Weekly Roundup Friday 14 March 2014

Society worked perfectly well without everyone carrying officially issued photo ID.  Are we really any safer now that we must show ID for all manner of trivial transactions?  See items below.
Society worked perfectly well without everyone carrying officially issued photo ID. Are we really any safer now that we must show ID for all manner of trivial transactions? See items below.

Good morning

There are times when I am thankful that I don’t have to publish a daily newsletter, and I’ve been particularly feeling that this last week.

Ever since the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane last Friday morning (our time), other writers, less fortunate than me, have been heeding their need to publish, and have been writing an enormous amount of speculative material, much of which has been quickly superseded as new information comes to light.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is now within hours of a full week since the plane first disappeared, and we’re still unsure of what happened.  Where did it go, what did it do, and why?

However, although spared the need for daily publication, I do have a need for weekly publication, and so I’ve put together a piece that attempts to report on the current state of knowledge as of Thursday evening.  That follows the weekly newsletter, below.

There remain some curious contradictions and plenty of mystery about this flight, and hopefully the unknowns will start to be replaced by the reality of the plane’s discovery, and the ability to then start to replace guesses with answers.  One thing is almost certain, however.  There’s little chance the 239 passengers and crew are safe and unharmed (not zero chance, because maybe the plane landed somewhere and is in hiding, and maybe the plane’s abductors are keeping the passengers and crew safe, but there are a lot of maybes in that statement).

I should also publicly thank all our News site docents for their splendid job in ensuring the site remains up to date with the latest breaking developments in this ongoing and ever evolving story, and particularly Brian and Steve.  This is exactly the sort of thing our News site excels at – distilling the many different stories and ensuring you can turn to it for up to date information on what is happening.

I’m always happy to welcome new people onto our team of ‘docents’ – the people who spot and post news articles on the site, and if it is something you might be interested in occasionally doing, yourself, please let me know.  I can send you an explanatory note about how it all works, and you’re welcome to have a go and see if it is fun and interesting to you.

I’m off to New Zealand next week, in part to fine-tune and hand-craft arrangements for this October’s very special Travel Insider tour to New Zealand.  Why not choose to come on this tour and enjoy a great time in a lovely country, too.

So, what else this week – a week dominated with the mysteries of MH 370? Apparently, lots!  How about 5200 words on topics such as :

  • Heathrow About to Get a Little Better
  • A Tiny Problem for the 787 Fleet
  • White House Seeks to Increase Air Taxes
  • United’s New Free Wi-Fi – Sort Of
  • And Turkish Airlines’ Free eBooks and eMagazines, Too
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Flying Down Memory Lane – the Connie
  • TSA Takes on Buses – More Mission Creep
  • Show Me Your ID
  • The Stupidest Security of All
  • And Lastly This Week….

Heathrow About to Get a Little Better

Good news, but not much of it, to those of us who fly through Heathrow.  The ‘airport that people love to hate’ – Britain’s self-inflicted wound on itself all who suffer through it – is about to improve its ground handling capabilities.

A date has been set for the opening of the new Terminal 2 facility.  Put a ring around 4 June on your calendars.

Unlike the extended disaster that was the opening of Terminal 5 in 2008, the airport and its airlines are proceeding very cautiously with bringing Terminal 2 online.  On day one, only United Airlines will start flights there, and there will be only 2,500 passengers processed through the terminal.

By the end of June, it is hoped to be processing 26,000 passengers a day, and the target is to grow to 46,500 a day (ie 17 million a year).  The amazing thing about that statistic is that Terminal 2 has the same footprint as the earlier Europa terminal building, which was designed in 1955 to handle 1.2 million people a year.  Fifteen times more people through the same amount of ground area.  Hmmm – is that really a good thing?

Terminal 2 will become the official home of 23 Star Alliance airlines; but it won’t be until November before all airlines have completed their moves into the building.  One of the good things of this is it will make for easier airline to airline transfers within the Star Alliance because the planes will be more likely to be at nearby gates within the same terminal, rather than requiring the earlier transfers between terminals.

The new terminal’s cost is in the order of $4.2 billion, and will be named the Queen’s Terminal.

