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16 March, 2007  

Good morning

To start with, here's a special opportunity :  We've had a cancellation for one of the single cabins on our Russian River cruise this July.  The rest of the boat is sold out, but there is this one single cabin available.

The single cabins are actually roomier than the double cabins, and if you're traveling by yourself you get to save yourself the single surcharge.  So if you'd like to join us for this lovely cruise/tour through Russia, and can travel alone (while of course being welcomed as a member of our group), quickly rush to our page about the cruise and send in your registration request.  First come, first served.

I now have a new fiber optic internet connection, and am enjoying consistent speeds of around 5Mbps for downloading (and just under 2Mbps for uploading).  For a mere $10/month more I could have had 15Mbps speed.  Even the 5Mbps is profoundly faster than the earlier 768kb SDSL circuit I'd been using, and is comparable to speeds achieved over a local area network.

Consider that statement carefully :  Sites on the internet, pretty much anywhere in the world, can now be accessed almost as quickly and easily as the server on your office network.  This is why companies such as Google are offering end user software that runs on their computers rather than your computer - because as the internet gets faster, it becomes more and more practical to adopt such distributed computing models.

Just today another company chose to join that bandwagon - Adobe is taking its very expensive and market leading product, Photoshop, online, and plans to release an internet hosted version of the program within the next six months.  The cost to use online Photoshop?  It will be completely free (revenue being generated from on-site advertising).

While companies such as Google and Adobe hope to profit from this, companies such as Microsoft are frantically trying to work out how to protect (or adapt) their current business model, of selling software to run on individual computers.

Having the internet bring the entire world's computing resource into one's office, home, or anywhere else where one is connected is an amazing accomplishment, and shows in clear focus the future wealth of resources and life enhancing applications the internet has still to deliver.  This future potential (and, increasingly, current reality) is sometimes referred to as Web 2.0, and it promises to have as much further impact on our lives as the internet to date already has provided.

This might seem a simple and even obvious point, but I urge you to consider its implications.  To restate :  Our lives, over (say) the next ten years will be further changed just as much by Web 2.0 issues as our lives have been already changed by the internet so far.

Technology is evolving and integrating.  We see that in computers that now play music and show movies (do you, too, remember when computers had green screens and could only output text in upper case?).  Another area of 'convergence' is in mapping technologies and GPS receivers.

A GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver may often now also be able to play music and even show videos on its screen, but much more exciting than this is the ability of the GPS receiver to link in with the internet and not just show you a plain unchanging map, but to update that to show you the nearest gas stations - and the prices they're currently selling gas for.  Or to show you nearby movie theatres, complete with listings of current movies and their show times.  Or to show you any highway congestion, road works, or accidents.

My first GPS unit, which I purchased little more than ten years ago, didn't even have a map.  It just showed latitude and longitude.  Truly there's a quiet but amazing revolution going on with GPS technology, and its time we better appreciate these things.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  All About GPS Receivers : A GPS receiver can fit in your shirt pocket, cost less than $200, and tell you your location to within 10 ft.  You'll never be lost again.  In this first article in a new series, find out about this amazing technology and why you should get one for yourself.

I had a semi-stealth instant poll in last week's newsletter.  Buried in the middle with all the other pieces was a moderately inconspicuous request to ask you to send me an email to confirm you were reading the newsletter.

I was curious as to how many of the 22,411 people I believe to be reading the newsletter actually do read it.  Can you guess?  My stealth poll was designed to give the worst possible case answer to this question, for several reasons.  Firstly, I suspect that many readers quickly look at the top and perhaps also the bottom of the newsletter, but tend to skip some of the stuff in the middle.  Secondly, not everyone who read the request is likely to have then emailed me a reply.  And thirdly, I'm sure that some people read some newsletters but not others.

Anyway, the result was interesting, and I'm actually pleasantly surprised.  The count of responses is currently at just over 15% of the 'circulation', and will probably grow by another point or so over the next few days.

Which leads in to the other bit of analysis I did.  It was interesting to see when people read the newsletter, and so I plotted the time of reply on this chart :

These times are Pacific time.  As you can see, over half of all readers have read the newsletter before lunchtime on Friday; indeed, the exact halfway moment occurred at 10.03am.  By the end of Friday, three quarters of respondents had read the newsletter.

Thanks to everyone who responded, and as for those who didn't - that's absolutely fine, too.  The cost of sending the newsletter out is trivial per each extra recipient, and no-one is ever obliged to read my sometimes lengthy discourses every week from top to bottom.  Read what you can and when you can.

