Friday 15 August, 2003

Good morning.  Is it my imagination, or is it getting darker each morning when I struggle out of bed at 6am?  One thing that I am sadly certain of is that time seems to pass ever more quickly, with each weekly newsletter seeming to come due even sooner than the one before.

As mentioned last week, my travel to Russia will result in a reduced newsletter for the balance of August.  There will be regular weekly feature columns (I've written them in advance) but the newsletters will be much shorter than normal and also, alas, more lightly proof-read.  Your indulgence is appreciated.

This Week's Column :  Personal Radio Communications Part 3 :  Read the real world testing results and compare the actual range (as short as 100 yds in some situations) that radios promoted as having an 'up to 7 mile range' actually offer.  And then consider the surprising conclusion about the best form of personal radio communications in most situations.

And talking about personal radio communications, my lovely new Nokia 3650 cellphone continues to confuse and confound me.  The fact that it has a 220 page manual provides a warning as to its complexity, and in addition to the phone manual, additional information is needed to explain the various software type services provided by T-Mobile.  It is no exaggeration to say that I have spent tens of hours trying to puzzle out how everything works, and, alas, I have few successes to report.

I can of course make and receive phone calls, and I can also take and send photos, but when it comes to some of the more advanced features like using the phone as a modem or using it as an email client, things become much more complicated.  Trying to use the phone as a modem involves downloading special software for the computer, and then a multi-step process prior to each connection attempt, with various settings to be adjusted on the phone and computer.  Learning this involved calls to both T-Mobile and Nokia support, and although I had it work once, I have never been able to get it to work again.

It reminds me of the early days of the internet, when one had to load special 'IP stacks' onto one's computer and use very temperamental third party software to get a Windows 3.1 computer to connect to the internet.  Until the latest generation of cellphones no longer need 220 page manuals, and become intuitive for, and tolerant of ordinary users, the advanced services that promise the most profit to the cellphone companies will simply not be adopted by most users.  If a technophile such as myself can't get these things to work, how can a technophobe be expected to succeed?

Dinosaur Watching :  The dinosaur airlines are a long time dying, but unmistakable signs of their demise can be found in abundance.  Perhaps the most startling example of their dwindling dominance can be found in traffic statistics released this week.  The carrier boarding the greatest number of domestic passengers in the month of May was not American Airlines (6.22 million passengers) and neither was it Delta (6.34 million).  Instead, a convincing win for first place, with 6.54 million passengers boarded, went to Southwest Airlines.  This is the first time that Southwest has scored as the largest domestic airline by this measure (there are plenty of other measures in which Southwest still shows itself as much smaller than the big bad carriers).

And while it is a long way short of taking the title of largest domestic carrier, JetBlue continues to grow at an impressive rate, such that it is projected to become the largest carrier in the heavily traveled New York - Florida market by the end of 2004.  It already earns 10% of all domestic flight revenue in the New York market, just 3.5 years after it began flights.

Most people would agree that United's former 'Fly the Friendly Skies' slogan is no longer even remotely appropriate.  Reader Aaron has a suggestion for a new slogan that more accurately reflects the current situation at UA - 'United - where the customer is always wrong'.  Aaron's problems with United started when they cancelled his flight, then accused him of being in the wrong for 'missing' it!  Things then continued to get worse and worse.  Read the whole sorry saga in his reader forum messages.  It is no wonder that United has been the main loser in the New York market.  Aaron isn't the only person resolving to avoid UA whenever possible.

I was puzzled about the story of Concorde running out of fuel on the way to New York in last week's newsletter.  As I suggested at the time, the explanation that I read in the original article just didn't make sense at all.  Reader Nick has now advised that the situation was much less grave than I painted it.  What actually happened was that the high temperature at Heathrow meant the Concorde could not load as much fuel as normal, and passengers were advised prior to takeoff that a refueling stop would be necessary.  As such, BA shouldn't be considered at fault.  Thanks to Nick for correcting the record on this one.

As I briefly said last week, when the air is hot, it becomes less dense, and so the aerodynamic effects which enable a plane to fly become less effective.  This means that the maximum take-off weight of a plane is reduced to compensate for the diminished lift it experiences in the hot air.  Some airlines will accordingly offload passengers or discretionary freight, but in the case of Concorde, BA chose to add a stop in Newfoundland.  The chances are that most of the passengers on the flight actually enjoyed the bonus of an extra landing and takeoff (take-offs are very exciting in a Concorde!).

