Weekly Roundup Friday 15 November 2013

A lovely SR-71 flying over the Rockies.  The planes were retired in 1998, and now a possible successor has been announced.
A lovely SR-71 flying over the Rockies. The planes were retired in 1998, and now a possible successor has been announced.

Good morning

Apologies for no newsletter last week.  One of the purposes of this year’s annual fundraising is to cover the costs of some server upgrades, and last week (plus some of this week too) saw us ravaged by the terrible morass of issues that surfaced during our migration to the much more powerful three servers that now provide the web, blog and email functionality needed.

Our previous server hardware had lasted six years, albeit with some midlife enhancements and repairs, but was no longer adequate; if we get another six years from the new generation of server hardware (using HP DL360 G6 equipment with dual six-core processors and 48GB of memory) we’ll consider the disruptions of the last two weeks as being worth it.  Here’s hoping.

Even though I’m still getting the final paperwork out the door for this year’s Christmas cruise, I am excited and delighted to now have the dates already agreed upon with Amawaterways for next year – the sticking point being negotiating a great discount, which I think I’ve now secured (it is not easy to get a cruise discounted 13 months in advance!).

Hopefully I can have full details for you next week, but for now, I can tell you that the cruise will be from Wednesday 10 Dec 2014 through Wednesday 17 Dec, and we’ll be going downstream on the Danube next year rather than upstream as this year (ie from Nuremberg to Budapest).  We’ll have our Prague extension of course (this year 59 of the 62 in the group chose Prague – it is very popular and rightly so) and I’m thinking we might do a Munich and environs (including Neuschwanstein castle) option too prior to the cruise – it was very popular when we offered it a few years ago.

So if you’d like to see why our Christmas cruises are so popular, please set aside the dates 10 – 17 Dec 2014, plus a few more days either side of it for travel and pre/post cruise options.

Leaving the best for last, if you’ve cruised with me (or Amawaterways) before, stay tuned for a stunning repeat-cruiser offer on this cruise, too.

Talking about touring, our Sri Lanka tour is now only four months away.  If you’ve been thinking about joining us for this amazing exposure to an island teeming with natural beauty, history and wildlife, now is the time to decide to come along.

Here’s the information on the tour; unfortunately the signup form isn’t working yet (a remaining casualty of the server migration) so send me an email if you’d like to join the 28 of us currently looking forward to next February and Sri Lanka.

Apropos Sri Lanka, does anyone have suggestions for good (or warnings about bad) hotels for our pre and post Sri Lanka tour options in Singapore and Bangkok?  I’m unfamiliar with the current hotel situation in both cities; and am looking for good quality great value well located hotels for our group in both cities.  All suggestions appreciated.

What else this week?  Well, the big thing is our 2013 Annual Fundraising drive, which sort of stalled last week due to no newsletter.  Ooops.  And you’ll also find an article attached that is of particular interest to me as a Seattle area resident – it tells how the failure of Boeing’s latest union negotiations seem likely to push Boeing still more away from the Seattle region and into some other state with a lower cost and probably non-unionized workforce.

Below are articles on :

  • 2013 Fundraising – Please Read, Please Respond
  • The Justice Department Gives In to AA/US
  • Razor Thin Becomes Paper Thin
  • Bad Service Not Unique to US Airlines
  • The Successor to the SR-71
  • The US Lags Much of the World with Internet Speeds and Costs
  • In-Flight Electronics Use Now Widely Allowed – No Planes Yet Dropping Out of Sky
  • TSA ‘Knows’ its $900 million Behavior Detection Works; 400 Independent Studies Say Otherwise
  • And Lastly This Week….

2013 Fundraising – Please Read, Please Respond

The last twelve months have been very good for Travel Insider readers such as yourself.  I’ve been sending you probably more content each week than ever before, and definitely much more since the introduction of our great News site, giving you even more access to all that’s new and important in the travel and technology world.

In return, you are asked, once each year, in a PBS style pledge drive, to provide some fair support in return.  We are now in the throes of asking for your support, this year.

Sometimes I like to compare your weekly Travel Insider content to the cost of the cup of coffee I know many of you sip while reading.  Another way of comparing this might be to the cost of an airport lounge access pass.  If you want to spend a quality hour or two at the airport, many of you will buy a day pass access to an airline lounge, probably at a cost of $50 or so.

