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10 November, 2006  

Good morning

I arrived back home from Germany late on Wednesday, and Thursday passed in a bit of a jet lagged blur.

I want to give Emirates the opportunity to comment on my review of their business class service before publishing it (quick summary - very good but not without some imperfections), and the other article I'm developing on some potentially innovative new noise reducing headphones also needs to be offered to the manufacturer for comment before it is released, so there'll be no feature article this week.

The jet lagged blur also makes for a short (but hopefully not too incoherent) newsletter this week.

Many people have been commenting on the election results, drawing conclusions to suit their own agendas, and who am I to miss a chance to step onto my own humble bully pulpit.  So :

Quite apart from all the other reasons why disaffectedness with our government in general, and the Republicans in particular, is so high; the game of charades known as airport security has to factor prominently.

Who can feel good about our government and its wisdom when going through security, now with the extra delight of having to show our 3 ounce sized bottles of liquids in a quart bag for visual inspection, remove our shoes and take our laptops out of their carry-on bags?  Almost every traveler knows someone who has been unfairly treated by TSA screeners, and/or knows someone who has inadvertently slipped something through screening without being detected.

Sadly, some of us have already lost our perspective and judgment about such things.  For example, when the group of journalists and I entered Germany, two of them were marveling incredulously at how easy it was.  'We didn't have to fill out any forms' one said wonderingly.  'How do they know we're not terrorists?' asked the other.

Yes, we'd not needed to fill out a single form - nothing before our journey and nothing prior to going through Immigration or Customs; we'd not needed to pay for a visa, we'd not needed to be personally interviewed at a German Consulate, and upon arrival, we weren't fingerprinted or photographed - indeed the Immigration official didn't even speak to me at all, he just stamped my passport and handed it back.  After we'd collected our bags, we walked out through the Customs Hall without even seeing a Customs official, let alone handing over a form and being grilled on where we'd been, for how long, what was in our bags, etc.

And do you remember when we'd marvel at seeing soldiers (actually, they were usually just regular police) with scary looking 'machine guns' patrolling airports abroad?  These days, the airport with real armed soldiers is more likely to be in the US.

What some people now view as essential and commonplace - interviews, visas, fingerprinting, photographing, Customs inspection, and everything else - most other civilized free countries look upon with derision and disdain.  Far from being the free-est of the free countries, we've become one of the least free.

Maybe that would be acceptable if there was even an infinitesimal increase in our safety and security as a result.  But with our southern border completely porous, what is the point of the charades when foreign visitors wish to come to the US lawfully?  And when the TSA consistently flunks its own internal testing (see This Week's Security Horror Story, below) how can anyone pretend this multi-billion dollar bureaucracy is succeeding at anything other than making our nation a laughing stock in front of its own citizens and those of the rest of the world.

Smoke and mirrors.  It defines our politics and our security.  It seems it hasn't fooled the majority of the voting public, and for sure, it doesn't fool many of the traveling public either.

Dinosaur watching :  Maybe it is jet lag, but I can't find a single 'interesting' story about the US dinosaurs this week.  Most of the stories involve increased loads on planes and increased fares to travel.

But on a happier note, congratulations to my friends at Emirates.  Their airline was ranked by Forbes in their annual survey as having the second best international first class (out of the 36 different airlines offering international first class).  Cathay Pacific came first, and Singapore Airlines came third.  You'll be unsurprised to learn that none of the top ten airlines were from the US.

In other Emirates news, Emirates is to become the first airline offering cell phone service on their planes, to start in January 2007, initially on a single 777 and then to be rolled out across their fleet.  They do have some safeguards in place to control the impact on other passengers, ranging from simplistic (limiting the number of concurrent calls on a plane to only five) to sophisticated (being able to turn the service on or off at will).

One has to wonder how the five simultaneous call limit will work.  For example, will first class passengers be given highest priority access, or will all passengers have equal access?  If you're caller number six, will you be able to queue up your call request or will you have to keep fruitlessly redialing until getting through?  Clearly I'll have to ask Emirates for another test flight to better understand these issues!

Both Ryanair and Qantas are also introducing trials of cell phone service later next year.

One of the tenets of my story on 'Who Flies First Class Anymore' is that continual upgrading of business class has obsoleted first class.  And now, from an airline that quite validly offers its business class as a first class equivalent, Virgin Atlantic (VS), we see they're now upgrading their Premium Economy cabin to make it more of a rival for other airline's business class.

VS is upgrading its Premium Economy seats to leather, arranging for a dedicated cabin crew, and upgrading the meal service.  Until now, the concept of Premium Economy has been 'a nicer seat, but the same food and service as coach class'.

One can almost feel sorry for VS's arch-rival, BA, upon reading their claim that the security problems and the no-liquids ban cost them 100 million ($190 million) in profit during their last quarter.  They had to cancel 1,280 flights during the worst of the scare, and many other flights suffered major delays.

However, even after this loss, and shedding crocodile tears about increased fuel costs (didn't fuel costs drop?) they still managed to make a 371 million profit for the six months through 30 September, a slight 1.6% increase on the same time last year.

