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Friday 21 November, 2008  

Good morning

I hope some of you managed to take advantage of the Qantas special deals sent out on Sunday, and clearly the thought of travel is on many of our minds, economic uncertainties notwithstanding, as we had a good level of interest expressed in the possible Travel Insider tours for 2009.

The most popular of the three tour ideas was the Trans-Siberian rail journey, with 52% of replies indicating interest in that tour.  40% of replies were interested in the UAE tour, and 39% chose the Queen Mark 2 trans-Atlantic crossing (this adds up to 131% because some readers were interested in multiple tours).

This means we have a possible tour schedule for 2009 as follows - please pencil the dates in to your calendar if any of these tours have interest to you.  I'll have more information on these tours as I get details confirmed :

Tour

Dates

Status

Notes

Trans-Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2 from Southampton to New York

12 (or earlier) - 18 June

In planning

Optional touring in England prior to cruise to US

Trans-Siberian Rail Tour from Vladivostok to Moscow

23 June - 6 July

In planning

Optional river cruise on to St Petersburg at end of rail tour

UAE Tour

Late November

In planning

About a week in duration

Christmas Markets Cruise from Nuremberg to Budapest and optionally starting in Munich before the cruise and on to Prague after the cruise

6 - 14 Dec (extra days for pre and post cruise options

Confirmed

All details online, book now


I enjoyed a lovely weekend up in BC, Canada, at Harrison Hot Springs this last weekend, and had hoped to feature it as this week's feature article, but - alas - there have been delays in getting some of the information needed to complete the article so there's no feature article for this week, but remember you did get a massive five part article last week.  :)  Hopefully the Harrison Hot Springs article - in full three part glory - will be released next week.

I unthinkingly wrote about flying 757 aircraft from London City Airport last week.  Thanks to the avalanche of readers who wrote in to correct me on that point.

Stated in most simple terms, the runway is too short for a 757.  Some other issues also intrude, and the bottom line is that BA would be operating just about the biggest plane it possibly can for its proposed new services between there and New York.  And even the A318 that BA is using is a bit of an ugly compromise, due to the need to break its journey in Ireland to refuel on the way to NYC.

On a similar topic, and as some readers may recall, I'm currently preparing an article series on the five different airports that serve London.  With the airports, and the transportation links to the airports, being on different sides of the city, clearly the 'best' airport choice depends, in part, on where you'll be staying in London.

Where do you usually stay in London?  It would help to know where the most popular parts of London are in terms of where we usually stay, so as to get a feeling for the relative convenience of the different airports.  Could I ask you to help by answering this instant survey - simply click on the appropriate link to send an email with your answer coded into the subject line.

Anywhere reasonably central where I can get a good value hotel
Central London north of Oxford St
Central London, south of Oxford St
South of the Thames
In the 'City' area and east of central London
West of Park Lane and north of Hyde Park (ie Paddington, Bayswater)
West of Park Lane and south of Hyde Park (ie Kensington, Chelsea)
Somewhere else not mentioned above

Talking about London accommodation, I heard back from Lastminute.com after my vociferous complaining about the hotels they provide last week.  I'm continuing the correspondence with them, seeking clarification about some of the things in their response, and will let you know the outcome when this is complete.

Blast from the Past :  In 2001 I wrote a feature article about problems with security.  These days, I write about it every week - no major improvement there!  In 2002 I wrote about Delta's plans to create a new low cost subsidiary, Song.  I predicted certain failure for the concept, and indeed, a mere 2.5 years passed between its first flight and Delta's announcement that it was discontinuing Song.  And in 2003 I wrote about a cell phone that I described as being 'possibly the best phone currently available'.  It was the Nokia 3650, and if you want to see how far 'state of the art' has moved in five years, compare that phone to the newest T-mobile G1.

What really surprises me the most about the five years between 2003 and today is my comment about buying a memory card for the phone - a 128MB card which cost me $50.  Nowadays, you can buy a 16GB card for $35.  In five years, the cost of memory cards has dropped nearly 200-fold.  That beats Moore's Law completely out of shape (he famously predicted a doubling of efficiency every two years).

As an unrelated aside, I'm really showing my age when I remember proudly selling free-standing hard drives for computers back in 1980 and 1981.  They cost $20,000, were the size of a four drawer filing cabinet, and had a 20MB capacity - in other words, a cost of $1000/MB.  Then, in 1985, I bought my first hard drive for my personal computer - 20MB for only $2000 ($100/MB).  More recently, I remember in the late 1980s my astonishment and delight when hard drives finally broke through the $1/MB barrier - I recall getting a 340MB hard drive for about $330.

