Weekly Roundup, Friday 11 July, 2014

This is your last opportunity to join us for our wonderful  NZ tour, this October.
This is your last opportunity to join us for our wonderful NZ tour, this October.

Good morning

My broken ankle is continuing to improve, and I expect today to be able to start ‘going to work’ once more – an event which in my fortunate case involves no more travel and travail than going downstairs to my office at home.  Until now, the 15 stairs have been too challenging to attempt, and while it is still more than two weeks before I can even start to put any weight on my left foot, I’ve modified the stairs some and can now start to go up and down them again.

Being able to ‘properly work’ will be helpful in many ways.  In particular, I’ve been working around the edges of a really big story – indeed, at this point it seems to be transitioning more from story to exposé.  I’ve written a couple of pieces already about high-end audio, and there’s also an article on the blog that I’ve yet to officially tell you about.  I’ve already rewritten the article once and now will probably take it down and replace it entirely.

The amazing thing is that the more I look into ‘high end’ audio, the less of substance I see, and the more I feel surrounded by snake oil and snake oil salesmen.

Leading names in the ‘high-end’ audio industry stop talking to me and refuse to answer questions when I transition from polite introductions to direct hard-hitting questions about the validity of their product claims, and their unwillingness to validate their products points to some ugly but unavoidable conclusions, particularly in the light of some compelling independent studies that cast doubt on most aspects of ‘high end’ audio (in particular the recorded music, more so perhaps than the equipment it is played upon).

This has all become enormously complex and I need my full attention span and plenty of computer screen space to lay it all out and put it together in a simple straightforward and unimpeachable format.  But, a request to you, first.  Do you have expertise in the high end/digital music field?  If you do, I’d love to have you double-check my reasoning and research, and to either confirm or rebut the conclusions I’m developing.  Please let me know if you can comment on these issues.

Talking about snake oil and nonsense, the TSA has announced some new security measures, requiring all portable electronics to be capable of being powered up for inspection when flying to the US from some unnamed foreign cities.  Other countries are following suit, and rumors are circulating that similar measures will start to appear, from time to time, semi-randomly, even on domestic flights within the US.

Naturally, this slows down the security screening process, and if your device has a dead battery, it will be seized and not returned to you.  Say goodbye to your laptop, potentially!

But while the process definitely makes travel even more unpleasant and fraught than it already is, it doesn’t actually close the security loophole the TSA is concerned about at all.  There’s still an enormous vulnerability (or two) that remains unaddressed.

Naturally, I have some comments on this – both positively, in terms of how you can ensure you never get trapped with dead batteries at security, and less positively in terms of pointing out the underlying nonsense – for this to work, it requires us to hope that terrorists are stupider than the TSA.  Is that an assumption you’re willing to rely upon?

Please see the article below for more on these points.

Lastly before briefly looking at some other aspects of the last week, can I remind you one last time about our New Zealand tour.  We’re close to full and close to closing off the tour, but would be delighted to accept one more couple if you’d like to join in.  Full details of what promises to be a fun experience this October, here.

Also, below, slightly fewer than normal, but some items on :

  • Naughty United?
  • Spirit Gives 8,000 Miles to Anyone Complaining About Any Airline
  • Airline Delay Liability Expanded in UK and EU
  • Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones on Sale
  • (Nearly) Naked Pilot
  • Sulky Pilot – And a Possible Solution
  • And Lastly This Week….

Naughty United?

There’s an interesting new court case against United Airlines just starting its way through the courts.

The lady plaintiff claims United deliberately bumped her checked bag off her flight, so as to be able to carry more commercial cargo instead.  Adding insult to injury, United didn’t even refund her the $25 fee they charged for carrying her bag.

Apparently the flight was weight (or possibly space) limited and United had to either offload some cargo or some bags, and it is alleged that the airline could get more money from the cargo and so left the bags behind.  The lady says both a baggage handler and flight attendant told her this is a widespread practice by United.

The suit seeks to be certified as a class action, in the belief that many other passengers have been similarly affected, too.  United, ahem, denies the allegations.

More details here.

Spirit Gives 8,000 Miles to Anyone Complaining About Any Airline

Budget airline Spirit is the airline passengers love to hate – a survey shows that consistently from 2009 through 2013, Spirit had three times as many complaints as any other airline (even three times more than United).

But, as any good salesman knows, you always turn a negative into a positive, so Spirit is now offering 8,000 of its frequent flier miles to anyone who tells them why they hate Spirit (or, throwing the field wide open, why they hate any other airline, too).

You’ll have to be quick to claim your 8,000 miles however.  Spirit has only reserved ‘up to’ (that huge loophole expression) one billion miles to give away during the promotion.

What is in it for Spirit?  Well, you need 10,000 miles for a free one way ticket, so perhaps they’re hoping you’ll either fly them a bit, too, or else sign up for their branded credit card (which brings you 2,500 more miles).

Details on their special website, hatethousandmiles.com.

Airline Delay Liability Expanded in UK and EU

You know how it is – your flight is delayed, but you’re told that the airline isn’t liable, because it is a weather related problem, or because it is a safety/maintenance related problem.  Right?

I’ve always said that most ‘weather’ problems are actually airline operational problems.  But what about safety and urgent maintenance – who can complain about that?

Of course, we can understand that the regulatory authorities don’t want to discourage the airlines from immediately attending to safety related airplane maintenance as and when the need arises.  But do the airlines really deserve carte blanche waivers from liability for anything/everything if they turn around and claim a delay was due to maintenance needs?  When do reasonably foreseeable and ongoing maintenance needs become unexpected emergency action items?

