Weekly Roundup Friday 3 May 2013

Hopefully we'll see elephants just like these while on safaris as part of our Sri Lanka tour next February.
Hopefully we’ll see elephants just like these while on safaris as part of our Sri Lanka tour next February.

Good morning

Yes, there was no newsletter last week.  Computers are funny things, aren’t they, and even though my increasingly aged Dell has had its motherboard replaced twice over the last year, and has a new hard drive too, somehow it has just become ‘tired’ and no longer as lively as it once was.

Although the machine is still under a costly extended warranty, it seems that it is just no longer capable of performing at the level which I need, and so after ongoing problems with both the main web server and my main personal computer filling the last week, I bit the bullet and ordered a new personal computer, due to arrive late next week.

If I get almost five years of life from it, I’ll be amazed and delighted, as in truth I generally have been with the Dell I’ve been using for the last almost five years, and I’m eagerly looking forward to a blazingly fast new computing experience and the improved productivity I hope to enjoy as a result.

Talking about improved productivity, and just simply a better computing experience in general, one thing I can most sincerely recommend to any computer user is to double up on your screens.  My productivity has materially improved since I added a second screen to my desktop.  It means I can simultaneously see more things without having to switch between windows, which makes potential interruptions much less intrusive – I can just glance over to see who new email is from, rather than needing to flip through windows to the email program and back to whatever I was working on each time.  It also allows me to keep some real-time monitoring windows open for things like computer loading and website visits, too.

Plus, on rare occasion, being able to open up a spreadsheet even larger than normal, or to have two documents side by side for comparison purposes is really convenient too.

Studies have suggested as much as a 20% improvement in productivity by having two screens attached to a computer.  I’d generally agree with that, depending of course on your typical computer usage patterns, and you’ll get the most benefit if you make the screens as large as possible and with 1920×1080 resolution.

One last point on that.  If you are an employer, and if you have office staff who are costing you, say, $50,000 a year when you allow for their salaries, benefits, office space costs, supervisory costs, and so on, you’d be beyond crazy not to spend $500 (or less, maybe only half that) on such a productivity aid.

Spend 1% of your employees’ annual costs this year, and get, well, let’s be enormously conservative – a 5% increase in productivity from them this year, and another 5% next year (with no further cost, because you bought the second screen this year) and another 5% each following year too.  That’s the best investment you and your company could make.

Plus you’ll have a happier employee who is more likely to stay with your company, who will interact better with co-workers and clients, and so on.

Talking about productivity and saving/making money, can I remind you of something I’ve occasionally said before.  If you are buying a Dell – or probably any other brand – computer, after you’ve configured up your dream system on their website, and taken advantage of whatever probably phoney discounts they have on offer, don’t then buy the item.  If you’d like to save some money, there’s one very important step to take.

Either phone the company or chat with them online, and ask for a discount.  Every time I’ve done that, I’ve received a further discount.  This time, I simply chatted online with a helpful person who I guess was in the Philippines, and within a few minutes, I found myself the happy recipient of a $150 reduction in total system price.

As I always do, I don’t just say ‘give me a discount’.  First I ask a couple of simple questions about the system, then I say how I’m a loyal Dell customer and would love to buy another Dell computer now, but I’m a bit worried at how the system is pricing out, and is there any way they can help me choose their system.  I add that I’m ready to give them a credit card immediately if they can help me with the price.

The guy asked me to wait for 2 – 3 minutes, and in less than that time he was back with the $150 discount.  That’s a great return on 2 – 3 minutes of time.  You should do the same.

And now, a topic change – from business to pleasure.  The big news, that I was keen to share with you last week, is that we now have the details of our amazing Sri Lanka tour live on the website.  I’m calling it the Nature’s Paradise Tour, because I’d not fully appreciated, before doing all the research, just how much amazing wildlife, birds, reptiles and aquatic creatures there is in Sri Lanka.

I  know the word amazing is used too often, and much of the time with insufficient justification, but this time, it is truly justified.  See for yourself, and you’ll surely agree this is an extraordinary itinerary, staying in some of the absolute best deluxe hotels and resorts in Sri Lanka, filled with activities and sightseeing, and with not one but two guides accompanying us (this will allow us to split into ‘easy walkers’ and ‘fast walkers’ when we go sightseeing), on a very comprehensive thirteen day itinerary that allows us to fully experience the best this charming island nation has to offer.

The most amazing aspect of the whole thing?  This tour is available to you for the astounding great value of only $2445 per person (share twin).  I’ve seen other nearly identical itineraries priced at twice that much.

There’s an article telling you more about this attached to this week’s newsletter.

