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Friday 21 March, 2008  

Good morning

The normal pattern of my week changed unexpectedly on Wednesday evening, when I suffered a fire at home.  This was my first fire - and hopefully my last - and the fire brigade tells me that I was within a minute or so of having the fire spread and unstoppably take the entire house.

I learned some valuable lessons, and while it isn't travel related, it is important, so as a 'Public Service Message' here are some things that I urge you to check so that, if you should ever have a similar problem, you can minimize the negative outcome :

Note :  The following part of the newsletter with the seven strategies have been substantially revised and modified and can now be seen on our page about Fire Safety Tips.

Please ignore the following section in black and instead visit the more complete discussion on that page.

1.  Smoke detectors :  In my case, none of my several smoke detectors went off until after I'd discovered the fire myself (I was alerted to it by the sound of glass breaking).  Lesson learned - put smoke detectors everywhere in your house, not just in one or two central locations.  Be sure to place them in 'high risk' areas such as kitchens and other places where heat and or flames occur.

2.  Have portable extinguishers close to but not next to potential fire locations.  In my case, when I discovered the fire, I couldn't get closer than maybe 15' or so of the fire's base; a fire extinguisher in that area would have been useless.  Fortunately I had a fire extinguisher on the far side of the room.

3.  Buy the biggest fire extinguisher(s) you can afford and comfortably handle in an emergency.  In my case, I had an 8lb capacity dry powder extinguisher.  It definitely helped save the day, but after emptying it at the fire and killing the flames, as soon as the extinguisher was empty, the flames restarted.  A second one would have been really nice!

4.  If you have gas, know where your gas master valve is; be sure it is accessible, and also check that you can turn the valve closed.  If you can't readily close the valve yourself, I suggest you attach a suitably sized spanner to the gas meter with a plastic tie that can be easily broken in an emergency.  In my case, with a gas stove top that was on at the time, this was a potential issue, and fortunately I could reach the stove top and turn off the burner, but if the fire got closer to the gas lines, I'd have needed to shut off the gas.  Subsequent checking revealed that I couldn't close the master valve on the meter by myself without having to go find a spanner that fits (get an exact sized spanner - in the stress of a real fire, the last thing you want to fiddle with is an adjustable spanner that won't adjust properly!).

5.  I'm not a fire expert, but the oft-cited conventional wisdom about not spraying water on some types of fire seems like nonsense to me.  The two things that saved my house were the fire extinguisher and a garden hose - by soaking the walls and ceiling, I was able to stop the blaze from spreading.  Sure, try not to cause an oil fire to get worse by spreading the burning oil around the place on a bed of water, but maybe try and hose down the areas around the flames to contain the fire, and if it is a small amount of burning oil, a lot of water will usually defeat a small amount of oil.

If you're not able to get into the room where the fire is, consider smashing a window and sticking the hose through the window from the outside.  Believe me; while it might not seem so at the time, a broken window is, alas, going to be the very smallest part of your overall damage and hassle.  In my case, the firemen happily hacked away through walls and ceilings in a necessary process to check for and control any possible remaining hot spots that might restart the fire.  They told me not to worry, because insurance would take care of everything, and my earlier concerns at 'needlessly' breaking a window became very insignificant compared to the final state of my kitchen.

Of course, don't undergo any risk in fighting the fire yourself (and avoid smoke inhalation - I'm still coughing painfully twelve hours later), but 'a stitch in time saves nine' - spray as much water as you can everywhere.  Oh - don't worry about water damage, either.  If the firemen need to use their high pressure hoses, just a few seconds of water from their hoses will dwarf the amount of water from many minutes of your garden hose!

6.  If you have a choice, call 911 on your home phone, not on your cell phone.  I used my cell phone, which meant the 911 dispatcher had no idea of my location until I told her.  In my distress and excitement, she apparently had difficulty understanding my accent, and it added another minute or more to the time for the fire brigade to arrive while the two of us went through a nightmarish procedure of getting her to understand my address (with the added bonus of her then telling me that 'the computer' said there was no such address!).

