Weekly Roundup Friday 18 May 2012

Passengers the world over are now being punished for the shortcomings of the officers of the Concordia.

Good morning

We’ve an interesting mix of stories this week, and a couple of other articles added to the main week’s newsletter, too.

Good news for most of us with the countdown to next weekend’s Memorial Day travelfest – gas prices are dropping across most of the country – well, most places except here in the Pacific Northwest, where they are leaping upwards (average price now up to almost $4.30).

A shortage of operating refineries, apparently – perhaps Delta should have bought a refinery here rather than on the East Coast.

Please read on for items about :

  •  Southwest Slowdown
  • Virgin Atlantic Adds In-flight Cell Phone Service
  • Free-quent Flier Tickets No More
  • One Open, One Not
  • Cruise Lines Becoming More Like Airlines
  • Lies, Damn Lies, and Terrorist Statistics
  • Who Really Is That Man in the Blue Uniform?
  • The Least Likely Terrorist in the Country Gets a Full Pat-Down
  • New Payment System Boosts NY Cabbie Tips
  • And Lastly This Week….

Southwest Slowdown

In another sign that Southwest has lost its mojo/moxie/whatever, the airline announced it will defer the delivery of 30 additional 737s.  It is delaying the delivery of 20 planes formerly due to arrive in 2013 and of 10 more formerly due to arrive in 2014, in both cases for four years.

With a fleet expected to be about 692 planes at the end of this year, the 30 planes are not a huge percentage of their total fleet.  Ostensibly, the reason is to hold down costs and boost profitability, and to slow growth so that profits can catch up to a 15% return on invested capital.

Southwest’s growth – a very profitable growth, too, has historically been in two forms.  Either they grow the market as a whole, or they take share from other airlines.  Is Southwest now saying it can no longer grow the way it used to?  Can it no longer use the famed ‘Southwest effect’ to create new passengers in new markets where it starts service?  Or can it no longer take business from other airlines?

One wonders if there is an underlying element of good sense to this.  In 2017, the new 737-Max will probably be flying, and perhaps Southwest is hoping to avoid buying the last of the less fuel efficient planes and instead shift its orders to the new more fuel efficient 737-Max instead?  Boeing currently has a backlog of about 1530 737 orders, which at current production rates would take it up to four years to fill, and Southwest has 345 of the planes on order itself.

If Southwest allowed all those orders to be filled with current generation 737s, it would find itself at an enormous cost disadvantage as its competitors shifted to either the 737-Max or the competing A320neo, and with its higher than average labor costs, Southwest lives or dies by keeping its operating costs as low as possible.

This problem of being the last airline with old planes just as a new very much better plane is about to come out rarely happens.  Sure, there have been new models of planes in the past, particularly in the 737 series, but at this time where costs are now under true scrutiny by all airlines everywhere, and with fuel in particular such a defining element of overall operating costs, it must be a brave airline to choose to take the last of the old series plane, just as the production line is about to close and switch to newer better planes.

So some order shuffling is far from unexpected.

Virgin Atlantic Adds In-flight Cell Phone Service

Virgin Atlantic has become the first British airline to allow cellphone use on their flights, with passengers on their new A330s operating between London and New York to be the first to use the service.

The service will charge £1 ($1.58) per minute for phone calls and 20p for a text message.  Either six or ten calls simultaneously will be able to be placed (I’ve seen both numbers quoted).  Due to US FCC regulations, calls will only be allowed when planes are more than 250 miles from the US.

It is a strange thing how the US – once the world leader in the enthusiastic adoption of new technologies – has not been so pro-active on cell phone related matters.  We were one of the last countries to discover texting, and now we are slow to accept in-flight cellphone use, too.

Free-quent Flier Tickets No More

Here’s an interesting question.  When was the last time you redeemed your frequent flier miles for a free ticket?  When you think about it, most airlines no longer offer ‘free’ tickets, do they.  They offer ‘award’ tickets instead.

