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6 April, 2007  

Good morning

And Happy Easter to you.  If you're traveling, let's hope your travels are uneventful and easy, and if you're staying at home, then so much the better for the Easter Bunny to find you.

While requesting final payments from the people on the Russian cruise, we had a couple of couples who needed to cancel.  This means we unexpectedly have a 'C' cabin and a Junior suite both available.  There's still plenty of time to arrange flights, visas, etc (I haven't done any of this for myself yet!) so if you'd like to join us for this lovely opportunity, let me know and I'll endeavor to make you an offer you can't refuse.

I won't be doing a Russian tour next year (next year's cruises are already almost completely sold out - there aren't enough remaining cabins to put together another group) so this is your last opportunity to come to Russia (with me) for some time.

And don't forget about this year's Christmas Markets cruise.  This is also the last opportunity to do one of these wonderfully popular cruises - next year I'll be offering a Christmas cruise in a different part of Europe.  This year's cruise is now sold out of C cabins, but there are cabins remaining in all other categories.  Please come join us for this lovely experience.

I wrote last week about my frustrations 'upgrading' to Office 2007.  This upgrade could be better described as a massive downgrade in productivity, and I continue to experience enormous frustration with the new software.  Most frustrating of all is the unanswered question :  'Why did they fix something that wasn't broke?'.

The key feature of Office 2007 - something the Microsoft marketeers tell us we should be pleased about - is a completely different user interface.  The standard Windows interface that has been in place all the way back to Windows in the early/mid 1990s - the tool bar along the top with standard options such as File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools, etc, has been thrown out the window and replaced with a completely different set of options.  Why?

The changed interface doesn't make a huge impact in a program like Word which is 90% simple typing, but in a program which makes intensive use of commands, such as Excel,  Microsoft has completely broken all that has gone before, and I've switched from being a reasonably expert, efficient and happy Excel user to being as useless as a first time novice.  Why couldn't Microsoft at least give us the choice between the 'classic' interface (which seemed to work perfectly well for us all) and their new marketing creation that flies in the face of the sage advice 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'?

As I detailed last week, the new interface is not only different, but it's less productive, sometimes requiring as many as three mouse actions where only one was needed before.  Yes, apparently there are ways to customize some of this to bring it closer to what one is used to, but why should we be required to battle against Microsoft's 'innovations'?

Many of us will remember, a decade and two ago, how excitedly we'd wait for new releases of software.  A new release then was very different to a new release now for two reasons.  Firstly, it would be reasonably reliable right from first release date, whereas now it is likely to be full of issues and problems.  Secondly, it would offer some new features that we were wanting and waiting for.

Flash forward to the 21st century and what do we find?  New releases that offer no valuable extra functionality at all, new releases that are often buggy and imperfect, and new releases that require massive retraining, all for no good purpose.

Most annoying of all, some of these changes (apparently purely for change's sake) add no extra value and actually make the software more difficult to work with.

Who would buy Office 2007 when Office 2003 is meeting their current needs?  Only victims of Microsoft's advertising campaign.  If you haven't already wasted your money, take my advice :  don't.

The trend to releasing software with no real enhancements but merely cosmetic changes is analogous to the 1950s and the increasing size of fins on American automobiles.

On a semi-related topic, I also wrote about the problem sending email from Wi-fi services while traveling.  This problem only relates to people using a traditional email program, not to people using a web based program, and is thought to be the result of inept anti-spam design on the part of the Wi-Fi service.

I think I've found a solution, and if you sometimes encounter a similar problem and would like to help me test this solution, please let me know.

Enough of technology.  After all these hassles, I feel like a break, and one of my favorite short break destinations is Victoria.  And so, presented to you this week :

This Week's Feature Column :  Victoria, BC - Canada's Island Gem :  This lovely city combines Canadian and British culture, and offers a wide range of things to see, do, eat and drink, and places to stay at.  Find out more in this week's article.

Can you help a magazine writer?  Could it be there truly is a man who appears and says ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’?  A journalist is doing an article on the type of help and assistance distressed travelers receive from the State Department and in-country US Embassies/Consulates.

If you've ever had to ask for help from such people while traveling internationally and have an interesting story to tell - either about how helpful or how non-helpful they were, please let me know and I'll pass it on to the writer.

Dinosaur watching :  It's not just your imagination.  Things are getting worse.  The New York Times reports that lost, delayed or damaged luggage claims have increased sharply, in large part because more people have been checking their bags in response to the latest round of carry-on restrictions.

Based on filed passenger complaints, airlines mishandled 8.19 bags for every 1,000 passengers in January, compared with 6.93 for every 1,000 in January 2006 - this being an 18.2% increase in problems.  And being as how few people bother to write in a complaint to the Department of Transportation, the real numbers are likely vastly higher.

