Weekly Roundup Friday 12 October 2012

Europe’s historic towns are at their prettiest when they dress themselves for Christmas.

Good morning

Was the newsletter hacked by the Koreans last week?  And if so, would it have been the North or South Koreans who did the hacking?  Whatever the reason, a strange error crept into the two links I provided last week to the first part of this year’s tour diary and to details of next year’s tour.

Of course, it was probably nothing more sinister than something silly I did myself!

Anyway, the trip diary has now been completed and if you couldn’t get to it last week, you can get to it here, now (I hope!).  And here’s the starting off point for lots of information about the 2013 tour to North Korea, too.

Also featured this week is an article on a new $13 eBook eReader that is expected to come out in the US next month, and some comments about which is the best eReader for you to choose.  There have been so many new tablets and eReaders announced over the last month or two (and let’s not forget the widely expected Apple announcement of a new mini iPad, to be announced probably next week) that the field is becoming even more complicated and filled with choices than ever before.

The good news is that all of your options are amazingly inexpensive, so nothing you choose is likely to be too serious a mistake – except, that is, for the investment you’re then going to be making in the eBooks that are matched to your choice of eReader.

May I also draw your attention to the opening item in this week’s roundup, immediately below.  It is now 13 months since our last annual fundraising drive.  Please do choose to respond generously and help The Travel Insider continue for another year.

There’s lots more, of course, this week the same as every week; including items on :

  • 2012 Annual Fundraising Drive – Please Help Out
  • Christmas Markets Cruise – Going….
  • Naughty BA
  • Qantas Places a Bet ‘Each Way’
  • A(n airline) Rose by Any Other Name
  • Still More On Electric Taxiing For Airplanes
  • The Safest Seats on a Plane?
  • China’s New Super-Airport
  • National Car Rental Doesn’t Know What Changes it Made to its Terms and Conditions
  • Amtrak on a Roll
  • Restaurants to Charge More at Peak Times?
  • Your Legal Rights to Resell Anything You Buy Are Under Attack
  • The TSA – A Spoiled Child Who Refuses to Accept No?
  • Naughty People in Airport Wheelchairs
  • And Lastly This Week…..

 2012 Annual Fundraising Drive – Please Help Out

For more than eleven years now, and with only a very few weeks of silence, each week has seen a Travel Insider newsletter sent to your email inbox, and usually one or more companion feature articles published, too.  A typical year sees more than a quarter million words of new material given to you, on a huge range of topics, some of which inform, entertain and amuse you, others of which advise and assist you, and some of course save you money and add greatly to your effective, efficient and enjoyable travel experiences.

All of this is freely given to everyone.  But, in return, we rely on your voluntary assistance, in a PBS type funding model, to keep the lights on and the servers powered up.  So once each year (ie right now) we ask you to please electronically reach into your back pocket and reciprocally respond, if you at all can conveniently afford to do so (if you can’t, that’s perfectly okay, and please keep enjoying our work, each week, and completely guilt-free).

To put it as directly as I can, I rely on your support to continue this work.  Writing The Travel Insider is my full-time job and I need to get something close to a full-time income to make it viable.  With your help, this has proved possible for the past eleven years – please will you help out again now to see us move forward for another year.

People who choose to help typically contribute anything from $5 up to, well, embarrassingly more than $500.  Most people are in the $20 – $50 range, and if you get into three figures, you become a ‘super supporter’ although achieving this is more an appellation and a personal feel-good than it is anything much more tangible.  Inevitably, most people don’t help out at all, so the happy reality is that any amount you give is much appreciated and very helpful, and even if you help out at the lower end of the scale, you are still doing your fair share and more so than most others.

How much do you pay to buy a single issue of USA Today, or a coffee?  Is your weekly helping of The Travel Insider similarly valuable?  I truly hope so!  Even if you don’t multiply some notional weekly value equivalent by 52 to get an annual contribution, it may give you a measuring stick to work from.

I can easily accept credit cards, either via Paypal or directly, and of course, checks in the mail or any other form of support works too.  Some people choose to avail themselves of a monthly or quarterly automatic contribution system through Paypal, and you can do this or make a one time contribution, any which way you choose.

Please would you now go to this page and select how, and how much you’ll help.  Many thanks indeed for keeping The Travel Insider alive.

Christmas Markets Cruise – Going….