Dinosaur watching :  One of the most contentious issues in recent years has been the concept of an 'Open Skies' agreement between the US and the EU.  This appealing and apparently simple phrase, 'open skies', has many subtle shades of meaning, and has gone through many evolutions over the years, and to date, all negotiations to reach such an agreement have failed.  A cynic would say the reason it has failed is because neither side truly wants a full open skies agreement - instead each side wants a one-sided open sky arrangement for them only, while not offering any reciprocity to the other side.  Air treaties are truly among the most venal and outdated conventions in the world.

An open skies agreement would probably be in our interest as fare paying passengers.  A true open skies agreement would allow for more airlines to fly to more places - foreign airlines to fly to more places in the US, and US airlines to fly to more places in Europe.  However, a lot of the concepts originally offered by such an arrangement have already been secured 'through the back door' in the form of code-share arrangements between airlines and airline alliances, but not in the competition enhancing way we'd hope.

Instead, we're seeing the surprising scenario that all the world's major airlines are coalescing into three major groupings (Skyteam, Star, and Oneworld).  Former competitors have now happily become code share and alliance partners, and the justifications offered to support such moves (such as making it easier for passengers to transfer bags and earn/redeem frequent flier miles on more airlines) are nonsense, because such concepts existed, much as they do now, back when airlines were directly competing.

However, whether it will do us any good or not, at last we seem to be getting very close to an Open Skies agreement, with a draft agreement having been approved by 26 of the 27 EU nations.  Britain is resisting, due to objections from both BA and Virgin; neither airline wanting to lose the value of their semi-exclusive slots at Heathrow, access which they'd probably be compelled to share with competing US carriers if the agreement were enacted.

The agreement is also encountering resistance here, with bi-partisan opposition in Congress, primarily over terms that would lift the limits on foreign ownership of US airlines.

I'll 'believe it when I see it' and will wait until seeing a final agreement before offering further analysis.

I mentioned the value of slots at Heathrow.  Strangely, this airport has always been more popular than the other London airports, and a slot (permission to land and takeoff once a day) is currently estimated to be worth about $20 million.  If an airline doesn't use a slot 80% of the time during a six month period, the slot will be taken back by the airport and given/sold to a competitor.

And so an airline, British Mediterranean, was confronted with a problem when seasonal flights were stood down for the winter.  How to safeguard its slots?  The answer was simple.  To fly an empty plane back and forth between Heathrow and Cardiff.  And, yes, the plane really is empty.  Even though there is no existing passenger service between these two major cities, the airline felt it easier not to sell seats on the plane and just to operate it completely empty.

Only an airline would come up with such an inventive but disfunctional solution.  Details here.

How nice to leaven the seemingly inexorable trend for airlines to allow less and less free baggage with the story of an airline going in the opposite direction.  Aeromexico is increasing its free baggage allowance from 50lbs up to 70lbs per bag, with coach class passengers allowed to check two bags free, and business class passengers allowed three.

It isn't only the US carriers that are becoming strongly profitable again.  Lufthansa has just announced its 2006 results, with a record net profit of 803 million ($1.05 billion) for 2006, a massive 77.3% increase over net income of 453 million in 2005.  This huge lift in profit came from a mere 4.1% increase in passenger numbers, and a 9.9% lift in revenue (to 19.85 billion, which was also its highest-ever annual total).

But before you accuse the airline of profiteering, it is interesting to note that its excellent profit is only 5.3% of revenue, and its profit per passenger flown is a mere $19.66.

Unlimited air travel for a flat fee?  That's the dream of many of us, but the reality is seldom as good as the dream.  In this case, Air Canada is offering unlimited travel between the US and Canada, at rates starting from $1657/month.  The rates include all taxes, fees, charges and surcharges, which makes them better value than they might first seem.  Details - and read them carefully, there's a lot of fine print - on their website.

Another approach to possibly saving money is being offered by Spirit Airlines.  Spirit is offering a membership fee based club, with members getting exclusive access to discounted fares.  A three month trial membership is $9, and annual membership is $29.95 per year after your trial period.

Spirit says it plans to offer specials to its members at least once every six weeks.  Not the most active of discounting programs, is it!

Congratulations to Continental, for coming top in Fortune's list of Most Admired Global Airlines.  Amazingly, this makes it the fourth year in a row that CO has been number one.  SQ came second and BA third.

Aero International, a monthly aviation-industry magazine published in Germany, has issued its annual list of best airlines from a safety point of view.  The magazine uses airline accident data compiled since 1973 to base its ratings.

