Friday 19 December, 2003


Good morning.  Less than one week until Christmas, or as politically correct people prefer to now refer to it, the 'Holiday Season'.  And on Monday, we have the winter solstice, which means, as I discuss in my two part series on 'When is the Best Time to Travel', if you're traveling somewhere, then between now and the summer solstice, it is usually best to travel from the southernmost point first and in a generally northern direction.

Wednesday saw the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight.  It is interesting to see how this is confused with also being the 100th anniversary of the first manned powered flight - that is absolutely not so.  The credit for that achievement belongs to New Zealander, Richard Pearse.  He flew on 31 March, 1903, almost nine months before Kitty Hawk.

Several attempts to re-enact the Wright Brothers' flight all failed, both on 17 December and earlier as well.  But, while we might not be able to master 'old' technology, we're developing exciting new technologies, and a flight that definitely succeeded was also conducted on Wednesday.  This was the first test flight of the world's first private rocket, launched in the Mojave desert and reaching supersonic speeds on its way up to 68,000 ft before safely returning to ground.  Details here.

This week also saw Boeing's long awaited decision to proceed one small step further with its 7E7 plane proposal.  The Board of Directors has now authorized the company to offer it for sale.  In the hopeful event they get enough airlines signing up for it, the Board will sometime in the next six months or so authorize the company to proceed and build the plane.

In truth, Boeing has no choice but to build the 7E7, whether it gets launch customers or not.  Without the 7E7, and with no other new plane projects on the horizon, Boeing would become completely marginalized by Airbus.  The 7E7 may not enable Boeing to recapture its former market leadership position, but it is desperately needed to at least have Boeing play catchup and close the gap between its largely lackluster products and the dazzling variety of superior Airbus planes.

How is it that Boeing went from 'King of the hill' to 'Fool on the hill'?  Which leads nicely into part three of my series on Boeing, offered to you this week :

This Week's Column :  Where Is Boeing Going (part 3) :  At the start of the 1970s, Boeing was unquestionably the dominant jet passenger plane manufacturer, a position it has subsequently clearly lost.  This week we look at how this happened, next week we'll complete the series with suggestions for what Boeing needs to do in the future.

Continuing our aircraft building theme, on Tuesday Honda announced that it has now successfully test flown a small business jet in the US.  This is the first business jet completely made by a car manufacturer, and is powered by a lightweight low-emission jet engine that Honda has been developing for four years.

Honda started development on a small business jet in 1986, and claims that its new HondaJet will offer at least 40% better miles per gallon and more cabin space than comparable models from other manufacturers.  The six seater (five passengers plus pilot) will have an 1100 mile range, and can cruise at 465 mph - a bit faster than the average Honda Civic!

Dinosaur Watching :  I commented two weeks ago about Northwest's desperate need to reduce its labor costs.  Their pilots have now indicated that they may be willing to make some concessions, but would ask for shares in NW in exchange.  Sounds like United Airlines all over again.

And, at United, they announced earlier this week that they've secured $2 billion in financing to help them exit their Chapter 11.  Except that - well, if you read the fine print, it isn't actually an unconditional $2 billion.  $1.6 of the $2 billion requires a loan guarantee from the ATSB (the Air Transportation Stabilization Board).  The ATSB has already turned down an earlier request for a loan guarantee from UA, and so the outcome of a new request is far from certain.

The curious story of United's Ted subsidiary continues.  Lots of people are wondering what is the point of Ted - it turns out that its fares aren't necessarily any lower than regular United fares, and its operating costs are almost identical.  Apart from a silly different name on the planes, where is the value-add for either passengers or United?

The answer to that question remains elusive, but presumably UA's senior management clearly understand it.  Unconfirmed rumors suggest that Ted could grow to almost half the size of UA's complete narrow-body operations.  UA has publicly stated that Ted will grow to 45 planes, but rumors suggest that Ted might take as many as 200 of UA's 445 narrow-body planes.