We’ve got five people signed up already for the tour.  Please do decide to join your fellow Travel Insiders on this amazing tour, full of history, wildlife, tropical sights, sounds and smells, and good fellowship.

There’s another article attached that looks some more at the subject of airline computerized control systems being vulnerable to computer hacker attack – it is time for the ‘experts’ to stop rolling their eyes at the suggestion this is possible, and instead of sneering at people who demonstrate clear vulnerabilities, prove to us (and to the actual hackers) how they have made the airplane computers as truly secure as they assure us they are.

The refusing-to-believe-what-is-in-front-of-their-faces approach and their ‘trust us, we’re the experts’ attitude reminds me so strongly of the TSA’s reaction when a college student videotaped himself smuggling a metal box that could have contained a gun, explosives, or whatever else through two of the TSA’s whole-body X-ray machines at airport security screening stations.  The TSA responded by saying either that what was filmed did not happen, even though everyone could see it did, or alternatively saying that it didn’t really matter, even though everyone could understand that it did matter.

What else this week?  Your participation is requested in a reader survey, plus articles on :

  • Reader Survey – Knives on Planes
  • Boeing 787 Takes To The Skies Again
  • The Decline of the 747….
  • ….And the Fall of the 747
  • A Different Measure of AirFare Increases Suggests Prices Have Gone Up More Than Thought
  • A More Subtle But Insidious AirFare/Fee Increase
  • Frontier Joins Spirit in Charging for Carry-On Bags
  • Talking About Bags and Costs
  • Another ‘He Said/She Said’ Passenger vs Flight Attendant Problem
  • Attn :  TSA – Here’s a New Type of Explosives Scanner You’re Sure to Love
  • A Rose By Any Other Name?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey – Knives on Planes

Well, the TSA caved in to pressure and just days before its new policy of allowing passengers to take short bladed knives and pocket knives (with blades no longer than 2.36″) onto planes was due to be implemented, it reversed itself and has delayed the new policy indefinitely.  The TSA had originally decided to do this to bring their policies in line with international norms, and to make security screening procedures simpler.

Various airline groups opposed the TSA’s proposal, and a survey suggested that 73% of the public were against allowing knives on planes too.

Those opposed said that it would expose passengers, flight attendants, security personnel and just about everyone else, everywhere else to unacceptable levels of risk.  Those who supported allowing knives back on planes claimed there was no risk at all, pointing out that small pocket knives are legal everywhere else in the country and have never been used in the furtherance of any crime on any airplane, ever.

I was surprised to read that 73% of the public is opposed to allowing small knives back on planes, and realized it would be interesting to see what you – frequent fliers who are generally well read and well-informed on issues – think on the issue.  So let’s have an instant survey, and I’ll publish the results next week.

Please click on the link that best describes your opinion about allowing small knives on planes.  This will create an email to me with your response coded in the subject line – send me the email and I’ll tally up the responses.

I strongly support allowing small knives back on planes

On balance, I believe allowing small knives back on planes is appropriate

I am neutral on the concept with no strong view one way or the other

On balance, I think allowing small knives back on planes might do more harm than good

I strongly oppose allowing small knives back on planes

Many thanks for your response.  Answers next week.

Boeing 787 Takes To The Skies Again

Ethiopian Airlines was the first airline to restart its 787 service, doing so on Saturday 27 April.  This was, I think, 101 days since the FAA issued its grounding order.

After the FAA approved the 787 return to service the previous Friday, Japan’s equivalent body made Boeing wait another week before falling in line with the FAA and also allowing the plane to resume passenger flights.  But whereas Ethiopian Airlines got its plane in the air as quickly as possible, ANA has said it will conduct some 200 test flights before returning its planes to service.

That’s an interesting contrast.  Boeing does two test flights and says the planes are fine.  ANA plans to do 200 more to make sure of Boeing’s claim.  Shouldn’t that normally be the other way around?

Do you think ANA is making an oh-so-subtle Japanese type statement of unhappiness at the Boeing testing process?

The last word about the whole debacle (actually, very unlikely to be the last word, but at least for this newsletter, this week) will be given to James Hall, a former Chairman of the NTSB.  He writes a searing indictment of the FAA in the NY Times and refers to safety taking a back seat to commercial considerations, and claims the return to service of the 787 occurred ‘with astonishing swiftness’.

The present NTSB Chairman, Deborah Hersman, has claimed that Boeing has engaged in ‘obvious obfuscation’ about the overall battery safety and certification process (see the latter part of this article), and former NTSB board member John Goglia writes that there are unanswered questions remaining.  Clearly Mr Hall’s views are shared by others.

The Decline of the 747….

