Weekly Roundup, Friday 29 January 2016

Almost 500 years old and suggesting some design elements from da Vinci, Chambord Castle is the largest of the many chateaus in the Loire valley, even though it was originally built to be a mere hunting lodge for the French King.  But with a hunting party numbering up to 2000 people, there's a reason it is as large as it is.  You'll have a chance to visit this magnificent building after our Bordeaux cruise this July.
Almost 500 years old and suggesting design elements from da Vinci, Chambord Castle is the largest of the many chateaus in the Loire valley, even though it was originally built to be a mere hunting lodge for the French King. But with a hunting party numbering up to 2000 people, there’s a reason it is as large as it is. You’ll have a chance to visit this magnificent building after our Bordeaux cruise this July.

Good morning

I should have the next paragraph saved somewhere so I can just cut and paste it the several times each year it deserves to be called out.  As it definitely does this week.

Yet again we’ve seen the results of the unequal battle between weather and our national aviation system.  Snow, of the type that falls regularly in many parts of the world, and causes airports in other countries to go to reduced levels of service for brief periods of time, instead knocked out much of our eastern seaboard’s airports, sometimes for days at a time.

My point is that ‘bad weather’ is a very subjective claim and should never be offered as an automatic ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ excuse for flight interruptions.  Invariably the problem is not so much bad weather as it is a bad response to the weather.  In this case, the problem was the same old lack of snow removal equipment and severe weather mitigation capabilities.

We know, by the regularity of such events, that there’s no way these events can be called ‘100 year storms’ or even ’10 year storms’; indeed, they struggle to distinguish themselves by as much as ’10 month’ storms.  Okay, it is true that this particular snow dump was more extreme than many, but my point is that it wasn’t the last inch of snow that finally caused such a colossal system-wide fail.  In many cases, it was the first inch of snow that saw airports shutting, and possibly even the anticipation of snow that had yet to fall.

We’ll all make allowances for truly exceptional weather, but when we see airports closing repeatedly each winter, we need to understand the problem isn’t the weather, it is the lack of commitment to spend money to combat the effects of the weather.

If they can keep airports open year-round in rural Russia, surely they can in New York and Boston, too.

Our NZ tour this Oct/Nov is off to a good start, with everyone who has currently decided to come being known to me, and promising a great group.  You can see full details here.

And please do consider our July Bordeaux cruise, too.  This is close to a ‘dream cruise’ – well, in my opinion, anyway.  A beautiful part of a beautiful country, with beautiful weather, and on a beautiful ship.  Have I used the word beautiful too many times?  How about once more – and with a beautiful group of fellow Travel Insiders, too!  Details here.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for

  • JetBlue to Get Better
  • What Happened on AA 109?
  • DoT Breaching US-EU Treaty; Doesn’t Care
  • The Shortest Distance Between Two Points is Seldom the Best
  • The Best Job in the World?
  • DHS Has Lost 1300+ Badges and 165 Guns – Says Not to Worry
  • The Ten Year Battery – With the One Year Warranty
  • Muslim Terrorists to Attack Australia – With Exploding Kangaroos?
  • And Lastly This Week….

JetBlue to Get Better

Do you fly JetBlue?  I don’t think I ever have – their ‘footprint’ in Seattle is minimal and their flight times inconvenient.  That’s a shame, because I believe them to be an excellent airline, and their latest service improvements, now to be rolled out across their Airbus fleet, push their excellence still further forward.

The individual seatback screens for all coach passengers grow from a standard definition 5.6″ screen diagonal to a high definition 10.1″ diagonal.  In-flight Wi-Fi will now operate from gate to gate, with no ‘below 10,000 ft’ interruption, and will be completely free.  And instead of 36 DirecTV channels and three looped movies, you’ll be able to channel surf your way through over 100 DirecTV channels and 300+ on demand movies.

The airline also says its latest seats will give more effective net legroom.

What’s not to like about all of that!  Thank you, JetBlue.

Details here.

What Happened on AA 109?

Did you read, on Thursday, the strange story of an AA flight from London and headed for Los Angeles that turned around while just off the coast of Reykjavik, and made an emergency return to London.

Apparently there may have been a mysterious smell – described as ‘burning fumes’ or ‘an electrical smell’ – noticed in the passenger cabin, and then shortly thereafter flight crew members started fainting and collapsing, and a passenger did the same, and also vomiting.  In total six or seven people seem to have been affected.

That’s strange in itself, but the really strange thing is why the pilots didn’t urgently land in Reykjavik, just a few minutes away when this became an issue, but instead flew the plane all the way back to London, almost three hours away.  One of the lessons of air disasters such as the Swissair crash in 1998 is that if there are strange smells that could mean fires and if there’s a fire on board, get your plane down onto the ground as urgently soon as possible before either the plane’s control systems are destroyed or its pilots incapacitated.  And if you don’t know what is happening to your plane, don’t ‘tough it out’ and try to save the airline some money and inconvenience by flying three hours back to a major maintenance base.