One of the problems many of us have is knowing how to spend our frequent flier miles.  US Airways has come up with some tempting choices for members of its frequent flier program, and now offer what is undeniably the ultimate flight option.  For only 10,000,000 miles, you can enjoy a true sub-orbital space flight (albeit on a rocket not yet developed!).  Or if you'd prefer something slightly closer to earth, an 'Edge of Space' experience gets you a flight on a Mig25 Foxbat fighter jet at twice the speed of sound, and up to 85,000 ft where you can see the earth's curvature below, and the dark of space (rather than blue sky) above.  This costs only 275,000 miles, plus also $8000 in cash.  And presumably the roundtrip flight to Russia is not thrown in.  More details on these temptations on their website.

While US Airways is encouraging you to fly into space, it seems to be having some problems a bit closer to earth, with their pilot union now claiming that Delta has furloughed too many pilots, resulting in cancelled flights and interruptions for thousands of hapless passengers.  The union said that more than 80 flights were cancelled on a single day recently, and alleged that the company plans to 'pre-cancel' flights in August also.  Hopefully a 'pre-cancelled' flight means that you're told about the non-event before arriving at the airport!

Delta needs to get its priorities correct.  It has announced the uniform design for its Song subsidiary staff, complete even with special sunglasses.  Delta's uniform designer said 'The designs for Song look back to the glamour days of air travel, a time when both the flight staff and travelers often showed up on the tarmac with incredible style.  I am happy to work with Song to bring an easy sense of sophistication and polish back to air travel'.

This all sounds wonderful, but if I had to choose between a larger seat, more leg room, and a movie, or flight attendants with designer sunglasses, I know which I'd prefer, every time.  Give me JetBlue with their larger seats and inflight entertainment systems.

Delta has another problem with priorities.  Its controversial $65 million bankruptcy-proof executive pension scheme (for 35 senior executives) was intended to, in part, ensure that its top execs didn't leave DL.  But - ooops - 3 of the 35 have already left, and apparently taking some or all of their pensions with them!  Meanwhile, DL's general employee pension plan is underfunded by somewhere between $2 billion and $4.9 billion.

British residents continue to enjoy benefits withheld from us in the US, as BA tries desperately to regain passengers after its Heathrow debacle of a month ago - I guess BA thinks that its US passengers don't mind being stranded in a foreign country for days on end.  BA is now proudly claiming that its UK 'Big Sorry Small Prices' campaign was an extraordinary success, and says it has broken all previous records for online bookings, selling 34,500 seats in a single day.

Sounds impressive, doesn't it.  And their Director of Marketing proudly said 'We already carry more passengers across the UK and Europe to more destinations than any other British-based airline and now regularly sell more than 40 per cent of our shorthaul leisure fares online'.  Interestingly, although BA is proudly boasting of its size and its special one-off record of 34,500 seats sold in a single day, it seems that BA's claim - ooops - isn't as impressive as it seems.  It is estimated that the two low-cost competitors to BA (Ryanair and EasyJet) sell, on average, and without special promotions to boost their numbers, between 60,000 and 65,000 seats per day on their internet sites!

And talking about BA always makes me think of their bete noire - Virgin Atlantic Airways.  Good news -  Super Deal Alert :  A month or so back United came out with a promotion - fly in their business or first class internationally, and they would give you one free international coach class ticket.  Several of the other US based airlines matched this, and the deals are mostly still on offer, expiring in September.  Maverick British airline Virgin Atlantic Airways (VS) has just upped the ante.

VS released a special promotion on Wednesday - fly in their business class cabin and receive TWO free coach class tickets, good either for their international services to London, OR also good on Delta domestic flights within the 48 states, AND Alaska AND Canada.  For most people, that deal is twice as good as the other deals out there.  But - that's not all.  If you fly in their lower priced Premium Economy cabin, you'll get one coach class ticket on either VS or DL.  Qualifying flights to get this offer must be complete by 10 December, and free tickets can be used any time prior to 30 June.  More details on this generous promotion are on the VS website.

If there is one thing that travelers dread, it is the affliction with many different euphemisms that can sometimes incapacitate one for a day or more while traveling.  Montezuma's Revenge.  The Traveler's Trots.  Call it what you like, the occasional nasty reaction, either to bad food, or perhaps to perfectly good food but with different bacterial flora than that which we're used to, can mess up anyone's tight travel schedule.  A new solution is looming on the horizon, which is expected to result in a single pill that would prevent up to two-thirds of such afflictions.  Clinical trials are underway in Britain now.

Here's a helpful website - www.traffic.com.  It gives current traffic conditions in 14 major US cities, with plans to expand into 40 cities in total.  I never leave home without first checking the Seattle freeways on the internet, and suggest that, if the city you live in or are visiting is covered, you also always check your route before driving anywhere.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Apparently, a foreign pilot objects to being treated like a common criminal as he goes through security.  The TSA security screeners decide to 'teach him (and all other pilots and all other passengers) a lesson'.  Bottom line - Air France copilot Philippe Rivere, 50, finds himself arrested at JFK and spending the night in custody, after allegedly telling a security screener he had a bomb in his shoe.  Rivere is charged with falsely reporting an incident and could face up to seven years in prison.  And the passengers on what was the last Air France flight on Friday night found themselves having to stay overnight at the airport.