And while the data collecting methodology is different, here's an interesting article that shows BA to be the worst airline in Europe for losing bags - they lose 23 bags per 1,000 passengers.

It isn't just bags that are the problem.  The 17th Annual Airline Quality Ratings report was released on Monday, revealing the industry had an overall quality decline for the third year in a row.  About the only thing that didn't get worse was the number of customer complaints to the DoT, but one of the report's authors, Dean Headley, has an explanation for that - fewer people are complaining because the level of expectation has been lowered, not because service standards have improved.

The top three airlines were Hawaiian (best), Jet Blue and AirTran.  The bottom three major airlines were US Airways (worst - being a three time consecutive 'winner' of the 'worst airline' accolade), Delta, and American. More information here.

How unsurprising is this news item :  Now that airlines are returning to profitability, the Air Line Pilots Association wants to take back the concessions it gave to the airlines while they were struggling.

Another cycle of employee greed (because, for sure, where the pilots go, the other unions will assiduously follow) will inevitably end in another cycle of airline bankruptcies.

Talking about pilots, winning this week's prize for 'most creative explanation by a pilot for being drunk' is an American Airlines pilot who was arrested last February in Manchester (UK not NH) while he was going through security, apparently to then pilot a flight to Chicago.

In court, pilot James Yates explained that a sleeping disorder may have caused him to drink part of a bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey without realizing it, while he was asleep the previous night.  The prosecution had a simpler explanation - they said he'd been on a seven hour drinking spree, in five different bars, with his two co-pilots.

The pilot went on to say that although he was going through security in his work uniform, he wasn't actually planning to pilot the flight, but instead was merely going to the airport to tell his superior he was unfit for duty.  One presumes his superior was not contactable by telephone, was on the other side of the security line, and that he only had his duty clothing with him to wear.

During the trial, senior American Airlines executives gave evidence in Yates’ defense.  When the prosecution told the airline’s chief pilot, that the defendant was not sick, but was, in fact, drunk, the chief pilot replied: 'I would consider that sick.'

The jury accepted the pilot's explanation, finding him not guilty.  AA has yet to confirm if Mr Yates will be returned to normal flying duties.  If he is, let's hope Mr Yates' sickness is neither contagious (one wonders what happened to the two co-pilots?) nor re-occurring.

Virgin America took another step closer to reality when American Airlines said it would not contest the DoT's proposed approval of the new airline.  Virgin America hopes to have its first flights in the air as early as this summer.

But while Virgin America becomes more real and has almost concluded the final part of the DoT approval process, there are other airlines that still seem to be more fanciful than real.

Although it has yet to obtain DoT approval, and although it has yet to announce any intended routes, Columbus, OH based startup, Skybus, says it anticipates starting service on Sunday, May 20, barely six weeks from today, displaying an abundance of optimism that Virgin America, even with its successive broken promises about when it would start flying, never got close to.

Skybus plans to offer all-coach service on 150 seater Airbus A319 planes - a plane that generally holds 134 passengers in an all coach class configuration with 32" pitch, so don't expect generous amounts of leg room on this new carrier, which describes itself as 'ultra-low fare'.  Perhaps it should add 'ultra tiny seats' to its tag line as well.

However, there is a new carrier now operating in the US.  ExpressJet Airlines started service this week.  The airline - formerly operating as Continental Express - is now operating under its own name, using its 50 seater Embraer ERJ-145 regional jets and will soon be flying to 24 different cities.

ExpressJet promises some interesting features, including valet carry-on baggage service, leather seating, free inflight XM satellite radio, brand-name snacks on shorter flights and full meals on longer flights.  More on its website.

While they sound eerily like the short lived Independence Air, subsequent to Independence's falling out with United, there does seem to be some underlying good sense to their business plan, and we should all wish them well.

When do you wish the DoT would not give you approval to start service?  When you are Zoom Airlines, a new low cost transatlantic airline.

The DoT has given Zoom permission to sell tickets for a new London (LGW) to New York (JFK) service, but only in Britain, not yet in the US.  This effectively halves Zoom's market, and probably makes it too difficult to profitably operate, at least until Zoom can sell tickets in the US as well.  Thanks, DoT, for nothing - sometimes half a loaf is indeed worth less than nothing at all.

The marvelous low cost airfares available in Britain sometimes have bizarre consequences.  One case in point is the standard airline policy (over there) to allow name changes on a ticket in return for a fee (in the US most airlines don't allow name changes).  The typical policy in the UK is to charge between £15 and £60 (which with the weak dollar is about twice that in US money these days) for a name change, plus any difference in the fare as between when the ticket was originally booked and when the name is changed.

