Weekly Roundup Friday 7 February 2014

Another Sochi Olympics toilet picture.  Lots more Sochi picture links below.
Another Sochi Olympics toilet picture. Lots more Sochi picture links below.

Good morning

It is Olympic time again, with the Sochi winter Olympics opening today.  It seems we might get to learn the answer to the question ‘What if they held an Olympics and no-one came?’ – not only is the most expensive Olympics ever staged, but it seems it may also be one of the most sparsely attended.

One more record it is setting is that it will be the most security obsessed event ever, so much so that the TSA, in their infinite wisdom, have banned all liquids, powders and gels from carry-ons, from all flights to all destinations in Russia.

This is curious for two reasons.  First, the TSA’s belief that a flight from the US to maybe Vladivostok, for example, might be at increased risk, notwithstanding Sochi’s location some 4500 miles away from VVO.  But, secondly, it also puts lie to the promises of pending future liberalizations of the TSA’s liquid policies, and the underlying predicate that the TSA is now so good at detecting explosives in liquids that soon it will no longer need to continue the 100 ml liquid rule.

What their action now tells us is that in truth, they’re no better now at detecting liquid type explosives than they ever were, and indeed, perhaps, the terrorists have become more adept at obscuring them than the TSA has become able to detect them.  Are we losing this contest rather than winning it?

The TSA is also dusting off a really old threat – the ‘toothpaste bomb‘ as partial justification for a ban on liquids that are utterly unlike tubes of toothpaste.  Yawn.

The Russians have a similar ban on all liquids on their domestic flights, but it seems the ban is only occasionally being enforced.

The good news, at least for one lucky Travel Insider, is that the sudden hole in our Sri Lanka tour was very quickly filled.  Thanks to everyone else who either wrote in bemoaning their inability to respond, or who registered interest too late to get this bargain themselves.

Attached to this note is a piece prepared in anticipation of being featured on Rudy Maxa’s radio show this Saturday morning at about 8.33am, Pacific time.  If your local station carries it, and you’re so inclined, there’s your chance to hear my dulcet tones, sounding forth about the need to allow international airlines to operate within the US.  Or you could just read the attached article, now, instead!

An interesting point of immediate relevance to this concept is all the fuss being made over tiny Norwegian Air and its new services to the US.  The professed reason for objection is that the airline wants to base its operations in low-cost Ireland while seeking to fly between Norway and the US.  This can run the risk of redefining the ‘freedoms’ the airline needs to operate – a more permissive freedom is required for an airline to operate between two foreign countries, neither of which is the one it is based in, than the freedom required for an airline based in one country to operate between its home country and one other country.

Who really cares, you might wonder?  Oh, just about every other airline.  In a manner similar to the suggestion that elephants are scared of mice (it turns out they truly might be; no-one knows why), the enormous airlines are very worried about Norwegian Air, a tiny airline with only three planes in its long-haul fleet, because it represents the wave of the future, and rather than adjust, the dinosaur airlines would rather try to turn back the tide and freeze things in their present form.  Although clearly this would not be good for us as passengers, they are appealing to the agency that is supposed to represent our interests – the DoT – and asking them to refuse to allow these bargain priced flights to travel to and from the US.

For us as passengers, we should welcome and support this breath of fresh air, and hope the airline grows and prospers.  Its promise of massively lower cost airfares is one we should all welcome.  Here’s a good article about the airline and what it promises to do.

The last while has seen me massively overtasked, perfecting the remaining details of the Sri Lanka tour, and also working on a humongous new travel/tourism project that is currently reflected in, as of today, 154 pages of business plan and dozens of spreadsheet tabs, and there’s a huge amount more to do before it is ready to be offered to investors.  I’m enormously excited by this and it is taking most of my daily energy and focus at present, so little extra to share with you tonight (well, 2,000 words, so I guess ‘little’ is a subjective concept!).

As always, don’t forget our excellent news.thetravelinsider.info daily news site and the free newsletters you can get from it for short daily updates interspersed with appropriately pithy comments.  If nothing else, you can learn from one of the articles that we posted there recently about how to eat good food, totally for free, at your local airport.

Now for a couple of additional things before signing off for the week – and of course, the week wouldn’t be complete without mentioning another 787 problem.

Another 787 Problem

This time all three of a 787’s computerized navigational systems failed simultaneously, leaving the pilots with no remaining navigational aids other than – well, I’m guessing that it still has a low tech magnetic compass somewhere.  Not a big deal if you’re overland during the day, and if you can use some of the other navigational aids which may or may not still have been operational, but at night or over the water on a long flight, especially up in the higher latitudes where compasses become problematic, and, well, who knows.  The problem was described as a software issue, which I find totally unreassuring.  What is the point of multiple backup systems if they are all driven by the same software?

