Weekly Roundup, Friday 3 August, 2018

Bedbugs – not just on hotel beds, but sometimes on airplane seats, too.

Good morning

We were silent last week; not because there was nothing to write about, but instead due to the matter I’d foreshadowed over several recent newsletters coming to the fore – it turned out that what I’d thought to be ‘only’ computer viruses was actually a determined attack on our computer servers, not by programs but by people.

I guess that means we’ve graduated to the ‘big time’ – becoming sufficiently important and influential as to infuriate people of opposite views who seek to silence us rather than engage in reasoned discussion.  That is sadly the way things are becoming these days – if it isn’t a computer attack, instead it is a public campaign, heavy on the vilification but light on the facts, petitions, Twitter hashtags, calls for boycotts, and so on.  Being fairly impervious to all these other types of opposition, it seems that computer crashing was the preferred response.

We seem to now be back up and close to completely recovered, and with slightly more hardened systems than before, and new hosting based in Bulgaria of all places.  But if the Department of Defense, the Democratic Party, and assorted mega-corporate and credit card type servers can be hacked, clearly nothing and no-one is 100% safe, and it is entirely possible we might go down again.

It is close to a perfect crime, unfortunately, and unless one has state-level resources, there is no easy way to determine where the attacks are coming from.  Sure, there was an up-surge in malicious visits from IP addresses that resolved to China, but any decent hacker these days spoofs or masks their IP address so as to obscure where they are really coming from.

It was interesting though, because part of the recovery process caused me to stumble across articles I’d forgotten I’d ever written, and – if I may say so – I was surprised at how much content there is on the blog and regular websites, and while some of it is ordinary, there are other articles that have withstood the test of time and that I remain very proud of.

One piece of data I did lose, however, were the excellent comments on my Airbnb article.  The site crashed on Saturday before its backup cycle could grab a copy of the excellent comments that had been provided on the Thursday and Friday.  That’s a shame.

I have one more Airbnb experience to share.  I was due to stay at another Airbnb property earlier this week.  I ended up cancelling, because the owner called to tell me not to worry, but there had been a fire at the neighbor’s house the previous day, and parts of his property had been damaged by the fire, too.  The owner was kindly offering to move out of his own house for the two nights I had planned to stay in his second spare house, so there wasn’t a huge inconvenience being threatened to me at all, but I felt awkward at the owner’s very kind offer of self-sacrifice and just cancelled the entire booking (much to the owner’s relief).

That’s not likely to be a common Airbnb occurrence, but I thought you’d like to hear of it.

For comic relief, in the middle of everything, I received an email from a domain name trader/broker.  He had a Chinese buyer wanting to purchase one of my domain names for a very generous sum.  I hadn’t used the name for years, and to suddenly be offered I think something like $50,000 for a no longer needed domain name was a lovely bonus to come my way.  I’ve always nurtured the hope that, a bit like winning the lottery, one of these days, someone might suddenly appear to buy one of my spare domain names for a vast sum, and here, at last, it was quickly becoming a reality.

Apparently Chinese regulations require official validation of domain name ownership, a translation of everything into Chinese, and a fair value certification so as to protect Chinese buyers and also prevent such transactions being a way to evade their government restrictions on transferring money out of the country.  That sounded like a complicated process, but the broker said he was used to that, and it would be very easy.  He put me in touch with an officially accredited service that would do all the paperwork to guarantee the transaction being accepted.  Their fee was very reasonable, and there was the promise of getting the $50,000 in just a few days, after almost no work or hassle on my part.

But – do you already see the trap?  It was the requirement to pay a fee, up front, to this officially accredited service to validate the transaction.  The whole thing was a scam, designed simply to get me sending money to a third party who would then take the money and artfully disappear.  I wasn’t tricked, being a long-time believer in the adage “If something seems too good to be true, it probably indeed is not true” but it was nice to dream and pretend to believe for even a very few minutes.

Remember – no matter how credible, any time you stand to get a lot of money for anything, but have to make a small payment in advance, you’re being confronted with merely a slightly reworded version of the classic Nigerian prince seeking your help to move his millions of dollars out of the country scheme.