There’s an interesting article in the Wall St Journal about the 747 and its dwindling remaining role as a viable plane.

It is easy for some of us to forget that the 747 is an old plane – to me, it still seems state of the art.  But it is, indeed, old.  It first flew 43 years ago (Feb 1969) so it is a testimony to the plane’s original brilliance that it has reigned supreme as the world’s largest passenger airplane for most of the decades since then.

But the latest 747-8 model has not been a success; indeed in the short while since the WSJ article Boeing announced that five of the very few 747-8s on order had been cancelled.

The 747-8 has been partially superseded by the A380, but it is also being superseded by not quite so large twin-engine jets which offer almost as much capacity combined with much lower per mile operating costs.  The launch of the 777 marked the turning point in the 747’s fortunes.

Underscoring this is the new 777-9X announced this week, which will have the ability to carry up to 406 passengers, making it very close in size to the 747-8I (max of 467 passengers, but realistically 360 – 390), and with much improved economics.

The decline of the 747 is not new.  A chart in the article shows how the 747 peaked in 1998 with just over 1000 operational around the world.  There are now only 685 still in service.

We will be sorry to see the plane continue to disappear from the skies.  It has carried us very many times, and always reliably and well.

It is a strange and doubtless irrational thing, but whereas I sometimes cross my fingers when taking off in a twin-engined plane, the surging drone of the four engines on a 747 straining to lift the plane off the ground always fills me with confidence.  Truly, it has been a great plane.

….And the Fall of the 747

Actually, the 685 planes still in service tragically reduced to 684 earlier this week.  If you haven’t yet done so, by all means have a look at this spectacular dashboard cam footage which captured a 747 fall out of the sky immediately after taking off from Bagram in Afghanistan (it seems the plane had not even started to retract its undercarriage).

No-one knows what caused the crash at this stage, although, as the video clearly shows, it seems unlikely to have been an enemy rocket.  We’d like to offer a couple of comments to put it in perspective.

First, it is normal procedure when flying out of an airbase surrounded by hostile territory to fly the plane at a maximum rate of climb angle, so as to get the plane up as high as possible as quickly as possible and out of the range of small arms fire and man-portable SAMs.

The plane’s angle of climb is not, however, as steep as it seems on the video.  It looks so astonishingly steep simply because of the angle from where the camera was to the plane, which exaggerated its rate of climb.

The problem with such a take-off is that for the first minute or two after taking off, the plane is extremely vulnerable to engine failure or other unexpected events.  It has insufficient airspeed and is at the wrong angle of attack to recover if something goes wrong, because it also has insufficient altitude.  The margin of safety between flying too slow and stalling, and its actual speed, is very slim.  This is a known risk which pilots accept as the trade-off for getting out of SAM range as quickly as possible.

Something happened to cause the plane to stall.  Some people have speculated that some of the cargo inside the plane may have broken free and slid back, causing the plane’s nose to pitch up too far.  Others have wondered if a ‘microburst’ bit of weather might have caused a sudden ‘tail wind’ to take away too much of the plane’s through-the-air speed, causing it to stall.  Maybe it was ‘just’ an engine failure.  Black box data – not yet released – may give us a good insight into the cause of the disaster.

Whatever the cause, my interpretation of the subsequent events is that the plane started to stall, with its left wing dropping.  The pilot did a good job of catching the wing drop and corrected, but (perhaps due to increased loss of airworthiness), the correction was too great and so the right wing dropped way low.

The pilot did an excellent job of leveling the right wing, and correctly pushed the nose down and got the plane back into what was becoming a flying configuration, although it seems that maybe the nose was slow to go down.  That is not surprising, because with a huge plane fully loaded, and flying at very slow speed, the plane is very unresponsive to all flight surface movements.

Unfortunately, the plane ran out of altitude and before it had a chance to stop its sinking and start to climb again, it hit the ground and instantly exploded in a spectacular fireball from which there was absolutely no escape for the seven crew on board.

If whatever the problem was had occurred 30 seconds later, maybe even only 15 seconds later, the good piloting might have managed to get the plane climbing again before hitting the ground.  But it was the worst possible event at the absolutely worst possible time, with – alas – the worst possible outcome.

Most importantly, this crash does not expose any weakness or flaw in the lovely old 747.  You can still continue to confidently fly on 747s.

A Different Measure of AirFare Increases Suggests Prices Have Gone Up More Than Thought

How much is the average airfare?  That’s a question seemingly allowing of an exact answer, but not one as easily answered as you might think, because within the fuzzy blurry concept of ‘average’ are a number of different and unrelated variables, such as journey length, departure and arrival airport, whether the fare paid was more or less than the minimum fare, and so on.

