Weekly Roundup, Friday 5 September, 2014

A mockup showing aspects of the Norman Foster design for a new mega-airport serving Mexico City.
A mockup showing aspects of the Norman Foster design for a new mega-airport serving Mexico City.

Good morning

A couple of follow-ups from previous weeks and their featured/reviewed products.

Last week I wrote about the wonderful Aukey four port car charger, and my enthusiasm for this $20 device has definitely been matched by your enthusiasm – one reader telling me he bought four of them (but not all for one car!).  Reader Steve also wrote in to point out that my last year favorite car charger, the Anker two port charger, has now dropped in price and is only $10.  So, you can choose between two fine products, offering either two or four high current fast charging USB ports in your car.

The second comment relates to headphones and the $25 four port headphone mini-amplifier that I’ve been commenting on recently.  I have my four port amplifier connected to the audio output from my computer, and then I have the computer speakers using one of the four ports, leaving me three ports for headphones.  Normally I have the computer audio going through the computer speakers, but if I’m watching a Netflix video on the computer, then I’ll turn down the speaker volume and put on a pair of headphones, which enormously enhances the audio part of the experience.  This is wonderfully convenient – just twiddle the two knobs, with nothing to plug/unplug and no Windows settings to alter.  It really is a nifty little gadget for only $25.

Note – if you get one to use for this purpose, you will probably also need an adapter or cable to go from the typical ‘small size’ (ie 1/8th inch or 3.5mm) audio output socket on a computer to the ‘large size’ (ie 1/4 inch or 6.5mm) input socket on the amp.  This is the sort of cable you want, or if you already have a cable with 3.5mm male stereo connectors on each end, you just need one of these adapters too.

Talking about gadgets, Tuesday next week is expected to see Apple announce its latest generation of iPhones, and perhaps an ‘iWatch’ smart watch as well.  There’s a good chance that after increasingly slipping behind the curve with their dated products over the last several years, this year might see the iPhone 6 catch up, match, and maybe even beat the leading Android competing phones.  As for the iWatch concept, these smart watches all, to date, appear to be a classic case of a ‘solution in search of a problem’, but maybe Apple will come up with some truly valuable applications and reasons to get one.

I’ll have analysis up on the blog within an hour or so of the announcement event concluding.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • New Reader Survey – Please Help
  • Lawsuit :  Delta’s ‘Best Fares’ Aren’t Very Good
  • DOT :  No Fast-track Approval for Norwegian Air
  • 9/11 Next Week
  • Good News for Travel to Europe
  • The Ugly Side of Yelp
  • Another Tentative Test of Restaurant Fees
  • More Knee Defender Nonsense
  • Ebola Update
  • And Lastly This Week….

New Reader Survey – Please Help

I’m working on a project that has very little directly to do with travel and travel related technology, but which does sort of arise from our increased mobility and travel.  No-one likes to dwell overly on the ugly topic of death, even though it involves us all, and the result of our myopia is seen not only in approximately half the population having no will, but also when we – or our loved ones – die, the funeral arrangements and ‘closure’ is seldom as complete as it could and should be.

I’ve twice been involved in the funeral planning for close family members; both for my father and more recently for my sister.  Such times are of course filled with sadness and regret, and while some of this is unavoidable, some of it is unnecessary.  In particular, it seems like some parts of the funeral planning process are the sorts of thing there could be new and better solutions for.

I’ve prepared a simple short survey to better understand this.  If you have a couple of minutes, would you be as kind as to go answer it?  All answers are totally anonymous and confidential and there are no personal identifiers asked for.

I’ll let you know more about this after digesting your survey assistance.  Thank you.

Lawsuit :  Delta’s ‘Best Fares’ Aren’t Very Good

Book your flights directly on Delta’s website and the airline promises you’ll get their ‘best’ fares.

Now a smart-mouth would observe that airlines have always had a troubled relationship with both the concept of ‘best’ and perhaps even with the concept of truth in general, and it does turn out that Delta’s best fare ‘guarantee’ actually doesn’t promise you very much at all, and apparently not the best fare.

A lawsuit filed in Wisconsin this week claims that Delta uses special software to guess at how much money a passenger would be prepared to spend and then only shows fares down to that price point.  Looking at flights through third-party websites revealed Delta fares as much as $302 roundtrip cheaper than were being offered as ‘best fares’ by Delta directly.

Sounds like a great class-action suit in the making.  Good luck to the plaintiff.