What is the difference?  The DoT have now cracked down on the slippery tendency of airlines to charge fees and other costs with the issuance of ‘free’ tickets.  Free means free, according to the DoT, and all airlines are now prohibited from charging anything at all (including government taxes) on a ticket they describe as free (presumably this means the airlines have to dig into their own pockets for the taxes).

In anticipation of this, the airlines have generally backed off calling the tickets they ‘give away’ as free.  Now they are referred to usually as award tickets – a name which implies free, but particularly in the despicable case of British Airways, can sometimes end up costing an amount comparable to a regular ticket.

One Open, One Not

Atlanta’s new international terminal and 12 extra gates officially opened this week, after four years of development.

You can build a house for about $100 per square foot, but at a cost of $1.4 billion for 1.2 million square feet, this airport terminal costs nearly twelve times as much.

I also note a growing trend.  It is not enough to just name a terminal after a politician, but increasingly, the terminal is being given the politician’s full name.

We’ve gone from the Tom Bradley International Terminal in Los Angeles, named after former Mayor Thomas J Bradley (I can’t even find what the ‘J’ stands for) to now the grandly named Maynard H Jackson jr International Terminal in Atlanta (named after a former Atlanta mayor).  I’ll give you a dollar for every time you hear someone (unrelated to the airport itself, that is) refer to it in full, if you’ll give me a penny for every time you hear it referred to in abbreviated form.

What is with this ever growing pomposity?  It seems the longer the name, the less important the person.  Everyone knows who Washington was.

Not such good news for Berliners, however.  The new Brandenburg airport’s opening, delayed already but due to occur on 3 June, has been delayed further until March 2013, due to problems meeting fire regulations.

Looks like someone forgot the fire extinguishers?

The new airport (code BER) will be replacing both Tegel and also adjacent Schoenefeld (primarily a budget airline airport), and is located 11 miles south of the city center in what was formerly East Germany.  The airport has a train station directly underneath, making for easy connections in to the city, and will become Germany’s third largest airport (after FRA and MUC).

Schoenefeld’s southern runway becomes the new airport’s northern runway.  Berlin’s historic Tempelhof airport has already closed (it did this in 2008), making the new airport a replacement for all three other airports.

The airport took ten years to get approval, and has been under construction since September 2006, with an original estimated opening of October 2011.  It will cost approximately €2.5 billion ($3.2 billion).

Cruise Lines Becoming More Like Airlines

There is a huge difference between cruise lines and airlines.  People go on cruises for the pleasure and enjoyment of cruising, whereas people endure flights as a necessary evil to get somewhere.

This has encouraged cruise lines to do a reasonably good job of keeping the cruise experience as positive as possible.  Although it is true that in some cases, cruising is almost a necessary evil, akin to flying – for example, how else would you see half a dozen different Caribbean destinations in a week, or how else would you travel through Alaska – for most of us, a cruise is a reasonably balanced mix of enjoying a positive shipboard experience and also enjoying the destinations the ship visits.

But, alas, killjoys lurk everywhere, even in cruise line head offices, just waiting for their opportunity to leap out and upset our otherwise enjoyable experiences.  And they now feel greatly empowered to assert themselves.

For the second time in the last few months, a cruiseline has ejected paying passengers from a cruise – in this case, a 90 year old man and his 84 year old wife, abandoning them on the wharf in Lisbon.  This time the cruise line was Seabourn, the previous time was with Holland America.

Their crime?  They didn’t want to participate in the boat drill.

Now, most of us have cruised, and many of us have done so many times.  We know two things.  The first is that a lifeboat drill is a useless joke.  All we do is get our lifejackets, go to a muster station, put on our lifejackets, and wait around for 5 – 10 minutes before going back to our cabins again.  If our muster station is on deck and the weather is bad, we don’t even go to our real muster station, we go somewhere warm and comfortable and dry instead.