Are you thinking about joining our lovely 2012 Christmas Markets Cruise along the Danube this December?  This perennial favorite of readers and me alike is currently available with a huge $1000 per person saving off the regular prices (and an even bigger saving if you’re traveling as a single), but to qualify for the saving, you’ve got to get your payment in by Wednesday 31 October.

There’s truly no better value for a Christmas Market cruise this year, especially with the added value Travel Insider inclusions (in particular, a free side tour to Salzburg), so please do quickly get your dates and arrangements sorted out and choose to come join us for this cruise.

Naughty BA

The US DoT has stung British Airways with a quarter million dollar fine for what it describes as ‘deceptive and unacceptable’ passenger treatment.

The specific matters that aroused the DoT’s ire were to do with price advertising (a matter which your very own Travel Insider shared directly with the DoT in the early stages of their investigation) and the way BA handled claims for lost and damaged bags.

More details here.  But you’ll search far and wide – and as best I can tell, fruitlessly – to see any BA response or apology.

Qantas Places a Bet ‘Each Way’

Heads, they’ll win, and tails, they’ll not lose?  That seems to be what Qantas is hoping for (and don’t we all!).

A couple of weeks ago, Qantas announced a major new strategic alliance with Emirates.  Emirates does not belong to any of the major airline global alliances, whereas Qantas is a founding member of the Oneworld alliance, and in choosing a new strategic partnership with Emirates, it would seem that QF was turning its back on its former ‘best friend’, British Airways, and its former route sharing arrangements with BA.

So the Emirates deal sort of gave Qantas a bit of both – a new alliance with Emirates plus also some remaining value-adds with BA.

This week, news has come out about a new Oneworld airline – the alliance is now being joined by Qatar Airways.  Qatar Airways is of course a major competitor to Emirates, and is another of the UAE region ‘super carriers’ (Etihad being the third).  Qatar Airways is based in Doha, Emirates in Dubai, and Etihad in Abu Dhabi, three cities all very close to each other (Dubai and Abu Dhabi are 80 miles apart, and Doha is 190 miles from Abu Dhabi).

In addition to Qantas’ current flights to London, connecting on to flights with former best friend BA (or its flights to Singapore and BA connections from there), and it new flights both to Dubai to connect with its soon-to-be new best friend, Emirates, it will be interesting to see if Qantas will also add flights to Doha to connect with its soon-to-be alliance partner, Qatar Airways.  How do fellow alliance members BA and Qatar feel about competing for Qantas’ flow-on business?  And how do they both feel about Qantas’ relationship with Emirates, an arch-competitor of both BA and Qatar (and until its joining forces, an arch-competitor of Qantas, too)?

Is this what competition has become?  A one-time world-class airline – Qantas – once with its own free-standing network and competing against all the other airlines; now allying with not just one or two but three of the very few remaining competitors remaining out there?  Of course, it isn’t just Qantas that does this.  Tell me a single airline that isn’t keen to ally with as many competitors as possible.  Even Emirates, now the world’s largest international airline, and famous for its disdain of the three major global alliances, is keen to create tactical one on one alliances.

Here’s the million dollar question :  What is the ‘enemy’ the airlines allying with each other against?  Could it be us, their passengers?

A(n airline) Rose by Any Other Name

Talking about Qantas, it finds itself in the uncomfortable position of being a 46% shareholder, alongside the Fijian government (with 51%) in Fiji’s flag carrier, Air Pacific.  I say ‘uncomfortable position’ because with 46%, Qantas has a massive vested interest in the airline, but with the Fijian government being increasingly assertive and having 51%, Qantas’ ability to manage its investment is somewhat constrained.  Qantas has tried to sell its shares to the Fijian government, but they are unable to agree on a price, and meantime the Fijian government has shifted the odds in its favor by passing a decree that strips Qantas of most of its influence over Air Pacific (details here).

Air Pacific had its worst ever loss for the 2009/2010 year, a small loss for 2010/2011, and now a small profit in 2011/2012.

The airline has decided to change its name, reverting back to the name it formerly had until 1951, Fiji Airways.  Exactly how this will benefit the airline is unclear, but it will happily make its airline code (FJ) more immediately intuitive.  And doubtless Qantas hopes it might encourage someone to take the shares it no longer wants from them.

There’s no doubt that the airline’s 2011/2012 result is a positive achievement for its new CEO, but it truly is puzzling why the sole airline of a nation feels the need to change its name and lose much of the ‘brand equity’ it has built up over the last 71 years under its previous name.

