Weekly Roundup Friday 16 November 2012

Our Annual Fundraiser has now ended – but we’ll still gratefully accept contributions!

Good morning

Our 2012 Annual Fundraising Drive has finished its formal appeal, but may I hasten to point out – we accept your support 24/7/365, and if you’ve overlooked responding this year so far, you still can help out by simply clicking this link.

With a poor sense of timing, I actually overhauled the ‘How to Support The Travel Insider‘ page just a couple of days ago, hopefully making it easier and clearer for you to choose to help out, and requiring no more than a minute or two of your time.

At this point, we count 524 supporters for our 2012 Reader Support Drive; a little down on last year’s count of 545, which had been our target for this year too.  Another 21 responses would really end the drive on a high note….

We had plenty more Super Supporters step forward in the last week, and special thanks to them for their extremely generous three digit levels of support :

Bill C, Duncan T, Joe B, Tom M, Jinny M, John McM, John S, Melanie W, Alex S, Marty S, Allen H, Willie S, Peter K, Charlie K, Phil S, Steve W, Beverly B, Philip A, Lynn L and Martin F.

My sincere thanks to everyone who helped out this year.  Your support really does help The Travel Insider continue forwards.  And if you’ve yet to respond this year, your help is still absolutely welcomed (and, alas, definitely needed).

What else this week?  How about more on airplane toilets?  Last week’s piece was popular, drew some interesting comments, and even got me a radio interview, and so as a follow-up piece (I could say ‘my number two piece’ but that might be misunderstood) there’s an extra article following the Roundup that attempts to track the evolving ratio of toilets to seats, from the dawn of the jet age through to the 13 different cabin configurations on the latest A380s.

Some of what I found surprised me.  The airlines that are often perceived as being the ‘best’ sometimes have among the worst toilet/seat ratios, whereas little appreciated airlines come near the top.  And Aeroflot wins dual prizes for being one of the world’s best and simultaneously one of the world’s worst airlines for toilet/seat proportions.

A related request.  If you have, or can point me to, scans of older airplane seat maps, it would be very interesting to add further to the already extensive table of airplanes, airlines, and configurations.

As is the case almost every week of every year since 2001, there’s a lot more good stuff in this week’s newsletter, including pieces on :

  • Which Airline Flies to the Most Countries?
  • A Looming – But Selective – Pilot Shortage
  • US Airways Flight Attendants Say ‘First Things First’
  • This Week’s Least Surprising Headline
  • The EU Blinks
  • China’s Steadily Growing Airplane Manufacturing Industry
  • Another UsingMiles.com Enhancement
  • An Unexpected and Unfortunate Place to Find MRSA and other ‘Super-Bugs’
  • A Policeman Takes Issue with Airport Security Searches
  • More Unexpected Consequences of Being on the No-Fly List
  • Bomb Sniffing – Mice?
  • Funny Math from the TSA
  • And Lastly This Week….

Which Airline Flies to the Most Countries?

Which airline flies to more countries than any other airline?  And how many countries does it fly to?

The answer will surprise you.  I’ll partially answer it now, and a bit of inspired Googling might get you to the answer.  Otherwise, I’ll tell you next week, or if you’re a Travel Insider Supporter, ask me and I’ll tell you right away.  🙂

The airline now flies to 205 destinations in 90 countries, having added 30 in this year alone.  It just this week added its 200th airplane (a 737-900) and has plenty more planes of all sizes on order, and plans to order another 100 more.

However, although the airline flies to more countries than any other carrier, the chances are that you’ve probably never flown on it.  At least, not yet.

Needless to say, the airline isn’t American.  But neither is it European, at least not as how most people define Europe.

A Looming – But Selective – Pilot Shortage

An article in the Wall St Journal earlier this week worked the numbers and calculated that the aviation industry will need to hire another 65,000 pilots over the next eight years.  So what, you might ask?