I’m still putting the finishing touches on the restored websites and services, but wanted to reappear in your inbox this morning.  So here’s a longer than normal 4700 word newsletter for your Friday morning pleasure – please keep reading for :

  • The Airline that Isn’t Allowed to Die
  • The International Airport with No Passengers
  • Trying to Make the Airlines Accountable for Cabin Temperatures
  • At Last – A Used A380 Returns to Service
  • Bedbugs – On Planes as Well as in Hotels
  •  More Proof the Government Can’t or Won’t Count to Four
  • More TSA Mission Creep
  • Canada Perceives Germany as a High Risk Country
  • Another Example of Why You Read The Travel Insider
  • And Lastly This Week….

The Airline that Isn’t Allowed to Die

Sometimes the best thing to happen to an airline is to allow it to quietly fade away and disappear.  Badly run airlines that exist only as a result of government support mess things up for the good airlines.

The badly run airline’s inevitably ridiculously inefficient labor practices are held up as a model by trade unions with demands that other airlines match the same pay rates and working conditions.  The poor service standards and travel experience gives other airlines no incentive to lift their own game.  And the government subsidies allow the airline to charge too little, or to overschedule, or in other ways make it difficult for airlines that need to make a profit to provide similar competing flights.

We, the public, absolutely do not benefit from sub-par airlines being subsidized and allowed to remain operational.  They should be left to die, and the governments that were funding their life-support should instead focus on helping new better carriers to replace the failed airlines with better business models and better passenger experiences.

In this particular case, the airline that has been staggering from one financial crisis to another, from one bail-out to the next, from reorganization to further reorganization (while leaving the fundamental core problems unchanged!) is Alitalia.  As this article explains, the airline has soaked up over €9.5 billion in bailouts in less than ten years, and currently is losing money at a rate of over €400 million a year and with no clear indication this will ever change.

A key to the airline’s problems, and why the latest government assistance will do nothing other than give it more cash to lose, is in the government’s statement that it wishes to “protect the needs of its workers”.  If Alitalia was free to renegotiate two things, it could become as profitable as any other airline in Europe – if it could renegotiate its labor contracts, and win the freedom to decide which city pairs it serves and which it abandons, it might become a great success.  But with both its “hands” tied behind its back – its operations and its costs – it is doomed merely to continued failures.

An additional negative point is that Alitalia’s Skyteam partners Delta, Air France/KLM and Virgin Atlantic have dropped it from their trans-Atlantic joint venture.  Even other legacy/dinosaur airlines no longer wish to associate with Alitalia.

It is also likely that some/most of the government support the airline has been getting is illegal under EU (and possibly also WTO) regulations.  But even the regulatory bodies seem to have given up.

The International Airport with No Passengers

Governments are great at interfering with normal and natural economic forces.  If they aren’t perpetuating the existence of airlines that deserve to die, maybe they are squandering enormous sums building things that no-one wants (except the construction companies).

Like, for example, a major new international airport in Sri Lanka that cost $307 million, built in the middle of nowhere as part of a planned new commercial and transportation hub (only a government would think that transportation hubs work well when they’re not anchored by major cities immediately adjacent).  It opened in 2013, and last year was averaging 7 passengers a day, a number which has now dropped down to zero.

Details here.

Trying to Make the Airlines Accountable for Cabin Temperatures

Now that we’re in the hottest part of summer, it is almost time for the annual articles about the appalling heat on London’s Underground lines.  The overcrowding – too many people, and too many trains – and the tunnels which trap the heat and soak it up mean that the tunnel wall temperatures are rising inexorably, year after year, and so too therefore are the temperatures on the trains, now often breaking through and above 100°.

Most of us seldom have to suffer London’s Underground, but the chances are, you do travel by plane semi-regularly, and as you’ll know, sometimes the temperatures at the gate on planes can be terribly bad.  Even when at cruising levels and in the middle of a flight, the temperatures on some planes seem to always be bitterly cold, while on other planes, while the air temperature outside might be -60°,  inside the passenger cabin it is somewhere above +80°.

I’ve always marveled how a $100 million plane seems unable to have a reliable $10 thermostat and $10,000 a/c unit to provide some semblance of comfort to the passengers and flight crew.  But that is overlooking the reality of the problem – of course the planes have both thermostats and heating/cooling systems, and usually very sophisticated ones.  But they’re only as good as the people who get to dial in the settings, and perhaps the flipside of the sophistication of some of these systems is that the flight attendants (or pilots) don’t know how to control them.

Then there are the people who, when being told that the temperature is too hot or too cold, don’t just change the temperature by a degree or two, but by ten or twenty degrees.