Here’s an interesting report which suggests (on page 7) that airfares are now 12% up on what they were in 2008, and it further claims that if you adjust for the impact of fees as well, actual total amounts paid to airlines have gone up 29% during this same time frame.

While it is true that  in real dollar terms, airfares are still less than they were in 1969 when deregulation ended, it is also true that the former steady decline in airfares seems to have ended.  Alas.

A More Subtle But Insidious AirFare/Fee Increase

One of the reasons airlines love fees, and increasing them, is because they’re not so ‘in your face’ as are rises in the base published air fares.  It is easier to increase fees without having any passenger push-back, and the fact that fees are not taxable whereas airfares are is further incentive for airlines to shift more and more of their revenue generation into fees rather than fares.

Their enthusiasm for fees has long gone past the point of ‘cost recovery’ or even ‘fair profit’.  Now it is simply rapacious pillaging and plundering of your pocket-book, because they can (due to lack of competition).

The latest example of this is United’s decision to quietly and with no advance notice increase its change fee by $50.  You’re now looking at a $200 fee on most domestic tickets, and a $300 fee on most international tickets if you need to make a change to your flights.

As you probably realize, this fee is on top of any additional ‘add/collect’ airfare that might apply to the ticket, too.

The bottom line, especially if it is the last leg on a domestic ticket that you need to change – it is entirely possible that it will be cheaper to throw away the unused part of your current ticket and just buy the least expensive one-way ticket to complete your journey (or, if necessary, buy a round trip/open jaw two segment ticket and use it to get some future travel started).

Thinking that we are all gullible fools, United says the fee increase is necessary to cover its costs.  Yeah, sure, right.

Frontier Joins Spirit in Charging for Carry-On Bags

Troubled airline Frontier Airlines has been for sale since November 2011, and despite eking out a small profit for its current owner, Republic Airlines last year, lost money again in its first quarter, and the occasional rumors of buyers have yet to materialize into any firm deals.

So if you’re a loss making airline, eagerly seeking a new buyer, and hoping to tempt companies/individuals who have formerly invested in Spirit Airlines, what do you do?  Simple.  You copy the Spirit business model, or, in particular, Spirit’s contentious policy of charging passengers for carry on bags.

Frontier announced earlier this week that it will start charging passengers who don’t buy their travel directly from the airline’s website for carry-on bags (you can still take small bags that fit under the seat in front of you on the plane for free, the same as with Spirit).  The cost will range from a low of $25 (paid in advance) to a high of $100 (if they catch you trying to sneak a bag on at the gate).

You’ll also be charged $2 for a cup of coffee or a soda once you get on board.

Details here.

We don’t see Frontier’s move as indicative of a mainstream carrier decision to start charging for carry-on bags, due to Frontier’s special circumstances and desire to see itself sold.  But with now two airlines charging up to $100 per carry-on, how long will the dinosaur airlines be able to resist the temptation to do likewise?

Talking About Bags and Costs

Delayed and lost bags cost the airline industry $2.6 billion in 2012, with the greatest reason for bag mishandling being problems while bags are being transferred from one flight to another – this was the reason for 48% of bag problems last year.

If you’d like to know more, here’s a catchy infographic that presents a lot of information in a readable format.

It is true that some bags disappear forever – and some reappear, with no way of linking them to an owner, so are sold off by the airlines.  But sometimes a lost item has a happy ending, as this seven year old boy found after losing a special shirt on a Delta flight.

Well done, the decent people at Delta who helped find it.

Another ‘He Said/She Said’ Passenger vs Flight Attendant Problem

We regularly write about passengers who fall victim to the lies of flight attendants, who claim the passengers have done bad things on flights.  The flight attendants might make these claims vindictively to ‘punish’ a passenger they took a disliking to, or they might do so proactively because they fear the passenger is going to complain about them, and so it is better to be the first to lay a complaint.

Whatever the root cause, the rest of each story is dismayingly familiar.  The pilot passively goes along with whatever the flight attendant says, eager police, federal agencies and TSA agents then arrest the passenger as he leaves the plane (sometimes after the plane makes an emergency diversion) and he is charged with federal crimes.  Whether found guilty or not, the passenger has to spend tens of thousands of dollars on attorney fees, and possibly suffers grave career and personal harm as a consequence.

The one thing that is most consistent in all of these stories is that there is always one huge missing part of the puzzle.  Corroborating evidence from nearby passengers.  Surely this is essential, and surely the inability of a flight attendant to get half a dozen nearby passengers to back up her fanciful claim is prima facie a clear indicator that her story is a tissue of lies.

