Weekly Roundup Friday 21 March 2014

A lady had her bottle of Jimmy Choo perfume confiscated by the TSA.  Not because it was over the 100ml limit (it wasn't).  But rather because 'it looked like a grenade'.  Story below.
A lady had her bottle of Jimmy Choo perfume confiscated by the TSA. Not because it was over the 100ml limit (it wasn’t). But rather because ‘it looked like a grenade’. Story below.

Good morning

And a hearty hello from New Zealand.  It is lovely to be in this glorious country, where I spent a quick night in Auckland, and am now in Christchurch for a night before then driving down to Queenstown tomorrow for a couple of weeks on a somewhat challenging but hopefully ultimately worthwhile work-related mission.

Much less challenging, and much more fun, will be my return to NZ in October, together with a small group of Travel Insiders, and our enjoyment of the country, its finest sights, activities, and, yes, events, food and drink too.  I’m glad I have this opportunity now to ‘fine tune’ the itinerary we’ll enjoy in October for best results.  Please consider joining us for our Epicurean Extravaganza this October – full details here.

We have a single lady seeking a companion for the NZ trip.  If you are also a single lady and would like to share so as to avoid the single supplement, please let me know.

If you are considering traveling to NZ, either with us in October or any other time, then you probably know that New Zealanders speak English.  But not 100% identically to the US; so here’s an article to help you to translate some of the more obscure NZ expressions.

My travels from Seattle to NZ were extraordinarily positive.  While you might think I’ve never found an airline I didn’t vehemently dislike, that is not the case with Hawaiian Airlines, at least based on my flights SEA-HNL and HNL-AKL this week.

The fairly full A330 from SEA-HNL pushed back a minute early and arrived early into Honolulu too, after a very pleasant flight.  Seatback videos in coach, USB ports at all seats, free breakfast that was not only edible but actually nice, and a free ‘welcome to Hawaii’ tropical fruit and rum cocktail shortly before landing in Honolulu, all with a very friendly flight crew, made for a great flight.

The flight on to Auckland, on a nearly new A330, was amazing, in a simultaneously good and bad way.  Again there was an ontime pushback and early arrival, and a very friendly and attentive flight crew.   But the most amazing thing was having an entire row of four seats to myself.  As was also the case for most other people on the flight as well.  I’d almost forgotten what this once common luxury felt like, and it was great to re-experience it again on the nine-hour flight to Auckland.  But the bad thing about this – no airline can survive these days on 25% load factors.  I’m very worried that the marvelous HA flights to NZ might be at risk of cancellation if such load factors are common on the route.

I’d certainly urge everyone to consider giving their support to HA on this route, and everywhere else Hawaiian Airlines flies.  In my earlier comments about Fiji Airways, I’d observed that their attempts to create an ‘island feeling’ to their flights failed in a sadly amateurish fashion.  But Hawaiian Airlines has done an excellent job of transporting the distinctively friendly and relaxed Hawaiian lifestyle to their flights, and in a polished and professional manner.  I often observe that it is impossible to tell the difference between a flight on the three major carriers – but having now enjoyed these two HA flights, I’m reassured that, if an airline really wanted to be distinctive and different, it could be.

As mentioned last week, this is a shorter than normal newsletter, although I did manage to write a couple of additional items prior to heading ‘downunder’ that are attached to the newsletter so as to fill out the time you usually allow for reading your weekly Travel Insider.

One is a horror story about United Airlines.  It is much more than a single-issue problem, however.  It raises all sorts of additional questions above and beyond the simple fact of United requiring a passenger that it stranded in Sydney to spend $700 of their own money to phone through to United’s US reservation center to book an alternate flight (even though UA have a toll-free number in Australia, and even though you’d think UA’s airport staff would reluctantly agree to rebook the guy themselves).  Read it and weep, and discover, yet again, why we hate the airlines with both passion and justification, and why we desperately need to complete the deregulation process that was only half done, way back in the late 1970s.