Well, the thing is that in the last eight years, the industry only had 36,000 pilots come on stream, and so there are some concerns as to how possible it will be to create 65,000 new pilots in the next eight years.

These types of predictions are nothing new, and are often gleefully seized upon by pilots’ unions as a reason why they need to be paid more.  It is definitely true that entry-level pilots at regional carriers make only slightly better salaries than hamburger flippers, but when the pilots claim more money is needed to bring in more pilots, somehow they lose sight of the fact that senior pilots at major US airlines still can make the high side of $200,000 a year plus benefits for a job that involves less than half of each month flying.

By all means let’s do something about the $20,000 entry-level salaries.  But the $200k salaries?  I’m not so sure that’s part of the problem.

Here’s the WSJ story.

There’s another part to the story too, told by pilot blogger Patrick Smith, who points out that how a solution will unfold.  Furloughed pilots will be brought back to work, pilots who took work offshore will return to the US, and in general, his conclusion is that there will continue to be, as at present, one hundred applicants for each new pilot job.

When you consider that it only takes a couple of years for a person who has never flown to be qualified to work for a major carrier, even with the new stricter qualifying requirements and increased minimum hours of flying time, and of course there is at any given moment a large pool of people somewhere along the line towards being qualifiable as a commercial pilot; whether Smith is correct or not, any problems are likely to be short-term rather than long-term.

US Airways Flight Attendants Say ‘First Things First’

The merger talk between US Airways and American Airlines continues at what I fear may be an unstoppable pace – of course it would not be a merger that would benefit any of us, and for that matter, is unlikely to be of much benefit to either US or AA either.  In other words, its execution and approval is sadly all but assured.

However, not all affected groups are delighted at the thought.  In particular, the US Airways flight attendants are unhappy, and are threatening ‘sudden strikes’ unless US Airways finally finishes sorting out the remaining mess from when it was merged with America West, some seven years earlier.

Yes, US Airways now wants to merge with AA, but it still hasn’t finished sorting through all the consequential issues from its earlier merger with American West.

More details here.

This Week’s Least Surprising Headline

‘Passengers are fed up with airlines’ hefty fees’ reads the headline of this article.  Are you surprised?  You certainly shouldn’t be – the article goes on to explain that 94% of passengers are unhappy not just with the fees, but the inadequate disclosure of them.

The ability to avoid full disclosure is one of the huge big attractions to the airlines of charging fees.  They have managed to destroy a lot of the marketplace transparency and ability for travelers to conveniently shop different airlines, while also enabling airlines to ostensibly show enticing fares but to then trick you into paying more than you ever thought you would.

Want an example?  Say you are traveling from Los Angeles to New York, and you want to know how much it will cost for you, your 60lb suitcase, your 20 lb carry-on, and your briefcase to travel.  You want to pre-reserve an aisle seat, you want to eat a meal and have a (non-alcoholic) drink on the flight, and depending on the cost, you might want to use the internet as well.

You’ve noticed several airlines offering fares for about $350.  You want to pay for the ticket by credit card, and will print out a boarding pass for the outbound flight before leaving home in Los Angeles, but will need to print out a return boarding pass at the airport for the journey back.  You don’t have elite frequent flier privileges with any of them.

But what will be the real true cost of the journey?  Would it be cheaper if you repacked your suitcase into two smaller suitcases, each weighing 30 lb?  You’re not sure whether the return journey will see your suitcase still at 60lbs, or maybe down to 45lb, because you have some gifts you’ll leave behind – what will that do to the fare, and should you prepay for the luggage or not.

There’s also a 50/50 chance you might need to change your return flight, so you want to know about the change fee cost, too.  Or should you pay for a higher fare up front with a lower change fee?

How long will it take you to work through all the different possible add-ons and variations of that fairly normal scenario, on say four different carriers?  I’d guess 5 – 10 minutes per airline – you’re looking at half an hour to an hour of extra research just to get a true picture of what it will actually cost you to do a simple roundtrip flight to New York.