Still More On Electric Taxiing For Airplanes

I’ve written, the last couple of weeks, about the concept of airlines being towed around on the ground by tugs, rather than by using their own jet engines.  Massive savings in fuel, engine maintenance, and also a major reduction in the potential for engine damage by sucking in debris off the taxi ways would all follow.

A reader sent in this article about another form of ‘built-in’ electric motors for planes to power themselves on the ground with.  It makes some interesting points, but I can’t help noticing that the 13% or so fuel saving that would be experienced with an external tug moving the plane is reduced to a mere 2% – 4% saving with a built in electric propulsion system.

The Safest Seats on a Plane?

One of the big questions that some people ponder is where the safest seats are on a plane?  The two leading schools of thought seem to be either over the wing (where the plane is most strongly built) or in the rear.

I’ve written on the subject myself as part of my four-part series on how to survive a plane crash – the surprisingly good news is that most passengers survive most plane crashes, no matter where they are seated.

The Discovery Channel has just completed a controlled crash of an old 727 in the desert, and their findings with crash dummies clearly showed a gradation in survivability, with the least survivable seats being in the front and a steady increase in survivability the further back in the plane the test dummies were located.

But before you all go relinquishing your first class seats and swapping them with me for my middle seat in row 87, you should realize this is just one single set of results, and as best I can tell, the plane was set to crash into the ground in a fairly steep nose-first angle.  While it is true that this is indeed what sometimes happens, it is also true that airplane crashes are often marked by the plane landing more or less on an even keel, plus or minus 5 degrees or so.

The most consistent answer I’ve seen to ‘what is the safest seat’ is ‘The closer you are to an emergency exit, the more likely you are to survive’.  The key variable is not so much the impact, as it is speedily evacuating the plane as soon as it is possible to do so.

China’s New Super-Airport

I’ve hardly finished raving about the wonders of Beijing Capital Airports amazing new Terminal 3, when news comes out about a completely new additional airport to be built in Beijing.  The reality is that as nice as the new Terminal 3 is at Beijing Capital Airport (PEK), the airport itself is at close to the maximum number of flights it can handle.  It is not so much constrained by lack of terminal space now, as it is by lack of runways (it has three) and other ground infrastructure.  PEK handled 79 million passengers in 2011.

So the city has announced plans to build a new airport; this time to be located south of the city (PEK is to the north-east).  PEK with its three runways and 80 million plus passenger capacity will remain in place, and this new airport will have nine runways (eight regular plus one reserved exclusively for military use) and the capacity to handle an easy 130 million passengers a year.

The airport, at Daxing, is expected to be open in a short five years time (ie late 2017).  It will be bigger than Heathrow and JFK – combined!

More details here.

National Car Rental Doesn’t Know What Changes It Made to Its Terms and Conditions

Reader Tom recently got notification from National Car Rental that it had changed the terms and conditions applicable to his Emerald Club membership.  National helpfully sent him a copy of the complete new terms and conditions, covering 43 pages.

Unlike some other situations where we all sometimes receive notices of changes from companies we have relationships with, which include a summary of what the changes are, there was no explanation of what had changed.  Tom didn’t really want to have to play a game of ‘spot the difference’ between the old and new terms, nor did he want to have to read 43 pages of legal fine print to find the carefully obscured ‘Gotcha!’ issues.  So he emailed their Customer Service asking them what the changes were.

The reply back was surprising.  Although some changes were listed and sensibly explained, the email reply opened with the statement

 I do not have a list of all of the changes to the Emerald Club Agreement, but here is a brief description of some of the changes that may impact the rental terms.

I’d like to see a case argued that sending a 43 page statement of all terms and conditions without clearly detailing which ones had changed is not fair and proper notice, and that therefore, companies can’t infer constructive/passive acceptance of their changes.

Companies should be required to list the changes made to such ridiculously lengthy agreements.

Amtrak on a Roll

It is way too easy to criticize Amtrak, and the government’s lofty but utterly impossible plans to magically create a high-speed rail network, albeit without providing even 1% of the funding that such a network would require.

The reality is that Amtrak does about as good a job as is possible when you consider it owns very little of its own track and instead has to play second fiddle to freight railroads who dislike sharing their lines with passenger trains and have no need or interest in upgrading their track to support faster speed trains; has insufficient rolling stock and locomotives and not enough money to repair and maintain the equipment it does have; and way too little capital budget for essential capital works programs.  Amtrak’s problems, such as they undoubtedly are, are not all of its own making.