Nonetheless, the reality is that poor temperature management impacts just as much on the flight attendants as it does on us (with the difference being they’re more readily able to change the temperature than we are).  One of the flight attendant unions has now come out with a smartphone app – 2Hot2Cold – which allows passengers to report uncomfortable temperatures on flights.

They have also petitioned the DoT, asking them to create a new rule setting temperature limits on flights.  That sounds like a good idea in practice, but as one who always prefers being too cold to being too hot (it being easier to add clothing than to take it off, particularly on a public flight!) the proposed temperature limits fill me with horror.  A “target” range of between 65 – 75 sounds almost acceptable, although even 75 is pushing the high end of my comfort zone (the accepted ideal temperature is 68-70 by various organizations that ‘know about such things’), but a “target” range is far from a hard limit, isn’t it.

So they also specify a maximum temperature of 80°, or 85° if all the in-flight entertainment is operating.  And, of course, the IFE equipment generally is all switched on, isn’t it.

Strangely, while they will allow maximum temperatures 15° above the optimum range, the minimum temperature stays at 65°, a mere 3° below the optimum range.  Why so unbalanced?

Which means, should this rule be passed, by law it will be okay to be on flights where the temperature is 85°, and with thermometers never being exact, who is to say if the 85° reading is actually 90° or not.

In what way would this new rule actually improve things, for most of us, most of the time?  I come back to my earlier statement – is the best we can hope for in a $100 million plane an a/c system that can’t keep the temperature below 85°?

And, talking about thermometers, if you want to participate more authoritatively in discussions (arguments) about temperatures – both in airplanes and also in hotels – why not get a small lightweight travel thermometer, costing something under $10.  Here’s a selection from Amazon.

Don’t get a travel thermometer with a long thin ‘probe’ or sensor.  That looks too much like a stiletto knife.  But get one with a digital display – it isn’t any more accurate, but it is more impressive and persuasive.  Many times I’ve had engineers in hotels try to tell me the a/c is working perfectly, only to change their tune when I’ve held my thermometer up to the air register in the hotel room and shown them the air coming out is at ambient room temperature.

At Last – A Used A380 Returns to Service

It is amazing to think that the A380 has now been in service for so long that some airlines are starting to retire the early A380s they first purchased, particularly Singapore Airlines, which was the first airline to start flying them in October 2007.

The subject of what would happen to used A380s has been one of intense speculation.  Would they be quickly bought up on the cheap by bargain hunting airlines that couldn’t justify full price, but would rush to buy the planes at less than half new price?  A new A380 lists for about $450 million and probably sells for about $300 million.  We estimate the used A380s would be offered for sale around the $75 – 100 million price point, depending on how long since/how soon before the next major maintenance cycle, and the type/state of the engines.

The first two retired SQ planes apparently have been broken down for spare parts, realizing more money being parted off than they seemed likely to get by being sold as going planes (about $80 million per plane according to industry gossip).  That was not a good thing for Airbus and A380 owners – everyone prefers a plane that has a ready and high resale value over a plane that can’t be sold on at the end of its economic life with its present owner.

But the third A380 was taken by a Portuguese charter/lease operator in April, Hi Fly, and just this week entered service, operating on behalf of Thomas Cook.  Rather amusingly, the plane still has its SQ type cabin configuration, with ultra-deluxe first class, lovely business class, great premium economy and regular economy seating, offering passengers a level of comfort that is quite unlike that on other Thomas Cook planes (mainly A321s).

It is unclear, but it is possible Hi Fly is going to be adding a second A380 to their fleet as well.  We hope they do, and wish them and their A380s the best of good fortune and great flying.  Anything that keeps the A380 program alive and well has to be a good thing for us all.

Bedbugs – On Planes as Well as in Hotels

If you’re like me, you probably know a little about bedbugs, but view them as a very remote problem that you’re blessedly unlikely to ever encounter yourself.

Maybe.  But also, maybe not.  Think of them like you would unprotected sex with a new partner – in essence, you’re not only becoming intimate with your new partner, but with all his/her recent other partners, too, and their recent partners, also.  Just because he/she seems like a ‘good’ person, who is to know about the friends of friends?