I’ve always marveled that software of similar complexity to that which powers our computers (and frequently fails) is trusted to fly planes.  As planes become more and more automated, the software becomes more and more complex, bugs can become more and more obscure (at least this bug was all too obvious) and pilots can find themselves with an unflyable plane and not able to understand the problem due to the software obscuring rather than indicating the underlying problem (which in a nutshell is what happened with the AF447 crash).

Talking about the time to solve a computer problem on a plane, there was another 787 with a ‘computer glitch’ – whatever that means – last week.  The flight had to be cancelled, because it takes ‘a few hours’ to reboot the 787’s computer systems and make sure everything is working properly again.  Am I stating the obvious to point out that if your plane’s computer freezes at 35,000 feet (or, even worse, at 350 feet) you probably don’t have a few hours to wait for it to become flyable again.

Details here.

As for the Air India flight, happily, yet again the 787 and its passengers ‘dodged a bullet’.  The flight landed safely 65 minutes after the failures.

The other fascinating part of this not very detailed or technical report is the assertion that the 787s in Air India’s fleet have had in total 136 ‘minor technical snags’ in less than a year (after allowing for the grounding of the planes in the first part of last year).

Could this be part of the reason why the FAA downgraded the national safety rating of all Indian airlines last Friday?  Probably not, unless it is going to then downgrade Japan and other countries with airlines operating the 787 too.  The safety rating downgrade is actually a big deal – there are only two FAA categories, the normal category one and the downgraded category two, so this is as bad as it gets for a country and its airlines.

The Indian reaction to the downgrade was surprising.  Rather than apologizing and addressing the problems, a spokesman said

If the downgrade is not reversed immediately, and our airlines flying to the US are harassed unnecessarily, we will retaliate doing the same

Yes, that’s a really great way to address safety concerns.  Perhaps the country does deserve the downgrade.

But it also reminds us that India is no longer a minor third world nation to be treated with contempt – it is a nuclear power, with four times the population of the US and almost as many people as China (it is expected to have more people than China by 2030).  India is an essential non-Muslim ally in a troubled region, and enormous growing economy, and a country we should be cultivating positively, rather than one we are publicly shaming.

Furthermore, when it comes to third world countries, we should be careful about the pot calling the kettle black.  No less an authority than our own VP recently described LaGuardia as a ‘third world country’.

Amusingly, this article’s main take on the description seems to be concern that Joe Biden was using a term that is no longer politically correct.

Beware of the Online Travel Agencies’ Fine Print

Here’s an interesting article which points out something most of us would be entirely unaware of.  When you book travel through an online travel agency, you may find that the innocuous ‘I agree to the terms and conditions’ check box that you must approve results in you giving away rights that you’d otherwise have in the event of problems with your travel bookings.  Amazingly, the terms and conditions seem not only to excuse (eg) Expedia from liability, but the end travel product providers too.

So, if you book a hotel through a regular travel agency, you have recourse in the event of unresolvable problems.  But if you book through Expedia, you’ve agreed to waive all such rights.

Do you still feel good about using Expedia for your bookings?

And Lastly This Week…..

I had reason to visit the Microsoft campus this week, and arrived early in the morning.  The significance of that is that it was still dark outside, and the offices had their lights on, making it easy for me to see inside.  I must have walked past a dozen or two offices with computer screens visible on the walk from the car to the entrance foyer, and almost entirely without exception, every screen was showing a ‘classic’ Windows 7 type screen layout rather than the new appalling blunder that is the Metro monstrosity.  It has to mean something when Microsoft’s own employees have so overwhelmingly turned their backs on the new interface.

How else to end the newsletter than the way I started it, with more commentary about Sochi (yes, and links to the pictures promised at the top).

It is strange that other countries with what one would have equated to be a similar level of sophistication and development such as China managed to pull off a triumphant Olympic Games that truly was a statement to the world that China had come of age (and comparable successes with World Cup football events in other not fully developed countries), but Russia’s shambolic efforts at staging the Olympics are having the opposite effect to that which was the great hope of President Putin.

Let’s start off with the list of ‘15 alarming signs Russia might not be ready for the Olympics‘ then move forward to a look at some of the hotels, before of course, ending with another visit to the bathrooms.  Here’s perhaps the best roundup article of all that will have you choking on your coffee due to way too much laughing.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels – and talking about safe travels, here’s an article that should give you some pause for thought.

Oh yes – is it too much to hope that next week will see ‘normal’ winter weather and similarly normal flight operations across the US?  The rest of the world can manage it, why can’t we?







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