There’s a lot of water between Iceland and landfall in Scotland, and that’s not a nice place to be if a problem becomes an emergency.  Sure, the flight did land safely in London, and for the last hour or so was never more than 15 minutes or so from an airport, but what about for the first hour of the return journey, when the problem was a total unresolved mystery and the distance to the nearest airport was increasing rather than diminishing?

Interesting, when the plane landed at Heathrow, from what I can gather, it wasn’t met by the ‘Heathrow Air Ambulance’ contractors who have the franchise for assisting with ill passengers, but by a specialist Hazardous Area Response Team from the London Ambulance Service.  Clearly someone was taking the event seriously, even if the pilots weren’t.

Most puzzling of all – AA say their maintenance people conducted a thorough inspection of the plane and found no issues at all.

It is actually quite possible that a form of mass hysteria may have spontaneously swept through the cabin.  But why did the captain fly over Reykjavik rather than land there?

Details here.

DoT Breaching US-EU Treaty; Doesn’t Care

One of the sorriest tales of corruption or malfeasance – can there be any other term to better describe this – at high levels of our government is the Department of Transportation’s stonewalling the application by Norwegian Air to operate new services from Ireland to the US.

The airline applied more than two years ago, and it seems pressure was brought on the DoT by the major US carriers and related unions, who were terrified at the tiny impact this micro-airline might have on the trans-Atlantic routes and their promise to bring lower fares, enabled by a lower cost structure, to the US market.

Rather than attempt to compete with Norwegian, the airlines would rather simply exclude Norwegian Air from the market, and they seem to have found a willing accomplice in the DoT.

In a manner spookily similar to the six years of delays and refusals to decide about the Keystone Pipeline extension, the DoT has neither approved nor denied Norwegian’s application for permission to operate first a flight between Cork and Boston.  I guess the ‘method in their madness’ is that a ruling could then be appealed, but no ruling at all leaves just nothing.

Of course, not ruling is the same as constructively refusing, because Norwegian needs the DoT approval before it can start operating the flight.

Over a year ago, the EU advised the DoT that their refusal to grant the license was a clear breach of the EU-US Open Skies Agreement.  The DoT’s response – yup, nothing.

The European Commission is currently engaged in another round of intensive talks to try and persuade the DoT to do its job.  If no approval is secured in the next couple of weeks, Norwegian says its ability to start service this May becomes marginalized, and with the entire world to choose from, they might just abandon the whole idea of offering service to the US and go elsewhere – you know, to countries that are more likely to honor the rule of law, countries more willing to accept the treaty obligations they voluntarily asked for and accepted.

How extraordinary that this tale of total malfeasance lies at the feet of the US and our DoT.  Some shady corrupt nation in some third world region – maybe.  But the US?

If you’ve a spare moment, why not ask your senator and congressman why the DoT are refusing to rule on Norwegian’s application to operate flights between Cork and Boston.  Surely someone at the DoT is answerable to someone other than the US carriers.

Here’s a sadly paywalled article in the Wall St Journal about the issue, and a freely available article here.

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points is Seldom the Best

Here’s a story which has got a bit of coverage in the UK and Europe, but to us in the US, it is perhaps not quite so startling.

A gentleman wished to travel from Sheffield to Stansted in England.  That’s a distance of about 150 miles by road – Sheffield is a bit south of Manchester and Stansted is a bit north of London.  He decided to take the train – a £47 ($75) journey.

But then he discovered that instead of about a three hour train journey and £47 he could fly and go via Berlin for less than half the price, while traveling more than six times further.

This isn’t an isolated freak aberration.  A review of comparable costs shows similar scenarios – a train from London to Manchester is three times as expensive as flying between the two cities – via Milan.  And the same for London to Bristol – three times cheaper to fly via Dublin than to take the direct train.

Is your glass half full or half empty?  Are rail fares in England ridiculously high?  Or air fares extraordinarily affordable?  Either which way, something is wrong.

Details here.

The Best Job in the World?

Have you ever got the feeling that the only thing flight attendants hate more than their passengers is their job, itself?  Sure, sometimes you’ll get a great crew giving friendly happy service all flight long, but sometimes, well, the opposite applies.

It is not for us to ponder the imponderable of why anyone works at a job they hate, especially a job which the person hasn’t committed many years of expensive study to qualify for.  But it is amazing to watch this video from Air New Zealand and to hear the comments from their flight attendants.

Apparently, Air NZ (and quite a few of the other airlines not based in the US) still have flight crew who can perceive some remaining glamor and pleasure in working as flight attendants.  Good for them.