I hate to say ‘I told you so’, and I won’t, because actually it wasn’t me, it was Steffan Ileman who told us all that the airlines wanted to do this, and were trying to shift us off other websites and away from travel agents, so they (the airlines) could control and limit the fare information we saw.  I reviewed his book ‘What the Airlines Don’t Tell You‘ last week, and his comments seem eerily prophetic this week.

DOT :  No Fast-track Approval for Norwegian Air Shuttle

It is normal for the DoT to allow airlines to start selling new fares on new routes prior to their official approval being granted, because that approval is almost always nothing more than a rubber stamp.  After all, what’s not to like about more flights between more cities by more airlines – actually, that’s a very clumsy way of describing the situation.  There’s a single word which does it better – more competition.

But, as we’ve observed, the DoT has its own unique perspective on what constitutes competition, and has repeatedly shown itself to believe that allowing airlines to merge and reduce service is an act that enhances competition.  As unfortunate additional evidence of the DoT’s estrangement from the real world which us fliers must inhabit, it is refusing to allow new discount airline Norwegian Air Shuttle to add new flights, pending a full review of the airline’s overall proposal.

US airlines and unions are protesting that the new airline is ‘unfairly’ exploiting the terms of the EU/US open skies agreement to allow it to operate with lower cost labor, and say that operating a lower cost airline would ‘hurt the entire industry’.

The DoT has been studying the formal Norwegian Air Shuttle application for six months so far, and has said that no interim approvals will be issued.  It described the easy-to-understand application as ‘novel and complex’ and said that allowing Norwegian to operate low-cost flights prior to its full ruling is neither ‘appropriate or in the public interest’.

Oh yes, lower airfares would not be in the public interest.  On what planet?  But we will agree a proposal revolving around lower fares is indeed a novel one for the DoT to digest.

So, when will the DoT rule on the formal application?  There’s no answer to that question, no deadline, no timeframe.  After all, the case is ‘novel and complex’.  Fortunate, the DoT staff are from the government and are here to help the dinosaur airlines us.

More details here.

9/11 Next Week

Next Thursday is the 13th anniversary of 9/11/01, and notwithstanding the various wars, the TSA, our new Homeland Security Department, the NSA spying on everyone, and all sorts of other activities undertaken since that time, the world seems massively more dangerous and much less friendly today than it was, way back then.

Every year some people speculate there might be an anniversary attack launched on the west, and we’re being told that this year there is more ‘chatter’ by terrorist groups – particularly those choosing to come into the US via the ‘red carpet’ welcome open to all on our southern border.  That’s not to say you should close the shutters and stay fearfully at home next Thursday, because in such a case, the enemy would have won.

On the other hand, it is alarming to note that an ISIS terrorist until recently was a security badged airport employee, working for Delta at MSP!

The terrorists who took over the four planes on 9/11 had been lawfully admitted into the US on student visas.  Since that time, on the tried and true basis of ‘locking the stable door after the horse has bolted’ that marks much of our country’s approach to security, there has been a ‘massive tightening up’ on student visa visitors.

But note the quote marks around the phrase ‘massive tightening up’, because it was revealed earlier this week that the Orwellian named ‘Homeland Security Department’ has managed to lose track of more than 6,000 people currently in the US on student visas.  Ooops.

In the last year alone, 58,000 visitors overstayed their student visas, and 6,000 of them have apparently vanished completely.

And as for the difficulty in getting a student visa in the first place, a ‘school’ can be approved as a qualifying school for purposes of seeking a visa, even if it has no federal or state educational certification or any indication of any academic merit at all.  Some foreign students have been granted visas to come and study hair braiding, tennis and golf.

More details here.

It is also a point of interest and concern to note that the bad guys, in no small part as a result of our supporting their efforts to depose our ally in Libya (I still can’t understand that one), now have a small fleet of civilian jet planes at their disposal, although fortunately not based in North America.

Good News for Travel to Europe

One of the difficulties with traveling to Europe is the high cost of the Euro.  Most of this year has seen the Euro costing us around $1.33 or so, but it has started to drop, and some analysts are projecting that within three years, the Euro and dollar will be at parity – ie each Euro would cost only US$1.

According to analysts at Goldman Sachs, the Euro will have dropped to $1.25 within six months, and around next summer, will be closer to $1.20.  That’s a 10% improvement on this year’s summer exchange rate.