Sounds fair?  Maybe yes, but sometimes no.  With discounted airfares sometimes going as low as only $1, the cost to change the name on a ticket can frequently exceed the cost of buying a complete new ticket.  As for the airlines, they are unswayed by this and insist on their policies being followed.

Here's an item that I'll struggle not to make politically incorrect statements about.  Australia's Virgin Blue airline lost an appeal against a court ruling, being found guilty of age discrimination in its flight attendant hiring policies.

Remarkably, the airline didn't hire a single flight attendant over the age of 35 in 2001 and 2002, and eight experienced flight attendants over that age who had applied for jobs sued, claiming age discrimination.  They were initially declined interviews, although one woman resubmitted her application, claiming to be ten years younger and was then interviewed.

So, yes, at least for a while, it was hard to find Virgin airline staff over 35.

We've heard a lot in the last six months or so about Airbus' problems with the A-380, but the return of market share back to Boeing is in largest part due to a different issue.

Without a doubt, the plane that saved Boeing is its new 787.  Prior to Boeing's decision to develop the 787, it was losing ground to Airbus on all fronts, but the 787 blindsided Airbus completely.  After first arguing that their A-330 was just as good, Airbus then came out with a competing model A-350 which failed to excite the market, and now is scrambling to catch up with a totally redesigned A-350 that has yet to gain substantial orders.

All the while, the 787 has been steadily clocking up more and more orders, and this week it broke through the 500 mark, with a current total of 514 planes ordered by 43 customers.  What makes this all the more impressive is that the plane has yet to have its first ever flight, and it is more than a year before the first plane is expected to be put into commercial service.

From time to time we read of hotels - even deluxe five star hotels - being sued by guests who were attacked by bed bugs.  In its most visible manifestation, we'll many times enter a hotel room that reeks of stale cigarette smoke, and as we all know from what we've seen walking down hotel corridors, hotel rooms get only a very brief and cursory cleaning between one guest and the next.

One never really knows what bacteria and bugs might not be lurking unseen in the room, and what remnants of the previous occupant's various activities may not be left behind.

Here's an interesting story of a hotel chain that's taking this very seriously.

I wrote last week about Carnival's new policy for taking beverages on board, and apparently didn't get it quite correct.  The good news - Carnival will allow guests 21 years of age and older to bring one bottle of wine or champagne on board with them when they first embark.  The bad news - you can't bring any more liquid of any kind on board, either when embarking or subsequently.   That includes bottled water.   Any additional items will be confiscated without compensation.

A Carnival spokesman said the policy change was made because too many nonalcoholic beverages were being brought on board.

This week's reason why we need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

Do you know which cities in the US have the best and worst drivers?  According to this study, Des Moines, IA has the safest drivers, and Columbia, SC has the worst.

While we hear a lot about consolidation in the airline industry, there is quiet consolidation in the auto rental industry too.  The latest movement is Enterprise's announcement it will buy National and Alamo.

Enterprise is already the largest rental car company in the US, and National/Alamo combined (for they are currently jointly owned) is the fourth largest.

It is rare that I find valid reason to compliment the French, but they deserve full credit for their achievement this week, running one of their TGV trains at a new world record speed of 574.8 km/hr (357 mph).  The previous world record was 515.3 km/hr, also with a TGV, in 1990.

These train speeds are faster than those of most regional passenger planes.

TGV trains normally operate at speeds up to 320 km/hr (200 mph), and there are plans to selectively increase their speed (which is dependent on track conditions and signaling) up to 350 - 360 km/hr over the next five to six years.  It will be a long time before trains are routinely traveling at 575 km/hr, and perhaps this is just as well, based on reports from people on the record breaking train.

Apparently there were noticeable vibrations setting in from about 380 km/hr, and at 490 km/hr, passengers became 'slightly dizzy'.  At 540 km/hr, the curious statement is made that 'it became difficult to remain standing despite the stability of the train' - make of that as you will!

French politicians modestly praised the record breaking run.  In a statement, President Jacques Chirac said 'This record is a magnificent demonstration of France's great abilities in research and development and is further proof of the excellence of the French rail industry', and Jean-Marie Le Pen, one of the current presidential candidates, said the record was a national victory. 'It is not Europe that is world champion, it is France' he said.

Apparently mistakes are pan-European, but triumphs are exclusively French.

And talking about mistakes and Europe, go to http://maps.google.com, click on 'Get directions' and ask for directions to travel from, eg, New York to Paris.

Warning :  Do not travel their planned route, unless you are an exceptional athlete (see how they have you cross the Atlantic....).

This Week's Security Horror Story :  'Red Team' security testers were able to smuggle bombs past TSA screeners in Denver 90% of the time they tried.  No, we're not talking about pre 9/11, we're talking about last month.

