Weekly Roundup Friday 30 November 2012

Cut-away watches showing their inside electronics used to be fashionable. Be very careful if wearing a non-standard watch through airport security these days (see ‘fuse’ story below).

Good morning

I hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful, your travels easy, and that you’ve now managed to finish working your way through the leftovers.

Also last week, it was time to wish happy birthday to a device that is revolutionizing yet another part of our lives; a device which came almost from nowhere five years ago, and pretty much single-handedly carved out a new product segment, and simultaneously massively impacted on an existing product segment – Amazon’s Kindle eBook eReader.

The first Kindle cost $395 and was an awkward clunky device (I know – I still have one; and I bought it most excitedly and eagerly at the time).  Today, you can buy a much better Kindle for as little as $69, and a Kindle color Android based tablet costs as little as $159.

The impact of the Kindle has spread beyond the device itself, and the growing number of competitors (most notably Barnes & Noble’s Nook).  In a stroke of genius, Amazon extracted the actual eBook reading software, and released it to run on other handheld devices, and on phones, and on computers, making the reading of eBooks convenient on almost any device that has a screen.  Occasionally eBooks now outsell their printed siblings.

On the other hand, problems remain with the eBook concept for us as readers and consumers.  They are ridiculously overpriced, sometimes even costing more than hardcover traditional books, and we have no ‘rights’ of ownership; we generally can’t lend them to others, and neither can we sell them when we’re done with them.

I often talk about the oligopoly that the airlines form.  They have nothing on the book publishing/distributing oligopoly, however, a fact that did not escape the government’s attention when it sued a number of publishers and Apple for (successfully) attempting to fix prices for eBooks, these days often pushing them way above the earlier $10 maximum price that Amazon had earlier set.

As an aside, while the birth of the Kindle was a momentous milestone, and while Kindles have developed extraordinarily in capabilities and simultaneously plunging in price, I haven’t bought a Kindle in a while and don’t expect to ever buy another one.  The eBook eReader product concept may prove to be one of the shortest lived transformational products ever.  They have now been overtaken by true multi-functional multi-purpose tablets that can do massively more than a Kindle (or Nook) and at close to the same price.

If you want to buy an eBook reader for Christmas, your choices should be between either a lowest priced Kindle for $69, or else a Google Nexus 7, priced from $199 – a device which does a huge amount more than any Kindle, and which also allows you to read Nook books from B&N and other books from other sources, too.

So, happy birthday, Kindle, and may you rest in peace.

Although our 2012 Annual Fundraising Drive officially ended two weeks ago, with 524 people very kindly choosing to support our efforts, we had some more people equally kindly add their support over the last fortnight and we have now convincingly smashed through this year’s goal (545 supporters) and continued on to today’s total of 584, including five more super supporters :

John B, Steven B, Robert B, Bob C, and lastly, but extraordinarily extravagantly rather than leastly, John C

Many thanks to everyone.

As an aside, supporters have not only been given free lifetime memberships to UsingMiles.com, but I’ve also been able to pass on several other special opportunities to them too in two special supporter only newsletters as unexpected bonuses.

Needless to say, there’s no such thing as too late.  If you’d like to join your 584 co-readers as a supporter too, you still can get the free UsingMiles lifetime membership, and will be on the special supporter only mailing list for any other deals that might come our way, too.  A simple click on this link is all it takes.

It would be nice to get up to 600, a number still massively below our best ever year which saw almost 1,000 people choose to assist.

But to show that every reader can get benefits, as well as extra special benefits for supporters, here’s something that maybe you can benefit from – a $25 discount coupon for Southwest Airlines valid on flights to any of their FL destinations for travel through 28 Feb next year.  You need to use the coupon and buy tickets by 5 December, and other restrictions apply – full details through the linked page.

Chances are you’ve said, in the past, ‘I’m never ever going to fly on XX Airline again!’.  But you can only say that so many times before you run out of airlines to boycott, and find yourself stuck on the ground, or forced to drive everywhere, take Amtrak, or hop on a Greyhound bus.

But there is another alternative, and it’s not as impossible as you might think.  There are two articles following this week’s roundup that mark the start of a new series on chartering private planes.  While you will definitely find yourself paying very much more than you would for the cheapest coach seat on a scheduled discount airline, if you are fortunate enough to buy first class tickets, and/or have others traveling with you, you might find that chartering planes is more affordable than you thought.