A related thing - don't hesitate to call the fire brigade.  Even if you get the fire under control yourself, they will check for things you might not think of checking for (like hidden hotspots), and they have high powered fans to blow the smoke out of your house.  I'll also guess that calling the fire brigade registers yourself as a prudent homeowner with a valid cause when it comes to the subsequent insurance claim.

7.  Make sure you have your house number clearly visible from the street.  In my case, I'm down a long and poorly marked driveway.  I had to go and wait for the fire engines so as to ensure they got to the right place (it seemed like such a long time from when I first heard their sirens to when they finally pulled up!).

There are other smaller lessons I've taken from this experience too (eg the importance of powerful flashlights with fresh batteries), but if you work through these seven items, you'll be much better prepared for a fire than most of your neighbors.

It is a bit of an effort to switch gears from the events of Wednesday (and the insurance battles that are already starting subsequently) and return to the usual train of thought on a Thursday night, especially after a largely sleepless night on Wednesday.  Fortunately, I had already written most of this week's feature article, so :

This Week's Feature Column :  The Apple iPod Nano :  Redesigned, but still small and attractive, the iPod Nano offers improved functionality, but most of these improvements are useless.  With an increasing range of different iPod models, is a Nano the right choice for you?  Read the review to find out.

Dinosaur watching :  I was thinking out loud last week about buying some Southwest Airlines stock as a speculative investment last week.  When I wrote those comments, it was trading at $11.70, at close of business Thursday, one week later, it had slightly risen to $12.26.  If you acted on my suggestion, you'd have got a 4.8% return for one week.

The Delta/Northwest merger continues to recede back from reality.  The pilots at the two airlines have ended their talks about how to fairly integrate their respective seniority lists without reaching any agreement.

This seems to have discouraged the two airlines from moving further towards a merger, unlike what happened when America West bought US Air and merged the two operations together, deciding to worry about the details of the merger later.  And worry they have been, and still are, as the pilots from the two airlines fight among themselves, and with management, about how to integrate into a single new operation.

Maybe Delta has decided that if its pilots won't settle with the Northwest pilots, the best thing to do is retire the lot of them and approach a merger with a clean slate.  Whatever the reason, DL has offered voluntary buyouts to 30,000 of its employees, encouraging them to take early retirement.  Note however that DL is not hoping that all 30,000 staff will accept its offer - the airline says it wants only 2,000 people to accept buyouts.

There are two interesting things about these types of buyout offers.  Firstly, the DL offer is slanted most towards people with more seniority in the company (the reason for this perhaps being that they cost more to keep employed than do junior staff); Delta is inviting its best employees with the most expertise to go.

And the second thing, confirmed in previous studies of similar offers in other companies, is that when staff are given this type of offer, it is usually the best and brightest people who take advantage of it.  These people think 'I can take the cash-out offered by my present employer, and I can easily go and get another job, working for a competitor (or for anyone else)' and then leave to do exactly that.  The people who are most readily re-employable leave.

But the not so gifted employees think 'Well, if I take this offer, I'm out of work, and there's no chance I'll find any other company willing to hire me for what I'm currently making, I'm going to stay put where I am'.

That means that these buy-out offers cause the company to lose their best staff, while the people they'd most like to see voluntarily leave remain firmly glued to their desks.  Bad move, Delta.

Part of Delta's strategy for managing itself is apparently to cut domestic capacity by a further 5% this year.  Another incredible shrinking airline.

Another part of Delta's plan for the future is to charge more for checked bags.  DL has now joined with US and UA in charging $25 - coincidentally, the same amount as charged by the other two airlines - for a second checked bag.

The remaining trio of the big six - AA, CO and NW - have yet to make similar changes, but I'd be very surprised if we didn't see them also add the extra bag fee over the next few weeks, carefully staging their announcements so to ensure that there's no outward appearance of any collusion between the airlines with the introduction of this new baggage charging paradigm.