DHS Has Lost 1300+ Badges and 165 Guns – Says Not to Worry

While working diligently to keep us saferer, officers of the various branches of the many headed DHS have managed to lose over 1300 sets of their credentials, 165 firearms, and 589 cell phones, all in a recent 31 month period.  That’s about a badge a day going missing, a phone every other day, and a firearm at least once a week.

Actually, the guns are the smallest part of the problem.  The country is awash with firearms already.  But the official DHS phones may allow a person who finds or steals one to gain access to sensitive data, and the badges – well, that’s the huge worry.  Never mind the question of whether or not you’d know what a real DHS set of credentials looks like (probably not just a badge but also a warrant of office and perhaps a photo ID as well, all in a duo or tri-fold wallet format) but who would then be able to look from the bona fide ID to the person confidently presenting it and say ‘hey, you’re not the same guy’?

Imagine a small team of half a dozen terrorists, equipped with real but stolen DHS badges, and perhaps even with some DHS phone comms equipment too, and using that to enter a safe facility – a federal building, an airport, or whatever else/wherever else.  What mischief could they then get up to once allowed inside?

But, the DHS tells us not to worry.  Spokesman Justin Greenberg reassures us

If a credential holder loses or has their credentials stolen, the holder must report the incident to their supervisor and credential issuance office immediately.  Once the incident has been reported, this information is entered into appropriate DHS and law enforcement databases, which disables use of the lost or stolen item.

Mr Greenberg doesn’t explain exactly how you remotely ‘disable’ a firearm or a badge.  Phones can be remotely disabled, and of course a badge number can be noted as invalid, but what use is an entry in a computer database when half a dozen ‘agents’ in suits and sunglasses pile out of a black Suburban with tinted windows and antennas and march confidently up to a gatepost guard and flash their credentials at him?

I’ve seen what happens in such places and you probably have too – the guard acquiesces and waves all such people past.  Have you ever seen the guard say ‘just one minute please while I enter your badge numbers into the computer to confirm they are current and valid’?

Or what say it is at a sports stadium and the ‘DHS agents’ are bluffing their way past stadium security guards, who wouldn’t even know how to validate and verify DHS credentials?

How do they manage to lose so many sets of credentials?  How often do you lose your wallet?  Cell phones – well, those are famous for being left in taxis and elsewhere.  But wallets (and guns)?

Details here.

The Ten Year Battery – With the One Year Warranty

I’m a great believer in rechargeable batteries, especially now that I have a truly intelligent battery recharger that I highly recommend (you can read my review, here).  The charger does an excellent job of optimizing battery life and charge, and of restoring/reconditioning older batteries and reducing the ‘memory effect’.

The ideal rechargeable battery is the Panasonic Eneloop type battery, which I also discuss in the review.  And whereas, two years ago, the batteries were said to have the capability of 1500 recharges, the latest generation now offers a stated 2100 recharges.  That makes for a beyond-compelling case for using rechargeable batteries.

The other great thing about the Eneloop batteries is that their self-discharge rate is very low.  Most rechargeable batteries quickly lose their charge while sitting unused.  The Eneloop batteries claim to hold the bulk of their charge for ten years or more – better even than single use alkaline batteries.

I have four AAA size Eneloops in a weather station monitor device, and once every several months need to recharge them.  The device was showing a low battery alert today, and when I went to recharge the batteries, it turned out that one of them had died.

Okay, no big deal – sometimes batteries fail early, and they are only $2 each.  But it got me to thinking – do I have warranty coverage on this?

After what was a much more difficult task than should have been the case, I found the surprising answer.  Although Panasonic proudly claim their batteries have a ten year charged shelf life, and will recharge 2100 times, they actually only warrant the batteries for one year.


Muslim Terrorists to Attack Australia – With Exploding Kangaroos?

Not to make fun of or belittle the very real threat of Muslim terrorism, everywhere in the world; one has to struggle to keep a straight face when reading this story of a terrorist wannabe in Melbourne, Australia, and his apparent plan to launch an attack using that most underhanded of all terrorist weapons – a suicide bomber.  But this bomber would not be a person.  Instead, it was to have been a kangaroo!

Clearly the Australians took the threat seriously.  It took 200 heavily armed police to arrest him and four of his mates.  They were found to possess nothing more than knives and swords.  And possibly a book on how to train kangaroos.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

One of the reasons we travel is to experience other cultures and value systems, and truly sometimes they are indeed very ‘different’ in quite strange ways.  It can be a welcome respite to return home to the sanity of our own comfortable environment.

Or is it?  Check out your state in this article for a readout on just how uniformly sane ‘back home’ actually is.  Ooops.

What with some flight attendants fainting in the aisles, and others claiming they have the best job in the world, clearly there’s a wide diversity of opinions and experiences about being a flight attendant.  For some of the more shocking aspects of the job, here’s an interesting expose.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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