Also this week, we have :

  • Answer to the Previous Week’s Puzzle
  • How Dirty is the Plane You’re Flying On?
  • Another Airline Role Reversal
  • It Doesn’t Take Much to be a Hero These Days
  • Maybe Staying Awake Will Soon Be a Heroic Feat of Piloting, Too?
  • Not a Hero, But Not a Criminal Either
  • Christmas Markets if You’re Not Visiting Them in Person
  • Free International Calls at Denver Airport
  • I Score 12 on the DHS/FBI 19 Point ‘Are You a Terrorist Staying at a Hotel’ Test
  • The Difference Between a Fuse and a Fuse
  • New Zealand – Land of Hobbits, But Neither 100% Pure nor 100% Honest
  • The Danger of Putting On Weight While on Vacation
  • And Lastly This Week….

Answer to the Previous Week’s Puzzle

We asked in our last newsletter if you could guess the airline that flies to more countries than any other airline.  Several readers knew the answer, and several readers also reported they have enjoyed flights with this airline.  Other readers wrote in with wry comments about airlines they hoped didn’t have the title!

The answer is – Turkish Airlines.  They now fly to 205 destinations in 90 countries, with a fleet currently comprising 200 planes.  I’d like to tell you exactly where they fly in the US, but their routemap application crashes in both Chrome and IE, and their destination list includes not only their own destinations, but hundreds of code share destinations as well, and a link to their timetable doesn’t actually bring up a timetable as we would understand such a thing.

So they might fly to a lot of places, but sadly they seem no better than any other airline when it comes to their customer-facing experience.

How Dirty is the Plane You’re Flying On?

I wrote a couple of weeks back about filthy hotel rooms, even to the point of having antibiotic resistant bacteria in them.  This was a disappointing surprise.

Perhaps not quite such a shock is to discover that the seat you’ll be sitting in for the next some hours on an airplane, together with the tray table and magazine pouch in front of you, are also dirty, including surprising quantities of, ahem, fecal matter.  Well, we know that airplanes aren’t ‘deep cleaned’ as part of each turnaround, but even so, that’s a bit yucky, isn’t it.

While we accept and understand that planes aren’t given a thorough cleaning between each flight, how about when the planes are on the ground for multiple hours at a time?  Even the best utilization rates for planes still typically see them on the ground somewhere, pretty much every day, for three or four or more hours.  That’s more than enough time to put a team of cleaners on board to do some actual cleaning (as opposed to merely picking up trash).

One wonders why it is that we expect restaurants to clean tables between diners, but are happy to allow airlines not to do the same.

Details here.

Another Airline Role Reversal

Normally, at least in the past, one would expect to read about Chinese airlines gratefully buying old airplanes from American airlines once the US carriers have ‘used them up’ and no longer want them any more.

But this story tells how Delta is buying up old MD-90s from China Southern Airlines.  It is an interesting article for recounting this story, and the reason why – Delta believes that the saving in capital costs gained by buying used airplanes for about $6 million each and then spending almost as much again to refurbish and maintain them, more than makes up for the higher ongoing operational costs of the plane in terms of fuel burns and future maintenance.  New planes would probably cost $45 million or so each.

This would seem to fly in the face of ‘conventional wisdom’ which suggests airlines are gasping for new more fuel-efficient planes as part of their need to lower their costs.  It would be very interesting to see a detailed analysis not so much of the cost of buying and refurbing the used MD-90s but instead of the ongoing operational costs of an MD-90 compared to a smaller sized A320 series or 737 series plane.

I’ll guess there’s something like $1,000 an hour in saved depreciation costs (depending on how many hours a day the plane flies), but I’ve no idea what the operational cost differences may be.  I’d have guessed them to be of a similar magnitude to this, and maybe greater, in keeping with conventional wisdom.

Delta is either right or wrong in its approach.  It is close to an accounting matter of fact as to how the numbers fall.  If Delta is right, why aren’t other airlines doing the same thing?  If Delta is wrong, how has it alone, out of all the US carriers, made such a strange mistake?  How do Boeing and Airbus manage to sell new planes as replacements for existing older planes?

One could also ask the same question, of course, about why Delta bought an oil refinery.  Is Delta the most brilliant airline out there, or, ahem, the stupidest?

But, whether brilliant or stupid, one has to love the exceedingly rare sight of one airline doing something different from all the others.