The other thing we know is that if you’ve been to one lifeboat drill, you’ve been to them all.  There’s nothing special or unique about one drill compared to any other drill.

Most of all, we know that these drills do nothing at all to prepare us for the reality of actually abandoning ship should that dire emergency arise.  The lifeboat drill is a mix between a bit of meaningless ‘safety theater’ prescribed by various international maritime organizations, and a weak attempt at making it a fun experience and filling in some empty time on the cruise (complete with some well worn jokes from the captain or however the master of ceremonies is at such drills).

Assembling somewhere is the easiest part of abandoning ship.  The hard part becomes moving from there to a lifeboat, getting in the lifeboat, and having it lowered and safely settled into the sea.

Everyone knows that Costa rather convincingly lost a ship in January, and about 32 people died when it capsized.  The ship had not yet held a lifeboat drill since setting sail from Civitavecchia earlier in the day.

But did the passengers die because they had not been in a lifeboat drill?  Or did the passengers die due to the captain and many of his officers abandoning ship before they’d supervised getting the passengers off, leaving the Filipino stewards and kitchen workers to do the best they could to aid the passengers?

One could convincingly suggest that the passengers did a wonderful job of evacuating the ship, despite the lack of help from the ship’s officers.  If anyone needs more training now, surely it is the officers, not the passengers.

Cruise lines have done a brilliant bit of knee jerking in response to the Concordia mishap, but rather than tightening up on crew training, they have instead let their killjoys demand passengers must attend meaningless valueless lifeboat drills, even if they are 84 and 90 years old.

Forcing elderly frail people to attend such events, and stranding them on a wharf in Lisbon if they don’t, is presumably because ‘the comfort and safety of our passengers is our number one priority’.

At least the airlines don’t compel us to watch their safety drills at the start of each flight.  And, at least so far, noncompliant passengers are merely walked down the gangplank back to the wharf, rather than made to walk the plank, and plunge down into the shark infested waters below.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Terrorist Statistics

Here’s an interesting article that quotes unnamed ‘US officials’ as saying that every day, law enforcement and homeland security personnel have 55 encounters with known or suspected terrorists.

Wow.  Who knew that the ‘war against terror’ was being fought so actively, on a daily basis, right here in the US?

Except for one thing.  Guess how many of those 55 encounters, each day, result in arrests?  The anonymous officials weren’t quite so forthcoming about that.  ‘Very few’ was all they’d say.

So, let us understand this correctly.  Our police and other law enforcement agencies, of which there are so many these days, have 55 encounters every day with known or suspected terrorists, but only arrest ‘very few’ of them?  What happens to all the others?  Why aren’t they arrested, too?  Or at least held for questioning, then, once cleared, freed and never accosted again?

The answer to that question exposes the entire charade that underlies so much of the mega-billion dollar a year government growth industry that has become ‘the war on terror innocent citizens’.

A person who is a known terrorist should be immediate arrested, prosecuted, and presumably found guilty.  Either these 55 people a day (20,000 a year!) are terrorists, in which case they need to be arrested and have charges filed against them, or they’re not, in which case they should be free to go about their ordinary lives.  How is it that our law enforcement agencies are boasting about stopping 55 people a day for being a terrorist, but not then arresting them?

The truth is that most of these stops involve unfortunate ordinary people who have become trapped on one of the many lists of possible terrorists, and who can’t get their names off that list again, so are doomed to repeated encounters with the police.  As the article points out, our No-fly list has swollen from 4,000 to 20,000 names – in little more than two years!

Who Really Is That Man in the Blue Uniform?

Some people have problems getting their names off the No-fly and other terrorist lists.  But other people seem to have no problem keeping never getting their names on such lists in the first place.

Readers will know I’ve worried for some time about the risk that TSA employees – the same ones who all too often steal things out of our suitcases – might instead choose to put something in our suitcase (like a bomb) before loading it on a plane.