Good news this week for Amtrak, with the release of its 2011/2012 report.  The railroad is reporting its ninth increase in year on year passenger numbers in the last ten years, and set a new all-time record for passengers carried.  Unfortunately the total passengers carried (31.2 million, a 3.5% increase on the previous year) is still a mere drop in the bucket compared to airline passengers carried (650 million a year) or personal vehicle trips.

The increases were not only on the short regional lines and the fast north-east corridor, they were also on every one of Amtrak’s 15 long-distance routes too.

Since 2000, Amtrak passenger numbers have increased 49%.  That’s not a big number, but it is certainly better than a decrease.  Maybe the government should stop talking up high-speed rail, something it will never actually develop unless it is willing to ante up the hundreds of billions of dollars that would be required, and instead invest a moderate amount of money on improving Amtrak’s less glamorous but functional low-speed services.

Details of Amtrak’s latest results here.

Restaurants to Charge More at Peak Times?

Here’s a concept that is almost certain to become commonplace, and which has been half-implemented already, without restaurants even consciously realizing what they are doing.

According to this story, some New York restaurants are looking at charging more to patrons wishing to dine at the most popular times (although one restaurant owner makes the startling suggestion that he would be happy to charge less at the most popular times, which perhaps explains why so many restaurants go broke each year).

If you think about it, we have already seen this happen with airline ticket prices and hotel rooms.  Before deregulation, there were only two or three prices for all tickets, and it isn’t all that long ago that every room in a hotel sold for almost the exact same price on every night.  Now airfares are of course all over the chart, depending on the airline’s perception of where on the supply/demand curve a flight is, and hotels have a variety of rates for midweek, weekend, special events, and so on.

Why shouldn’t restaurants charge more when there is a line of people an hour-long waiting to get in?  They already have discounts – happy hour pricing, Groupon deals, whatever – to bring people in at slow times, why not continue to adjust pricing based on demand levels?

Some restaurants also give you a fixed amount of time to eat when you arrive, another concept that can certainly be developed further too.

Just imagine the great smart phone app that could be developed – providing you realtime information on nearby restaurants and their time of day pricing.

Our prediction – with or without the smart phone app assistance – is that the ‘old fashioned’ situation where you pay the same price for your food at any time of the day or night, and can stay in the restaurant as long as you like, irrespective of how much money you spend – will soon enough seem as laughably simplistic as the idea that an airline would sell all the seats on its flight at the same price.

You read it here, first!

Your Legal Rights to Resell Anything You Buy Are Under Attack

Let’s start off with the good news, first.  A slowly evolving case is now being heard about whether you can resell the digital music you have lawfully purchased and downloaded yourself.  Although you can resell CDs and other ‘hard copy’ type versions of music and other things (but keep on reading….) there is confusion about our rights when it comes to digital music we download.

Why should our rights be any different for digital copies of music than for hard copies?  The glib answer put forward by the music studios is because it is easier for us to cheat and keep copies of MP3 tracks on our computers and to unlawfully sell copies of the data many times over.

There is some truth to that assertion, of course, but is the answer to ban outright all sales under all conditions?  Should honest people suffer due to the actions of dishonest people (who probably won’t be constrained by any additional layers of legislation prohibiting what is already an illegal act, anyway)?  The question gets particular focus when asked by the company ReDigi, which claims to load software onto your computer that prevents you from keeping and/or reselling, multiple times, the music you’ve bought and might possibly own.

In any event, as anyone with even the slightest amount of computer literacy surely knows, it is very simple to copy a CD as many times as we might choose to.  Why should our ownership of digital music be any less complete than our ownership of other forms of music.

This case could lead to similar rulings on our ability to lawfully resell downloaded eBooks, too.  Let’s hope for a positive outcome.  More details, here.

Now, alas, for the bad news.  The US Supreme Court is to hear a case later this month which, for anything we own which was made abroad (these days, alas, that means almost everything), would require us to get permission from the company that made the thing we had earlier ourselves purchased somewhere in the US and now wished to sell, prior to offering it for sale, whether it be sold through a yard sale, CraigsList, or however else we wished to sell it.

At present, the case has made it through an Appellate Court which agreed with the lower court that yes, we do need to get the permission of the original manufacturer of anything we’ve bought before we can sell it again.