Here's an interesting twist on regular cell phone service.  Get a Drift package from Helio and you can track up to 25 other Helio subscribers, seeing where they are on a map displayed on your own phone's screen.

Talking about GPS technology, here's a happy settlement to an egregious abuse of GPS tracking capabilities.  But expect such scenarios - and the related scenario of monitoring a vehicle's speed - to become increasingly common and to become a mandatory part of the fine print you must sign and agree to when renting a car in the future.

Bad news for Airbus.  It was interesting being in Hamburg earlier this week - it has the second largest manufacturing facility for Airbus, and everyone I spoke to cited it as one of the distinctive good things about their city (which goes to confirm my perception that there's very little of interest in Hamburg for the typical tourist).  But while Hamburgers (I presume that is what one calls a resident of Hamburg) were delighted to have such an economic boost to their city, they all shamefacedly conceded that Airbus was very much reliant on government rather than free market forces.

This week saw Fedex cancel their order for ten Airbus A380 freighters, and instead place an order for fifteen Boeing 777 freighters.  However, it is not clear if the real reason for switching this order was in response to the A380 delivery delays, or if that was just a convenient excuse, with the real reason being due to changes in Fedex's perceived future needs.

The order switch did great things to Boeing's stock.  At last, my recommendation back on 6 October (when it was at $83.62) is being partially vindicated.  The stock opened on Friday last week at $79.59 and closed on Thursday this week massively up for the week at $85.11, after peaking at $86.48 earlier in the day.  Airbus closed on Thursday at 21.57, up slightly from Thursday last week's close of 21.17.

A Standard & Poors research note is projecting a target price for Boeing in the next twelve months of $106, giving it a buy recommendation.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Screeners at Newark International Airport failed 20 of 22 security tests conducted by undercover US agents two weeks ago.  They missed concealed bombs and guns at security checkpoints in all three terminals.

Agents also found significant failures by screeners to follow standard operating procedures while checking passengers and their baggage for prohibited items.

Another report on how the US' unfriendly approach to visitors is costing us came out this week.  Business travel from Asia to the US fell 10% over the 2004 - 2005 period, at the same time that it grew to Europe by 8%.

The report, by Euromonitor International, said this drop in visitors 'was likely to intensify as security restrictions continue, making obtaining visas more difficult'.

Reader Bill writes in with the opposite of a horror story

I  know you have a weekly horror story but this is the opposite. This is about what could have been a trip nightmare, but had a happy ending. On August 7th my wife and I were returning from Amsterdam to Seattle, via Chicago. Up early, grabbed the tram in front of the hotel and off to the train station and the train to Schiphol. Slick trip and a fast to the airport.  Walked up to the United counter and discovered - wife doesn't have her passport!! Big crisis and the ticket agent (Dutch) very calmly asked us to step away and slowly check our stuff to see if it was misplaced or whatever. Wife went into big tears and the crisis was on.

We determined that she had put it in an unzipped pocket on her shoulder bag and it had slipped out.  Back to the ticket agent and she sent us over to the United customer service counter.  We explained our dilemma to the lady, also Dutch, and she told us "that is a problem" and that the US Embassy didn't give very good service to its citizens as they were only open a couple of days a week.  She suggested we call the hotel and have them check the room again, which we did and they would call back.  She was on the phone talking and said there would be a security agent up shortly.

After a short wait, up popped a guy dressed in a sport coat and slacks and really was a casual looking guy.  I thought he would be Dutch, but it turned out he was a security agent for ICE - the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  He asked a few questions and the hotel called back and said there was nothing in the room.  I asked if they had rooms available as it looked like we would be staying for a couple of days.  The ICE agent told us not to worry and we would make our flight after filling out some paperwork.

He called someone on his Blackberry and turned away, but I heard him say, "This is the real deal and these folks are OK."  All this time my wife was freaking out, crying and hyperventilating and this guy was nothing but courteous, friendly and knew his job.  He got her calmed down and told us she needed to go downstairs to the Dutch Police Station and fill out a report.  Then she could get her paperwork done and we'd make our flight as we had showed up early enough.

They left together and in about 15 minutes they came back and the wife was all smiles.  Seems the passport had fallen out of her bag in the airport and a kind soul found it on the floor and took it to the police and turned it in.  My wife said they walked into the station in the airport and the ICE guy spoke to an officer there in Dutch and told her this American lady had lost her passport and needed to make out a report.  She said the Dutch guy walked over to a cabinet and returned with her passport and gave her a big smile as he returned it. So, all was well.

All I can say about this is the guy's name was Adrian and he was one cool dude.  Knew his job, was very friendly and wished us a good journey home. Someone should give this guy a gold star.

Here's yet another scary story about how our government continues to obsess over controlling legal visitation to/from the US, while overlooking the millions of illegal aliens who cross our open southern border without problem.

And what about immigration (and all other) controls on real aliens?  You know, ones who fly in UFOs?  Here's an interesting story.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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