Weekly Roundup, Friday 15 September, 2017

A brave or foolhardy pilot? Or a well Photoshopped picture? The answer is at the end of the newsletter.

Good morning

Well, what a week it has been, some of it good, some of it disappointing.

Let’s talk about the good first.  Our Grand Tour of Great Britain next June had another person sign up this week (a lady on her third Travel Insider tour).  We’re now at 18 – room for about ten more, but it is getting closer to time to get your name on the list please.

The first week of our 2017 Fundraising Appeal has been very generously supported indeed.  Thank you to all 74 people who have responded so far – a magnificent recovery from last year where a mere 42 people responded in the first week, and matching 2015, with 72 people in the first week.  We’ve had contributions ranging from $5 to $500, and they are all very much appreciated, and quite possibly the kind person contributing $5 had to make a larger sacrifice than the person who added an astonishing two extra zeros.

We’re ‘equal opportunity’ appreciators here, but of course, we must thank our especially generous ‘super supporters’ (those who sent in $100+ contributions) – Mark M, Gil K, Charles J, Joel W, Peter N, Lary J, Roger L, Dave H, Mike M, J&S M, Cosmo B, Chrystin P, Elizabeth K, Pete R, John M, Bob C and Kenny N.

This year we are hoping for 400 kind reader in total to help this really rather astonishing internet phenomenon, so we’re well on the way.  The Travel Insider is in parts quirky and acerbic, sometimes esoteric, and often off-topic (what exactly is our topic, anyway).  But, hopefully also, you find your weekly Travel Insider communications to be boutiquey, personal, genuine, and totally different from mass-produced news and the ugly crossovers between press-releases and reviews that fill so much of the ‘content’ we’re offered these days.

All of this is for you, and possible because of you.  With your help, I hope to continue on this sometimes Quixotic mission for as long as you wish and my health permits.  The other parts of my never-robust income model are not nearly as active as they once were – for example, the Google advertising on my web pages now returns only about 5% of what it once did in its heyday.  With so much of the fresh content now coming to you via email, there’s much less need for you to visit the web pages and so that side of things has suffered, although hopefully your experience as a reader has improved.

Supporting this noble enterprise is easy.  Simply click this link, which allows you to contribute any amount you wish, instantly by credit card.  You also have the option to set up a regular ongoing monthly or quarterly support contribution, and there are details about mailing in a good old-fashioned check if you prefer.

Everyone, whether a contributor or not, gets the profusion of content that comes out each week – the equivalent of a full-sized book every couple of months (does anyone read every word of every article, I wonder – but it doesn’t matter if they don’t because the website is creating a wonderful archive of all the many millions of words of material written in the 16 years since I started in 2001).

I’ve put together a few extra pieces for contributors – a huge report on the best way to get internet access while traveling, a shorter piece reviewing the eight leading video streaming boxes, and advice on how to get a free Amazon Echo type unit, and maybe even a free $10 Amazon gift card, too.  I’d planned to add another inducement for this week, but my week filled with creating public content for everyone, as you’ll see.  Maybe another little bonus this coming week (which of course is given to all other 2017 contributors too).  I’ll send this and a ‘bonus’ editorial commentary too quickly to you in response to your kind support.

Note the site may be off-line for an hour or so on Friday afternoon.  I’m already applying some of the support received last week to a few unfortunately necessary server updates and changes.  Yes, all the more need for your support, if at all possible!

So two good things this week – our Grand Expedition group is strengthened by another lovely lady, and your generous support is moving us strongly towards this year’s fundraising goal.  Yay.

The disappointing thing?  Apple’s release of its latest selection of iPhones – the iPhone 8, 8+, and X (which, as you surely now know, is pronounced as ‘ten’).  Within a couple of hours of their release I had rushed out a detailed analysis of the three new phones (plus also a new watch and video streaming device), along with an answer to the ultimate question – should you be lining up to buy one of these new phones when they become available for sale.  I then spent the rest of the week polishing and extending my initial analysis (which I’ve now largely rewritten, although the conclusions remain the same).