Yes, notwithstanding all the billions on added 'security' at our airports, and the countless inconveniences, both big and small, foisted on ourselves, a test of the effectiveness of TSA security reveals that 90% of the time, screeners missed detecting explosives.  Although explosive detecting equipment would sometimes sound an alarm, the screeners often didn't bother to investigate, and didn't hand search suspicious luggage or pat down the people.

In one case, the screeners fell for one of the 'oldest tricks in the book'.  A security tester taped explosives to her leg and said it was a surgical bandage.  Even though alarms sounded when she went through the metal detector, she was able to bluff her way past.

A former Red Team leader who is now a TSA inspector, Bogdan Dzakovic, said 'There's very little substance to security. It literally is all window dressing that we're doing.  It's big theater on TV and when you go to the airport. It's just security theater.'  He added that security is no better now than it was pre 9/11 :  'It's worse now. The terrorists can pretty much do what they want when they want to do it'.

Perhaps the TSA are de-emphasizing trying to find bombs being smuggled onto planes.  They've announced a redirection of part of their resource, and will now be checking for bombs in the baggage of train passengers at rail stations in upstate New York.

Plainly the TSA must know something we don't.  To an ordinary person, it would seem about a million times more sensible to prevent bombs being smuggled onto planes rather than onto Amtrak trains....

Here's a story so bad that it is hard to know where to start, other than to say that, for once, the TSA are being the good guys :  In 2003, the TSA agreed to pay three quarters of the cost of upgrading the baggage handling systems at LAX and ONT (Ontario) airports in Los Angeles, same as they were doing for other airports around the country.  This was to help airports adapt to the new requirement for baggage screening machines, which in many cases were temporarily (and inefficiently) sited in the check-in areas of the terminals.

The two airports estimated the cost of re-siting the equipment at $341 million, and so the TSA said it would pay $256 million.  End of story?  No.

Now, in 2007, it transpires that the airports slightly 'misunderestimated' the costs involved.  The real cost?  Well, in 2005 it was recosted at $485 million (a 42% cost overrun).  And today, the cost is now projected at $896 million (an impressive 2.6 times the original cost estimate).

The TSA are standing firm.  They're refusing to pay any more than their original commitment of $256 million.  Apparently the airport authority has been counting on being able to pass on at least 3/4 of the cost overruns to the TSA, and is now crying foul over the situation.

In a transparent attempt to hide behind the fashionable catch-all concept of 'security at any cost', Samson Mengistu, acting executive director of the airport authority, described the project as a 'critical safety-enhancing project', presumably in the hope of bullying the TSA to fork over another $500 million or so.

Question to Mr Mengistu :  If this truly is a 'critical safety-enhancing project', why have four years passed and you haven't yet implemented it?

It beggars the imagination how these public officials can be so grossly incompetent when it comes to costing out projects - is a baggage handling system rocket science?  I think not!  One has to wonder if their belief that they were having their costs subsidized at a rate of 3:1 caused them to be less focused on a sensible value for money approach.  Details here.

Here's an unusual twist.  The Muslim clerics who were taken off a flight for 'suspicious behavior' last fall are suing - not just the airline and airport, but also their fellow passengers.  Needless to say, if people are to feel they run a risk of personal liability in reporting suspicious behavior, fewer people would responsibly pass on concerns - this would be a very bad thing if it succeeds.  Details here.

At the time this went down, it was a story that flip flopped.  At first it seemed that alert passengers had appropriately raised the alarm about suspicious fellow passengers.  Then it seemed that some passengers were allowing racial prejudices and stereotypes interfere with good sense.  But then there was a third version of the story, spoken quietly mainly between security officials 'in the know' that suggested this may indeed have been a bona fide 'probe' of airline security measures - terrorists are believed to deliberately try and provoke security responses on a regular basis so they can 'game the system' and work out what they safely can and can't do.

The latest development - an attempt to silence future feedback from responsible and alert travelers - seems to give credence to the possibility of there having been ulterior motives all the way through this situation.

There's a classic joke about an angry customer at an airport who demands an upgrade from an airline checkin agent.  She refuses.  He asks her, pompously, 'Do you know who I am?'  She looks at him, picks up the p.a. microphone and announces to everyone in the terminal 'Ladies and gentleman, we have a man at the counter who doesn't know who he is.  Can anyone help him, please.'

Reminiscent of that story is this starlet who demanded an upgrade on a recent flight.  The poor dear had no more success than the story above.

Winning a prize for 'most creative use of the effects of jetlag as an excuse' is this Qantas flight attendant.

Again, best wishes for the Easter weekend, and until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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