Full details here.

But the conspicuously missing part of all this happiness is that the airport’s ability to handle flights remains unchanged.  While the ground experience through the terminal may be improved (emphasis on ‘may’ – true improvement requires more airline staff at check-in, more immigration people in the arrivals hall, more security people when waiting to go through security, rather than just a new building per se), currently capacity problems in terms of handling arriving and departing planes, and the all too common delays associated with both, remain unchanged.

A Tiny Problem for the 787 Fleet

Hairline cracks in the 787 wings of new planes currently being put together at Boeing have been discovered.  Boeing says there is no risk to currently in service planes – the cracking may relate to a recent change in how Mitsubishi makes the planes’ wings, but the FAA is advising airlines to check the planes they already have in, too.

Cracks in airplane wings and other structures are nothing new, of course, and the A380 has had its own problems.  But whereas the cracking issues, along with how to detect cracks and how to repair cracks, is reasonably well understood when it comes to aluminum technologies, it is less well understood with carbon fibre manufacturing.

It is, shall we say, surprising, to learn of new wing assemblies that haven’t even been flown for the first time already showing some hairline cracks.

Talking about 787s, the JAL 787 that became an unwanted celebrity when it took center stage as the ‘Boston Battery Fire’ 787 reappeared in the news this week.  This time, it made an emergency landing in Honolulu after oil pressure in its right engine dropped.  The plane was flying from Tokyo to San Francisco at the time.

White House Seeks to Increase Air Taxes

A budget proposal from the White House would increase a range of air travel taxes.

The passenger facility charge would increase by up to $3.50 (there are a maximum of four PFCs levied on each domestic ticket currently, so that’s up to $14 more per ticket); both the customs and immigration fees go up by $2, ie $4 in total (now that customs and immigration are both the same thing, you wonder why they need two separate fees and two separate increases); and the TSA levy (currently $2.50)would go up by 40c per departure – the new TSA Precheck system might be reducing the amount of TSA staffing time spent per passenger, but that’s no reason not to charge more, apparently.

Oh, and as for the PFC increase, that’s the good news.  The airports, themselves, are asking for permission to charge even more.

United’s New Free Wi-Fi – Sort Of

My favorite four letter word beginning with the letter ‘f’ is, of course, ‘free’ (what did you think it was?).  But just like the amazing range of meanings that the other four letter f word has, we know that ‘free’ is a highly nuanced term.

So when one reads about United extending free Wi-Fi on its flights, it pays to read the fine print.

First, not all planes support the service, although the entire fleet should have it by the end of the year.

Second, the free streaming is currently offered only to iOS devices – iPhones and iPads.  You need to download the appropriate app from iTunes first.  It is understood that apps to run on other operation systems will be released in the future.

Third, you don’t get free unlimited access to the internet as a whole.  Instead, you get access to a probably hosted on the plane library of over 150 movies and 200 tv shows.  This is not Wi-Fi as we understand it, but merely access to the plane’s own library of content.

More details here.

Still, that’s great, isn’t it.  Well, yes, it is if you have an iPad, but not quite so great if it means you have to squint at your tiny iPhone screen to watch a movie.  And not too good at all if you’re part of the largest part of the smartphone and tablet owning population and have an Android rather than iOS device.

But, most of all, it pays to understand what the underlying and obscured/shifted cost of this free service is likely to be and become.  Our prediction is this is a first tentative step towards United – and, soon enough, all other airlines – removing their own IFE (in flight entertainment) devices from their planes.  Instead, you’ll have to bring your own compatible device, and use it to access the content that formerly used to be on the airplane provided screen in front of you.

I’m not saying that is a bad thing, although probably it is more comfortable to have a screen in the seatback in front of me than it is to clutch my iPad all flight long.  But if you’ve been resisting getting some sort of portable screen yourself, and have enjoyed the IFE on longer flights, you’re now going to have to now either buy a screen or go back to books and sleeping pills.

Let’s hope the airlines also provide sufficient at seat recharging facilities for all passengers, too.