Flash forward to this last week, where a 1TB external hard drive was selling for $100.  In case you don't know what TB stands for, it signifies Terabyte.  1TB is 1000 GB, and in turn of course 1GB is 1000 MB.  This means that hard disk space is now selling at a rate of $0.0001/MB - 1/100th of a cent per MB.  That's so cheap, and MB so plentiful, we don't even think in terms of $/MB now.  We're getting 10GB per dollar.  Technology - when it works for us - is a wondrous joy to behold.

There are (at least) a couple of implications about all of this for you and your travels (yes, this isn't completely off-topic).

Firstly, with digital cameras, you should change your probable earlier strategy of reusing removable memory cards.  Now, it is much better to store your images on your removable memory cards.  Buy 2GB or 4GB cards for $5 - $15 each and when they're full, simply buy new ones.

By all means copy the images to your computer or to a web based photo sharing site, but keep your master copies on the cards you originally used.

A related thought is to buy a massive portable (ie external) hard drive like the 1TB unit I mentioned.  You can buy them at Costco, Amazon, and a dozen other places, for prices down as low as $100, and backup all your pictures, movies, music, and other files to one or more of these.

This means that as and when you change computers, you don't have to worry about copying or losing data - it is all being kept independently from the computer.  You just plug the external hard drive into the new computer and everything is instantly available again.

Oh - talking about losing data, these days the worry about (and reality of) hard drive crashes should be a thing of the past.  With good high capacity hard drives costing $65 or so each, you should ensure that all future computers you buy (other than laptops) come with a RAID multiple disk setup to give you protection so that if any one of your two or more hard drives fail, the other one(s) automatically take over and prevent any data loss from occurring.

I've been using RAID configurations in my computers for some years now, and they are wonderful.  Like many of us, I don't do a good job of backing up my data, and so having an internal RAID gives me 'automatic backup' against most but not all eventualities.  (I understand you mightn't know what RAID is, but you don't need to.  Just specify that you want a RAID 1 or 5 type configuration to protect against any hard drive failing.)

And, for bonus measure, one more thought.  Next time you buy a camcorder, buy one that records onto memory cards rather than one that records onto tape (terribly old fashioned!) or onto an internal hard drive or directly onto miniature DVDs.  Depending on if you're recording standard or high definition video, you'll get anything from 45 minutes to a couple of hours per GB of memory, so a tiny 16GB memory card could hold anywhere from 12 to 30 hours of video material.  Absolutely amazing.

My current camcorder (which is five or more years old and overdue for replacement) is smaller than the battery that went into my first camcorder, and new camcorders are half the size of the first unit's battery.

If your current camcorder isn't a High Definition digital camcorder, maybe it is time to treat yourself to a new camcorder that offers either 720p or 1080i or (best of all) 1080p and wide-screen high definition recording.  Before too long, standard definition televisions will be as obsolete and undesirable as black and white televisions, and you don't want to be creating any more video in an old poorer quality format than you can avoid.

Because you want the video you shoot now to look good in 5, 10, 20 and more years into the future, you need to keep your camcorder more state of the art than your playback equipment (ie television monitor).  The new Canon Vixia HF10 and HF11 units seem to be close to state of the art while preserving both simplicity and flexibility for less technical or more technical users.

Dinosaur watching Southwest continues to break the rules that its founder, Lamar Muse, so successfully built the airline on, as it seeks to reinvent itself and attempts to get more business travelers as well as leisure travelers.

The strangeness of Southwest (WN) increasing emulating the dinosaurs that it originally was the complete opposite of is fascinating to behold, and the longer term success of their changes in corporate strategy is far from certain - you may recall their last quarter saw the first quarterly loss in umpty-ump years - although primarily due to losing money on their fuel hedging.  But the airline's last few quarters before that saw profits only from their fuel hedging - if they'd been paying the same amount for fuel as their dinosaur competitors, they'd have been massively losing money (assuming they didn't act in some rational way to stem their losses as soon as they threatened to appear).

The latest surprise from Southwest is their buying 14 take-off and landing slots (ie seven flights in and out per day) at New York's La Guardia airport.  This marks WN's first move into the New York city market (other than services to Islip on Long Island), and gives it a minor toe-hold (7 daily departures from an airport that currently has 3000 daily departures in total) in this competitive market.