It is time now to open the US skies to any airlines that meet safety and operational standards, no matter where in the world their shareholders live.

The other item takes from the very complicated experience I went through over the last couple of weeks, during which I evaluated and identified a replacement camera to take with me down to NZ.  Digital cameras have of course evolved and improved enormously since their first appearance, now more than 20 years ago, but in truth, the changes over the last few years have been minor and incremental rather than as exciting and essential as they were in the first decade or so – indeed, the camera I replaced was eight years old and only now becoming arguably due for retirement.

Part of the reason I held on to my old camera so long is that these days, the steady increase in megapixel counts no longer matters.  My old 8MP camera had more than enough pixels for almost any and all foreseeable uses.  So what is the point of new cameras these days with 20MP, or even more?  That’s a good question – so good a question, in fact, that I’ve written an article about it.  Please see it below.

What else.  Of course, MH 370.  Last week I boldly said that the airplane could have continued to fly some 3,000 miles beyond its last known position.  The next couple of days after my assertion saw most sources focused on no more than 2,000 miles further, but on Sunday morning the latest bit of ‘old news’ (ie, something that has been out there right since the plane first disappeared but only now became public knowledge) was that the plane had continued to fly for not just four more hours, but possibly for seven and a half more hours after it switched off its radio transmitters.  Better still, it was possible to guess a very general approximation of where the plane was when it went fully silent, somewhere on the circumference of a vast circle either down in the ocean west of Australia, or, simultaneously more puzzlingly and possibly also more likely, somewhere perhaps north of India.

News broke on Thursday about possible wreckage sighted way off the southwest coast of Australia.  Possible wreckage sightings of course have happened several times before, and it will apparently take two days for a ship to get to the wreckage and confirm/deny exactly what it is – it seems amazing that there’s no faster way to do this.  It would be great to get some closure at least as to where the plane is, although of course understanding how/why it got wherever it is will probably take much longer.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the flight this week is how slow the flow of information has been from the Malaysian (and other) authorities, and also how contradictory the authorities and the news they have been releasing has been.  How long did it take for someone to realize the engines were still ‘pinging’ a satellite and ‘phoning home’, and to use that data to get an approximate indication of how long the plane continued flying after ‘going dark’?  What was the point of all the searching close in to the plane’s last known location while officially on course when it was tracked on radar turning around, flying back over Malaysia, and out over the sea to the west?  And what was the point of then searching close to that second ‘last known location’ if it was simultaneously known the plane continued to fly for many more hours after vanishing from radar?

How is it that we’re given one chronology of events – first the ACARS was shut off, and then subsequently, the pilot (later amended to co-pilot) radioed his final ‘goodbye/goodnight’ message; then some days later, we’re told the ACARS was still on when the final radio message was sent, and then, later again, we’re told that maybe it was on and maybe it wasn’t on.

Then there are things we still don’t know.  An absolutely essential piece of information is how much fuel was on the plane.  How can anyone start to make better guesses as to where the plane might be if they don’t know what the outer limits of their searching should be?  Assuming proper procedures were followed, the amount of fuel on the plane was officially advised as part of the flight plan paperwork prior to the plane taking off.  Why has that information not been released?

One wonders at what point confusion becomes incompetence becomes deliberate obfuscation.  It was easy to be understanding and forgiving of things being confused and contradictory in the first minutes and hours, maybe even in the first day or two after the plane disappeared, but we’re now at the two-week point and still we don’t have a clear consistent story about much at all.

There is also a chilling interpretation of some possible radar images showing the plane briefly climbing way up, to its maximum height of about 45,000 ft shortly after going silent.  Not often stated is that this might have been done as part of a cabin depressurization to simply, quickly and easily kill everyone on board.

One thing that has been simultaneously good and bad in today’s world where everyone has an (internet) mouthpiece, is the wide range of ‘amateur experts’ who have been sharing their views on things.  Some of these opinions are better left unrepeated, but some of the best commentaries I’ve read have been in the form of blog articles by relatively ordinary people with no special access to the investigation.

