Weekly Roundup, Friday 14 July, 2017

Your friendly tour leader and coach captain (ie me and Jim) invite you to join us on our Great Britain Grand Expedition next June.

Good morning

I hope you had a nice long break for July 4 last week.  I did, although in truth I spent most of it working on what I’m now terming our Grand Expedition of Great Britain next June.  You can decide whether it is grand or not – there’s an article telling you more about it after the roundup today, and of course, a full set of web pages telling you all about it, too.

One thing is for sure, it certainly is extensive.  We travel over 2,000 miles from one end of Britain to the other, although with that travel spread out over 17 days, it means you’re not going to be spending endless hours, all day every day, in a coach.  Instead, we have a lovely schedule with free time and the ability to mix and match to suit.  You can even join the tour on any day, and leave on any day, if the full 17 days is too much.

I’ve never seen a British tour experience like this offered anywhere else.  But, that’s not surprising – Travel Insider experiences do tend to be quite out of the ordinary!

Although today marks the official release of the tour, we already have four people signed up to participate, three of whom have traveled in Scotland with me before (and the fourth is also an alum, having been on our North Korean tour, back in 2013, when such things were not quite so alarming to undertake!).

So we’ve already got a great start on what promises to be another lovely group of Travel Insiders, and a wonderful tour to share.  Please do consider coming along and being part of it.

I should mention there is a single lady considering coming on the tour, and she is keen to find someone to share with to avoid the single supplement – she has traveled with me before and so I know her to be a sensible and easy to get on with retiree; I’m sure if you are similar, the two of you would get on very well indeed.  Let me know if you’d like to be introduced.

Our December Christmas Markets cruise has also seen some more signups.  And, talking about singles, did I mention that Amawaterways are temporarily waiving the single supplement on this cruise?  That makes for an enormous saving for people traveling alone.  There are still some cabins remaining, although the ship is now starting to fill; and both the $750 discount for people traveling together and the no single supplement for singles are only on offer for two more weeks.

Please do quickly let me know if you’d like to join this; and if you’ve been before, you’d be in good company by coming again (three of our present group are repeating this wonderful experience).

There are two other articles offered this week, too.  One is designed to help you avoid nasty surprises at the airport when a check-in agent announces your bag is slightly overweight and charges you up to $200 as a penalty fee.  Learn how to avoid this, and what to do if it happens.

The other is a story of how I was nearly taken for a fool, and the surprising role that LinkedIn had in validating the would-be con-job.

Plus more of the ‘same old, same old’, as part of a traditional Friday roundup, below :

  • What Are Those Lights On Our Runway?
  • Norwegian’s Continued Expansion
  • Don’t Drink the Water
  • A Cheaper Way to Travel from Newcastle to London
  • The Latest Crazy Gyrations in Airport/Airplane ‘Security’
  • Chicago’s Rose by Any Other Name
  • American Tourists Tear Gassed and Robbed
  • Therapy Animals
  • Another Uber Failure
  • Best Idea Ever for Charging Electric Vehicles
  • And Lastly This Week….

What Are Those Lights On Our Runway?

Almost in the category of famous last words was a query by an Air Canada pilot about some lights he could see on the runway he was cleared to land onto, in the dark late one recent evening.

Air Traffic Control assured him that the runway was empty and safe, and so the Air Canada pilot proceeded happily to – oooops – almost land on the taxiway parallel to the runway, which had four planes lined up on it, waiting their turns to take off.  The AC flight was waved off seconds before crashing into one, two, three, or possibly all four of the planes, an event which would have probably resulted in the world’s largest loss of life in a single airplane accident, ever.

This is yet another reminder of the human factor that interferes with the smooth and safe operation of our airways.  And yet another reason to hasten the promulgation of more fully automatic airplanes.  Details here.

Norwegian’s Continued Expansion

Tiny airline Norwegian has announced its latest anticipated expansion in the US for the first half of next year.  It will add flights between Newark and Paris on 28 Feb, between O’Hare and London on 25 March, flights between Austin and London on 27 March, Oakland to Paris on 10 April and on 2 May, Boston to Paris.

With those new flights, the airline will be operating between 15 US cities and 13 European cities, which it says is more routes than any other carrier.