I’m also curious to see how much bandwidth there’ll be (or, to put it another way, what the picture quality will be like) when 200 – 500 people on a plane all want to watch movies at the same time.  Say each person has a 2 Mbit video stream (and that’s a very modest bit of bandwidth).  So that suggests 400 Mbit/sec and more to be provided in an entire plane – potentially 1 Gbit/sec on an A380.

Will first class passengers get more bandwidth than coach class passengers?  Will business class passengers get an intermediate speed?  Will the airlines start to shift from free streaming to charging for differing speeds of access?  Knowing the airlines and their predilection for charging for everything, how long will IFE remain free – assuming you can still call it free when you need to own a device costing some hundreds of dollars to start with?

And Turkish Airlines’ Free eBooks and eMagazines, Too

Here’s a great idea – an airline offering not just audio and video entertainment, but digitized reading materials too.

Turkish Airlines has released its free Sky Library  – a range of eBooks and eMagazines, for both adults and children, including, gack, the latest twist on the classic Reader’s Digest condensed books – short summary form books on management, marketing, and other topics, ‘in abridged form that can be read and finished during a flight’.

Happily, unlike United, Turkish Airlines is supporting both Android and iOS devices, right from the get-go.  More details here.

One wonders – will these abridged books be available in one, two, four and eight hour flight versions?

At least the bandwidth demands for reading books and magazines are a great deal more modest than for watching videos.

Wonderful Hawaiian Airlines

I’ve written before about how Hawaiian Airlines has been steadily evolving, extending, and improving.  Originally an island commuter carrier, it then started adding flights to the US mainland, and more recently started adding flights to other places around the Pacific rim.

The stealthy part of its route network development is that it is not only adding flights to Hawaii from many more places, but it is also creating a hub in Hawaii for flights between the US mainland and other places around the Pacific rim.

Case in point.  I’m off to New Zealand next week, and while I had the usual expensive option with Air New Zealand – flying first to SFO or LAX and then on to Auckland or the nowadays inconvenient choice of flying Qantas to Australia and then from Australia back to NZ, and a similar choice with Virgin Australia/Delta.  There’s also Fiji Airways with inconvenient flights via LAX and Fiji (I refuse to fly them any more after my problems with them last year).

But as well as these ‘obvious’ choices, there’s also Hawaiian Airlines.  I can fly Seattle to Honolulu, have a short but not too short, convenient connection, and then on to Auckland.  That’s almost a direct straight line from Seattle to Auckland.  The airline started service to NZ in March 2013, and is the only US carrier that flies there.

Better still, their fare quote has no odious fuel surcharge ‘smoke and mirrors’ nonsense associated with it, and they allow not just one but two free bags, and not just a 50 lb bag but two 70 lb bags.  I will need to take more than 50 lbs of stuff with me, and so I’m saving an enormous $300 on the second bag compared to what Air NZ would charge.

To put it another way, Air NZ allows 50 lbs in one bag for free, Hawaiian allows up to 140 lbs in two bags for free.  Two bags, and up to 100 lbs, with NZ would add $300 roundtrip to the fare, and three bags, with up to 150 lbs, would add $700 to the trip.  Or, to compare apples with apples, two bags and up to 140 lbs on NZ would get me both excess baggage and excess weight charges – a total of $900 extra, compared to fully free on HA.

Isn’t it amazing that one airline can do for free what another airline believes is fair to charge $900 for!  Oh yes, one more thing.  The lowest Air NZ fare I could find, even after juggling dates, was $1840 (and then add however much for excess baggage charges on top of that).  On Hawaiian it was $1438.

I’m delighted to see that even though its fare to Auckland is massively less than with Air NZ, HA is making a reasonable profit these days.  There’s more to operating a profitable airline than just simply gouging your customers at every turn.

So I’m very happily flying Hawaiian Airlines next week, and luxuriating in the ‘good old days’ scenario of being able to take two heavy bags for free with me.

If you’ve been thinking of coming to NZ for our October tour, be sure to consider flying Hawaiian as a possible way to get there.

The Fees We Hate the Most?

Talking about airline fees, here’s an interesting recitation of some of the more egregious fees airlines (and hotels) charge.