Here’s my question, and related request.  If you’ll pay $50 for a single visit of a couple of hours in an airport lounge (or some hundreds of dollars for a year of access), how much are the tens of hours you spend each year reading The Travel Insider worth to you?

But – having asked those questions, you actually don’t need to answer them, because I’ve another reason why you should consider helping out this year.  Everyone who contributes is entered to win a selection of prizes (one entry per $10 contributed), and everyone who contributes more than $10 gets some free goodies as a tangible ‘thank you’ from me and some much appreciated supplier/supporters.

Here’s what you’ll get :

If You Contribute $10 and above

A copy of the current month’s issue of the SpecConsult World Threat Map; great to keep in mind when planning any upcoming international travels.

$20 and above

The $10 award plus a coupon worth 15% off any and all orders you place on the Scottevest travel clothing website between now and 31 December 2013 (great for Christmas gift buying).

$30 and above

The $10 and $20 awards plus your choice of any one of these four products

  • A free lifetime premier membership of the Usingmiles.com award mile/point tracking website
  • The next three issues and full access to the online back-issues of Gemütlichkeit, The Travel Letter for Germany, Austria and Switzerland
  • Copies of the September and October issues of the First Class Flyer Newsletter
  • A 25% discount on all purchases of Mobile Clean and Go screen and glasses cleaning products.  This stuff actually is good – I’ll review it next week

$40 and above

The $10 and $20 awards plus your choice of any two of the four products listed in the $30 award.

$50 and above

The $10 and $20 awards, plus any three of the $30 award choices, and also both a 5% discount and a $100 shipboard credit per cabin on any future Amawaterways cruise you book with The Travel Insider in December or January.

$60 and above

All the preceding awards, plus now all four of the $30 award choices, and (best of all? 🙂 ) a Travel Insider 18oz stainless steel insulated travel coffee mug.

$100 and above

Congratulations.   You’ve now become a ‘super supporter’.  You get all the preceding awards, a special little something from me at Christmas time, and a transferable one hour of consulting time/support with Tim Scott, a JD Edwards Enterprise One consultant.

$120 and above

You get all the preceding awards, plus a second Travel Insider coffee mug.  Now you can have a matching pair.  If you’d like more, you’re welcome to as many more as you wish, with another one coming your way for each extra $60 increment you contribute.

$200 and above

Yes, you get all of the above (including now three coffee mugs) plus a copy of Baron Wolman’s postcard book, Classic Rock – a collection of amazing pictures of some of the super rock stars of the 1960s taken by Baron, and personally autographed by Baron.

You can see more specific details of these different offerings here.  So please, this year, whether for selfless or selfish reasons (and some of these awards are definitely worth a great deal more than the contribution level needed to qualify for them), do choose to help us reach our 2013 fundraising goal (911 supporters – we’re at 136 so far).  You can send in your support instantly via credit card, or through the mail by check – full details here.

The Justice Department Gives In to AA/US

What a disappointing waste of time the DoJ’s objection to the AA/US merger proved to be, ending up as nothing more than an empty display of chest-beating but with no substance behind their bombast.

If all the DoJ wanted was to secure some token slot givebacks, there would have surely been easier ways to phrase their objection to the merger and to achieve their narrow aim.

Earlier this week, and as we’d already hinted as likely occurring on our news site, the DoJ withdrew its objections to the merger, based on the merged airline releasing 52 slot pairs at Washington’s Reagan National airport, 17 at New York’s LaGuardia, and some gates and other related facilities at both locations.

But wait, there’s more.  In a classic ‘don’t throw me into the briar patch’ scenario, the merged airline will also give up a couple of gates at Boston, O’Hare, Dallas (Love Field), LAX and Miami airports – gates they probably no longer need in their new merged form anyway.  I’m sure the airline was delighted to make such concessions – maybe this ‘forced settlement’ might even help them break some terminal leases that they were wanting to now break.

Let’s also put those slot pairs into perspective.  It seems that not all the slot pairs being given up were actually being used.  The 52 slot pairs returned at DCA will result in 44 fewer flights, and the 17 at LGA will result in 12 fewer flights.  The combined airline will continue to operate almost 250 daily departures at DCA and 165 at LGA.  In other words, the impact on AA/US of these ‘concessions’ is trivial.  The executives of both airlines might have dubious skills at operating airlines, but they are clearly excellent negotiators.