Continuing that theme of occasional excellence is an article earlier this week giving a very interesting explanation for why the 777 went where it did, and how it then disappeared off the world’s radar screens for however many hours subsequently.  Well worth reading.

Here is another piece that is amusing in a dark sort of way.  Attorneys are worrying – what if the plane is never found?  Will that make for more complicated jurisdictional issues as to who to sue and where?

One last unrelated comment that I’ll try to tie in.  It is perhaps yet another testament to the extraordinary advances in aviation to note that it is only 90 years ago this week from when the first ever ‘around the world’ flight itinerary was undertaken.  These days, longest range passenger planes can fly pretty much halfway around the world on a single tank of gas, and could do a true 24,900 mile circumnavigation of the globe in about two days with maybe two refueling stops along the way and a high degree of confidence in completing their journey safely and on schedule.

But back in 1924 things were a bit different.  The task involved four planes, which flew at speeds of up to 103 mph, and had a range of up to 2,200 miles.  Two of them crashed along the way, and the other two took six months and six days of elapsed time to do the journey, which was a total of 27,553 miles, at an average speed of 74 mph (yes, about what you probably cruise the freeway at these days), and with stops in 28 different countries.

The six month journey helps explain why the book ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, when published in 1873, seemed like a very fast transit time.

Details here.

Although I’d feared this would be a short newsletter due to traveling to NZ, I ‘cheated’ by prewriting as much of this as possible, prior to flying to NZ on Wednesday, and so, please keep reading for more on :

  • Hawaiian Airlines Advances and Retreats
  • United Advances and Retreats
  • Alaska Airlines Learning to be Wary of its Friends
  • Seattle Shows its Luddite Self
  • My Favorite Software – Now Free
  • A Grenade?  Really???
  • An Ironic Image
  • Still More TSA Mission Creep
  • And Lastly This Week….

Hawaiian Airlines Advances and Retreats

I have written several times before about Hawaiian Airlines and its growing international route system.  After my simultaneously wonderful flight, but on a nearly empty plane, I’m a bit concerned to read their recent announcement that they are cutting two of their routes, however – between Honolulu and Fukuoka (in Japan) and between Honolulu and Taipei.  The airline’s CEO, Mark Dunkerley, explained they were simply underperforming, but said ‘the vast majority’ of the new international routes are ‘performing extremely well’; adding that some of them are now among the airline’s most successful routes.

Something tells me the Auckland route is not yet one of their most successful routes.

Interestingly, while vague on the problems with their Fukuoka route, he explained that the disappointing performance from Taipei was due to traffic not surging as much as had been anticipated when the US upgraded Taiwan to allow its citizens to fly to the US without requiring a visa.  Dunkerley said that other markets, such as South Korea, had seen their traffic quickly surge 50% – 100% once the country was added to the visa waiver list, but this did not happen with Taiwan.

Continuing its international expansion, the airline starts service to Beijing next month.  Does this mean HA is hoping/predicting that China will soon be added to the visa-waiver list?

More details here.

United Advances and Retreats

Well, you can debate which part of this story is the advance and which is the retreat, but it seems the airline is being only very weakly insistent on enforcing its new carry-on bag sizing rules.  After the airline announced fairly stern new policies and deploying bag sizing templates throughout its route network a few weeks back, this article reports there is little evidence of the new rules yet being consistently enforced.

Hint :  Dress like a business traveler if you have an oversized carry-on….

Alaska Airlines Learning to be Wary of its Friends

As a Seattleite, and a reformed previous United flier, I’m very supportive of our own local airline, Alaska Airlines (notwithstanding the implications of its name, the airline is headquartered in Seattle).

It has been great to watch its steady growth over the last decades, and no longer is it a regional airline with short routes fanning out from Seattle, but now it flies from coast to coast, and increasingly to more and more cities ‘in the middle’ too.

