Weekly Roundup Friday 23 August 2013

My daughter Anna struggling to stay awake on the Qantas night flight to Sydney.
My daughter Anna struggling to stay awake on the Qantas night flight to Sydney.

Good morning

A very quick newsletter this week.  As advised last week, I’m on the road currently, and had not expected to be able to get anything to you, but I managed to write a couple of things.

First, I neglected to mention the incipient price rise of our Sri Lanka tour last week.  Having neglected to do that, I was guilted into allowing another person to ‘slip under the wire’ and it seems only fair to extend that offer to anyone else who is close to choosing to come.

You probably know a lot about the tour from my general comments so far, and here’s the main tour detail page, with a link from that to a daily detailed itinerary that shows the cornucopia of delights in this wonderful tour.  To take advantage of the current price, and to join 28 of your fellow Travel Insiders on what promises to be a lovely experience in an ‘up and coming’ travel destination, please send in your application to join by the end of this weekend.

Our travels on Tues/Wed/Thu/Fri were unavoidably lengthy, with the most boring part of the entire experience being the ten-hour layover at LAX on Tuesday.  This was made worse by spending three hours shivering in front of the a/c outlets in the Intl Terminal – you’ve probably not had to spend three hours in the public area of that terminal, but if you have, you’ll know there is almost no seating anywhere, other than for an area that does double duty as a mezzanine level food court.  Perhaps to discourage people from staying too long there, the terminal’s a/c ducting blows cold air directly at the seating.

We’d not have had to stay three hours there, if it weren’t for Alaska Airlines claiming they were unable to issue boarding passes all the way to Sydney.  So we had to wait three miserable hours until the Qantas counters opened at LAX allowing us to get boarding passes to go through security and on to the Oneworld lounge.

The Oneworld business class lounge in Los Angeles was okay, but nothing extraordinary.  There were 11 Apple computers for people to use, and another six places for people to use their own computers, but all these places suffered from a privacy problem – the screens faced directly into the main area and walk-ways.  Some other lounges have more private little study cubicle type spaces; which also provide some sound privacy – as I type this in the lounge, I’m struggling not to listen to one side of an interminable rambling conversation between an Australian guy, six spaces over from me, and someone else on the other end of his Skype connection.

I’m impressed he could maintain a conversation.  The Wi-Fi bandwidth in the lounge varied between inadequate and non-existent.  A test using speedtest.net at a particularly slow point revealed a 969 msec latency (30 or more times slower than what you’d hope for), a download speed of 0.07 Mbits/sec and an upload speed of 0.06 Mbits/sec – 500 times slower than my data line at home.  It seemed (and no surprise here) that as the lounge filled up, and more people started using the Wi-Fi for everything (a lot of people Skyping, probably because most people in this lounge were international rather than domestic travelers) the Wi-Fi got worse and worse.

Come on, please, Oneworld.  Give us some decent bandwidth.

There was some reasonable hot food and a bit of cold food, plus a coffee machine, soda fountain (out-of-order), generic ordinary beers and sodas, and a very limited range of well drinks, of only generic types (eg no single malt whisky at all).  There were a couple of white wines, three red wines, and some sparkling wine too, but alas, unlike ‘the good old days’ no champagne to be found anywhere (and, yes, I did look most assiduously!).

We also spent some time in the Qantas lounge at Sydney.  I was expecting great things, because Sydney is Qantas’ headquarters and flagship lounge.  Unfortunately, I hated it.  Not just disliked, but actively hated  it.

There were three reasons for such a passionate dislike.  First, its location, with a gratuitous amount of unnecessary walking to access the lounge – not something that normally matters to me, still blessed with good perambulatory abilities; but for Anna, proudly hobbling along on her first pair of high heel shoes (or for older less mobile passengers) it was an unneeded extra inconvenience.