Is this the point where I reveal plans for a Travel Insider European tour next early summer?  The Baltic states, a cruise up the Norwegian coast, in and out of fiords galore, and – volcanoes willing – a visit to stunning Iceland.  More details to follow.

More details (about exchange rates) here.

The Ugly Side of Yelp

I’ve again been struggling with Trip Advisor while completing details for people on our upcoming NZ tour.  Some participants have been wondering at my choices of hotels and activities, pointing to higher scoring Trip Advisor recommended alternatives.

In the case of hotels, sometimes budget motels score much better than luxury resorts and five-star hotels.  In the case of tours, in one notable case, a tour that involves uncomfortably squeezing into an eight seater mini-van with limited visibility for a ten-hour ride was given a higher rating than similar tours in high quality luxury coaches.  Yes, Trip Advisor is a very useful tool, but you need to ‘interpret’ its ratings with a great deal of care and caution.

We’ve written before about how some people threaten hoteliers and tour operators with bad Trip Advisor reviews if they don’t get excessive compensation for minor problems.  That’s reprehensible in the extreme.

But what about the other way around?  Here’s an interesting article suggesting that Yelp might be threatening featured businesses with lower rankings if the businesses don’t buy Yelp’s advertising packages.  Ouch!

Another Tentative Test of Restaurant Fees

Inasmuch as airlines can ever do anything well, they have certainly done a great job of conditioning us all to the concept of paying fees for all sorts of things that we had formerly and quite reasonably considered to be integral parts of a total travel experience.  But before we give too much credit to the airlines, they probably did not much more than ‘pick up the ball and run with it’ from the rental car companies, although to this very day, while you can understand exactly what you’ll pay for a rental car, complete with all fees included, understanding the total cost of flying somewhere remains opaque and unclear.

The hotel industry has also been adding on more fees, and in some cases doing so with a zeal that puts both the airlines and rental car companies to shame.

So, is it surprising to now see another part of the ‘hospitality’ industry attempt to join this gravy train.  Restaurants.  Of course, we have long since become accustomed to one substantial fee in restaurants, and while you might think this to have been a custom since the dawn of recorded history and restaurants, its general acceptance and universal implementation actually dates only back to the time of prohibition.  I’m talking about tipping, of course, and if you didn’t know about how it evolved out of prohibition, here’s a very biased article but which includes some interesting history of the evolution of tipping.

Now we see some restaurants trying to shift more of their employee cost ‘burdens‘ onto their customers, too.

How long before we see ‘meat surcharges’ being applied to the cost of a steak?  Don’t laugh – we have come to accept some fish as being sold at ‘market price’, so it would be far from impossible to see steak priced the same way.  (Have you ever wondered if the ‘market price’ for fish is higher on Friday nights than Tuesday nights….)

More Knee Defender Nonsense

Talking about dishonest things, that appalling device, and the even more appalling people who use it, the ‘Knee Defender’ was in the news again this week, with two more mid-air incidents.

This is such a black and white issue.  The airlines give us each, as passengers, a recline button on our seat, but no ‘lock button’ for the seat in front of us.  We can control our seat’s recline, but we are not allowed to attempt to control the recline of the seat in front.  Our total space includes the space underneath the seat in front (but not the space underneath our own seat) and the recline space behind our seat, but not the recline space behind the seat in front.

If the person in front reclines their seat, we can in turn recline our seat.  If the seat reclines in front of us, making it difficult to work on our laptop, then that is tough, and if working on a laptop is essential, we should pay extra to fly in a seat with more room in front.

Those are the ground rules of flying, and the seat recline rule is as obvious and necessary as is the ‘under the seat stowage space’ rule.  I’ve sometimes had people try to put stuff underneath their seat, but they have taken it out when I’ve explained to them that their space is in front, not behind.  Both rules are ‘no brainers’.

If you don’t like having the seat in front of you recline back the pathetically small amount that coach class seats can recline back, then either don’t fly or pay extra for a premium seat with more room between it and the seat in front, or a bulkhead seat, or whatever else is offered.

But don’t think that buying a Knee Defender gives you the right to impose your wishes on the person in front of you – a person who many times is compelled to recline his/her seat because the person in the seat in front of them has reclined their seat.

If you think this is simple and obvious, you’re one of the two-thirds of Americans who oppose Knee Defenders.

Now, for the ultimate in hypocrisy, read the writing on the Knee Defender device :  ‘Be courteous.  Do not hog space.’  But, if a person was planning to be courteous and not hog space, why would they buy a Knee Defender in the first place?