A possibly more sensible part of Delta's strategy was revealed on Tuesday when Delta added yet another price increase onto its fares.  Last week the airlines added up to $50 to their fares, and less than a week later, DL was already adding a further $10 on top of last week's $50.  Indeed, such was Delta's hurry that, for the first time in memory, they announced an airfare increase not on the traditional Thursday or Friday, but on a Tuesday instead.

So far this year (and remember we are only 11 weeks into the year) there have been nine attempts by the airlines to raise fares, of which six so far have succeeded (and the $10 increase this week is currently showing every likelihood of succeeding too).

I really don't mind if airlines put their fares up, but what I do reject is the hypocrisy where, on the one hand, they're layering increase after increase onto their fares, while at the same time, they're worrying in public about the rising cost of fuel.

Their fare increases have massively more than compensated for the extra cost of fuel; so much so, in fact, that they're starting to risk shrinking the amount of travel people do.  And if fewer people fly, the massive fixed costs of the airlines will be spread over fewer passengers, meaning each passenger has to pay a larger share of fixed costs that not only include aircraft ownership but also such essential things as multi-million dollar bonuses to senior executives.  Higher fixed costs per passenger mean, invariably, the airlines will increase ticket prices still further.  Which means fewer people will travel, which means higher costs per passenger, and so on and so on.

This is not just me theorizing.  Airline executives are bracing themselves for massive reductions in passenger traffic (think 10%, 20%, perhaps even 30%) - but of course, they won't blame this on pricing air travel above a level that is fair and sensible.  Instead they'll blame it on the economy, or whatever other convenient scapegoat they can find.

While the good news is this will reduce airport congestion quite remarkably, which would you prefer?  Full airports and affordable airfares, or empty airports and tickets too costly to buy?

The dinosaurs are also typically not considering external factors as they resolve to push up fares and shrink in on themselves.  By offering fewer flights and at higher fares, they're creating rich pickings for current and potential new startups.  Any startup airline typically looks for two things - routes where there's a lot of unrealized demand, and routes where fares are currently high.  In good times, it is not easy to find such things, which is why startups are sometimes forced to base their business plan on flying peculiar routes (eg between Columbus and Bellingham, WA - an unsurprisingly unsuccessful launch route offered by Spirit when it started flying last year, and now long since discontinued).

But as the majors cut back service even on core routes, and push the fares higher, it gets easier for new startup airlines, with fixed costs geared to their smaller size, rather than the unnecessarily inflated fixed costs of a dinosaur painfully struggling to shrink itself, to move into even major markets, as we see with Virgin America at present (welcome to Seattle, Virgin America).  Virgin America is confidently moving into hotly competitive routes - this is not to predict their success, but merely to point out that every fare increase and service cutback by its competitors makes it easier for the new startup to survive and thrive.

You may recall that JetBlue has been teeter-tottering (what I'd call see-sawing) on the subject of the legroom offered with its seats.  It first added extra legroom to the seats behind the exit rows (because the exit row seats can't be moved, it is possible to sometimes have slightly different seat pitches in front of and behind the exit row seats, just due to 'rounding errors' in terms of how you fit the rows of seats into a plane).  Their reasoning then was that passengers now had a positive trade-off to consider - seats in the front of the plane were desirable because they were close to the exit, and seats in the back were desirable because they were more roomy.

Then JetBlue changed the seating again to give more space to the seats in front of the exit row, making those seats doubly valuable - closer to the exit and more spacing (38" seat pitch, compared to 34" pitch behind the exit rows, and a typical 31" - 32" on most other airlines), and making the seats behind the exit row doubly undesirable.

Did someone say 'doubly valuable'?  Yes, someone at JetBlue has now had the sensible enough idea that if some of the seats on its planes are more valuable to passengers than others, they should charge extra for them.  And so from 1 April, you'll be asked to pay $10/$15/$20 (depending on if it is a short, medium length, or long haul flight) extra for the forward roomier seats.  Due to how they worked the seating plan out, seats in rows 2 - 5 and exit rows 10 and 11 on their Airbus A320s will have the extra space, and in the exit row only on their Embraer E190s.