Secondly, the lounge is filled with nonstop ‘elevator music’ – new world, spacy, and simultaneously offensively bland but also surprisingly prominent music.  In particular, as people with even an ounce of skill at programming background music would know, you don’t use voices for ‘quiet background music’, you stick to instrumental.  Oh, and go easy on the drums and trombones too, please.  But this music was mainly vocal and often with an aggressive rhythm section and prominent brass sections, and while trying to concentrate on work, the ugly music really interfered.  And that’s before one has to also experience the loud flight departure announcements too.

Thirdly, and in common with LAX, there were no workstations, just a long bench for people to work on their laptops.  And instead of chairs – indeed, Qantas used to have height adjustable swivel/tilt chairs in its lounge – you now have circular squabs.  The squabs are too low or the counter is too high (maybe both) and the result is an ergonomic nightmare.

Oh, one more thing that came to light – quite literally.  The early morning sun rose almost directly in front of the window which the bench for computer workers faces.  There are no blinds or shades, so I’m typing this with the near blinding light of the early morning sun streaming in my face.  The things I do for you, dear reader!

How can an airline mess up so spectacularly with its lounge design?

But to switch now from the very disappointing SYD lounge to the flight experiences, it was almost eight years since I’d last flown in a Qantas business class cabin (and only did so this time by way of frequent flier award tickets).  I wasn’t sure what to expect – Qantas has been imploding and destroying itself over the last decade, ceding its one-time primacy on international routes out of Australia and hollowing out its core routes almost to the point of non-existence.

But to my delight, the old 747-400 we flew LAX-SYD was immaculately maintained inside, the seat/bed comfortable, the food excellent, the drink selection varied, and the service wonderful.  I might write in greater length subsequently, but for now, suffice it to say that it was as good a flight as I’ve ever enjoyed on Qantas.  Sure, I could see areas where cost cutting was intruding, but if one overlooks those issues, it was close to a perfect flight, complete with ontime departure and early arrival.

Talking about frequent flier awards, it is interesting to notice the latest perfidy involved in redeeming awards.  I’ve noticed this creeping in for the last few years, and saw it very starkly while trying to book my flights this time.  With many airlines, if you look for coach class award availability, you’ll see no seats available.  So you instead look for business class award availability, and you find good availability, but upon examining the availability further, it turns out that most of the ‘business class’ flights are actually in the coach class cabin!

But even if 75% or more of the total miles flown end up in coach class, you don’t get any discount off the full business class award mileage cost.

Just another little way the airlines have reduced the value of their ‘loyalty’ programs.

We’re now in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Amazingly, the country has had 3,000 earthquakes over the last month, and while most of them have been very minor, some have been more considerable in strength.  Anna is hoping she’ll get to experience her first felt earthquake.  Hopefully she’ll accept a jetboat ride, a luge ride, and a few other activities in Queenstown as an acceptable second best.  🙂

I should add that I’m in the early stages of devising a New Zealand tour, for Oct/Nov 2014.  Keep some time free if you’d like to enjoy a visit to my home country with me then.

There’s also a freestanding item about the alleged danger of lasers shining at pilots, and, below, items on :

  • A Shameful Response to the SFO FD’s Killing of a Passenger
  • This Week’s 787 Problem
  • Hey BA – What About AA?
  • Probably a Naughty Thing to Do; But International Terrorism?
  • Keeping Abreast of the Latest Airline Security Threat
  • The Dangers of Train Travel
  • A Solution to My Seven Internet Connections Problem
  • TSA to Buy 3.454 million rounds of Pistol Ammo
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Shameful Response to the SF FD’s Killing of a Passenger

In among the fury of focus on Asiana’s pilots (and indeed, all Korean pilots and pretty much all Asian pilots in general) there has been only a very muted commentary when the story eventually emerged that one of the passengers who died subsequent to the 777 crash at SFO did so as a result of being run over by a fire truck rather than because of any injuries actually received in the crash itself.  Don’t you think this is something that deserves some commentary – have you ever heard of other airport fire departments running over evacuating passengers before?  Of all the unusual and unnecessary ways to die in a plane crash, surely beneath the wheels of an airport fire truck is the worst of all.