In brief, my feeling is that with the evolution of all smart phones, what has happily happened is that the more ‘basic’ phones these days, while still offering very low prices (some times under $100) are also now providing a very sophisticated mix of features and capabilities.  For most people, most of the time, the small remaining additional features on a high-end phone are of little value or use.

This is clearly becoming a problem for Apple.  It was easy to justify paying $100 or $200 more for a wonderful Apple phone when the cheaper phones were obviously inadequate.  But now, with the price differential more like $500 and sometimes closer to $1000, and with much less ‘feature gap’, there is less and less justification to pay the ever larger premium Apple is demanding.

So as to help you make your own decision, I also wrote a third article that discusses this last point, and provides a comparative listing of 19 phones – five Apple phones and 14 Android phones, so you can see for yourself what you can expect for a $50 or $100 or even $200 phone, compared to Apple’s phones which now top out at $1150.

All three articles follow this weekly roundup.  This is, may I unabashedly suggest, an example of the value you get from The Travel Insider.  Not only ‘outside the box’ opinion and commentary, but the facts to support my claims, and the potential to save you many hundreds of dollars whenever you might next decide to buy a new phone.  May I remind you again about the need for you to now, in turn, please respond to our annual fundraising drive.

A few other things for you as well :

  • Easyjet Enters the Trans-Atlantic Market – Sort Of
  • Emirates to Go Downmarket?
  • Warning – Small Coach Class Seats Could be a Deathtrap
  • Big Brother Is…..
  • The Dog Ate My Homework and other excuses
  • Is the Air Marshal Program Worth its $800 million Annual Cost?
  • How Private is Your Guest Registration Data When You Check In to a Hotel?
  • Amazon Tablet Deals Again
  • And Lastly This Week….

Easyjet Enters the Trans-Atlantic Market – Sort Of

Easyjet is one of Europe’s largest and best-known low-cost carriers, and so the promise offered in this article’s headline “Budget European Carrier EasyJet Gets Into the Long-Haul Flight Game’ seems full of exciting potential.

But the reality, buried in the story, is that there are no plans for Easyjet planes to fly across the Atlantic.  Instead, all that is happening is that you’ll be able to buy a combo ticket that includes Easyjet flights within Europe connecting via Gatwick to a Norwegian or Westjet flight across the Atlantic to North America.  You won’t even be able to check your bag all the way, but will have to retrieve and recheck it at Gatwick.

Rather underwhelming.  But we’re certain that Norwegian in particular will appreciate any extra passengers that the tie-in with Easyjet might bring their way – we’ve seen some recent rumors suggesting that Norwegian might be slightly over-extended at present, and we hope as desperately as they probably do too that they’ll get through any difficulties and continue to successfully grow their services to/from North America.

Emirates to Go Downmarket?

For a long time now I’ve been surprised that Emirates has steadfastly refused to offer a fourth class of service on its flights – a Premium Economy type product.  Although increasingly common on many other international airlines, they’ve consistently refused to add it.

You’d think on their long flights there’d be plenty of demand for this, because one of the obscured truths about Emirates is that while their business and first class cabins are splendid, their coach cabin is very similar to all other coach cabins.  There’s only so much you can do in an environment comprised of too small seats, squeezed too tightly together.

Recently, over the last year, it seemed Emirates might be about to consider adding Premium Economy.  But after the ructions caused by the security panic and electronics bans, Emirates – and its Gulf airline competitors – are facing some challenges, and rather than adding an improved economy cabin and selling higher priced fares to match, they might instead be looking at adding a more basic coach cabin, and if this article is to be believed, looking at squeezing even more seats into the coach sections of their planes.

Most terrifyingly, they are considering making the seats still narrower, while trying to tell us that no-one will notice.  I wouldn’t bet on that.