There has been a bit of an unspoken assumption – that TSA people are always ‘the good guys’, albeit an assumption regularly challenged by examples of them actually being slightly bad guys.  But at least they are not uniformed terrorists – or are they?

Some people, who have been intimately roughed up, might view them to be terrorists already – such ‘opinion leaders’ as Geraldo Rivera this week said ‘his junk was junked’ by a ‘manual rape’ at the hands of the TSA.

But at least the TSA are not mad Muslims seeking to blow up our planes.  Just because TSA employees have colluded with drug dealers to let the drug dealers pass briefcases of cocaine through security screening doesn’t mean they’d also collude with terrorists to slip briefcases full of explosives through screening, does it?

Well, maybe it might mean that.  The TSA’s Assistant Administrator, John Sammon, told a House Homeland Security Committee oversight hearing on Wednesday that they had no way of exactly knowing who all their employees actually truly are.  And the agency’s acting inspector general, Charles Edwards, said that the TSA inadequately investigates employee backgrounds, potentially missing signs that people might be dangerous or not even US citizens.

Here’s an interesting and alarming story about this.

The Least Likely Terrorist in the Country Gets a Full Pat-Down

Whether you like him or not, you’ll agree that one of the pre-eminent US statesmen of the last 50 years or more is surely Henry Kissinger.

He is a Nobel Peace prize winner (not that such an award means all that much these days), a Time Man of the Year, and a former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, holding both roles simultaneously for a while and serving under two Presidents.

He was involved in establishing the policy of detente with the Soviet Union, of opening up relations with China, and in negotiating the peace treaty with the Vietnamese.  Even though he is turning 89 in ten days time, his counsel and his contacts are still extremely valued by businessmen and diplomats the world over.

He was sighted by a freelance journalist this week while going through security at LaGuardia.  The TSA made this great man get up out of his wheelchair and submit to a full pat-down before they’d let him through.  Recognizing the senselessness of the police state we are becoming, he meekly submitted.

Can you think of anyone less likely to be a terrorist that Dr Kissinger?

The really sad thing about this?  Maybe the people at the airport didn’t recognize who they were terrorizing, but when TSA officials were asked to comment on the episode, their response (reported here) was “TSA screens approximately 1.7 million passengers per day and TSA officers strive to treat all passengers with care and respect.  There was no indication of anything out of the ordinary with Mr. Kissinger’s checkpoint experience”.

Yes, they think it sensible and proper that be be given a full pat down.

New Payment System Boosts NY Cabbie Tips

I’ve always felt a bit negative when receiving a bill in a restaurant that includes a prominently featured ‘suggested tip’ amount, shown, of course, purely for my ‘convenience’.

But apparently, some people respond very positively to such hints.  New York taxis are now fitting electronic touch-screen based credit card payment systems in their vehicles, and as part of the payment process, passengers are offered four options for tip amount :  30%, 25%, 20%, or a write in amount of the passenger’s choosing.

Apparently the average tip with normal payment methods for a NY cabbie is 11%.  With the new system, it has increased to 22%.

I was a little surprised that the average tip was formerly only 11%, but I’m now stunned it has doubled to 22%.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week…..

Here’s a hotdog that probably won’t be used in the annual Famous Nathan’s 4 July Coney Island hotdog eating competition (world record = 68 in ten minutes in case you wondered).

But for the funniest thing this week, watch the share price of the Friday listing of Facebook.  Up or down, either way, it is the strangest thing I’ve seen since the last dot-com bomb.  Our economy can’t be that bad if so many people are willing to spend so much money on shares of Facebook.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 18 May 2012”

  1. Dean Vanderbilt

    What is going on at the new Atlanta International Terminal. Delta is using it with separate, improved dropoff/pickup, better luggage handling (which is horrible in the old terminals particularly for people whose destination is Atlanta), and other pluses. HOWEVER, Air Tran is NOT using the new terminal but is still at the old one. Why?????

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