Why stop at buying old planes instead of new, and refining their own jet fuel?  How about some innovations that we’d feel ourselves, too – innovations that wouldn’t so much attack their costs as boost their revenues.  Maybe they could rethink their baggage fees?  Their change fees?  Oh – and a hasty note to any DL execs reading this.  Guys – when we say ‘rethink’ we don’t mean put them up still further, okay?

It Doesn’t Take Much to be a Hero These Days

What exactly does it take to become a hero?

In its original sense, in ancient Greek mythology, a hero was originally a demigod – the son or daughter from the union of an immortal and mortal.  Subsequently, the term hero (and of course, heroine too) came to refer to people who, in the face of danger and adversity, would display courage and the will for self-sacrifice – ie heroism – for the greater good of humanity.  The concept originally applied to martial courage, but subsequently extended to general moral excellence.

So, call me a bit of a traditionalist if you must, but I’ve always felt a key part of being a hero was the voluntary assumption of gratuitous personal risk in the hope of, in so doing, creating a compensating greater good for a larger number of people.  The soldier who throws himself on a grenade is a hero.  So too is the government whistle-blower, who willingly loses his (her) job and pension and everything as a consequence of shining the spotlight on some nefarious deed.

Maybe the NY firefighters who went up the WTC towers were also heroes, although you could churlishly argue that they were doing their job – ie, it wasn’t a voluntary assumption of gratuitous risk – and if they’d understood the risks, they’d have stood down (ie it wasn’t a conscious decision but more like a mistake).  That’s a moot point we don’t need to debate in this context.

But these days it seems that anyone can be a hero, for doing almost anything – even when the motivating factor is not one of selfless risking of oneself for the good of others, but doing something primarily for one’s own personal benefit without accepting any greater risk, and which coincidentally benefits other people too.  Even sportsmen are feted as heroes, for doing nothing other than playing their game well.  There’s a difference between being good at your job and being a hero.

You want an example?  How about this ‘hero’ – an off-duty 747 pilot who simply stepped in to help out in the cockpit of a 747 in a total non-emergency situation when the junior of the two pilots flying the plane fell ill.

What is heroic about that?  On the one hand, he did nothing that put himself at any increased risk; he just did the job he was trained to do.  On the other hand, if there was any danger, it was equally to himself, and his actions were likely motivated as much by selfishness as by selflessness, to reduce the risk to himself, and only incidentally, the risk to everyone else on the plane.

Maybe Staying Awake Will Soon Be a Heroic Feat of Piloting, Too?

One of the seldom spoken about semi-secrets of flying airplanes is the propensity of pilots to sleep through some/much/most of the flights they are piloting.  This article reports on a recent survey that suggests 40% of British pilots have admitted to falling asleep in the cockpit (who knows how many more are not admitting to this).

Oh, read on, and you’ll discover that a third of the sleeping pilots also admitted that when they woke up they discovered the other pilot was also asleep!

How long before we see pilots being lauded as heroes for staying awake during an entire flight?

The pilots’ solution?  They say they should work shorter hours, and have longer layovers and sleep periods between shifts.  There’s doubtless some truth in some of that.

But the other truth, obscured along with much of the rest of this subject?  Flying a plane is just plain boring these days.  You may know as a passenger how it can be easy to put your mind in neutral and sleep through a long boring flight, and maybe you’ve had problems staying awake while driving a long journey on the freeway.  In both cases, this isn’t because you’re dangerously tired.  It is simply because you’re bored, and that combined with the guilty knowledge you should stay awake is enough to send you floating off to dreamland.  It is as true of the pilot in the cockpit as it is of the passenger in the rear of the plane, with the only difference being the pilots have nice comfy seats to stretch out and relax in.

Not a Hero, But Not a Criminal Either

Remember the JetBlue pilot who went crazy, and left the cockpit in midair to run up and down the passenger cabin yelling about Jesus and al-Qaida?  His actions not only alarmed passengers, but required the plane to be diverted and make an emergency landing to have him taken off after he was forcibly restrained, with him injuring a flight attendant in the process of his violent struggles.

Now if you or I did such a thing – heaven forbid that we would – they’d lock us up and throw away the key.

But apparently, if you’re a pilot, different rules apply, as this story reveals.