Alaska has long been an unaligned carrier, not belonging to any of the three major alliances, and at one time or another, having marketing partnerships with airlines belonging to probably all three alliances.

It has made sense for major airlines to partner with Alaska and to use the airline’s regional feeds in to Seattle to fill their own longhaul flights to further away places, both within the US and internationally.  That has been a win-win-win scenario – good for Alaska, good for the other airline, and good for their respective passengers.

But, the more that Alaska has cautiously grown its own route system, the more it starts treading on the toes of its airline partners.  At what point that becomes an action item by a former partner airline is unclear.

More recently, Delta, particularly now it has absorbed Northwest, has realized that Seattle makes a good focus city to base international flights from, as a change from the congested or unreliable airports in California.  Delta has been adding more international flights, with its latest addition – Seattle to Heathrow – due to start in a couple of weeks, and new services to Seoul and Hong Kong in June.

But Delta – an active and close partner with Alaska – has not been content to let Alaska handle the flights in and out of Seattle to other points within the region.  It has been adding its own flights, to the same cities it formerly had codeshare services with Alaska, and is clearly moving from being an airline partner to an airline predator.  Both airlines are being very brave about things at present, and neither is yet willing to state the increasingly obvious truth that Delta is trying to displace Alaska as Seattle’s dominant airline, and they are probably in the final stages of still viewing each other as more valuable as a fickle friend than to declare open (fare) war on each other for a ‘fight to the finish’.

Sparks will surely fly when the growing competitive reality finally becomes impossible to ignore further.  Here’s an interesting article about Delta’s plans and the implications to Alaska.

What will happen to Alaska Airlines?  It has successfully fought off other challenges from smaller airlines in the past, but going up against Delta might be a difficult battle, which will cause a renewed wave of the speculation that never ends and has been going on for decades about Alaska being bought out by one of the four major carriers.

Can a small airline still successfully compete against one of the four major carriers?  Time will tell.

Seattle Shows its Luddite Self

Have you been following the explosion in ride-sharing/amateur taxi type services that has been occurring over the last year or so?  It is a great idea, making good use of the omnipresent mobile phone we all have.  Whenever you want a taxi, you simply use an app on your mobile phone.  The app even knows where you are (but you can override this) and also knows where potential drivers are with their cars.  In a flash, you are electronically matched with the closest and most appropriate ride, and before you know it, you’re being driven where you want to go, often in a much nicer car than a regular taxi, and hopefully for less money, too.

The driver benefits – it can be a great way to pick up some extra pocket money (some drivers are professional, others do it part-time just when they happen to be in their car and with free time), and so too does the passenger.

But, as always with new disruptive things, there’s a downside.  The established taxi driving services are losing out.  That’s unfortunate, but when I say that it is unfortunate, what I really mean is that it is unfortunate that the existing taxi services don’t embrace the new technology and participate equally, with the added benefit of their large fleets of professional drivers.  Instead, they are digging their toes in to the old-time hallowed way of providing taxi services, and are doing all they can to bring pressure to bear on local councils to prohibit this new approach to personal travel.

You might think that local authorities have no dog in this fight at all.  Or, alternatively, you might think they’d welcome innovative approaches to personal transit, and nowhere more so than in Seattle, home of innovation as expressed by Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and debatably even Boeing.

But, alas, no.  Whether it be due to the fact that the only type of transportation Seattle seems to embrace is the bicycle, or whatever other reason, the Seattle City Council has now voted to restrict to the point of total uselessness the presence of these ride sharing services in Seattle.  Shame on them.

It was aptly described as ‘this is like prohibiting Netflix so as to protect Blockbuster’.

Details here.