Competition can sometimes be a wonderful thing.  Delta's Song operation is widely believed to have been developed as a competitive response to JetBlue.  Its Song planes are now starting to install their satellite tv and music systems, offering 24 channels of entertainment plus a music trivia game.  In response, JetBlue is looking at adding digital quality pay per view movies at each seat.  And now Song is talking about a further round of enhancements to its planes, installing onboard movies and MP3 music that can be selected on demand by each passenger.

While Delta has been somewhat vague as to the success of its Song subsidiary, there can be no denying the continued outstanding success of JetBlue.  This was most visibly seen last week when JetBlue announced the addition of extra flights between Boston & Orlando and Boston & Fort Lauderdale.  What makes this so astonishing is that JetBlue has not yet started any flights between these cities, but its scheduled future service has been so strongly booked that it has had to add extra flights, even before the first scheduled flight departs.  Amazing.

Heartwarming news from American Airlines.  AA has thrown open its Admirals Club facilities, everywhere in the world, to US military members returning from active duty in Iraq for R&R periods in the US.  If there is no USO facility at an airport, servicemen can enter the AA clubs free of charge, enjoy free food and soft drinks, watch tv, use the internet, and generally relax.  This offer runs through the entire period of the R&R program.  Well done, AA.

Delta sort of matched this, opening its clubs, but only for a short time period over the Christmas/New Year period - a time of year when its typical club members are unlikely to be traveling much.

It is sometimes easy to understand why some people view the EU and its various regulations as one of the worst threats to a sensible and free market economy in the world today.  For example, a European court this week upheld a 6.8 million ($8.4 million) fine imposed by EU regulators against BA.  BA's crime?  It gave travel agents bonuses if they sold a lot of BA tickets.  While we in the US might think such an action ordinary and normal and completely harmless, the court said that BA's rebates limited 'access by BA's competitor airlines to routes to and from United Kingdom airports, without that system being based on any economically justified consideration'.  Couldn't BA's competitor airlines simply match BA's commission bonuses?  I guess not - if they did that, they too would doubtless be fined!

Here's another reason to think about buying a set of Plane Quiet Noise Reducing headphones.  You've probably noticed small regional jets appearing on more and more routes.  And you've probably also noticed that these planes are noisy.  A Wall St Journal article report tested noise levels on 24 regional jets, and found that noise levels can go as high as 87 decibels - louder than a factory floor or a passing freight train, and almost double the noise level on most larger jets.  OSHA assesses any noise over 90 db as being capable of causing permanent hearing damage.

The British government gave a cautious and conditional go-ahead to adding another runway (the third) and another terminal (the sixth) to Heathrow earlier this week, as well as a definite go-ahead to another runway at Stanstead.  They will also allow 'mixed operations' (simultaneous take-offs and landings) on LHR's present runways, which would increase the airport's capacity from 480,000 flights up to 550,000.

The world's most luxurious first class seats?  So says Emirates Airlines, referring to its new 'suites' on its new A340 service between London and Sydney.  The suites have doors that can be locked for privacy, 19" video screens, and ceilings painted with images of the Dubai night sky.  A first class roundtrip ticket costs 'only' $6900 (much less than a simple roundtrip ticket between London and Seattle, less than half the distance).

Another airline with a reputation for high quality premium cabin service is Singapore Airlines.  But it was in the news this week for quite a different reason.  A New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission report has now been published on a problem with a SQ 747 when departing from NZ's Auckland airport in March this year.  The tale it tells is not a very attractive one.

A delay in getting the plane fuelled apparently made the SQ pilots anxious about being late, and under time pressure, the first officer made a mistake in programming the take-off speed.  Neither the captain nor a third pilot who was in the cockpit noticed the major error, and so the plane attempted to take off while traveling much too slowly.  The nose lifted into the air, but the plane did not follow its nose, and the tail scraped along the ground, almost causing the plane to veer off the runway.

The plane struggled into the air, despite cockpit computer warnings that it was flying too slowly, and the rear APU auxiliary engine appeared to be on fire.  The crew declared an emergency and after calling Mayday, returned for an emergency landing.

But they didn't use full power to pick up the plane's speed as they should have done.  And then they miscalculated their approach for their first landing attempt, had to go around, and then landed successfully on their second attempt.