A landmark ruling in the UK has now said that airlines there (and therefore, probably, in much/all of the EU, because the case revolved around an EU regulation) can’t rely on ‘normal’ maintenance and technical issues as excusing them from liability for the consequential flight delays.

The applicable rights apply to anyone on a flight departing from any airport within the EU, and to flights from other parts of the world if flying to an EU airport and operated by an EU carrier.

Something to keep in mind the next time your BA flight to London, or your AF flight to Paris, etc, is delayed….

More details here.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones on Sale

As longer time readers will know, I am an ardent fan of using noise cancelling headphones whenever I fly – both to block out the very high ambient noise and also if/when listening to any audio.

It is amazing how loud airplane cabins are.  We don’t really realize this fully, because our ears automatically tune some of the sound out, but its impact on us is appreciable, whether we notice it or not.  Many people (myself included) believe that the noise alone is one important part of why we feel so exhausted and drained after a flight.

I’ve reviewed many headphones over the years, and while some have come close, none have ever exceeded the Bose QC15 headphones for noise cancelling ability.  They are comfortable and suitable for extended wear, and kill more noise than any other headphones I’ve ever used, including some costing a great deal more, and offer reasonably good audio quality too.  So they are the headphones you’ll always spot me wearing, whenever I’m flying anywhere.

With very rare exceptions, Bose has a strict ‘full advertised price’ policy, and doesn’t allow anyone to discount their headphones.  But I see that Amazon currently has the QC15 headphones for only $269 instead of $299.  Amazon is also discounting the QC3 headphones down to $314 instead of $349, but while they are more expensive, I’ve not found them to do as good a job of noise cancelling and so the QC15 remains my firm favorite.

If you’ve been looking for a reason to treat yourself to the best in noise cancelling headphones, perhaps now is the time to do so.

(Nearly) Naked Pilot

Let’s not forget that one of the possible explanations for the MH370 mystery is deliberate malfeasance on the part of either/both pilots, and so while it is funny to see pilots acting strangely, it is also slightly alarming.

In this first example, a South African Airways pilot objected to being asked to remove his shoes while going through security screening, so removed a great deal more than that, resulting in his arrest for indecent exposure at Harare Airport in Zimbabwe.

More details (but no photos) here.

Sulky Pilot – And a Possible Solution

The pilot of an Air New Zealand flight was annoyed that his copilot was late, even though the lateness wasn’t the copilot’s fault (he was randomly selected for alcohol/drug testing on the way to the plane).

So, of course, he did what any rational pilot would do, right?  After the flight had taken off, the copilot left the cockpit and the pilot locked him out and refused to let him back in again.

There are some surprising aspects to the story, and clearly there is more than meets the eye to the incident.

One wonders how it is that the pilot wasn’t immediately fired.  Instead, he merely received a two-week suspension.  Astonishingly, the copilot was also suspended (albeit for only one week) – why?

Note also the indication of an alternative way to access a 777 cockpit (other than through the cockpit door).  One wonders what that is, and whether terrorists know of this alternate access path as well.  There is some interesting speculation (but not universal agreement) about this possible vulnerability in the reader comments at the end of this article.  Could this vulnerability have also been exploited by unfriendly forces in the MH370 incident?

Lastly, note that some industry commentators are now calling for planes to have three pilots on the flight deck at all times.  But if two are insufficient, and three is better, wouldn’t four be better still?  Or five?  Where does the madness and demand to be 110% ‘safe’ end?

As an interesting unexpected outcome, it could be argued that the more pilots in the cockpit, the more likely it is that one of them will be crazy!  A sufficiently cunning crazy pilot can always come up with a way of catching his two (or however many) colleagues unawares.

On the other hand, maybe an even safer scenario is to abolish the pilots entirely.  Now that self driving cars are getting closer to becoming a mass-market reality rather than an experimental oddity, how long will it be before self-flying planes become accepted?  Oh yes, has been possible for a plane to fly itself from runway to runway, with the pilots not doing a thing between initiating the take-off roll at the departure airport until after the plane has braked to a stop at the landing airport, for many years already, and many flights are operated that way.  Pilots tell me that the only reason they ‘hands on’ fly the plane these days is for personal pleasure and to have something to do, and not at all out of any necessity to ‘help’ the plane’s computers.

Add a remote piloting option for unexpected events, and maybe the best answer is not more pilots, but fewer.

And before you rush to talk about the need to always have heroic super skilled pilots on hand to ‘save the day’ in near-disasters, can I point out the usually obscured uglier reality.  According to this article, 80% of plane crashes are due to pilot error.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting list of 25 travel gadgets (happily all on one page rather than requiring clicking through a new page for each item) that are described as ‘unnecessary but desirable’.  Some are definitely the former, a few definitely the latter, but one item surely deserves a special category all of its own – the Bentley sunglasses, priced at $15,950.   Gulp.

My daughter is very keen to go to the newly extended Harry Potter exhibit at Universal Studios in Florida, and I’m passably keen to accompany her there.  But, please – five to seven hour waits?  Amazingly, people who stood in line that long said it was worth it!

I hope you’ve enjoyed the preceding, the closest thing to a ‘normal’ newsletter for now eight long and horrible weeks.  I’ve enjoyed writing it, and hope next week will see something even closer to that which formerly flowed without interruption for almost thirteen years.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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