That is probably correct, but unfortunately while the routes are numerous, the flights are not.  For example, the Austin/London service is only three times a week.  In total, the few Norwegian flights, spread over many airports and routes, are still only a very small percentage of total flights across the Atlantic and not yet at a point where they are having much impact on the traditional carriers and their flights and fares.

But each added flight is still another victory for choice, and to be eagerly welcomed.

In other Norwegian news, although the airline is a budget carrier, they have announced plans to make Wi-Fi free on all their flights (currently it is available on some planes and routes, but not the long flights across the Atlantic).  That would be nice, although one wonders how well the bandwidth would manage if Wi-Fi was free for everyone on board.

Don’t Drink the Water

I wrote in the last newsletter about enjoying the food on my recent Delta international flights.  This caused a reader who prefers to remain anonymous to enter into this email exchange with me (his notes in burnt orange, my note in olive).  Consider yourself duly warned.

Dear David,

The fact that all 3 meals were delicious is certainly a good trend. One thing you might mention in future newsletters is about inflight beverages.  Please warn your readers to only drink items that they have opened themselves or seen poured out a bottle, such as water, cola, etc.

Never, ever, drink anything that has been brewed on-board such as coffee or tea.  Many airline potable water systems are contaminated beyond belief with a devil’s brew of microbes and organisms.

If you write anything on this, please don’t use my name as I still consult for the airlines.


Thanks for your note.

I’ve written about potable water systems, many years before.  I had understood that there are now formal inspections of them and their quality greatly improved?  I’d also hoped that the hot water might have neutralized the nasty things in them – I’d certainly not drink cold water from them, but ‘almost boiled’ water for coffee and tea might be safer?


Sadly Dave, the answer is no.  Yes, it is true that the FAA and the EPA have both gotten into the picture, promulgated new rules and do occasionally conduct inspections, but the sad truth is that the same ramp Bubba continues to service both the water and lav systems.

This leads to cross contamination.   The once every 3 year cleaning of the aircraft potable water system is simply not enough.

A Cheaper Way to Travel from Newcastle to London

A student wanted to travel from Newcastle to London – something that normally takes about three hours by train, and can cost as little as £30 ($40) for a one way ticket.  But because he was buying a train ticket the night before he needed to travel, the trains were close to full and the only remaining tickets were £78.50.

So, what did he do?  He took the cheaper option.  Nope, not a bus.  He flew from Newcastle to the Spanish Mediterranean resort island of Menorca, about 1,000 miles away, for half a day, and then after a lovely break on a sunny beach, continued on from there to London, all for only £27.  Even after renting a car, the cost was less than half the price of the train journey.

Details here.

The Latest Crazy Gyrations in Airport/Airplane ‘Security’

The earlier ban on electronics, introduced a few months back, is now fading away, as airports and airlines upgrade their security procedures to conform with new US requirements.  That’s the good news.

But the bad news?  A leak from an international carrier suggests the TSA is about to start requiring for international flights in to the US, that the traditional three questions be asked, in person, to every passenger.  No more electronic check-ins and answering the questions on the screen; instead, you’ll have to be directly asked ‘did you pack your own bag, has it been out of your possession at any time, has anyone asked you to carry something with you’.

While there is a temptation to sneer at these three questions, urban legend (and possibly it is true) says that some years back, a passenger actually responded by saying ‘Why yes, as a matter of fact, a polite nice young man asked if I wouldn’t mind taking a package for him’ and the package turned out to be a bomb.  The point of the questions isn’t so much to trick/trap terrorists into confessing their guilt, but rather to encourage passengers to think about the security of their bags and possibly to advise about something they thought was okay but which requires further follow-up.

Oh, talking about the further followup, the leak suggests that if the answers aren’t satisfactory, the passenger will be separated from anyone else they are traveling with (even children or elderly family members needing assistance) for ‘high-intensity screening’ and won’t be allowed to rejoin or communicate with their travel companions until after boarding the plane.  Ugh.

Another new treat in store – all carry-on bags will now be swabbed and tested for explosive residue.  Currently only a very small number of randomly selected bags are tested, now all of them may be.

While answering the three questions won’t add much time to a check-in (but needing to transition from electronic check-in to manual check-in might add a delay), the need to swab every bag will definitely require many more people, many more of the trace detector machines, and some more patience on our part.

None of this is official yet, and may well change some more before implementation.  But here’s the source of the news received this far.