How about $125 for taking a small pet onto the plane and sticking it under the seat in front of you (with the pet also counting against your carry-on allowance)?  The airline does absolutely nothing at all different to what it does if you have a regular carry-on bag, but charges you $250 for a roundtrip to take a pet with you, just because it can.

United and American spokesmen both said their pet carry-on fee was ‘competitive’.

Well, if that’s competition, it sure proves we need a great deal more of it.

The above linked article doesn’t look at cruise lines, but they are becoming as adept at fee charging as any airline or hotel.  Maybe you remember when cruising was sold as being an all-inclusive vacation – you pay for your cruise, and almost everything is included.

Those days are receding (most recently Princess Cruises are now charging up to $60 a day for you to access an adults-only part of their ships, away from hordes of screaming kids), and cruise lines are becoming amazingly inventive at charging for all sorts of things that were once free.  This article is a great read, and as you can see in the attached chart, Norwegian Cruise Lines now gets almost 30% of their total revenue from onboard charges.  Back in 2001, cruise lines got less than 5% of their revenue from extras sold on-board.

Even the core promise – free food – is no longer being honored, with increasing prominence being given to onboard restaurants that charge extra to provide food which was once the standard fare given for free.  As another table in the article shows, you can now spend up to $200, per person, for a single featured meal on some ships.

Flying Down Memory Lane – the Connie

Some planes have a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ about them that cause them to linger and last, whereas others are quickly forgotten.  The Concorde of course is a standout example of a memorable gorgeous plane, and, at the other end of the scale (almost) so too is the DC-3.

Another old plane that is distinctive and beautiful is the Lockheed Constellation and subsequently its slightly improved derivative, the Super Constellation.

Here’s an interesting article about Lufthansa’s efforts to preserve a Super Constellation.  They might have spent $60 million in the process.  But the article makes a strange mistake (856 of the planes were built, not 44 as it claims) and also implies that the LH Connie will be the last one ever to fly.

Not so.  Qantas restored one some years back, and here’s an impressive Youtube video of it taking off, flames streaming out the cowlings of its engines in full boost mode, and here’s a video of a Breitling branded Super Connie coming in to land in Paris, ending with the Eiffel Tower nicely in the background.

Wikipedia has a fairly lengthy list of survivors.  That’s not to denigrate Lufthansa’s preservation efforts of course, merely to correct the record.

It is hard to think of any of the modern stable of generic jets inspiring the same feelings as these older planes.

TSA Takes on Buses – More Mission Creep

You know the urban legend, don’t you.  After massive public outrage and disgust at the inept security screening by private contractors that allowed 9/11 to happen, the government was forced to take over airport security, and so the TSA came into being.

Well, that is the urban legend.  The truth is that the airport screeners did not fail at all on 9/11, because, per the FAA regulations, the box cutters the terrorists used to commandeer the planes were legal and lawfully allowed as carry-on items.  The private contractors were blameless.

If one were to ascribe blame for 9/11 (and the issue is massively more complex than can be considered in a single allocation of blame) you might think that blame more fairly lies at the feet of the government, for having created the ‘cooperate with terrorists, do anything/everything they ask you to do’ policy that allowed four terrorists to take over each plane with 100 – 200 passengers on board with nothing more than box cutters.

But, needless to say, that’s not the way the urban legend goes.  A shame, perhaps, because the TSA and its new parent organization, the Homeland Security Department (such an Orwellian term) that was created after the TSA has taken a lot of its moral superiority from the claim that everything it does is essential to make us saferer and that private enterprise has catastrophically shown that it can’t be trusted to do as effective a job.

The TSA are always trying to expand their powers.  Remember, they were created to replace airport security screeners.  But not only have they re-defined ‘airport security’ way beyond the Xray machine and metal detector to now include things like their enormous corps of BDOs – the ‘behavioral detection officers’ who lurk around airports trying to spot people acting suspiciously, and – to date – with a perfect zero score for nabbing would-be terrorists, but they’re spreading out whenever they can from airports to other forms of transportation, too.

Here’s the most recent example – city bus passengers in downtown Pittsburgh.