Indeed, there’s also been very little commentary about what seems to have been a surprisingly long time from the plane crashing to the first fire trucks and aid units arriving on the scene and starting to fight the fire and assist the passengers.  There was a bit of eyeball rolling at passengers on the flight trying to call for help on their cell phones, but little discussion on why it was it took so long for ‘first’ responders to arrive; indeed I noticed  but can’t now find one article which suggested that the ‘first’ responders on the scene held back approaching the plane until they had been joined by second and third waves of support.

How did we find out about the 16 yr old Chinese student being run over by a fire truck?  Helmet camera video footage was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle.  Yet another example of the omnipresence of video cameras these days and the benefits of having them everywhere.

So what does the SF Fire Department do in response?  Yes, it does change one of its policies/procedures, but alas, the change will do nothing to protect future evacuating passengers.  Instead, it doubles down on an earlier ban on the use of helmet video cameras, ostensibly due to concerns about privacy.

In truth it is indeed all about privacy – hoping to keep their actions and mistakes private.  This is a doubly-shameful response.  First, it removes an important element of accountability, and second, it impairs the efficiency and the safety of the firemen.  The helmet cameras are not only for offline recording purposes, they can also be used to broadcast realtime video to a command post and other firemen, so that there is a better awareness of what is happening and where the problems are in any situation they are responding to.

More details of the self-serving excuses for removing helmet video here.

This Week’s 787 Problem

Boeing has now determined that the 787 engine extinguisher wiring problem discovered last week isn’t its fault.  Oh no, Boeing says it is blameless – it is the fault of one of its suppliers.

Apparently Boeing does not feel that as the final assembler of the planes, and as the company who brands the plane, that it should quality control or test or accept liability for anything that it hasn’t 100% made itself.  And when one considers just how precious little of the 787 Boeing actually did make itself, that’s a fairly sweeping exemption it is claiming.

This article touches on Boeing’s ‘not our fault’ claim and also mentions in passing that during the course of checking for the fire extinguisher wiring problem, United found a different ‘pinched wire’ problem elsewhere on one of its six 787s.

Another ‘teething problem’ and not Boeing’s fault, of course.

How many more problems are airlines continuing to find with their 787s, and how many more will they continue to find in the future?

Hey BA – What About AA?

The BA/AA link-up over the Atlantic, and their more general cooperation as founding and key members of the Oneworld alliance, is nothing new.  The ability of each airline to codeshare on the other airline’s flights is also nothing new.

So how can we now understand BA’s decision to now work more closely with an AA competitor – Jetblue?  BA and Jetblue announced their intention to interline on 18 BA flights and more than 50 Jetblue routes (we are presuming that ‘interline’ means primarily the act of checking bags through without a need to get them off the carousel and recheck them when changing airlines).

While we’re delighted to see cooperation that makes it easier for passengers to mix and match the airlines they fly, it is curious why BA is helping an AA competitor, indeed, an airline that not only competes with its US partner, but also an airline which is minority owned by its own competitor, Lufthansa.

More details here.

Talking about code shares, while gazing at the departure board in the Intl Terminal at LAX, I noticed a flight shared among six different airlines.  Air India, Air New Zealand, Austrian Air, Brussels Air, Lufthansa and United, all sharing the same plane bound for Frankfurt.

That seems like a lot, of course, but it also begs the question.  If you’re sharing a flight six different ways, why stop there?  Why not give it a flight number for every airline in your alliance?

Probably a Naughty Thing to Do; But International Terrorism?

A full-time Task Force Officer in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating the actions of a gentleman on a flight from MSP to SLC, presumably out of concern that what no-one seems to be taking too seriously at present (ie no charges yet filed and no dramatic airport arrests and imprisonment) and which apparently would be no more than a misdemeanor if prosecuted and convicted may have obscured an incipient act of international terrorism.