Compare that to the good old days, less than a decade ago.  You could check up to two suitcases, each weighing up to 70lb, for free, and you could take both the carry-on and briefcase on board for free, too.  Seats could be pre-reserved for free, and both meals and drinks were included.

There were never surcharges for using credit cards, and never surcharges for having boarding passes printed at the airport, or for calling to speak to an agent.  Change fees were sometimes zero, and otherwise, minimal.

Airline fees are totally out of control.  While airlines necessarily should be allowed to charge whatever they wish for anything at all, they equally necessarily must be compelled to make such fees readily comprehended and easily understood.  Hello, DoT!  Are you listening?

The EU Blinks

I’ve been observing bemusedly (and regularly commenting on) the slow motion train wreck that has been the building confrontation between the EU and the rest of the world over the EU’s attempts to unilaterally impose EU taxes on foreign airlines if they should fly to or from the EU.

The threatened loss of billions of dollars of airplane orders by Airbus merely stiffened the righteous indignation and moral high ground claimed by the EU politicians, who found the opportunity to tax non-EU businesses, and to cloak it as a climate-saving tax, no less, to be irresistibly appealing.

But after a game of ‘Chicken’ with the EU and the rest of the world rushing headlong at each other, the EU has been the first to blink and to swerve away.

Of course, this is a political blink, which means that it is likely to come back again unexpectedly at any minute.  But, for now, they’ve backed off imposing their taxes on our airlines and our flights/tickets.  Bravo.  Details here.

China’s Steadily Growing Airplane Manufacturing Industry

It is treacherously easy for us to forget, as we fly about the western skies in our Boeing or Airbus planes, that the most rapidly growing part of the aviation marketplace is over in China, a country which way too many people still think of as being full of impoverished communist peasants cycling to work in drab Mao suits.

China is expected to need to buy almost 5,000 new airplanes over the next 20 years.  Great news for Airbus and Boeing?  Actually, no.

This $563 billion of airplane orders is encouraging China to move steadily forward in developing its own airplanes, and unlike the Russian airplane manufacturing industry, which has struggled and never succeeded at regaining its footing subsequent to the fall of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, the Chinese airplane industry is positively moving forward.

China’s Comac airplane manufacturer has now rung up orders for 380 of its new C-919 airplane.  The C-919 is expected to take to the air for the first time in 2014 and to be flying commercially two years after that.  It is a direct competitor of the small and medium-sized A320 and 737 planes, and Comac has plans to come out with new stretched and shrunk models to extend its appeal further, and hopes to win more than 50% of all narrow body airplane orders in China into the future.  ‘More than 50%’ is probably a polite way of saying ‘95%’.

Whether 50% or 95%, that’s for sure a lot of lost business for Airbus and Boeing.  More to the point, who’s to say that Comac is only interested in its domestic market?  It is definitely true that with the strong participatory role of the Chinese government, it definitely enjoys a home team advantage in China such as to make a 95% market share quite achievable.  But after a few years of experience locally, there’s every reason to expect it to seek to advance further through regions where China is influential, and on further all the way into the home territory of Airbus and Boeing too.

Even if Airbus and Boeing manage to fight off the incursion of Comac (and potentially other Chinese airplane manufacturers), the cost of doing so will be dire.  The cosy duopoly between Airbus and Boeing has allowed both companies to sell airplanes at high margins and for high profits.  If they both have to respond to a new lower priced competitor, they’ll have to drop their prices to do so.

And what about other model planes?  Wide-bodied planes?  Will China be content with ceding those very valuable parts of the market to the US and EU, even as it demonstrates its ability to compete effectively in the single-aisle category?

I still remember the mild apprehension and surprise many of us felt the first time we stepped onto an Airbus plane.  ‘If it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going’ was the catch-cry, particularly here in the Seattle area, a couple of decades ago.  Nowadays, we think nothing of whether the plane is Airbus or Boeing – I always ask friends ‘so what was the plane you flew in on’ when I’m meeting them at the airport, and much/most of the time, the answer is ‘I don’t know’ (together with an unstated ‘and I don’t care either’).