Christmas Markets if You’re Not Visiting Them in Person

If you’re not on our 2012 Christmas Markets Cruise, and if you’ve wondered what all the fuss is about with the Christmas markets in Europe each December, here’s a website full of lovely pictures and information about the German Christmas markets.

There are Christmas markets not just in Germany but in most of Europe these days, including a mock German style market in Birmingham, England which amusingly is playing the Dambusters March from the movie about the RAF bombing Germany in WW2.  Ooops.

My favorite market in Germany is, without a doubt, the Thurn und Taxis Palace market in Regensburg.  Outside of Germany, it would be a toss-up between everywhere in Salzburg and the main Clock Tower Square market in Prague.  But they’re all lovely, in every town and city, and – oh yes – we’ll be offering a Christmas Market cruise along the Danube, including the markets in Regensburg, Salzburg and Prague next year, too!

Free International Calls at Denver Airport

If you’re traveling through Denver International Airport, often annoyingly referred to as DIA but actually officially referred to as DEN (no airport in the world has the code DIA) you have a new treat in store.

There are some 200 RMES phones in the airport that now offer free 10 minute international calls.  If you want to talk longer, you can pay a reasonable 25c (plus 15% tax) a minute to extend your call further.

Details here.

I Score 12 on the DHS/FBI 19 Point ‘Are You a Terrorist Staying at a Hotel’ Test

Might you, too, be a terrorist?  Here’s the ‘For Official Use Only’ checklist created by the brilliant minds at the Orwellian titled ‘Department of Homeland Security’ and their confreres at the FBI, that helps security and law enforcement personnel to tell if a person might be a terrorist.

For example, if you’ve ever decided to not pay the hotel its $20+ a day charge for internet access and instead have asked about nearby internet cafes, that is a black mark against you and a sign that you may be a terrorist.

If you don’t want to pay the hotel’s farcical rates for long distance calls and use a payphone in the lobby instead, then you’ve again given away your terrorist leanings.

If you ask for a specific room, or a specific location or floor (eg ‘Could I have an ocean view room high up, please’, or ‘Could I have a room away from the elevators and ice machine’) then you’re again betrayed your terrorist self to the specialists trained to spot such things.

As the headline indicates, at one time or another, I’ve been guilty of probably 12 of the 19 indicators of being a terrorist on this list.  Oh – in case I need to say so – I’m not a terrorist.

The Difference Between a Fuse and a Fuse

Here’s an interesting article that reports on how a man was arrested at Oakland Airport due to having a strange-looking watch – yes, apparently having a strange watch is indeed a crime these days.

Even though the local bomb squad determined the watch was not a bomb, he was still arrested and charged with having bomb making materials, because the watch contained switches, fuses and wires.

When I first read the story, I managed to vaguely comprehend that a watch that contained fuses – ie devices for detonating explosives – would probably be a bad thing to take through airport security.  As for a watch with wires and switches, well, don’t just about all electronic items have switches and wires?  But fuses – well, that’s a different story.  Well done, TSA?

Umm, apparently not.  The TSA’s own self-congratulatory blog proudly featured a photo of the watch that got the man imprisoned (note – a different watch to the one pictured at the top of this newsletter).  The fuses are, ahem, electrical fuses.  Not bomb-detonating fuses at all.  Same word, very different meaning.

The TSA blog entry actually does go on to awkwardly disclaim responsibility for the man’s arrest.

As for the watch’s owner, he had to post $150,000 bail to avoid spending a weekend in custody, he had to hire an attorney, and it was only when they appeared in court that they then discovered that the DA’s office had declined to press charges.

Who will pay this man’s costs for posting bail, for hiring an attorney, and for being imprisoned and vilified (all around the world, no less based on a Google search) for being a bomb maker who was caught by alert and astute airport security officers?

Oh – one other thing.  The watch owner had previously asked a TSA supervisor if the watch was okay to wear, and been given the okay to do so.  Details here.

New Zealand – Land of Hobbits, But Neither 100% Pure nor 100% Honest

My home country of New Zealand has been basking in the glow of the latest Peter Jackson movie, the first of what is to be a trilogy of blockbuster movies on the Tolkien/Hobbit story.  Director Peter Jackson is a NZer and has filmed the movies in New Zealand, although NZ does not look altogether like the scenes that were portrayed in the previous Lord of the Rings trilogy and/or those now being shown in the latest Hobbit series – computer graphics have been heavily overlaid over the top of NZ’s admittedly fine scenery.