If our nation’s security groups truly feel that city buses are now at risk of being used as weapons by terrorists, then we’ve well and truly lost the war on terror, as well as one of the few remaining shreds of public freedom.

Show Me Your ID

I don’t know about you, but I’m increasingly asked to show ID – especially when buying alcohol, but also when checking into hotels, and sometimes when charging things to my credit card.  No-one ever bothers to compare my signature to the signature on the back of the card, and neither do they bother to really check my ID either – I like to ask them, when they’re returned it ‘so what is my middle name’ or, if not entering my date of birth into their machine ‘so what year was I born, then?’.  I always get blank stares in return.

I particularly thought about this with the revelations this week that at least two and maybe four or even five of the passengers on the missing Malaysia flight were traveling with stolen passports, and I wondered just how much alike or different the passengers were to the descriptions and photos in the passports they were using.  The showing of ID is a reflex request, unthinkingly made, unthinkingly complied with, and not scrutinized with any care at all by the ID requestor, making the whole thing so pointless.

I’m not Dorian Grey – I’m convincingly growing older and looking so with each passing year, and in 18 months I turn 60.  But whereas I lived much of my thirties and probably all of my forties never once having to show ID to buy alcohol, it is happening more and more frequently now.  Why?

Perhaps the stupidest example of that recently was at Costco, a company I used to love to bits.  I’ve been a Costco member for probably 27 years (remember that the minimum age to buy alcohol is 21, so even if I was given a membership while still in my mother’s womb, I’d now be well and truly past 21); oh yes, and as I vaguely remember the last time I signed someone up onto my Costco account, you have to show photo ID that of course reveals one’s birthdate on it as part of getting your own Costco photo ID membership card.

So there I am, buying beer at Costco a couple of weeks ago, with my membership card having first been scanned by the cashier before she then started to scan the items I was buying, meaning that her computer either knew my age or at least knew I’d been a member for 27 years, and she refused to allow me to buy my beer without proving I was over 21.  She agreed I looked over 21, but said ‘It’s the law’ (it isn’t) and she had to ask everyone for ID (she doesn’t).

I called a manager, and the first ‘manager’ who came turned out not to be a manager at all (an all too common trick – store employees often get their peers to cover for them when they do something stupid – always ask for the ‘manager’ to give you their card to confirm their position) and then the real manager said there was nothing he could do and I had to show my ID or leave.  How does Costco and our society benefit by carding a balding greying 58-year-old when he tries to buy alcohol?

We are being subtly transformed from a national of proudly free citizens to a nation of subservient subjects, now humbling acceding to even the most stupid of requests from the most stupid of store clerks.

I remember in the 1990s, one hotelier proudly telling me that they don’t ask their guests for anything, not even a credit card, until it comes time for them to check out.  ‘We want to make our guests feel welcome’, he said.  But probably 3/4 of all hotels now ask for photo ID when you check in, even if you’ve logged in to your frequent guest account and booked direct with the hotel through a system that has, as part of it, already confirmed your ID, and even if you’re on a fully prepaid booking.

I still remember back to learning about the Soviet Union when I was at school in the 1960s.  We all marveled in amazement about a country in which their citizens had to carry ID with them everywhere, and show it regularly to officials any time it was asked for.  Of course, back then in NZ, there was no such thing as photo ID.  Our driver’s license was a little booklet with our name written into it in pen, nothing more.  It was the same in the US too (see picture above).

Are we really any safer now that we essentially all must carry official photo ID with us at all times and be prepared to show it, even to ordinary store clerks, any time someone requires it of us?  Or has our country become every bit as dictatorial to its people as the Soviet Union ever was?

The Stupidest Security of All

How many times have you called a company’s customer service number, and prior to getting to speak to someone, keyed in your account number, maybe your social security number, and been calling from a registered phone number they have on your account profile, only to be greeted, when finally talking to a real person, with the request to confirm your account number, social security number, etc.  My rejoinder is always to tell these people ‘the details haven’t changed during the two minutes since when I punched them into your phone system and now’ but this concept is too complex for the customer ‘service’ people to understand.