My Favorite Software – Now Free

Talking about Microsoft, one of the programs I rely on the most is Microsoft’s excellent OneNote program.  It is a note taking program – you can file away information that you collect and clip from many different sources.  You can also store the information in the internet cloud, allowing you to access it again not only on the computer you used to enter the information, but also on a range of other devices, including of course phones and tablets, and from anywhere in the world.  You can even share your notes with other people if you wish, and allow them to collaborate on note collection and management.

Okay, so there have been a growing number of other programs appearing over the last few years, all offering some of these functions, and some close to offering all the functions, and at various price points, seemingly going ever lower.  But now Microsoft has drawn a line under their product, by making it totally free.

OneNote is an easy to use program, and I find it invaluable when I’m researching something, or simply just as a great place to keep assorted notes and memos to myself.  If this sounds like something you might use, I do recommend it, and all the more so now that it is fully free.

Details here.

A Grenade?  Really???

I’m really torn by this story.  I can’t decide which is the stupider.  TSA agents who impound tiny (1/2″ in size) plastic guns off children’s toys, or TSA agents who seize a bottle of perfume because they believe it looks like a grenade (see the picture at the top of this newsletter and decide for yourself how grenade like it might be).

The story gets worse.  This was not a single rogue TSA agent acting bizarrely.  It was a massed operation, and saw an entire screening lane closed for an hour at Phoenix Sky Harbor while multiple TSA agents and a bomb expert ‘investigated’.  Oh, it was also taken from a Pre-check cleared passenger.  So much for Pre-check, it would seem.

What is there to investigate?  It was two ounces (59 ml) of perfume in a clear glass bottle.  End of story.  Well, it would be the end of the story anywhere but in the alternative universe that lurks inside US airports these days.

Should I also point out that grenades come in all manner of different shapes and sizes, not just the traditional ‘pineapple’ or Mills bomb type shape.

An Ironic Image

tsapilotbThere’s an enormous irony present in this security image of MH 370 Co-pilot Fariq Hamid being frisked while going through airport security prior to that fateful flight.

How would frisking any pilot uncover any potential intention to act inappropriately and steal the plane he is trusted to fly?

Or, as pilots love to say with plenty of eyeball rolling, ‘I can’t take a tiny pocket knife on the plane, but right next to me in the cockpit is a huge big fire axe’.  And, as is being increasingly speculated about with MH 370, the plane itself is of course a weapon, which the pilots are entrusted with.  But not tiny pocket knives, or, perhaps, inappropriately shaped bottles of perfume either.

Still More TSA Mission Creep

Last week I wrote about underemployed TSA agents choosing to hang around bus stops, presumably in case they stumble across a confused terrorist unable to find his way to an airport.

This week, the TSA has decided to make a St Patrick’s Day parade in Portland, ME, saferer for us all.  Is the US finally making an oblique statement about the IRA, several decades late?  Or maybe the TSA agents just wanted an excuse to watch the parade.  It is distressingly hard to distinguish between a TSA agent on duty (and not catching terrorists) and a TSA agent playing truant (and not catching terrorists).

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

You all know the thing about not making jokes about bombs at airport security, don’t you.  Well, here’s a joke that was not just about a bomb, but about a bomb allegedly hidden in the ‘worst possible place‘.

Talking about security, on my flight from Auckland to Christchurch I didn’t have to show ID at any stage.  Not to get a boarding pass, not to check my bags, not to go through security (didn’t even have to show a boarding pass to go through security) and not to board the plane.

But….  an in-flight announcement on the Jetstar flight, trying to sell food and drinks to the passengers, said they’d accept cash or credit cards, but ‘for your own safety, we’re sure you’ll appreciate it if we ask for photo ID if you use a credit card’.

True.  You can check baggage and fly to Christchurch without showing ID, but if you want to buy a cup of coffee on board the plane and charge it to your Visa card, better have your ID ready.  <sigh>

Truly lastly this week, if you are going to leak Microsoft secrets to the press – a word of advice.  Don’t use a Hotmail email account to do so (Microsoft owns Hotmail).  Just ask this guy what happens next if you do.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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