Here’s the latest case – a passenger accused of using profanities, not following instructions, and – oh yes, not flushing the toilet, either!

At the very least, we’d expect to see a photograph confirming the validity of that specific accusation.

The hapless passenger was met by six officials when the plane landed and was detained before being released with no charges laid.

This time, the passenger is fighting back, and is suing the airline (Virgin America) for $500,000.  His moral high ground is slightly weakened though because among other causes for his action he is claiming racial discrimination.  No – he’s not African-American.  He is instead a member of that other well-known-to-suffer-the-effects-of-prejudice, Italian-Americans.  Hmmmm…….

Attn :  TSA – Here’s a New Type of Explosives Scanner You’re Sure to Love

The TSA has several times now invested tens of millions of dollars in explosive detection devices that have turned out to be unsatisfactory, and which have ended up being taken out of service.

It has also invested still more money on new technologies which it has promised us will improve our security screening experience – meaning we would no longer need to take shoes off, and/or meaning the liquid restrictions can be lifted, but these technologies have never made it out of the lab.

So a radically new type of explosive detection device that has been used for some years by the Iraqi government and its contractors for detecting explosives in that troubled country would surely be of interest, you’d think, right?  Developed by a UK gentleman, and operating on a non-intrusive manner that apparently involves no dangerous radiation whatsoever, these units would seem to have a lot going for them, as evidenced by their robust level of sales to Iraqi defense organizations and contractors.  US bases have even been secured using them too.

There’s just one slight flaw, but surely the TSA could excuse one slight flaw – after all, all the other systems are not without limitations, either.

Please click here to read more about this technology and its one slight flaw.  We understand that the selling price per unit is likely to be greatly reduced, any day now.

Efforts to contact the inventor will be unsuccessful for the next ten years.

A Rose By Any Other Name?

One of the (many) curses of ‘social media’ and ‘viral’ content is that advertisers try to come up with increasingly bizarre concepts that they hope will capture the interest of the internet.

One such concept which proved very successful was the state of Queensland in Australia’s campaign offering the so-called best job in the world a couple of years ago – a concept now repeated, in amplified form, by a group of Australian states.

But not all campaigns are quite that original or quite that inspired.  Iceland came up with a competition to rename the country – after all, a country called ‘Iceland’ doesn’t sound all that great, does it?

This reminds me of a still ongoing campaign to rename the bay on which Gisborne, NZ, sits.  It was named, almost 250 years ago by Captain Cook as Poverty Bay; for many decades, the locals have been trying to change the name, with the leading suggested alternate name being ‘Sunshine Bay’.

Anyway, so here is Iceland, wondering what would be a better name.  Volcanoes-that-spew-ash-into-the-sky-and-disrupt-aviation-land, perhaps?  We’ll-take-your-fish-because-the-EU-says-we-can-land?  Sorry-about-your-pension-plan-in-our-bankrupt-banks-land?

Well, their campaign received more than 25,000 entries, and the clever people in Iceland have narrowed it down to two leading contenders, which they’re now asking people to vote on.  (I hasten to add the country is not going to rename itself, the whole thing is simply a gimmick.)

The two winning names?  With over 25,000 entries, be prepared for a couple of truly powerful innovative clever names?

Well, yes, maybe some of the entries were clever, innovative and powerful.  But the two shortlisted names are :

Let’s Get Lost Land


Isle of Awe Land

I know you will find this impossible to believe, so here’s the proof.

And Lastly This Week….

I wrote some time ago about a London policeman who has a long commute to work.  He and his family live in the South Island of New Zealand.  He works six weeks on at a time, sleeping in a cheap shared apartment in London, and then spends six weeks off duty with his family in New Zealand.

He finds that this saves him money (even after flying business class to and from London) and gives him and his family a much better lifestyle.

Now a call center in Wales is emulating the London Bobby.  Taking advantage of the 12 hour time zone shift between the UK and NZ, their night shift of operators were given the option of working from New Zealand rather than from Wrexham.  Details here.

It is an amazing world we live in these days.

Talking about the amazing world (and also about slightly corny publicity stunts) here’s an amusing story.  Jacobite Cruises is a small company that operates cruise boats on Loch Ness, taking hopeful tourists out for possibly a sighting of the Loch Ness monster.

Their owner has been worried that her boats might get damaged by the monster colliding with them, and so has taken out a £1 million insurance policy covering her for any damage claims caused by such events.

One wonders how much the premium was?  Being as how no boats have been damaged in the almost exactly 80 years of recent sightings, one would hope it was not too much – and almost certainly much less than all the free publicity the company is now enjoying.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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