A similar thing has happened with Japanese cars – once thought unchangeably inferior to American and European cars and now their equal or superior; more recently, Korean cars have also changed from nasty things best avoided to high quality respected good value cars.  How long before we find ourselves commonly and calmly flying on Chinese planes?

Another UsingMiles.com Enhancement

When I reviewed the UsingMiles.com website and loyalty program tracking service, I advised they expected to release an Android mobile app in November.  That has now been done, making the service even more convenient for when you’re ‘on the road’.  An iOS app remains expected in December, too.

It is also interesting to note that three weeks ago, UsingMiles supported 210 different loyalty programs.  A week ago, that number had grown to over 236 programs now integrated into their system, and they are continuing to add more every day.  As I said when reporting on a new user interface last week, this service is visibly growing and getting better on almost a daily basis (and it was already good to start with!).

Travel Insider Supporters get a lifetime membership to UsingMiles for free (as long as you contribute more than $15 to The Travel Insider this year).  You can still contribute and qualify for the free lifetime membership (which normally costs $30 every year) – that’s one heck of a deal for one heck of a service; and one which keeps getting better.

Here’s my earlier review.

An Unexpected and Unfortunate Place to Find MRSA and other ‘Super-Bugs’

Canada’s popular investigative television show, Marketplace, took on hotels and their hygiene standards in a recent series.

Now we all vaguely know of past exposes that have shown hotel maids (you know, the people who some of us like to tip as much as $20/day to) using the same cloth to first wipe the toilet bowl then the drinking mugs in hotel rooms in the US, so it should come as no real shock to discover that such practices go on north of the border, too.

But work your way through some of the sub-articles linked from this page to discover more of the truly scary contamination issues the program and its microbiologist tester discovered, including the MRSA and C. difficile potentially lethal bacteria – and in five-star hotels as well as seedy dives.

Alas, just as the practice of cleaning glasses with toilet rags has made its way north from the US to Canada, we can expect that the conditions encouraging the breeding of these super-bugs will make their way south to the US, too (and most probably have already done so).

There’s also a less obvious link to another part of the series that reports on the presence of E.coli on hotel ice machines and related problems with air vents.

It is hard to know what to do to minimize one’s risk of catching something really nasty the next time one is staying in a hotel, and it is beyond distressing that the high-end hotels seem to encourage the same slapdash hurried poor quality room cleaning that the low-end hotels do.

With 30 minutes or less of cleaning time allocated per room, it is difficult to do a thorough job, and one easy quick solution would be to increase the time allowance per room up to say 45 minutes.  How much does it cost a hotel to add another quarter hour of staff time to each hotel room’s daily servicing?  Maybe $3 – $4.  That might be difficult for the budget motels to absorb, but a five-star hotel charging $200 – 400 a night should surely be able to boost its labor budget for room cleaning from under $10/night up to something a mere say $5 higher.

Back to a response to dangerously dirty hotel rooms, some simple things can really help.  Cover up any cuts, and be fastidious about keeping your hands clean (hand sanitizer) and treat all hotel room surfaces and objects as potentially dangerously contaminated.  Don’t even place your toothbrush on the bathroom counter top.  Perhaps consider sleeping in long pyjamas, and try not to travel if your immune system is depressed for any reason.

Surely when paying five or more times the room rate of a three star hotel to enjoy five-star luxury, one has the right to expect something approaching a basic standard of hygiene.

And could we ask our hotel rating services to now start doing tests for harmful bacteria and other harmful biological threats when rating hotels.

 A Policeman Takes Issue with Airport Security Searches

Here’s a great story, written by a UK police officer, who points out the total ineffectiveness of pat down searches at UK airports, and tells what happened when he attempted to educate the security officer searching him.