The same with bedbugs.  Just because you stay at “good hotels”, and just because most of the other guests also look like “good people”, who knows what other hotels and places the people have been that were sleeping in the bed last night that you’ll be sleeping in tonight.  One of the ladies on the Great Britain tour in June told me the nightmare story of how she and her husband picked up a bedbug infestation in a hotel while traveling, and how it cost over $20,000 (I think that was the sum) to get rid of them.  After trying various failed strategies, eventually they had to basically turn their entire house into a furnace/oven, heat it up to some temperature over 120°F for some hours, and hope the heat killed all the bedbugs and all their larvae waiting to hatch, etc.

She now refuses to even bring her suitcases into the room when checking into a hotel (she’ll leave them on the hard floor in the bathroom) until after she has stripped and searched the bed for signs of any bedbugs.  After hearing her story of the terrible nightmare they brought into her life, I’m almost motivated to do the same.

Which brings us to the matter hinted at in the headline.  As this story reveals, passengers on Air India flights, even in business class, and on their flights out of Newark, have been having bedbug problems with the bugs being in the airplane seats.  We’ve occasionally seen other stories of bedbugs on flights (for example a BA flight from Vancouver to London not quite a year ago – BA’s response was to say that reports of bedbugs on their flights are extremely rare), and there’s of course no reason why bedbugs shouldn’t be as happy on planes as they are in hotel rooms (and your home).

Of course, the really big question is what would you do if you discovered what you thought to be bedbugs on your airline seat on a full flight?  With other people being forced to sit in urine soaked seats, and with accepting broken seats being a normally expected thing, one wonders just how sympathetic the flight attendants and airline might be.

Needless to say, the first thing to do is to photograph them.  And keep your distance.  They don’t fly, nor do they jump, but they do crawl quite quickly.  Don’t give them a chance to transfer to you or any of your belongings.  And, keeping in mind the cost and inconvenience of getting rid of them, if you did automatically place any clothing or soft sided bags on an infected seat, we’d be tempted to recommend you just leave the items there rather than take them with you and risk a broader infection.

More Proof the Government Can’t or Won’t Count to Four

I wrote recently about Customs and Border Patrol officers seizing cash from a couple on a domestic flight in the US after being tipped off by the TSA who noted the cash in their carry-on.  There is nothing illegal about carrying cash, in any amount, in the US, and eventually, after incurring who knows how much expense in legal fees, the couple had most but not all the money returned (the CBP refused to show, on the ‘receipt’ they gave for the seized money, exactly how much money they seized).

This is of course a direct and flagrant breach of the Fourth Amendment that supposedly guarantees us freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

But it is far from the only such breach.  Motivated by giving themselves the ability to keep the money they seize, some law enforcement agencies are way too eager to seize money and valuables and then require us to be able to prove that the items are lawfully ours – you know, the whole concept now being that we’re guilty until we can prove our innocence.

Another example came to light last week, with another flier having $29,000 seized from him at O’Hare, also on a domestic flight.  The money was taken in February; six months later and he is still waiting for its return.

The article also observes that in the ten years 2007-2016 the DEA has seized $3.2 billion in cash from people, with not a single conviction associated with their cash seizures.

There was a time when our society was built on the premise, stated by English jurist William Blackstone, and in place long before his 1765 statement, that it is better for ten guilty people to go free than one innocent person be wrongly convicted.  That 10:1 ratio has slowly but inexorably weakened, while the need for unanimous juries is moving to a majority vote, and a standard of proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ now being increasingly watered down to ‘based on a preponderance of the evidence’.

Now it seems the 10:1 ratio is flipping, and it is better that 10 innocent people should be inconvenienced, arrested, tried, and convicted, rather than risk one guilty person going free.

You can decide yourself what the ratio should be, but while doing so, keep one thought in mind – has the increasing eagerness of our law enforcement agencies to attack the innocent and require us to prove our innocence actually made us any safer?

More TSA Mission Creep

It is easy to forget that the hurried creation of the TSA in the panicked days after 9/11/2001 was never a needed response to the four plane hijackings.  The problem wasn’t with security screening.  The problem wasn’t even so much with allowing box cutters onto airplanes; the real problem was the official doctrine that airplane passengers and crews should cooperate with hijackers rather than oppose/resist them.  That is how four or five guys with nothing more than some box cutters managed to “overpower” the (non-resisting) flight attendants and pilots, and fly their planes into buildings.

But the people who respond to such things were also the people who had created the policy that created the problem in the first place.  Rather than accept blame, they found it easier to blame the contract security screening companies, and to respond by increasing their empire by substituting private contractor security companies with an entire new government department, the TSA, and then the Homeland Security Department which the TSA became part of.