Good luck to them.  I'd certainly pay extra, particularly in these days of crowded flights.

Here's an interesting story.  A small group of American Airlines skycaps are taking the airline to court, suing the airline for the loss of tips they formerly earned when curbside checkin was offered for free.  Now that airlines charge for this service (typically $2 or $3 per bag), skycaps are commonly finding that passengers object to both paying an airline fee and also a skycap tip to have their bag checked at the curb, and so their tip earnings have massively reduced.

It is certainly true that skycaps used to make extraordinary amounts of money for this service.  Think about the time dynamics - how many bags an hour could a skycap check?  One a minute - 60 an hour?  Maybe more?  Let's just take the one a minute figure, though, and think about the implications of that.  For a 40 hour week, that means a skycap has checked 2,400 bags.  What sort of average tip did they formerly get?  At least $1/bag, more commonly $2, and sometimes more (eg two bags for $5, sometimes even three bags for $10).  It was an open secret for many of us travelers that if we were over the limit on bags, the thing to do was to check them with the skycap and tip generously, thereby avoiding any excess baggage charges.

So, if a skycap averages $2/bag checked, and checks 2,400 bags in a week - yes, get this.  He was formerly earning almost $5,000 a week in tip income (I wonder how much of that was reported to the IRS?).  Impossible, you say?  Work the math any way you like, and I'll wager you still come up with the 'poor' skycap earning a great deal more each month than you do yourself.  People that say 'oh, they need the tips to survive' seldom do the maths, because if they did, they'd find out that many of these types of positions end up earning the people a great deal more in tips than the people paying the tips earn themselves.

Case in point - I was staying at an upmarket hotel on the outskirts of Windsor, in England, a few years ago.  I noticed a lovely new BMW parked prominently at the front of the hotel, and one day in conversation with a hotel staff member, asked who owned it.  I guessed that the hotel owner or manager was the proud owner, but I was wrong.  The owner/manager had a well used sensible mid sized Ford station wagon.  The brand new Beemer was owned by the hotel's Head Porter.  Local taxi drivers subsequently explained to me how much of every cab fare they had to give back to the Head Porter in return for being allowed to pick up passengers from the hotel (I could never understand why the fare to go into town from the hotel, in a discount service mini-cab was more expensive than the fare, in a full-fare black cab, to go from the town back to the hotel - the answer being it was the Head Porter's fee that pushed the minicab fare up over the regular black cab fare).

Back to the skycaps, I'd heard rumors, in years gone by, that budding skycaps would pay as much as $50,000 (I'm not entirely sure who to) in return for getting a job as a skycap.  And what a sensible investment it was, too - little more than two month's income to get a job they could hold for as long as they liked, paying over a quarter million in cash a year.

But this is no longer the case, apparently.  And so these poor porters are now suing AA for their lost tip income, although they're having to tread very carefully, because none of them really wants to admit to the extent of their former earnings, but of course, the more they understate their former earnings, the less they can now seek in damages.  Bizarrely, their attorney would not give an estimate on how much in tips the skycaps claim they have lost because of the fee.  But she said the lawsuit seeks restitution for all tips skycaps were deprived of since the fee was imposed in 2005 (even though she is not saying how much this is).  Apparently her strategy is to never disclose this amount, and instead to seek a transfer of the millions of dollars in income that AA is now getting directly from its curbside bag check fee.

And, in a lamentable bit of job-description inflation, she adds 'Some of these guys have worked for 20, 30 or 40 years as skycaps. This is their profession. These guys' lives were devastated by this'.

Apparently being a skycap is now a profession.  Inasmuch as it formerly commanded a professional level income, I guess the attorney is quite right in so labeling skycaps.