But the story also points out the uneasy dilemma we must face.  If we wish less intimate searching, as many of us do, we have to realize that its effectiveness rapidly diminishes down to nearly zero.  On the other hand, if we wish effective searching, as others of us may, we have to realize that it requires even more intimate procedures than those already in use.

Where to draw the line?  Where is the appropriate compromise point?

More Unexpected Consequences of Being on the No-Fly List

I wrote a couple of weeks back about a man flying from Gulfport, MS to Okinawa.  He stopped over in Hawaii, but when he went to fly on to Okinawa, he was told at the airport that he was now on the No-Fly list and wouldn’t be allowed to fly on to Okinawa.

That’s a shame, but the really big problem was, not only could he not fly to meet his wife in Okinawa, neither also could he fly back home to MS, either.  He was stuck in Hawaii.

This week there’s another regrettable situation.  This time, it was an AA gate agent who reported for duty, the same as always, in South Florida, only to be told that he can’t enter the secure area because he has been placed on the No Fly list.

The poor AA employee was placed on leave without pay, and for almost two months he struggled to find out why he was on the No Fly list, and how to get off it.  He was unable to get any answers or any action, and meantime, he was not working or earning any income.

But when he enlisted the help of NBC, within five days of NBC contacting the Homeland Security Dept, he received a letter telling him he was no longer on the list.

Neither he nor NBC have been told why he was on the list, or what it was – other than public exposure – that got him removed.

Will the DHS now reimburse him for the many thousands of dollars in lost wages?  Of course not.  Will someone lose their job over putting him on the No Fly list inappropriately, or for refusing to respond sensibly and helpfully to the person in distress?  Again, of course not.

Our government is beyond unaccountable.  We need to reclaim our government and once again make it of the people, by the people, and for the people.  At present, it is none of these things.

Details here.

Bomb Sniffing – Mice?

Readers often write in suggesting that airport security could be massively improved simply by deploying more dogs.

It is true that dogs have an amazing sense of smell, and they are willing workers and friendly positive sights to see around an airport (unlike TSA employees).  But it is also true that dogs can only work for a very short period of time before losing concentration and needing a break – for every dog on duty that you see, you need a team of dogs and their handlers rotating on and off shift in the background, making it harder to scale up a large dog presence than you might think.

But did you know there is an intelligent trainable animal with an even better sense of smell than a dog?

Here’s an interesting article about using mice to detect explosives, narcotics, even nascent cancers.  Truly an innovative concept and one with enormous potential.

Funny Math from the TSA

Remember the story, a few weeks ago, about how the TSA were moving their potentially dangerous whole-body X-ray machines out of major airports and putting them in smaller airports, where I guess it doesn’t matter so much if a machine should malfunction and suddenly start giving people possibly lethal doses of X-rays.

Well, it seems that the machines, while definitely taken out of major airports, haven’t actually shown up in minor airports – at least, not yet.  Instead, 91 of them have been placed in a Texas warehouse that now contains a $155 million accumulation of TSA equipment purchasing mistakes.  This article here hints at a possible reason they might be now being idled entirely.

Better there than at your friendly nearby secondary airport, for sure, and if this is a way the TSA can quietly retire the machines without ever having to ‘fess up to having messed up with buying them in the first place, so be it.

But if you read the report here, you might notice a curious statement from John Sanders, a gentleman with a truly impressive 18 syllable title – the TSA’s Assistant Administrator for Security Capabilities (cynic’s law on job titles – the longer the title, the less the person actually does).  He proudly talks about how amazingly better the replacement and not quite so potentially lethal machines are (something I could have told him if only he’d asked; I analyzed the throughput problems in a newsletter, years ago), and said that in the three weeks since the machines were taken out of LGA, JFK, ORD, LAX, BOS, CLT and MCO airports, the security lines at those airports are now moving 180,000 more passengers a day.