Southwest may have difficulties ramping up its presence at congested LGA due to the airport being maxed out in terms of flights it can handle, and the consequent need to buy slots from other airlines.  But probably WN does plan to grow its presence at LGA - seven departures a day gives it no economies of scale at all, and represents less than half the number of flights WN can typically service from a single airport gate each day.

The first 14 slots cost Southwest $7.5 million.  It bought the slots from bankrupt ATA.

Talking about airport congestion, this week saw additional runways opening at three US airports O'Hare added a desperately needed new runway - its first in almost 40 years.  The new runway however is a bitter-sweet pleasure, because even after its entry into service, and the additional 52,000 flights a year the airport can now handle, the airport will still be plagued with delays.  The average delay is expected to drop from 24 minutes currently to 16 minutes.

So, if one extra runway cuts 8 minutes off O'Hare's 24 minutes of delay, does that mean it needs two more to zero out the remaining 16 minutes?

Dulles also added a new runway, its first since 1962.  But don't go expecting anything to change much there, because although the runway has been completed, the extra taxiways to and from the runway are not yet done.

The third runway went to my home airport, Seattle.  See if you can guess how much it cost.  The new runway at Dulles cost $350 million, and the one at O'Hare was $450 million.  So therefore, an extra runway at Seattle might be expected to cost about how much?

If you said $200 million, you'd be sort of right.  That was the initial estimated cost.  The final cost, however, was a bit more than that.  The runway ended up costing a staggering $1 billion.

Our air system needs a lot more than three new runways.  Consider that in the last 40 years there have only been two major US airports opened - DFW and Denver International.  The FAA projects that as many as four new airports need to be built in the next two to three decades.  If a runway addition to an existing airport takes, on average, ten years, we need to get started now to get those new airports on stream.

In other airport news, LAX has announced plans to spend $2 billion modernizing its Bradley International Terminal, giving it augmented capabilities to handle A380s and 787s.  The first set of new gates will be in service in 2012 and the project should be complete by 2013, even though the project has yet to pass a 'rigorous' environmental review process.

LAX expects to handle more A380 flights than any of the other US airports.

Meanwhile, in the UK, ten years and even $1 billion for a new runway looks like lightning speed and a bargain price, as the ongoing arguments over growth at Heathrow are approaching a climax with the British government expected to announce its future plans for Heathrow expansion (or not) at the end of this month.  The rhetoric has been flowing on all sides, with this utterance from BA's CEO merely one example from many.

Heathrow's third runway was first officially mooted in 2003, and if it gets the go-ahead now, it is planned to be in service by 2020 - 17 years after the idea was first officially acknowledged.  And its cost?  Supporters suggest it might cost as little as £9 billion ($13.5 billion), other numbers have suggested £13 billion ($20 billion), and probably both estimates would prove to be low.

We in Seattle thought our 10 year $1 billion runway was impossibly delayed and outrageously expensive, but I guess we should count our blessings.

While everyone is doubtless pleased about O'Hare's new runway, Virgin America (VX) is finding there's more to operating at O'Hare than simply being able to fly its planes onto and off the runway.  Although the airline had planned to start service there this month, and already has secured the landing rights (slots), it can't get access to any gates.  Incumbent airlines have all the gates tied up in leases through 2018, and they are all refusing to share or sell space to VX.

This is disappointing in view of all airlines cutting back on their flights, and presumably therefore creating unused gate space.  But, while it might be disappointing, the sleeping disinterest in the situation displayed by the Justice Department can at least reassure us all that in refusing to allow VX access to gates, the incumbent airlines are not being uncompetitive.

That's a great shame for Chicago area residents.  A friend flew a roundtrip on VX this last weekend and loved the experience, and also reported distressingly low loads on both flights.  And since VX started operating between Seattle and San Francisco and Los Angeles, fares have plummeted making us all beneficiaries of their competitive presence.  $169, inclusive of all fees, for travel between LAX and SEA, pretty much any time of day and any day of the week - the lowest fares in ten years or more.

Please don't forget Virgin America.  They clearly need our support at present.  They're a high quality operator with wonderful fares and sometimes half empty flights.  They don't fly many places yet (here's their route map) but if your travels take you where they go, please do consider choosing them.

Talking about competition, bravo to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, who this week refused an application from Air Canada and Air New Zealand.  The two airlines had sought permission to cooperate on the Australia-Canada route, but the ACCC refused, saying it would harm competition.