Not a very nice experience for the 389 passengers, but fortunately no-one was hurt.  The captain was demoted (that seems very mild) and the first officer 'disciplined' (seems even milder).  If we have zero tolerance for non life threatening passenger misbehavior, why can't we have zero tolerance for pilot error, too?

The long running saga on swapping my cellphone number from AT&T to T-Mobile finally concluded on Thursday, 24 days after I first requested it.  Not quite the 2 hours that the FCC expects.

Meanwhile, look for cell phones and PDAs to become even more intelligent - Toshiba has now developed the world's smallest hard disk drive, the size of a nickel, that can store 2-3 GB of data. This is intended for use in phones, cameras, PDAs and other small portable devices.

I'd mentioned several weeks ago about Federal Express contesting a requirement to pay back some of the 9/11 compensation cash given it by the government.  By coincidence, the official who played a key role in demanding that Fedex return $38 million from its $100 million payment (on the basis it was not entitled to this extra cash) was subsequently nominated to the number two position in the Transportation Department by President Bush.  Alas, the Republican controlled Senate stalled the confirmation after Fedex sought help from its home state senator, Republican leader Bill Frist, TN, to derail the process.  FedEx says that nominee Kirk Van Tine lacks aviation experience, and as a corporate and government lawyer who worked mainly behind the scenes does not have the right temperament for the high-profile No. 2 position.

'We hope that the administration will consider the concerns of those in the transportation industry when they move forward with a nominee for a permanent position,' said FedEx spokeswoman Kristin Krause in a statement full of overtones, but lacking in clear meaning.

It sounds to me like Kirk Van Tine would be an excellent choice.  President Bush used a procedural loophole to appoint Van Tine as a recess appointee.  Well done, President Bush.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It isn't what you know, it isn't even who you know, but sometimes it is who knows you that counts.  Three cases of air rage, with very different outcomes, although all heard before Australian courts in the last week :

  • In the first case, an unruly passenger who launched into a drunken mid-air rage was ordered to pay $14,000.

  • In the second case, a man screamed obscenities, punched a flight attendant, and urinated in the aisle.  He was sentenced to three months jail.

  • In the third case, a man attacked a fellow passenger, swore at other passengers, and dropped a plate of food into yet another passenger's lap, and threatened to have the entire flight crew murdered.  He was fined $1900 and sentenced to 80 hours community service.

Now, see if you can guess which of these three people was :

  • An unemployed disabled pensioner on a $215/week benefit

  • A Canadian tourist

  • British soccer star, actor, and front man for Bacardi advertisements, Vinnie Jones

The disabled pensioner got the $14,000 fine.  The Canadian tourist was thrown in jail, and very wealthy Mr Jones was fined the $1900 and given the 80 hours of community service.

Can you see the sense or logic in matching these punishments to the crimes and the criminals?

The TSA has just completed a new study - doubtless at extraordinary expense - to find out how long people are waiting in security lines at airports.  The study included the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and found that O'Hare, Dulles and Dallas-Fort Worth had the shortest wait lines (an average of 2 minutes) while Los Angeles and Miami had the worst wait times - but still an average of only 7 minutes.

The study also uncovered a startling reason for who to blame for the worst delays.  The TSA study found that the TSA was not to blame.  Instead, it determined that we - the traveling public - are to blame, because sometimes we don't have everything prepared with military precision when we approach the checkpoint.  It is apparently all our fault that the TSA is the only screening authority in the world that requires us to take our shoes off and to take laptops out of their bags before sending them through the X-ray machines.

Here's a novel way of selling a hotel.  A hotel owner in Grande Prairie, Alberta, is offering his 55 year old hotel, complete with restaurant, bar, and liquor store as the grand prize in an essay writing competition.  There's one catch - you have to submit C$1000 with your 250 word essay.  The proprietor undertakes to limit the number of entries to 3000 (ie $3 million to him).  The hotel has been valued at $1.5 million, making the transaction not only a bargain to one lucky winner, but also to the very lucky seller, too!

Lastly this week, if you're a man between the ages of 18 - 40, and you're feeling the winter blues a bit, how would you like a free two week holiday to Australia?  Details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels (to Australia?) and have a wonderful Christmas

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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