So, just like giving back things it wasn’t using at other airports (albeit now freeing the resources for other airlines) the new merged carrier is giving away things it wasn’t using at these two airports, and the overall impacts on its new ‘footprint’ at these two airports is negligible rather than profound, and almost nonexistent in most other airports around the country.

You can see more details of the ‘settlement’ (ie complete capitulation by the DoJ).

With all due respect (ie, none at all), this ‘settlement’ is male cow excrement.  The major concerns and implications of the merger have precious little to do with LGA and DCA.

The real impact is everywhere else the two merged airlines fly.

The loss of a competitor on a flight between, eg, Denver and Los Angeles, or any other city pair you care to name, is in no way compensated for by the release of a tiny number of slots in unrelated airports.

Did the DoJ lose its nerve?  Was it pressured to end its opposition?  At least initially, the DoJ correctly framed its opposition not so much in terms of DCA and LGA, but in terms of the thousand and more city pairs where the two airlines formerly competed through differing hubs and now no longer will.

The loss of competition on these thousand or more city pairs is just as real now after this ‘settlement’, no matter what happens at DCA or LGA.  The ‘settlement’ has done nothing to assuage the concerns the DoJ correctly aired to start with.

The bottom line is that, for all intents and purposes, the US and its 320 million people now has only four major airlines.  AA, DL, UA, and WN (Southwest).  And as for those record airline profits (and outrageous fees for everything) – expect to see plenty more of the same.

Razor Thin Becomes Paper Thin

The airlines are embarrassed at their record profits, because it destroys their traditional narrative of being chronically unprofitable and therefore needing dispensations from everything – and most particularly, needing protection against anti-trust suits and being given permission to merge, merge, and then merge some more.

So how do they characterize their record profits ($4.5 billion so far this year, showing a healthy 4% net profit margin)?  They concede that their profits have improved from ‘razor thin’ to now being ‘paper thin’.

I’d sure like that kind of paper, wouldn’t you?

The quote comes from this article, primarily about projected Thanksgiving travel this year.  Unsurprisingly, it is expected to be up on last year, with the worst (ie busiest) day for travel expected to be Sunday Dec 1, followed by Wed, Nov 27.

Bad Service Not Unique to US Airlines

Just because we seldom (or never) see US airlines listed in those semi-random lists of ‘the world’s best airlines’ doesn’t mean that airlines from other countries are automatically excellent, and just because Asian carriers often make the top of such lists of good airlines doesn’t mean they are all wonderful.

You want proof?  How about this story of a Lion Air flight from Denpasar (Bali) to Jakarta, which sounds eerily identical to experiences many of us have had in the US.  (One word in Lion’s defense – the four-hour penalty provision probably relates to the time of a flight’s arrival, not departure, and while the flight left over four hours late, it seems to have arrived just under four hours late.)

In case not already obvious, Lion Air is an Indonesian airline, currently with 91 planes in service and an improbable 535 more on order.

The Successor to the SR-71

One of the most amazing planes ever built was the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.  It could fly higher and faster than any other plane, and not only could it do this, but it looked as thrillingly futuristic as its performance implied.

The records it set for speed and altitude in the 1960s and 1970s remain unbroken today – at least, as far as we know, although rumors have long existed about a classified successor to the SR-71 (the Aurora).  But now news has been released about the proposed new SR-72, a plane that will fly twice as fast as the SR-71 (4500 mph instead of ‘only’ 2200 mph), making it a truly worthy successor.

The release of information is almost certainly a calculated effort on Lockheed’s part to help ensure the program gets fully funded.  It is certainly an exciting concept as described, but sadly little of the technology needed for this type of plane has much trickle-down benefit to a Concorde-successor type civilian plane that might cruise at perhaps 1500 mph (different engine technology, different wing shape and construction materials) and that’s what we most want to see.

The US Lags Much of the World with Internet Speeds and Costs

Talking about high-tech and futuristic fast capabilities, did you know that internet service is slower and more expensive in the US than in many other countries?

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, countries as varied as France, Slovenia and South Korea have typical broadband speeds twice that of the US, while simultaneously charging less a month for service – indeed, this article shows the US to be the most expensive country for internet access out of those shown, and overall it is 30th out of all 33 OECD nations.

But if you’d like to see the funny side of the story, read down to near the bottom where internet service providers in the US attempt to defend their rapacious pricing and poor service.