That strikes me as so far beyond crazy as to be beyond measure or description.  It overturns the country’s totally accepted normal practice that dates back probably as long as we ever had stuff from overseas to buy and resell.

How did such a bit of nonsense get as far as the US Supreme Court?  As always, the motivating fact is money.  An enterprising university student from Thailand, studying at Cornell, discovered he could buy his textbooks from Thailand for appreciably less money than he could buy the same books in the US.  So he not only bought his own text books, but also bought a few more to resell for a profit to his fellow students.

How many more is a few more?  The student admits to making upwards of $1.2 million profit from reselling textbooks bought in Thailand on eBay!  So the book publisher, John Wiley & Sons, has brought the action, seeking to protect its ‘right’ to gouge US students and to prohibit people from lawfully buying the same books elsewhere in the world and shipping them to the US and selling them for major profits, as compared to Wiley’s own rip-off pricing.

Appallingly, both the initial court decision and the appellate review found that the US ‘first sale doctrine’ (which says that a copyright holder’s rights only extend to the first sale, not beyond that) do not cover things made outside the US.

It is hard to know just how wide-reaching an effect there would be if the Supreme Court upholds the lower courts’ rulings (by which I mean its impacts would exceed our wildest imaginings).  Here is an excellent two page article which talks about just a few of the unintended consequences.

As for me, I’m appalled and dismayed that the two lower courts found the way they did.  Where is common sense?

The TSA – A Spoiled Child Who Refuses to Accept No?

Talking about laws and common sense, there’s a sadly obvious segue to the opposite and to this week’s security horror story.

One of the problems with our legal system at present is that all too often, it is the ‘bad’ people who have the deepest pockets and who can push lawsuits as far as necessary until they get the answer they seek.  This is sometimes the case with commercial law, such as evidenced in the preceding case, and alas it is also the case with criminal law and anything else where it is the government vs the people it is supposed to serve.  The government functionaries have no personal sanction surrounding their shameful waste of public funds fighting lawsuits that should never be fought.

You want an example?  It just so happens I have one.  Read this story about an unjustifiable TSA action back in 2010 where the TSA, the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department are still claiming they acted perfectly appropriately in a situation that any reasonable person could instantly perceive to be quite the opposite.

The website/blog the story appears on is excellent, by the way.  If time allows, go roaming around it some more.

Naughty People in Airport Wheelchairs

I’ve commented in the past at how some people seem to shamelessly exploit Disney’s willingness to let wheelchair bound people – and everyone else in their sometimes very large groups – go immediately to the front of any line for any ride, and have noted how some of the wheelchair occupants show few signs of being habitually wheelchair bound (ie they are in park rental wheelchairs rather than their own, for one thing).

Apparently such malarkey (to quote a word from Thursday’s VP debate that quickly became – for a short while – the most searched term on Google) doesn’t only go on in amusement parks.  Here’s an interesting story with amusing examples of passengers at airports wishing to board their flight early, (and/or speeding through security) and doing so via a wheelchair.

It does bring up an interesting thought, though.  If you’re in a wheelchair, there’s no way you’ll be sent through an X-ray machine…..

And Lastly This Week…..

Winning some sort of award for taking themselves way too seriously has to be the Rome City Council, which will now fine tourists up to €500 (US$650) if they are found eating around the monuments in the city’s historical center.  Yes, eating.

Apparently a similar ban applies in St Mark’s Square, Venice.  Details here.

And here’s a story full of unnecessary moral outrage about a slightly naughty joke to do with Virgin Airlines – the airline (and its founder) that you know just calls out for no end of jokes related to its name.  To slightly retell the joke, it relates to something that used to also be termed the British Rail method – for good purpose, their trains would sometimes pull out early.

Truly lastly this week, may I repeat my earlier request to please consider supporting The Travel Insider by sending in whatever you feel to be an appropriate contribution as your part of this year’s annual fundraising drive.  Thank you.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 12 October 2012”

  1. I use a wheel chair at specific airports. I can not walk for a long distance nor can I stands for a long time.
    At the end of a flight I need to stretch my legs to relieve the pain I experience after a flight, and therefore meet the person who is pushing the wheel chair at the top of the ramp.

    If I am departing or returning to an airport that is small, I do not need a wheel chair. A specific airport in this case would be Stewart Airport, Newburgh, NY.

    After reading your article I can understand why some people would see this as abusing the system.



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