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Friday 21 November, 2008
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 :
Trans-Atlantic crossing on the
Queen Mary 2 from Southampton to New York
12 (or earlier) - 18 June
Optional touring in England
prior to cruise to US
Trans-Siberian Rail Tour from
Vladivostok to Moscow
23 June - 6 July
Optional river cruise on to St
Petersburg at end of rail tour
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
but if your travels take you where they go, please do consider choosing
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
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