Computer Issues :  You win some, you lose some.  I allowed myself to be persuaded to buy the successor product to Microsoft Frontpage for writing my newsletters and webpages - their Expression Web software.  Alas, it seems to be almost unusable if I have the spelling check turned on.

Another inexplicable (and unacceptable) example of a product that has a very 'in your face' bug that should never have been released to market.  Shame on Microsoft.

Reader Eric sent in a link to an excellent page that lists free software alternatives to big name programs.  Amazingly, these free programs are sometimes better than their commercial competitors.  If you're unhappy with your software, or about to buy some new software, consider some of these free programs as an alternative to the over-priced and often buggy name brand products.

My other Microsoft problem at present relates to the spam filtering in Outlook no longer working, causing what I thought to be 1000+ spams to land in my inbox along with the 'real' email, and taking much of my time just to wade through the spam to find the real emails.

I've given up on waiting for a fix from Microsoft, and am currently trialing an interesting 'Spam Firewall' that intercepts spam before it is downloaded to your email on your computer.  It has only been up a little over a day so far, and it is taking a while for email to redirect to feed through the new process, but in the last 24 hours, it has handled 2291 pieces of email, of which a massive 2078 were rejected as being spam, causing a mere 213 to be sent on to me.  Wow!  What an incredible difference that makes.  My life is almost under control again, and what I'd thought was something over 1000 spams a day is actually something over 2000 spams a day.  What an enormous productivity boost.

I'm still working through some issues with this new piece of equipment (it is another complete computer, not just a program) but if it continues to meet or exceed expectations, I'll tell you more about it.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  No, it isn't an April Fools Day joke released early.  A Canadian company is seriously suggesting that all airline passengers should be fitted with special bracelets prior to boarding their flight.  The bracelets could be triggered remotely by a flight attendant, causing a debilitating electric shock to course through the passenger's body.

That'll surely encourage you to have the correct change when you're paying for your sandwich or drink on board.  And there'll doubtless be close to complete compliance with requests to buckle seatbelts, stow tray tables, turn off cell phones, and anything else we as passengers may be ordered to do.

But is it really a good idea?  Some sensible commentary, both in the article and by readers below, is here.  And the company's website and video presentation on their proposed new technology (apparently waiting for a financial backer) can be seen here.

An Arab politician in Israel is trying to force El Al to stop passenger profiling.  He seems to believe that elderly Jewish grandmothers should be treated as posing an equal threat to the safety of El Al's planes as young Muslim men.

And, after all, that is the way we treat people in the US.  We're blessed with a 100% equal opportunity, politically correct, TSA, and if it is good enough for us - and has kept us terrorist free for 6 years so far, surely it is good enough for Israel too?

Fortunately the politically correct disease hasn't yet fully infected Israel.  Proponents of Israel's approach say checking all passengers equally would require manpower and resources many times greater than are needed today and would needlessly extend the time passengers spend waiting for flights - hmmm, just like what happens in the US.

Ariel Merari, an Israeli terrorism expert who has written about aviation security, wasn't scared to do some straight talking when he said ethnic profiling is both effective and unavoidable.  'It's foolishness not to use profiles when you know that most terrorists come from certain ethnic groups and certain age groups,' he said. 'A bomber on a plane is likely to be Muslim and young, not an elderly Holocaust survivor. We're talking about preventing a lot of casualties, and that justifies inconveniencing a certain ethnic group.'

Reader Warren writes in :

Thought you'd enjoy this.  These idiots can't count to 10 w/o taking off their shoes.  I requested a text-msg notification re my AA flight from DFW to RDU tomorrow morning.  So they sent me the item below.  They say eight-digit confirmation number. Count 'em.

Confirmation Number: 312D89225
Thank you for using Flight Status Notification.
Your request has been submitted. Please save this eight-digit confirmation number for future reference so that you may view or delete this notification.

Lastly, I mentioned an interesting twist on a regular wedding proposal last week.  For this week, here's another story of an unexpected outcome to a planned proposal.

I hope you have a wonderful Easter weekend, and a great week ahead.

And, most of all, until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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