Well, that’s wonderful.  But – here’s the thing.  Is he saying that three weeks ago, each day saw 180,000 passengers being turned away from these seven airports due to the security lines being unable to cope with all the passengers wishing to depart?

What exactly does ‘moving 180,000 more passengers each day’ mean, and what happened to these people prior to the replacement of the X-ray machines?

Or is this all another bit of not-so-brilliant TSA obfuscation?  And why has no other media commentator wondered about this?

And Lastly This Week….

The last time I was in Britain, I went to buy something in an office supply/stationery store, and was astonished to see a sign above the cash register requiring photo ID from purchasers to prove their age.

The shop assistant explained this was because some people might illegally buy letter openers and paper knives.  He even proudly told me that he had been required to attend a formal training class about the legal restrictions on who could buy office supplies.

I thought at the time that such restrictions were beyond ridiculous, but perhaps now I understand why they may be desperately needed – have a look at this site, and at this other site, to see why.  Apparently the pen can sometimes be mightier than the sword.

We know that the quality of our in-flight experience and interaction with the flight attendants depends to a great deal these days not on them, but on us.  Whereas in the past, the onus was on the flight attendants to be obliging and helpful, now it is necessary for us to be submissive and meek, for fear of otherwise being quite literally clapped in irons and locked away for extended periods.

So it might be helpful to read this article about what flight attendants like and dislike in their passengers.  Remember – these days, it is all about them, and not at all about us.

Truly lastly this week, have you ever turned a computer or mobile device on while flying somewhere, and discovered that there was an unexpected second Wi-Fi signal available to connect to?  Could this be the reason why (hilarious cartoon!)?

Next week is of course Thanksgiving.  If you have plans for that holiday period, I hope you get where you’re going with a minimum of fuss and bother, and a maximum of enjoyment at the other end.

I’m undecided as to whether I’ll take time away from the turkey to send out a newsletter next week or not, but if you don’t hear from me, you can be certain that I’ll be feeling very thankful to the 524 (and hopefully more by then) of you who have so kindly helped out in this year’s Reader Appeal.

And thank you also to the 10,000+ other readers who at least add ‘mass’ and gravitas to The Travel Insider, too.  I hope you all enjoy the 4550 words in this week’s newsletter and the additional 3,000 words on airplane toilets, too.






2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 16 November 2012”

  1. Hi David

    A few more thoughts on the possible pilot shortage. I have been a commercial pilot and flight instructor for 22 years. I have noticed a great decrease in enthusiasm for aviation and flying in the younger generation. A decades ago you would find still find kids glued to the airport perimeter fence on a weekend keenly watching airplanes take off and land. Not any more, they are at home getting instant gratification from their X-boxes and Playstations. Aviation just does not have the appeal to kids nowadays and this is reflected in the dramatically reduced numbers of student pilots that all flight schools have noticed.

    The industry itself must bear some of the blame. To get to be a commercial airline pilot in your early years you have to put up with terrible wages appalling schedules as well as trying to pay off the loans to took out to get your commercial pilots license.

    Most pilots will tell you that it was only their love of aviation and a overwhelming desire to fly that got them through the difficult early years and put up with all the crap they had to go through. I know I have been there and done it!. Now kids are just saying screw that, I am not going to put up with it and look for alternate careers.

    The answer may lie in the European airline cadetship type of training program that some airlines use. After careful selection and vetting of pilot candidates the airline pays for the student college and pilot training. The Student then has to work for the airline for so many years to pay off his training costs. Of course this means the airlines have to pay the students training costs something the US airlines seem to be vehemently against! They want their pilots to have already paid for their initial training out of their own pockets and then pay them less than a baggage handler to have the responsibility of flying a cabin full of passengers in all weathers!

    I hope that their really is a major pilot shortage coming because then the US airlines will have to finally have to consider a proper and sensible way to bring new pilots into this profession!



  2. Pingback: Weekly Roundup Friday 30 November 2012 » The Travel Insider

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