In other Air Canada news, the airline's CEO has come up with a new way to compete against rival Canadian carrier, Westjet.  Westjet has recently been expanding and Air Canada has been cutting back on flights.

Noting Westjet's reputation for courteous staff, CEO Monty Brewer has said 't's up to each and every one of us to work together to be sure that we're also out in front in the soft attributes such as a ready smile, eagerness to help customers and simply perform jobs well.  We must always provide great service and be sure to take care of our customers. Providing better service is the only way that competitors can hope to steal our customers.'

He's of course completely correct.  Let's hope, now he's had this rather late in life epiphany, he ensures it is meaningfully and consistently implemented.

Good news if the airlines lose your luggage.  The DoT has increased the cap on the airlines' liability for lost baggage, which is going up from $3000 to $3300 in mid January.  But with all the exceptions and challenges in claiming, the practical impact is not all that great on many of us.  I have an article about your rights when airlines lose your luggage (or when it is simply delayed).

Here's an interesting article which should strike fear into the heart of airline executives.  Apparently (and perhaps for the first time ever) corporate frequent fliers are reacting positively to their companies tightening their travel policies.

As we all know, very few corporate travel policies can't be evaded as often as they are complied with, but now a combination of better tracking and accountability, plus a sense of fairness on the part of employees who are recognizing that their companies don't have endless funds for travel expenses are encouraging employees to more positively follow travel saving guidelines.

The top ten cities in the world to travel to?  The Lonely Planet guidebook company (which these days is actually owned by the BBC) listed its top ten, strangely giving the list merely in alphabetical order rather than from 1 - 10 so as not to pick any favorites over any others.

More strange that not ranking the cities from 1 - 10 is the list itself.  The top ten cities are :  Beirut, Chicago, Glasgow, Lebanon, Lisbon, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Warsaw and Zurich.  Details here (just so you know I'm not making this up).

Some of the more paranoid of us often wonder about is how accurate the baggage scales are at airline checkin counters.  An article I saw a couple of months ago suggested that in (I think) Fort Lauderdale, the scales were generally reasonably accurate, and when not accurate, they tended to favor the passenger at least as much as they did the airline.  And now there's a new report from the Arizona Department of Weights and Measures, who checked out some of the baggage scales at Phoenix after receiving a complaint from a passenger.

A team of inspectors tagged 31 of the 72 scales checked with infractions but they were minor and none was to the airline's advantage. Southwest had to shut down 26 scales because they started at less than zero, even though this of course worked in the passengers favor.

Talking about being paranoid, here's a fascinating article on the top conspiracy theories.  I guess I'm a conspiracy nut, because I find I'm at least open minded about a significant number of them.

Here's a great story that shoots enormous holes in a possible conspiracy theory (manmade global warming).

And talking some more about being paranoid, well, what to say about this situation with a pilot suffering a 'breakdown' in the cockpit and needing to be forcibly restrained.

Still talking about being paranoid, here's a new technology with scary potential for misuse and invasion of privacy.

And - yes, still on the paranoid theme, I guess it is time for :

This Week's Security Horror Story :  This week, I'll allow a reader to write the horror story for us, recounting a recent experience :

I recently renewed my passport and decided to get the new passport card offered at time of purchase. From the official web site The State Department promotes this card as follows….

The passport card facilitates entry and expedites document processing at U.S. land and sea ports-of-entry when arriving from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. The card may not be used to travel by air. Otherwise, it carries the rights and privileges of the U.S. passport book and is adjudicated to the exact same standards.  (from http://travel.state.gov/passport/ppt_card/ppt_card_3926.html

A down side is that the card cannot be used for air travel into and from the USA in place of the passport book. Still I decided to purchase the card for 2 reasons :

1. I occasionally drive between the US and Canada on business and personal trips.

2. The card is an official form of identification as would be interpreted from the last sentence.

The Passport card arrived to me the first week of October. Since receiving the card I have attempted to use it as an ID while checking at airports. Now the airline check-in counters accept it without much question.  If I do get some it is because it’s the first time a ticketing agent may be seeing one.  However, TSA agents, in general, are totally confused by it.  So far it has only been accepted by one (1) TSA agent while checking into security, and that was in my home airport of Moline (MLI) the first time I attempted to used it with TSA.  Since that time I have used it 3 more times and it has always been questioned by TSA agents.  I usually had to show another ID to support it.  I have even had one TSA Supervisor tell me that the passport card is not an acceptable form of ID and recommended that I never use it again.