Chicago’s Rose by Any Other Name

Do you remember Dr Dao – the man who refused to leave a Republic Airways flight and so was dragged off the plane at O’Hare?  He certainly enjoyed his moment of fame, and may also now be enjoying a confidential settlement that United rushed to offer him (the flight was being operated by Republic for United).

In a rush to blame everyone but the good (?) doctor, the people who dragged him off the flight certainly attracted a lot of ire, and four involved officers were ‘placed on leave’ (administrative leave, which I believe means they are paid – oh my gosh, throw me into that briar patch – punish me and force me to take a paid vacation).

One criticism that is truly valid was how the security officers wore uniform jackets prominently emblazoned with the word ‘Police’ on them, even though they were apparently only ‘rent-a-cops’ rather than sworn police officers.  In most states it is a serious crime to pass yourself off as a police officer if you’re not a duly sworn member of an official police department.  But because the rent-a-cops were actually employed by the City of Chicago, it was unlikely there’d be any prosecution lodged; however now, three months later, the City has decided that it will no longer refer to its rent-a-cops as police officers and will remove the ‘P’ word from their clothing and their cars and other items.

One can imagine the city is somewhat disappointed that it can’t now assign real police duties to lower cost security guards.  Details here.

American Tourists Tear Gassed and Robbed

Twenty tourists were standing outside their airport hotel, close to the major airport for the capital city of a certain country, when a group of masked attackers drove up, sprayed tear gas on the tourists, and robbed them of their luggage and personal belongings.

Apparently, robberies of tourists at hotels around this airport happen quite regularly.

Now, the question for you.  Can you guess where in the world this happened?  Somewhere in Africa, you might think?  Or maybe Eastern Europe.  Or, or, or…..  Definitely sounds like a place to avoid, doesn’t it!

Chances are you’ll not guess which country/city/airport it was.  Here’s a hint.  The city has the third largest number of international overnight visitors of anywhere in the world.  (In case you’re wondering, this report shows, in 2016, that Bangkok is first, London is second, and New York is fifth.)  As for the dangerous lawless destination – the answer is here.

Can I have this Eurasian Eagle Owl as my therapy animal? (Picture taken in Edinburgh last month.)

Therapy Animals

I’m an animal lover, and have had many pets.  But I also cringe at the misplaced sense of entitlement some people adopt, while strutting around with a so-called therapy animal to assist them with a quite-likely imaginary illness.  It is possible to order the necessary documentation to ‘prove’ your entitlement to a therapy animal and the animal’s validity through a number of online websites that care for nothing more than the correct functioning of your credit card.

Missing from the discussion about whether or not an animal is appropriately trained or not, and whether or not a person truly needs that animal, has been much discussion about the inherent value of such therapy animals in the rare bona fide cases of actual apparent need.  Indeed, as an animal lover, and one who greatly enjoys my relationship with my German Shepherd, I’ve always assumed that therapy animals truly are beneficial.

I might be wrong (and many other people, too).  Here’s an interesting article that debunks some of these assumptions, and points to recent research that suggests quite the opposite – having therapy dogs might actually increase the level of stress in some people (to say nothing of the people in adjacent seats on the flight!).

Another Uber Failure

Uber recently had its CEO resign after broad board pressure to do so.  Not long before that, it gave up on its ambitions to operate in China, after having battled unsuccessfully for market share against local company (and Lyft investor), Didi.

And now history is repeating itself, this time in Russia.  After struggling against the local Russian product operated by Yandex, Uber has again decided ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, investing into a joint venture with Yandex, where Yandex will hold 59% of the shares and Uber will have about 37%.  Details here.

Part of Uber’s appeal has been the perception by investors that its formula could be extended from the US to other major markets, in particular of course, China and Asia, and also to Europe, Russia, South America, and elsewhere.  The success of this remains unclear; as indeed also is the success of its US strategy where it continues to bleed cash at a truly impressive rate.

As observed before, the core part of Uber’s business plan seems to be to arrange so that its drivers earn at levels that are below what most people would consider fair.  Is it possible that the whole Uber ‘thing’ – using the internet as a more efficient way (compared to traditional taxi services) of matching people who want to be driven somewhere with people who are willing to drive them – is invalid due to its reliance on paying below normal wages to its drivers?

