a recurring surprise to many in the travel industry to discover how very price-sensitive some types of travelers are.  This is particularly the case of destination marketers who ‘drink their own koolaid’ and believe people are so motivated to come and visit their wonderful city or region that a few dollars more added to the cost won’t deter the potential visitors at all.

It is true that a few dollars up or down makes little difference for a couple planning their ‘trip of a lifetime’ to their dream destination – although even such motivated visitors as these will often respond to higher costs by downgrading their hotel, shortening their stay, or including fewer activities.  In other words, these types of visitors will spend more or less the same amount of money on their trip, they’ll just simply adjust how they spend it.

As for business travelers, if they have to go to, eg, Chicago for a meeting, they have to go there, whatever the cost.  They are indeed close to price insensitive – but the other side of that coin is that business travelers are unlikely to be influenced as to if they go to Chicago or not by any destinational promotion activities.  If they need to visit a customer or prospect, they go.  If they don’t, they stay away; plain and simple.

Perhaps the most price sensitive of all potential visitors are the MICE visitors and the people who determine where they go.  Nope, they’re not trained rodents.  They are people traveling to attend Meetings, Conventions, Conferences, and similar types of special events (there are several possible phrases that MICE is an acronym for, the concept is the same even if the words are different).

The people who plan these large-scale events are very price sensitive – both in terms of the cost of staging the event to themselves, and the cost of people choosing to attend.  If one location is too expensive, then they’ll decide to hold the event somewhere else instead – it is a simple commercial decision that they make.

So, with that as background, and to confirm it, hoteliers in many different cities have repeatedly demonstrated that if they increase their room rates, they lose business.  While this is true at a ‘micro level’ between one hotel and its competing hotel a block away, it is also true for a destination as a whole if all hotels raise their rates in concert – typically in the form of an increased room tax.  Most famously, perhaps, was the New York situation where the city raised the hotel tax rate, only to end up with lower total revenue due to a drop in rooms sold to guests.

How to understand the logic, therefore, of the Dallas hoteliers who agreed to have their room tax rate boosted up from 13% to 15%?

The extra 2% is to be used to increase the promotional budget of the city, particularly towards the MICE market.  Dallas wants to regain its position as one of the top five MICE destinations in the country.  The extra 2%, levied only on hotels with more than 100 rooms (ie your typical meeting/convention type hotels) is projected to raise about $10 million a year.

Newsflash :  This is risky and may have the opposite effect to that hoped for.  MICE business might decline rather than increase.

Carnival Cruise’s Paranoia

Carnival arranged for a popular diet guru and motivational speaker – a respected neurosurgeon from Tennessee – to be a featured speaker on a diet-themed cruise on its ship Carnival Magic.

After he boarded the ship, someone sent out a Twitter message saying ‘Security confiscated dynamite.  Talk won’t be as explosive as at PaleoFX.  Still have vial of Legionnaires for epic biohack.’

The doctor has no connection with the Twitter account.

Carnival also received a phone call from an anonymous caller saying the doctor was planning a bio-attack.

Carnival pushed their panic button, and the doctor was questioned by Galveston police, Homeland Security, FBI, and the Coast Guard.  Carnival security officers took him and his luggage off the ship, leaving it on the pier, and his computer, luggage, and the cabin he had briefly occupied were all searched.

The various security agencies came to the conclusion that the doctor was blameless and in no way associated with what they decided was nothing more than a hoax.  Needless to say, nothing of concern was found in the doctor’s cabin, luggage, or computer.

But the captain of the ship exercised his discretion and refused to allow the doctor back on board, and the ship sailed without him on later that day.

The next day, apparently the captain had a change of mind and agreed to allow the doctor’s return.  Carnival offered to fly him to Montego Bay to rejoin the cruise.  The doctor, quite understandably, refused.

The captain issued an utterly insulting statement trying to justify his paranoia :

Since the safety and well-being of my guests and crew is my number one priority, every security threat is taken seriously and fully investigated.  It is for this reason that I felt it was in the best interest of all my guests to err on the side of caution and not allow him to set sail as planned.

‘I felt it was in the best interest of all my guests to err on the side of caution’ is an overly wordy phrase.  Better to simply say ‘I erred’ and spare us the sanctimonious drivel.

How nauseating it is to see, yet again, idiots hiding behind empty phrases to cover up their idiocy, and hoping us to be even greater idiots and to accept their excuses at face value rather than to see through them.

One also wonders how the hundreds of guests who signed up for the cruise to hear Dr Kruse speak felt about how the captain set his number one priority for their well-being.  Dr Kruse’s statement is on his website, here.

Someone Orders Suspected Terrorist Off JetBlue Flight – an 18 Month Old Baby

We say ‘someone’ because it is unclear exactly who ordered the 18 month infant off the JetBlue flight at Fort Lauderdale, or why.

A JetBlue employee approached the infant (and her parents) after they’d settled into their seats, waiting for the plane to push back, telling them the infant had to get off the plane so as to be interviewed by TSA agents.  They were indeed met by TSA agents and spent 30 minutes waiting in the terminal for no clear reason, before being told they could reboard their flight (which they then declined to do).

When a local television station contacted JetBlue to find out what happened, the airline said it was an issue to do with the TSA, and that JetBlue and the TSA were jointly investigating.  But when the tv station called the TSA, the TSA said it was nothing to do with them – the fact the family got through security with valid boarding passes meant they were TSA cleared (this is only half true as anyone who has been detained on the jetway for a ‘bonus’ extra inspection knows only too well).

So who did what and why?  Alas, we’ll probably never know.  Some details here.

And Lastly This Week…..

Lastly this week, I was sent a perennial favorite from a friend earlier this week.  In a desperate attempt at making this timeless video topical, I guess we could say that unlike the Titanic and the recent 100th anniversary of its sinking, this video is about a ship that didn’t sink.  Indeed, according to the person being interviewed, all that happened was that ‘the front fell off’.

If you enjoyed that video (and who could possibly not), or if you’ve seen it before, here’s another interview about another oil spill at sea, this time the Gulf of Mexico/BP problem.  And – I like these so much, here’s another one.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and may your own front not fall off






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