This happened 2 weeks ago while returning home from New Jersey out of EWR.  I presented the card to a young TSA agent checking boarding passes and IDs at the screening entry.  She looked at my card with total confusion on her face.  I asked if anything was wrong, and she retorted that see needed clear this ID her supervisor.  I immediately offered another supporting ID, but she refused my offer and told me to wait there.

She stepped over to another older, female agent, obviously her superior, who took my card and boarding pass.  Then, motioned for me to come to her.  Which I did with a big smile on my face that did not last for long.  She proceeded to tell me that the passport cards were not an acceptable form of ID for “air travel” and can be treated as a false ID when presented.  I asked her if a passport book, which I also had, was acceptable; she said …Of course (rather rudely, I might add.) as was a state drivers license.  She further said the passport cards have not been officially recognized, so until then, I need to refrain from using it.  At that point I was shown the “special screening area” for the special inconvenience that only the TSA can offer travelers as a reward for offering the passport card.

Now after this go around… I went to the TSA website and looked for acceptable forms of ID. Guess what…the passport card is acceptable - it is second from the top of the list as given on http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/acceptable_documents.shtm!

The TSA must have had a slow week, because it has chosen to again proudly boast about its behavior screening program and the successes it has enjoyed with it.

Here's an unquestioning bit of praise from a journalist asleep at his desk.

But the TSA successes actually raise more concerns than praise This article points out that fewer than 1% of the passengers who the TSA deem to be acting suspiciously are ever arrested, and we're never told how many of the arrests proceed on to an actual charge being prosecuted and the person being convicted of a crime.

Most of all, we're not told how many of the actual convictions are for terror related offences, and the TSA's silence on that point suggests that the number of terrorists caught is actually zero after two and a half years of the program and more than 160,000 people who were deemed to be potential terrorists being stopped and questioned.

Sure, the TSA says that some of the people they arrested 'may be scouting for a possible attack'.  But they may also as likely be Santa Claus, or you or me with an unpaid parking ticket.

There's more to wonder about in the incomplete TSA data, too.  If we're to believe the security rhetoric being regularly trotted out, terrorists are continually probing our systems, seeking vulnerabilities, and our national aviation security level is at the orange or high level (the second highest with only red being higher).  In the two years the TSA has been implementing these new behavior detection systems, hundreds of millions of Americans and foreigners have flown through US airports with TSA screeners searching for suspicious people.  Less than 0.1% of those passengers have been considered suspicious, and less than 1% of the people deemed suspicious have been arrested, and some smaller number have subsequently had cases heard against them in court and actually been convicted of anything at all.  And apparently 0% of any of these numbers have been terrorists.

Which begs the question - while the TSA is busy studying 5 year olds and 95 year olds for signs of suspicious behavior, and interrogating business travelers like you or me, and triumphantly arresting people for matters that are nothing to do with aviation security, how many real terrorists have been calmly, confidently and unsuspiciously walking directly past these highly trained screeners?

Rather than viewing 1266 arrests for largely trivial non-security related offenses as a successful outcome for a program currently involving almost 2500 full time officers and which has been running 2.5 years (in other words, one arrest and less than one conviction for anything per 5 man years of input), we should be asking ourselves what is wrong with a program that has tied up over 6,000 man years of effort and not caught a single terrorist.

Or, put it another way.  The 160,000 people detained sounds like a lot, but it means that, on average, each TSA behavioral screener is stopping only one person every two weeks.  Can you believe how mind-numbingly boring that would be?  For 80 hours, you're watching a steady stream of people walking past you, and only after this two week period do you then end up finding a single person to stop and talk to.  With a less than 1% arrest rate, the average screener is arresting one person once every four years.

Is this the best possible use of TSA manpower and money?

Here's a list of ways to save money on a family vacation.  Some of the ideas are quite good.

One of the perennial things that keep coming up in the aviation industry are fanciful ideas about flying cars.  Small underfunded companies come up with exciting but impractical concepts that rarely make it much past the drawing board.

But now, from the people who really did help to build the original internet, there's a chance that a flying car might actually materialize.  DARPA has announced a project to develop 'personal air vehicle technology' - details here.

And now, lastly this week, an item on a subject of eternal interest to Travel Insider readers.  I wonder how many of the 14 million readers mentioned in the article are reading this newsletter?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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