If you really want to know about the gentleman’s problem, you can read more about it here.  Oh, and in an update, the gentleman is now being prosecuted for ‘lewd and obscene behavior’.

Surely, a curious thing for the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to be investigating?

Keeping Abreast of the Latest Airline Security Threats

We’ve speculated before about the potential for hell-bent and hell-bound terrorists to secrete explosives inside their body, and it seems that in addition to the obvious ‘cavities’ (such as they are) terrorists are now considering a new means of getting bombs on board – using them in lieu of breast implants.

I was going to look up details of how big a typical and large size breast implant may be in terms of how many ounces of liquid they contain, but I’m hesitant to do it while sitting in a very public position at the Oneworld lounge at LAX.  Apart from doubtless generating some slightly inappropriate pictures, the search topic might alarm some of the more paranoid people about me, so if you really want to know more about this, you’ll have to go research it yourself.

But I’ll guess it is not impossible for an implant to contain a pint and possibly even a quart of material.  What would the effect of that be if detonated on a plane?

Well, for sure, it would make a terrible mess, with quite literally blood and guts flying all around the place, but the force of the blast would be absorbed in significant measure by the terrorist’s body, and if anything, the typical shape of an implant might cause the blast to focus more inwards rather than outwards.

Perhaps if a terrorist pressed herself tightly against a window and then blew herself up, she might succeed in blowing a window out, but that’s not going to cause the plane to fall out of the sky.

As this article points out, breast implant explosives would not be detectable by any current means.  Not metal detectors, not explosives detectors, and not whole body imaging machines either.

The article also mentions a new type of undetectable explosive that can be soaked onto a person’s clothing.

One doesn’t want to think too carefully about the type of security countermeasures and responses needed to combat these new threats.  It is a good job that we are winning the war on terrorism, isn’t it.

Meantime, this article complaining about silly security measures at Paris/CDG seems to suggest that business class passengers get less scrutiny than coach class passengers.  Let’s hope the terrorists can’t afford business class tickets.

My daughter and I were selected for extra security checks as we were about to board our flight down to Los Angeles from Seattle.  A TSA agent pulled us to one side and asked to see our ID.  After giving our passports the most cursory of glances, he then waved us on to the plane.  What exactly was the point of that, one wonders?

On the other hand, Anna was given a ‘free ride’ – sort of – through security at LAX.  She was told ‘Oh, you are under 12, so you don’t need to take your shoes off’.  Apparently children under 12 are not a security risk, and would never be duped by adults to unwittingly carry explosives through security?

So, although she had already taken her shoes off, she put them back on again, but when going through the metal detector (children also get to go through the metal detector rather than whole body imager) she beeped.  A TSA agent said ‘Oh, it will be her shoes’ and instructed her to take them off.

So what exactly was the point of not having to take her shoes off – indeed, being told to put them back on – if, when they beeped due to metal inserts, she then had to take them off?

The Dangers of Train Travel

Remember the curious one week closing of 19 American Embassies around the Middle East and Africa a couple of weeks ago?

It seems that part of the reason for this was the NSA having listened in on an Al-Qaeda conference call, but now that the experts have decided it is safe to open our embassies again, it is being suggested that after we ‘foiled’ their possible attack on our embassies  by cleverly closing them for a week, the terrorists have shifted their target, and now have Europe’s high-speed rail network in their sights.

You might think that the appropriate response would therefore be to stop operating ‘high risk’ trains for a week.  But apparently the Europeans are not quite so easily panicked, although in truth, high-speed trains do have appreciable vulnerabilities with the potential for bombs either on trains or on the thousands of miles of largely unprotected tracks.  Imagine the mess if one had to start going through TSA style security to board a train.

More details here.