Warning – Small Coach Class Seats Could be a Deathtrap

Hot on the heels of Emirates’ musings about squeezing in more and necessarily smaller seats is an excellent write-up of a recent court decision, requiring the FAA to report back to the court on the adequacy of its present certification processes that determine how many seats/passengers a given plane can hold.

This number is based on how many passengers can leave the plane through half its exits in 90 seconds.  The adequacy of such testing has long been criticised as being totally unrealistic, and completely at odds with the demonstrated reality of what passengers do in a real emergency evacuation (ie take their carry-ons out of the overheads, etc) and also fails to allow for casualties, blockages, panic, and everything else that would happen in a real emergency.

Indeed, to look at one extraordinary recent case, an emergency evacuation wasn’t even started until 52 minutes after the plane landed!

One of the key concerns is that as seats have got smaller and people have got larger, the ease and speed with which we can all get up and out of our seats and rows is reducing.  But many of the airplane capacity certifications are based on historic data, so they’re not only inadequate and inaccurate, they also no longer reflect modern-day passengers and seating.

The FAA (and airlines) astonishingly maintains that all is perfect and nothing needs to be reviewed or revised.  But the judge disagreed.

It is a lengthy and well written article.  The FAA has to report back to the court by the end of December; so this is a story that has yet to be concluded.

There’s also an interesting second issue within this that is worthy of note, too.  The passenger rights organization Flyers Rights had petitioned the DoT/FAA some time back to promulgate new rules to deal with the safety issues caused by smaller seats and larger passengers.  The FAA simply refused to respond to their petition.  Flyers Rights had to bring about a court case, now being heard in the US Court of Appeals, simply to force the FAA to respond to its petition.  This isn’t a court case about the FAA’s ruling.  This is a court case that has been required to force the FAA to actually look at and consider its way-out-of-date safety standards.

This is also not uncommon.  There are other petitions open and unactioned by the DoT/FAA, slowly gathering bureaucratic dust.  If you ask the government to consider something controversial, its response is sometimes to simply do nothing.

Big Brother Is…..

Here’s a test of your general knowledge, or estimating ability.  About how many monitoring cameras do you think are in place at LAX airport?  If you guess low, that might be because many are hidden, and if you guess high, you’re merely a bit ahead of your time – the airport plans to double its present number.

To answer the question, and according to this ‘puff piece’ article about security at LAX (executive summary – at least according to the article, it is all wonderful, in expert hands, nothing to worry about), spread over the nine terminals and approximately 120 gates, plus all the other public and private areas, in total there are currently 3,500 cameras and plans to grow that to 7,000.  So, in round figures, the average person will probably be caught by about 100 cameras on a typical trip through the airport, with that number increasing to 200 in the foreseeable future.

And this all makes us safer, exactly how?

The Dog Ate My Homework and other excuses

I wrote a few weeks ago about the spate of US Navy collisions.  The Navy was extremely fast to assert itself and fired the Admiral commanding the entire 7th Fleet, even though he wasn’t within a thousand miles of any of the crashes or tactically involved in any element of the ships’ maneuvering, and most notably before investigators had even rushed out the most preliminary of reports on the most recent collision, involving destroyer John S McCain.

Now there are stories emerging that the Pentagon is musing whether the crashes were caused by foreign hackers taking over some parts of the ship(s) systems.  That’s a beyond-ridiculous ‘Hail Mary’ attempt at transferring blame to a vague shadowy third-party, and does nothing to explain why the regular watch-keepers who should have been posted and alert to all the ships around them also failed to report any pending collisions.

One has to wonder, though – if the Navy deems it plausible to blame computer hackers, will they reinstate their fired Admiral and make a public apology.

Is the Air Marshal Program Worth its $800 million Annual Cost?

The TSA spent about $800 million on its Federal Air Marshal program in 2015 (down from $966 million the previous year); and probably the same or slightly more last year, and likely will be spending still more again this year.  In return, about 1% of US flights have a pair of under-cover air marshals on board – so yes, perhaps we should be thankful the TSA didn’t demand the additional funding to have air marshals on all flights (that would be $80 billion a year).