We were assured the TSA would simply provide ‘more effective’ airport screening, with ‘better trained’ and more highly skilled personnel.  In the 17 years since then, there has been precious little evidence of any improvements in the actual screening routines, and whenever results of tests are made public, it remains plain that well over half of all firearms go through TSA screening without being discovered.

But the only response to such embarrassments is for the TSA to call for more people, more resources, more money, and to expand their actions further.  If their airport screening is unreliable, their response is not to fix it, but rather to start boasting about 20+ different ‘layers’ of security, and to say it really doesn’t matter if the screening fails, because of all the other layers of security they also have in place.

These ‘layers’ now see them at bus terminals, subways, and even sports stadiums, doing their best to interfere with our ordinary activities and freedom of assembly and movement (part of the First Amendment).

We were also told that of course they wouldn’t be tipping off other law enforcement groups when as part of their screening they uncovered evidence of other non-terrorist law breaking.  Well, that was a promise that was very quickly broken – as is obvious in the preceding article, for example, and the passengers who now get pulled to one side for offenses ranging from unpaid parking tickets to outstanding child support.

The latest element of mission creep is quite a large step forward, even by their standards.  As a result of complaints and whistle-blowing by their own people, we now learn of their new “Quiet Skies” program where they’ll surveil people, looking to find examples of suspicious behavior.  This surveillance isn’t just within airports, but could be elsewhere too.

So what does it now take for innocent people to attract TSA surveillance?  Not much, it seems.  As well as the usual things, like daring to complain if mistreated/abused by the TSA, if you happen to fly to some unusual countries, or are ‘possibly affiliated’ with someone else who might possibly be of interest, or if you do one of various other fairly ordinary activities, you may be added to this new surveillance list.  There are apparently 15 different “rules” for determining if you are a person of interest or not, but the rules are of course not public.

Apparently an average of about 35 people are being surveilled every day under this program.  More details here.

Canada Perceives Germany as a High Risk Country

We don’t know what the TSA with their Quiet Skies program thinks if you’ve recently visited Germany, but if you’re going to Canada, arriving from Germany apparently raises a red flag.

This article, mainly about the risks people run when entering Canada and possibly having their electronics searched, mentions that coming from high risk areas increases your chance of having your electronics searched.  It lists Southeast Asia, Cuba, and Germany as examples of high risk areas.

Actually, most of all three countries/regions sound fairly safe to me.  Why not mention Islamic nations in Africa/Middle East?  Are they not as high a risk as Singapore or Germany?  And to suggest that Cuba is a threat at all to Canada is laughable.

Another Example of Why You Read The Travel Insider

I’ve done many things in my life, and I’ve written many things during the course of 17 years and many millions of words as The Travel Insider.  But one thing I’ve never done is gushingly recycle supplier press releases and try to pretend they are news or my opinions.

Unlike, it seems, Travel + Leisure magazine.  It is hard to think how Disney themselves could have written a more glowing article than this one about how wonderful it now is to stand in interminable lines waiting for rides at Disneyland.  Right from the heading – “Disney’s New App Will Make You Look Forward to Waiting in Line” it is clear that this is going to be a rather one-sided piece that ordinary people may struggle to relate to.

Talking about the app, the article claims

Inside the parks — and on four specific attractions — it shines, leveraging that oft-dreaded wait time into an experience that’ll make those breezing past near-envious.

Because, after all, the reason we go to Disneyland is apparently not to go on rides and enjoy the atmosphere directly in person, but instead to wait in line as long as we can while burying ourselves into a Disney game on our phones – a game that, as the article also points out without realizing the irony in it, can also be played at home or anywhere else in the world.

Definitely not the sort of article you’d ever see on The Travel Insider.

And Lastly This Week….

18 things tour guides are too polite to tell you?  That’s the promise of this article, and as a sometime/sort of tour guide myself, I found myself nodding in agreement with many of them.

In the last newsletter, I linked to a YouTube video of a guy testing just exactly how strong a 737 cockpit door was (surprisingly strong, as it turned out).  Here he is now testing a cockpit window.

Truly lastly this week, I read an interesting tip somewhere recently.  If you want to make zoo animals come up to see you when you’re going through a zoo, wear clothing as similar in color and style as possible to that worn by the zoo staff.  The animals associate people in that clothing with receiving their food and other generally positive experiences, and so are more likely to come and check you out if you’re similarly attired.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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