The most distressing part of this is the weak enforcement that the airlines are adopting of their own ‘Knee Defenders are not allowed’ rule.  In a manner reminiscent of their inability to enforce their own carry-on rules, it is very hard to find a flight attendant who will force the issue and demand a passenger remove the knee defender device.

One wonders why the flight attendants are so diffident about this – maybe it is because they themselves recognize that the problem springs from an inadequate amount of space per passenger to start with.  Many, more minor imagined infractions can get you frog-marched off the plane, arrested and locked up on federal terrorism charges, but if you willfully flout the Knee Defender rule, some flight attendants will weakly suggest a compromise that involves the passenger in front being asked to voluntarily surrender some of their precious recline space, so as to make it easier for the flight attendant.

Meanwhile, there is a solution that is a typical airline ‘everyone loses’ approach.  Make all seats non-reclining.  Some airlines have already done this.

Ebola Update

Astonishingly, the CDC hasn’t updated its website with new numbers in the last week.  It is still showing figures as of 28 August.  That didn’t stop their director from claiming, on Tuesday, that the disease is ‘spiraling out of control‘, and I guess the subtext to his statement and lack of statistics is an implied ‘trust me, I’m a doctor’.  Meanwhile, WHO is projecting total Ebola cases this time around may exceed 20,000.

According to Wikipedia, deaths have now reached a total of 1848, which contrasts with last week’s CDC figure of 1552, and would be an increase of 296, up on the previous two weeks with casualty counts of 202 and 281.

It is unknown how many people died of dysentery and other preventable diseases in the affected African countries in the same week, but we’ll wager it was plenty more than 296.  When will the ‘out of control spiral’ start?

Let’s hope the CDC is able to catch up with its counting in time for next week.

And Lastly This Week….

Cuba has announced new limits on how much returning citizens can bring back with them, duty-free.  Although Cubans can still bring back four car tires and two flat screen televisions, they are now only allowed 22 lbs of detergent instead of 44lbs, and only 24 bras instead of 48.  Should the country brace for an outbreak of dirty braless women?

Hubris alert.  Here’s an interesting article on some high-profile and costly tourism failures.  The US is well represented, as is the extraordinary and ongoing disaster that is Berlin’s new airport.  Let’s hope the already-ten-year-delayed new airport plans for Mexico City, featuring a distinctive Norman Foster design, are more successful.

Still talking airports, Britain/London’s never-ending saga of its airport congestion problems and its inability to agree on any solution at all, has just lurched forwards/backwards another step.  Possible plans for a new airport east of London have now been cancelled (yet again).  Britain’s airport planners are hoping to get some sort of urgent solution in place by 2030.  Yes, 16 years from now, and decades longer since the first faltering attempts to expand Heathrow were started.  Details here.

A topic I find fascinating is the history and reason for the three-letter codes assigned to airports.  Here’s an article with a couple of new revelations in it (for me) and some interesting stories of airport codes.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







4 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 5 September, 2014”

  1. A lawsuit filed in Wisconsin this week claims that Delta uses special software to guess at how much money a passenger would be prepared to spend and then only shows fares down to that price point. Looking at flights through third-party websites revealed Delta fares as much as $302 roundtrip cheaper than were being offered as ‘best fares’ by Delta directly.

    Apple and Amazon have been doing this for years.

    1. ‘Dynamic pricing’ is nothing new. But what is new is claiming that you are getting the guaranteed lowest price, but actually not extending the lowest price. That’s the naughty bit that Delta is now in trouble over.

  2. Seat reclining……I have been on more than one flight where the seat back is designed to not tilt back. It remains stationary. The SEAT slides forward and gives you the angle that you are seeking. No intrusion on the passenger in front or behind you. Why is this not the case on all flights ?

  3. I do not think it is right to use a knee defender, but then I do not think it is right, or polite, to lean your seat back if the person behind you is bothered by it. Reclining seats began way back when there was a lot more room than there is now. As the airlines are packing more and more seats into aircraft, this room has become much less. Allegiant and Spirit are right in making seats non-reclining. The rest of the airlines should do this also. If my wife or I decide to recline our seats, which is not often, we always ask permission from the person behind us. Sure, you can pay extra for more room, but that should not be necessary. Common courtesy which used to prevail in airline travel has just about disappeared. I have traveled via airline frequently since 1959, but am traveling less now or driving mainly due to the hassles and uncomfortableness of flying.

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