What type of added security do we get as a result of the $800 million?  How many terrorists have been intercepted and how many attempted plane hijackings have been prevented?

Well, the most positive answer the TSA can offer is to concede that no terrorists have been intercepted and there are no known cases of air marshals saving flights from hijackings, but they suggest that is because the program is working so spectacularly that terrorists have totally given up any attempt at attacking US flights.  Details here.

This is indeed a possible interpretation of the awkward circumstance that apparently none of the estimated 3500 federal air marshals have ever done anything except clock up air miles in first class.

But it is probably also nonsense.  The first point of imprecision is understanding what ‘about 1%’ of flights means.  My guess is the actual number of flights with air marshals is on the low side of 1% – you just know that when an official says ‘about 1%’ and they are trying to impress you, then they have rounded up to 1%, not rounded down from closer to 2%.  Some sources have suggested the actual number of flights with air marshals might be closer to 0.5%.

Whatever the number is, there’s a very important thing to appreciate.  The flights that air marshals are on are not randomly selected.  They are flights that are deemed ‘higher risk’ – flights that travel to, from, or go close past major strategic cities.  You can probably guess, because we’re so good at locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, that many flights in/out of Boston have air marshals on board, most flights in/out of New York do, and all flights in/out of the DC area airports have air marshals.

We also know from public information where the field offices for air marshals are located, and we even know which six of those field offices have been closed.  Tip for terrorists – cities with air marshal field offices are more likely to have air marshals on flights than cities without field offices.

Our security experts clearly feel it is most important to protect our iconic major cities.  But for the rest of us in the rest of the country, we currently also perceive that terrorists are likely to fixate on doing bad things in those major cities, and if we’re in a secondary city, we feel much safer and hope that the worst of major terrorist attacks may pass us by.  For that reason, having terrorists take over a flight from, say, Wichita, KS to Spokane WA (I’m not even sure there is non-stop service between these cities, but the point isn’t the specific cities as much as the general concept) and crash it into buildings in Denver (or any of the many other cities en route) would be unsettling to more of the country than another attack on NY.

Now, how likely is it that flights between Wichita and Spokane have air marshals on board?  If the average is less than 1%, and if pretty much all the flights into BOS/NYC/WAS have air marshals, that leaves precious few for flights between secondary and tertiary cities.

I could continue, but you get the point already, and for sure, those with evil intent know this too.

There’s another thing, too.  There’s no guarantee, in an encounter with terrorists, that the air marshals would prevail.  It is debatable who has the better element of surprise, and if I were an armed terrorist, I’d walk up to the front of first class (which on a typical single aisle jet is only four rows of seats) before revealing who I was, and command all the first class passengers to freeze and not move an inch.  I’d already have scoped out the most likely air marshals (hint – little old ladies are probably not federal air marshals) and I’d have command of the cabin, while my partners effected entry to the cockpit.

And that assumes that terrorists wished to take over the plane.  If instead they are the latest generation of shoe bomber or computer bomber or whatever, they can quietly do their thing at their seat or in the toilet, and the first the air marshals will know of a problem is when they along with everyone else hear the sound of the explosion.

So, we all sort of know where the air marshals are and where they probably aren’t, and even if they are present, it is far from certain they could prevail in a takeover action, and would be useless in a suicide bombing.

Do we really need air marshals?  Why not simply increase the number of armed pilots – because no matter what else happens, if terrorists wish to take over a plane, they’re probably going to have to access the flight deck, and there’s no way they can sneak in the locked strengthened door without alerting the pilots and giving them time to access their pistols.

How Private is Your Guest Registration Data When You Check In to a Hotel?

We know that in some funny foreign countries, hotels report the details of their guests to the local police.  We accept that, and feel thankful that we’re free Americans, with rights to privacy and where the police aren’t always looking over our shoulder.  We probably even feel that when we provide a hotel with our personal details while checking in that those details are indeed personal, private, and belong to us.