We do see the value in the Airbnb model – ordinary people renting out spare rooms in their house to people who’d otherwise stay in hotels – but that’s very different in concept to Uber.  If Uber were to operate the way ‘gypsy cabs’ do in Russia, where people will drive people who just happen to be going the same way, doing this not for a living, but as a happy adjunct to needing to drive somewhere anyway, then it could work; but when the drivers switch from being ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ to ‘true professionals’ who need to earn a living wage, the need for the full-time drivers to earn fair full-time wages starts to diminish the saving inherent in the Uber model.

For example, if I were driving the 15 miles into downtown Seattle anyway, and could add a passenger by driving only another mile or two, and collect $20 for having done so, I’d be delighted.  But if I was not already driving 15 miles to Seattle, having to wait for the fare, then drive the person to Seattle, and then who knows what/where/when next, all for only $20, that takes on a very different perspective.

And while an old-fashioned taxi company might be uninspiring, it is also fair to observe that an old-fashioned taxi company, while possibly paying its owners generously, doesn’t have a staff of thousands in San Francisco, earning the high side of $200,000 each.  Instead it has a few grumpy dispatchers on little more than minimum wage.  Could it be that rather than being a lower-cost more efficient way of connecting drivers and riders, Uber is actually more expensive than regular taxis?

I’ve also noticed, as Uber’s reach grows, a steady deterioration in the quality of Uber drivers.  A year or two or three ago, the cars were pristine, and the drivers were almost painfully eager to provide a stunningly excellent service, and all were excited at being part of a transport revolution.  Now I’m finding the drivers are increasingly the same people who used to drive taxis, the standard of driving palpably worse, and the cars no longer amazingly clean and nearly new.

Best Idea Ever for Charging Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles continue their steady march forward, becoming more and more commonplace.  Tesla has started making its Model 3 (although I remain doubtful if it will get to the levels of production that Elon Musk is promising by the end of the year), and Volvo has announced that as of 2019, it will make no new models of internal combustion vehicles.

Mind you, Volvo’s announcement is not nearly as sweeping as it seems.  All its current models will continue, and new model cars won’t necessarily be 100% battery-powered – they might be hybrids like the Prius, with a regular engine plus a battery too.

In the UK, the famous black London (and until now, diesel-powered) cab is being re-released as a hybrid – a battery/electric vehicle with a weak petrol powered ‘range extender’.

But one continued weakness of electric cars – particularly for apartment dwellers – is being able to conveniently charge them.  If you have a garage, you can arrange charging at home, after incurring some cost to install up a charger, but if you don’t have this as an option, it becomes awkward to charge your vehicle, and if you’re traveling further away than the range of your battery, you’re going to need to recharge on the road as well as at home.

One brilliant idea, mentioned here, is to build a charging point into every street light lamp-post.  There is usually already three-phase power running to the street light; all you need to do is add a converter/box on the post, and you’ve got a very low-cost charging station that could become as ubiquitous as street lights.

And Lastly This Week….

One of the most interesting airports in the world is on St Maarten, due to one end of the runway being adjacent to a public beach.  It is a popular thing to stand on the beach and be blown about by the jet engine wash when planes take off, and to see how close some planes get to the people and the water while coming in for landing.  For example, this video shows some astonishingly low plane approaches.

But the warning signs about the dangers of the jet blasts when jets are taking off aren’t just there for fun.  This week a New Zealand lady was blown away from where she was holding on to the perimeter fence, struck her head on a concrete barrier, and died.  Details here.

I hate the website Quora.com.  I hate it because whenever I visit it, I end up losing an hour or more of time, due to it being so ‘more-ish’ and causing me to read on and on and on.  Just yesterday I stumbled across a page, which has some amusing ideas along with some quotidian ones.  https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-good-hotel-room-pranks

What is the smallest item you’ve ever sent as checked luggage?  For me, it is a Swiss Army Knife which was intercepted at security, although helpful check-in staff placed it in a huge box so it could be managed by the luggage handling systems.

How about a single can of beer?  Amazingly – all the more so for it being Australia – the can made it safely to its destination, and even unopened.

It is a while since we’ve shone a light on toilet issues.  Here’s an item to compensate.

Truly lastly this week, there are two types of people in this world.  Those with tidy desks, and those with messy ones.  I’m in the latter category, and have always felt vaguely guilty about it, even going as far as to tidy my desk prior to important meetings with people I wished to impress.  Well, no longer.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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