Turning now to slow speed rail, it seems there are dangers a plenty, even with the slowest trains, albeit different sorts of dangers.  Can you guess how many people a day die on the Indian rail network?  The answer is higher than you might have thought, as you’ll see in this article.

A Solution to My Seven Internet Connections Problem

So, my eight nine year old daughter (she turns nine ‘today’ – 24 Aug in New Zealand, but still 23 Aug in the US) and I have seven devices between us that ‘need’ internet connectivity.  A laptop each, an iPad each, and a 7″ Android tablet each, too.  Plus I have a phone; Anna grudgingly agreed to leave hers behind.  While that sounds like a lot of devices, it is far from unique these days and the chances are you often have multiple devices needing internet connections with you on your travels too.

The problem arises in some of the hotels we’re staying at, which charge a fee per day – per device.  It is bad enough paying $15/day to access the internet, but imagine the extra pain when that is multiplied seven-fold and becomes $105/day.

Fortunately, there’s a solution.  Connectify, an ingenious piece of software that runs on any Windows 7 or 8 computer.  It takes any internet feed into my laptop (either Wi-Fi or Ethernet) and rebroadcasts it as a new Wi-Fi LAN – its greatest cleverness is in being able to use the Wi-Fi unit in the laptop simultaneously to connect to the hotel’s Wi-Fi source and also to connect to other devices as the internet source, itself.  So the hotel sees only the single device connection, while we get connectivity on all our devices.

This is an excellent product – an essential product in times like this.  It is available in both a free and a paid form; both work well, but of course the paid version works slightly better.

I reviewed it a few years back, and it remains as excellent now as it was then.  Highly recommended.

TSA to Buy 3.454 million rounds of Pistol Ammo

TSA ‘officers’ don’t carry weapons, at least not at present.

So how to understand their tender proposal to buy 3.454 million rounds of pistol ammunition?  What could they possibly do with so much ammunition, when their officers aren’t armed?

There’s also an amusing typo in the proposal – they ask for quotes to buy .347 SIG ammo.  It should be .357 SIG (which is also an unusual choice of caliber in any event and a totally different cartridge to the famous ‘357 magnum’ revolver round).

Some studies have suggested that the Homeland Security Dept in general is now using more ammunition per employee per year than the army, and the HSD isn’t actually fighting any wars.

Someone really has to explain what the TSA needs with 3.454 million rounds of unusual caliber pistol ammunition.

And Lastly This Week….

If you’ve ever wondered how much a new plane costs, here’s an interesting series of price comparisons between similar Boeing and Airbus models.

Two things to keep in mind.  The first is that the purchase price is, in many ways, the least important part of an airline’s evaluation of potential planes to purchase.  All sorts of other things are also important – the plane’s range, its fuel efficiency, its ability to carry both passengers and cargo, its maintenance costs, and how it can be integrated into the airline’s fleet, for example.  Other issues also apply to new planes, the same as new cars – financing terms and discounts.

Both Airbus and Boeing will readily discount their new planes by about 30%, and sometimes by close to 50%.  And Boeing has a major plus when it comes to financing, due to the assistance of the US Export-Import bank, but only when the purchaser is a foreign airline rather than a US airline.  The US carriers consider it unfair that their airline competitors are being financed by the US government, and therefore indirectly from the taxes they themselves pay.

So, this simple set of price comparisons isn’t extremely useful, but it makes for an interesting quick overview.

Something often talked about – more commonly in a joking/resigned manner of ‘They’d never do it but I wish they would’ is actually being timidly rolled out on some airlines.  Child-free zones.  It does raise an interesting question, though – with almost no child discounts ever offered anymore, how can an airline fairly restrict where a child sits?  Details here.

Lastly this week, public conveniences in China are not always of world-class standard (although that’s a rather vague sort of measurement, isn’t it!).  So perhaps any measures adopted to improve their cleanliness are to be welcomed, even if sometimes the actual measure somewhat misses the mark of what is sensible and prudent.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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