The most interesting statement though comes from Scott Cleland, chairman of an e-forum ‘NetCompetition’

We may be paying more in your eyes today but we are building for tomorrow and the long-term

A revolutionary idea – paying now and only building out infrastructure when it is paid for, rather than building now, borrowing, and paying later.  Almost seems un-American.

Oh, and did I forget to mention?  His e-forum is ‘supported by broadband interests’.

In-Flight Electronics Use Now Widely Allowed – No Planes Yet Dropping Out of Sky

It has been truly astonishing to see the rush by the US airlines to liberalize their policies regarding use of electronic items during all stages of their flights.  They’ve not acted this fast since – well, since the last time they all announced a fee hike!  Clearly no-one liked the earlier restrictive policies, which begs the question about why it took so long for them to be changed.

If nothing else, one is now left wondering what was the cause of the aggressive earlier policing of the airlines’ former prohibitive policies.  The planes are the same, the devices are the same, and indeed the same people who formerly said that electronics would be either safe or dangerous are still saying exactly the same things, and there was precious little ‘new research’ that the FAA relied upon to change its own policy guidelines.

The rush to abandon earlier restrictions is proving infectious.  The EU now says it expects to liberalize its regulations too, although it is not clear if its liberalization will apply only to European airlines or to all airlines operating in its airspace.  Expect European carriers to have similar ‘gate to gate’ permissive policies in place by December.

As one who has long pointed out the total lack of danger in allowing personal electronic devices to operate, may I now happily observe that two weeks after this policy change, not a single plane has spectacularly crashed and burned.

It will be truly wonderful to now fly with ‘only’ Kindles and tablets and not to also need ‘backup’ books for the chunks of time when one can’t read eBooks.

TSA ‘Knows’ its $900 million Behavior Detection Works; 400 Independent Studies Say Otherwise

The TSA spends over $200 million every year on its ‘Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique’ program (SPOT), and its Behavior Detection Officers, and has been doing so since 2007, running up almost a billion dollars so far in doing so.

But notwithstanding thousands of BDOs, and almost a billion dollars spent, the TSA has yet to detect a single terrorist (one possible reason for this of course is that there are no terrorists to be detected, as the TSA secretly admits).

The pseudo-science that the TSA bases this program on is – well, I was going to say ‘controversial’, but in truth there’s nothing controversial about it.  Over the past 60 years there have been over 400 academic studies of such techniques, and none of them support the TSA’s activities.  The DHS itself, via its Inspector General, has criticized the program, and now the GAO says the program is ineffective and its funding should be limited.

But the TSA’s Administrator disagrees with the sixty years of 400 studies, his own DHS IG, and the GAO.  He says

I know behavior detection works.  I don’t want to take a layer away that may identify the next terrorist.

In his defense, clearly the TSA BDOs are unbelievably highly trained.  They use a scoring system with 94 different factors to be considered when judging the likelihood each person they see may be a terrorist, and typically spend 30 seconds or less assessing a person against those 94 different factors.

The more cynical among us would wager large sums that your typical BDO couldn’t even list the 94 different factors in under 30 seconds (and probably not even in 30 minutes, either), let alone score a passenger against them.  And those same cynical people would wager still more money that if you lined up half a dozen BDOs, they’d all give very different rankings when appraising the same passengers.

How much longer are we going to passively enable such expensive lunacy?

And Lastly This Week….

Apple’s most recent financial results were disappointing, and its latest crop of new iPads and iPhones have also failed to generally inspire.

So what do you say when you are Apple’s CEO and having to comment on your dwindling market share?  You say something like this :

We are not solely focused on unit share, we are focused on usage share and customer loyalty and other things that are important to us.

Sounds like a good line for Blackberry to use.

Here’s a fascinating article that almost begs to be read from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

And now truly lastly this week, some will remember Robert McNamara’s ‘Whiz Kids’ who brought scientific methods and controls to the DoD.  Whiz kids are generally considered to be very intelligent people.

But sometimes there can be another reason to be called a Whiz Kid, even if you are also an intelligent scientist.

Please don’t forget our annual fundraising.  Your support truly is needed – how else would you get to learn of gems like these whiz kids and their field of study!?  And remember that this year your generous support will be repaid back to you with a broad range of benefits and bonuses.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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