The world premiere of the Hobbit movie was held this week in Wellington, with over 100,000 fans lined up to watch the stars and other Hollywood notables walk the red carpet to the screening.

Meanwhile, the country is continuing to receive criticism, both domestically and internationally (ie in the NY Times, no less) about the discrepancies between its tourist marketing slogan ‘100% Pure’ and the reality that it is, well, a whole lot less than 100% pure – indeed, one recent study showed it to be 171st on a list of 189 countries by some measures of environmental purity and water quality.

The country’s Prime Minister has now come out with an interesting defense of the slogan.  He said that people don’t expect the slogan to be an accurate honest reflection of the reality they encounter.  I guess when you’re not 100% pure, you don’t need to be 100% truthful either.

The Danger of Putting On Weight While on Vacation

People often joke about the amount of weight they put on while on vacation, particularly on cruises (the average person adds almost a pound per day while on a cruise).

This is of course not desirable, but it is rarely thought of as life threatening.

But apparently it sometimes can be life threatening, too; as witness the sad case of a woman who apparently put on so much weight while spending the summer in Hungary that airlines on three separate occasions were unable to board her onto a plane for her return flight back to the US, where she was scheduled for much-needed medical treatment.  As a result, she died in Europe.

Needless to say, a lawsuit (for $6 million) has now been filed.  And needless to say, the airlines have offered an offensively ridiculous statement as an excuse for their actions :

 Lufthansa, together with its local partners, fire brigade and technical experts at Budapest Airport, tried its utmost to accommodate this passenger on board our flight from Budapest.

After several, time-consuming attempts it was decided that for the safety of this passenger and the over 140 fellow passengers, Lufthansa had to deny transportation of the passenger. Safe and reliable operations are Lufthansa’s paramount priorities at all times.

A question to the people at Lufthansa who issued this statement :  Just exactly how was the safety of both the woman (who, ummm, died due to not being flown home!) and the other 140 passengers on the plane at risk by flying her?

We’re not saying LH or any other airline involved should have been obliged to transport her.  But we are saying they should step up to the plate and now tell the truth – why can’t they just say ‘Hey, guys, the woman weighed over 420lbs, our seats aren’t rated for that weight, it isn’t our fault’.  Instead they hide behind the same boilerplate ‘the safety and comfort of our passengers….’ nonsense they unthinkingly invoke for every situation.

More details here.

And Lastly This Week….

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  And so, when you’re labelled as the world’s worst hotel, what do you do?  Yes, you boast about it.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 30 November 2012”

  1. re: How Dirty is the Plane You’re Flying On?

    >> Even the best utilization rates for planes still typically see them on the ground somewhere, pretty much
    >>every day, for three or four or more hours. That’s more than enough time to put a team of cleaners on
    >>board to do some actual cleaning (as opposed to merely picking up trash).

    Sounds like the midnight shift for cleaning crews; when you look around at 0500 the ramps are filled with planes. I know the vast majority didn’t just arrive at 0430. Most major US airports have some form of noise embargo where flights are held to a bare minimum between midnight and 0600 or so.

    >>One wonders why it is that we expect restaurants to clean tables between diners, but are happy to allow
    >>airlines not to do the same.

    Because while I expect restaurants to serve food, I don’t expect domestic US airlines to serve anything remotely resembling “food”. (grin)

  2. Interesting point about the possible demise of the dedicated e-reader in TTI. I’m not sure I agree: I think long battery life and better readability will keep them on the market for some time to come.

    But I am now clearly seeing a change. My occasional “Tube test” — a jaunt through a Metropolitan Line train to see what people are looking at — reveals that tablets are finally showing up. You may recall that I’ve wondered about the absence of iPads and the like on public transit. My theory has been that people — Brits anyway — are uncomfortable looking at full-bore, full-sized tablets in public. But over the past few weeks, minis and Google 7s and similar format tablets have suddenly emerged.

    I use the Metropolitan Line because its trains are full walk-through, instead consisting of of self-contained cars. So when I did a walk-through yesterday, I estimate about 30% of passengers were looking at some sort of electronic device. Half were heavily involved with stuff on their smartphones. The other half were almost evenly divided between e-readers and small-format tablets, with a very occasional full-sized tablet user as well (I saw two).

    Next time I’ll try to figure out which brands are being used.

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