The top ten airlines for 2006 were Qantas, Finnair, Cathay Pacific, ANA, Air Berlin, Virgin Atlantic, Ryanair, Emirates, EVA Air, and Qatar Airways.

The top twelve airlines (numbers 11 and 12 being Easyjet and JetBlue) all have perfect safety records, either since 1973 or the date they started operations.

Another list - this time of the world's busiest airports in 2006.  ATL again came top, followed by ORD, LHR, HND (Tokyo/Haneda), LAX, DFW, CDG, FRA, PEK (Beijing) and DEN.

Not such a good list to be on is this list of the most dangerous airports in the US.

Do you use a flight tracking website?  Here's a good review of the major sites offering this service.

Talking about internet travel sites, I tried to book some travel to and in Florida using Travelocity this last week.  I've used Travelocity before with only a normal (?) level of problems, but this time I completely could not make any booking at all.

Every time I entered my details, it would reject my credit card, give me an error message, and convert my address from WA - Washington to WA - Western Australia.  Plainly the credit card validation software was getting upset at what was claiming to be an Australian address on my US credit card.

I called Travelocity's toll free support number, but got no resolution.  After 37 minutes variously on hold and speaking to their Customer Support person, I rebooked the first hotel I was trying to get with Travelocity through their competitor, Orbitz.  I got an immediate confirmation with no nonsense about Australia.  Better still, although both websites listed the same rack rate, the taxes and fees were different, and I saved $27.46 on one hotel booking alone.

If you're wondering how it the same room at the same hotel, with the same room rate, has a difference of $27.46 in taxes and fees, the answer is simple.  The 'fees' are often another way of the website charging extra profit, while still offering what seems to be a low room rate.  There's no reason why the websites can't show their 'up front' price as the true inclusive price, and its little short of deceptive that they choose not to, because this practice allows them to play games with the extra so-called taxes and fees they choose to add to the official rate.

I've no intention of using Travelocity again.  Ever.  Not only can they not fix a problem preventing me from using their site, but they tried to rip me off with obscured extra fees/profit in the backend of the booking.  Double shame on them.

And the message for you :  It isn't enough to compare the posted rates at different website booking services; you need to work through the booking until you see the true total cost with all the obscured fees added.  In my case, the difference was a substantial $9.15/night, even though the room rate appeared to be identical.

Is Airbus becoming less European?  The Qatari government has said it would like to buy up to 10% of Airbus' parent company, EADS, and the Russian bank VTB would like to increase its current 5% holding.

In a thinly veiled bribe, Qatar Airways has disclosed it may buy 80 of the new Airbus A-350 plane; an order Airbus desperately needs as it tries to resurrect this new airplane.

Even if Airbus keeps its current ownership structure intact, it is copying Boeing by increasingly farming out a lot of the actual plane building to countries outside of Europe.  The European worker unions are less than pleased, especially when currently confronted with 10,000 layoffs - a number which to them is a tragedy, but which Boeing workers take unhappily in their stride every time the company cycles through a downturn.

Talking about Boeing, I'd written more than three years ago about a wonderful new airplane design concept - the 'Blended Wing Body' design - and expressed regret that Boeing was avoiding development of such a plane.  The technology promises about a 30% saving in fuel, and a 19% reduction in weight, meaning less production cost and much lower operational costs.

At last, it seems Boeing is slowly getting to this concept, as this article explains, with the possibility of a military version BWB appearing in about 2022, and a passenger plane in 2030.  That is good, but why so long?  The technology and aerodynamic issues are far from new - examples can be seen in the B-2 bomber as well as the earlier B-47 bomber and some flying wing designs dating back to the 1920s.  Hurry up, Boeing!

This Week's Security Horror Story :  For our greater security, we now need passports to fly to/from the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada.  This new requirement has been planned for well in advance by everyone except - ooops, travelers and the Passport Office of the State Department.  The result?  You could be waiting as long as three months for a passport, and even expedited service might take as long as four weeks.

If you're planning on summer travel this year, better check your passports aren't going to expire, and if they are, renew them as soon as possible.

Sometimes you can just be too loyal to your boss, and sometimes even a policeman can get in trouble, even apparently in Russia.

Got a spare $1000?  Then why not buy a pizza at this New York Pizzeria.

Lastly this week, have you ever wondered what would happen if a fighter jet flew into a concrete wall at 500+ mph?  Here's a 1.5MB wmv video file that answers that question.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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