But how accurate are these perceptions?  Not as accurate as we’d wish.  Here’s a dismaying article that reveals how some Motel 6 properties in the Phoenix area have been voluntarily sharing details of their guest registrations with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

There are of course procedures where law enforcement agencies can acquire such information, with a key step in that process being obtaining a search warrant or other form of court-issued order.

How happy are you knowing that your movements might be offered up, gratis, to various law enforcement agencies?  Sure, only the guilty should worry, right – the innocent have nothing to fear, nothing to hide?  But history overflows with examples of where the misuse or misinterpretation of such information has caused appalling harm to private people.

At the very least, commercial organizations, whether hotels or anything else, should be required to disclose to their customers if they’re going to share any element of their business relationship with third parties – law enforcement agencies, tax departments, private investigators, credit bureaus, you name it.  That way we in turn can make an informed decision as to who we choose to do business with and what we choose to share with them.

Keep this in mind next time you choose a Motel 6, and if you decide not to stay there, don’t just not book their property, but actually let the property know that you’re deliberately booking away to another property.

Amazon Tablet Deals Again

Amazon has been doing a lot of discounting of its Fire 7″ and Fire 8″ tablets of late.  But a deal currently available and expiring, I think on Saturday, is close to the best I’ve seen, and definitely so for the much nicer Fire 8.  The 7″ tablet is reduced from $50 to $35, and the 8″ tablet is down from $80 to $55.  Both require Prime membership, but here’s the thing.  If you’re not already a Prime membership, sign up for a free one month Prime trial, and get your tablets during your Prime trial.

$55 for a reasonably decent 8″ tablet!  Amazing.  Interesting that $55 will get you an 8″ tablet, but it costs $1000+ to get a new 5.8″ iPhone X.

Talking about Apple, also last week, while everyone else was looking at their new phones, Apple quietly raised the price on a couple of their iPad tablets.  Because, apparently it isn’t enough to have only a $500 – $1000 price premium over the competition.  They want more.

And Lastly This Week….

Add Amsterdam to the growing list of greedy cities around the world that want to fleece their visitors more.  Not content with already charging a 5% tax on hotel rooms, the city is now pondering adding a €10/night tax.

The specious justification for this completely overlooks the fact that tourists are Amsterdam’s lifeblood.  All those tourists, buying all those meals, drinks, souvenirs, tours, transportation, you name it (prostitution and drugs, to be blunt) – tourists aren’t getting a free ride of any sort at present.  Without the 17 million tourists last year, Amsterdam would be a hollow shell.

Germophobes already know that one of the cleanest things in your hotel room is the toilet, and the dirtiest thing is the tv remote control.  But apparently there’s a new source of germs in hotel rooms to alarm us, and a most unlikely one.  The hair drier.  You might think ‘what could be the problem with hot air’ but that’s not the problem.  The problem is holding the hair drier itself.

Solution – you’re already in the bathroom.  Wash your hands after using the hair drier.  Problem solved.

Let’s all raise a glass and toast Dr Dao the next time we’re having a drink in an airport lounge or on a plane.  As a direct result of his problems being dragged off a United/Republic flight, airlines have upped their game when it comes to involuntary denied boarding cases.

This came to a very visible head last week when Delta ended up paying $4000 to persuade a passenger to take a later flight.  The story behind it and why no-one would budge for less than $4000 is rather amusing and well worth reading.

Truly lastly this week, the photo at the start of the newsletter.  It, and many others, are courtesy of Photoshop, and apparently combine a picture of the pilot in the plane, on the ground, but with a different background replacing the plane on the ground, giving the appearance of the plane in flight.  Details here.

Well, on to the accompanying three new articles about iPhones and other smartphones.  Like what you’re reading?  If so, please do join your fellow Travel Insiders and send in even a modest sized contribution as part of this year’s annual fundraising drive.  Thank you.

Until next week, please enjoy safe flights





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