An airport spokesman would not say if the pilot was joking (I wonder why he refused to comment).  However, several eye-witness accounts seem to suggest that the TSA have again over-reacted, and that what the pilot said was more along the lines of 'What, do you think I have a bomb in my shoe?'.  The combination of a slightly testy pilot and speaking in a foreign language resulted in the co-pilot in jail, the plane unable to fly, and all its passengers stranded overnight (Air France did not provide any hotel accommodation).

The TSA appears to be answerable to no-one, and seems to delight in 'punishing' us all by their zero sense zero tolerance (and minimal understanding of the meaning of the English language).  While we all understand that security is a serious business, most of us also understand that the 'security' the TSA is providing is a laughably thin veneer that inconveniences ordinary travelers a great deal more than it would inconvenience real terrorists.  We'd happily accept onerous security if we believed it really served a good purpose, but the patchy inconsistent and incomplete security the TSA impose on us does not.

For example, read this article and discover that our shoes get more scrutiny than air cargo loaded into the cargo hold of the same plane we are flying on.  Any half-way sensible terrorist won't even bother going anywhere near the airport - he'll just go to a local freight forwarder and send his bomb via air freight.

Or perhaps he'll take a job working at the airport, and then smuggle whatever he wishes into the secure areas of the airport.  An undercover reporter did exactly that at Heathrow.  He faked his employment history and was given a job in the secure area.  When arriving for work each day, he smuggled various items in with him.  Although he had to pass through a metal detector, its beeping was ignored by the security workers who waved him on through, assuming the alarm was nothing more than the steel caps on his boots.  On one occasion, he also hid a four inch knife blade in a coffee cup, and handed the coffee cup to the security screener while walking through the metal detector.  The screener passed the cup over to him on the other side of the detector, thereby avoiding the detection of the knife inside!

Or perhaps terrorists will instead access JFK airport disguised as fishermen.  Three fishermen recently wandered about JFK after their fishing boat was blown ashore.  It was only after they ended up on an active runway that their presence was detected and they were intercepted by a security patrol.

This is particularly serious, not only because JFK has recently upgraded its perimeter security to protect it against intrusion from the sea, but also because these three fisherman could have been terrorists with surface to air missiles (SAMs), and able to down planes at will.

SAMs have been in the news quite a lot in the last week.  Kudos must be awarded to the FBI, who on Tuesday arrested three people in New York who thought they were buying SAMs from what turned out to be undercover FBI agents.  Two of the three men detained were Afghans and the third was a British citizen of Indian descent.  You can be certain that these three weren't seeking to buy missiles for any good or lawful purpose!

Meanwhile, although almost all our own airports (not just JFK) would appear to be close to completely vulnerable to SAM attack against arriving and departing flights (see my earlier article on this subject), government security officials qualify for this week's award for the most egregious excuse for an all-expense paid overseas summer holiday by touring European airports at present, determining if they can be secured against the threat of SAM toting terrorists.  They could save themselves the visit (or should I say, vacation!) by simply reading my article.  The short answer is that no airport in an urban area can be realistically defended.

However, there are some simple low cost procedures which would vastly reduce the danger and exposure to missile attack for most flights.  I'll write about that in a future issue - or maybe try and sell the idea to the government for millions of dollars (and a foreign vacation!).

Just like government security officials on all expense paid junkets, I too love vacations in foreign cities, but they are also very tiring.  One typically spends a lot more time on one's feet and walking around than one does at home, and a chance to occasionally pause and sit down is a welcome respite on a tiring day.  But be careful where you sit if you're visiting Italy.  Tourists that sit on the steps or pavements around Florence's Duomo Cathedral or around St Mark's Square in Venice are now at risk of being fined 50 ($57).

Britain and Europe have been suffering a ferocious heatwave over the last few weeks, with record 100+ degree temperatures being set.  Sadly, people have died from heat exhaustion, and others have suffered sunburn.  And now one unlucky motorist has become the first frostbite victim of the heatwave.  The driver was traveling between London and Manchester, and took his shoes off, and had one foot too close to his air conditioning outlet.  One toe went black and another blue.  He remained unaware of his problem until the next day, when his extremely painful foot resulted in him visiting a doctor who diagnosed his frostbite.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and keep warm

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
ps :  Don't forget to visit Joe Brancatelli's site for his weekly updates, too.

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