But these are mere pin-pricks compared to Amazon.  Yes, the company that seeks to lead the world in online shopping also has some of the stupidest security policies.

If you ever have a problem with an order on Amazon, you can work your way through a dozen internet pages and eventually get to the point where you can speak to someone on the phone.  To do that, you don’t dial a phone number yourself.  Instead, while logged in to your Amazon account, you click a ‘call me’ button and type in your phone number.  Seconds later, your phone rings.

After a usually very short wait, you then are talking to an Amazon rep.  They want to confirm that you are you by asking your name, and after having done so, off you go and get your problem solved.  But the other half of the time – well, for example, yesterday, after confirming that the agent was indeed talking to David Rowell, she then asked ‘for the email address associated with your account’.

I had some spare time, so decided not to play her game and instead do things the hard way.  ‘Why do you need to know that?’, I asked.

‘For security, to verify your identity’ was the predictable response.

‘But how would that verify my identify?  I’m logged into my Amazon account, and my email address is my login ID, the same as it is for everyone else.  Clearly, whether I’m really me or not, whoever it is that you’re talking to knows the answer to this question.’

The girl from whichever foreign country it is she lives in didn’t understand the logic of that, and she doggedly insisted on knowing my email address.  Her system needed it to validate me, she said.  Rules are rules, and it is a necessary part of the procedure.  So,

‘Why do you need to do this?  This is my second call about this problem.  When I called an hour ago, the previous person didn’t need my email address; why didn’t she need it, but you do?  Can I speak to Suzie again, instead, please?’

Needless to say, that request wasn’t well received.  So I asked to speak to a supervisor, and ended up speaking to an American, Jim.

He said he understood my point about the email address not being a good security question, but said it was just the first question, and after answering that correctly, it would unlock some more searching questions their computer system would generate, and these question would then be asked to me next.

I know when to gracefully give up, and so I told him that which we both already knew all too well, my email address.

Now for the two ‘real’ security questions that he proceeded to ask me.

‘What is your name?’ and ‘What is your address?’.

I pointed out to him that anyone who had access to my Amazon log-in would also have access to both those points of data too, in my account profile.  How were those questions any more a test of my true identity than my email address?

He had no answer to that.

Maybe – I don’t know, because I’ve never encountered it – sensible bona fide security measures might be tolerable and acceptable.  But the nonsense sham that is put out there as security, whether by the TSA at the airport, or by really clever companies such as Amazon, companies that should know very much better, really frustrates me.

It does nothing other than create a subservient unthinking compliance reflex in us.

And Lastly This Week….

I like to think of my fellow Kiwis as a fairly thick-skinned bunch, and for a long time, we adhered to the concept of ‘sticks and stones’ll break my bones, but names’ll never hurt me’, but alas, that seems to be changing.

A friend and colleague, approaching 80 yrs of age, works as a volunteer organizer for the St John’s Ambulance Association just out of Queenstown, and tells me how he was called in to a disciplinary meeting earlier this week.  He was arranging the transfer of a patient, and in speaking to the woman who was coordinating the other half of the transfer, referred to her as ‘young lady’ (he calls me ‘young man’ all the time).  She complained (don’t ask me why) and although he is a volunteer, truly of an age where the woman was young, and massively respected in the community and country as a whole (he has even received an honor from the Queen) he was severely chastised like a naughty schoolboy for the sexist comment.  Apparently these days in NZ people have to ignore both the age and gender of women.

This article points out that these outbreaks of lunacy are struggling to be contained – fortunately in case cited in the article, it was.  And who would have guessed about the derivation of the plaintiff’s last name?

If you find the evolution of the English language as fascinating as I do, either as espoused in the preceding article or in general, you might also like this article.

I don’t expect much if any newsletter next week, due to having just arrived in NZ and fighting off the jetlag.  And doubtless seeing lots of brids and hroses, but hopefully no wapses (previous link refers).

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 14 March 2014”

  1. I like your style; I too frequently put-up a resistance to the nonsense of security questions. I had to answer all sorts of questions to PAY off my credit card. I guess that stops a kind stranger from paying my bills for me. I feel safe.

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