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Friday 19 December, 2008  

Good morning

Although this year's Christmas markets cruise along the Danube was excellent in almost every respect, it is - as always - good to be back home again after two weeks away, although entering a cold 38 house was not exactly a 'warm welcome'.

If you're following me on Twitter, you'll have been getting daily updates noting such vital things as the number of sausages eaten each day and the number of mugs of gluhwein enthusiastically drank, as well as getting realtime updates about the inevitable frustrations at airports (indeed, I came about as close as I'd ever care to come to being forcibly removed from my last BA flight - more about that a few paragraphs down).

It was reasonably easy to 'tweet' - ie to send twitter messages - during my travels, and it was only a concern for overloading people following me with excessively trivial messages that limited my tweets; I'm not quite sure what I'll have to tweet about now that I'm back home and returning to my regular routine existence, but we'll see.

This year's Christmas cruise saw us enjoying extraordinarily good weather - we were never touched by a drop of rain, and had only the very lightest dusting of snow - but sufficient for those of us from states such as FL and countries such as Australia/Hong Kong to be able to claim a 'white Christmas' experience.  Yes, it was cold, but I supplied hand warmers on the coldest days, and warm clothing took care of the rest.

Our itinerary - starting in Budapest, then traveling along the Danube through Austria and Germany, and ending up with a coaching extension to Prague was full of wonderful sights and experiences, and I find myself increasingly drawn to the Czech Republic, so much so that I'm reworking the itinerary for the 2009 Christmas markets cruise to include an extended option of time in the Czech Republic (Prague, Karlovy Vary and Cesky Krumlov) before starting the cruise.

Amawaterways continues to impress as operating very high quality cruises.  An excellent ship, a well designed itinerary, and a great crew combine to give an excellent total experience, and I think it fair to say this year's cruise participants were as pleased as those on earlier cruises at their experience.

Two quick cruise related comments.  First, please remember the massive list of 68 different cruises for 2009, all with $500 per person discounts.  These discounts are only good through the end of January.

Secondly, on 1 January Amawaterways will be reducing their AARP discount from $100 to $50 per person.

So, for best deals on cruises, if you're an AARP member you should deposit any/all cruises you plan to take in the next year prior to the end of December, and if you're not, you should deposit on any of these special cruises prior to the end of January.

My travels got off to an excellent start when I flew from Seattle, through London, and on to Budapest.  I redeemed miles to fly first class on British Airways - through the Alaska Airlines program the extra miles needed to fly first rather than business class are surprisingly few, and I had a perfect flight, with a brilliant flight crew, great food, and more wine than I could possibly hope to drink (at one stage I had six bottles in front of me on my table; I hasten to add that I only drank a small amount of each bottle!).

Readers with a good memory will remember that a month back, I asked a BA crew member to take a picture of me while traveling in their business class cabin on the same Seattle to London flight - the crew member refused, saying the company no longer allowed photos to be taken on board due to security concerns.  As this photo shows, apparently those security concerns don't also apply to the first class cabin.

After this tour de force on BA's part I found myself almost comprehending why people would choose to pay the $20,793.84 that a first class roundtrip ticket can cost between Seattle and London.

But then, alas, came the return experience from Prague back through London and on to Seattle, and I was graphically reminded of how airlines - some more and some less than others - remain 100% vulnerable to the quality of their front line customer facing staff, both on the plane and in the airport.  The most comfortable seat in the world, the best food, and the finest wines do little to compensate for rude surly staff, and when viewed through the lens of a $21,000 ticket cost for two nine hour flights, one should have the right to expect nothing but the best and should be able to be sympathetically heard when a service shortfall occurs.

At a time when discounted coach class tickets sell for something well under $1,000 the cost of first class is an extraordinary premium - one would think that BA could afford to assign a full time staff member to wait on each first class passenger, hand and foot, from the first minute the passenger arrives in the airport until the last minute the passenger is in the airport at their destination.  Indeed, some airlines do almost exactly that, and some even extend the experience still further to providing limo transfers to and from airports.

When it came time to board the flight from London to Seattle, I was dismayed to see a crush of passengers invading and completely blocking the lane ostensibly reserved exclusively for business and first class passengers.  This was partially understandable, because the crowd of passengers in front obscured the low level sign indicating that the lane was for premium passengers only.

Part of the first or business class experience is reasonably expected to be a hassle free time boarding the plane, and I was aggrieved to have to wait some minutes in line before even getting to have my boarding pass scanned.  I capitulated and simply sat waiting until the lines had died down and then went to board as one of the last passengers in the gate area, and asked the gate staff why they allowed all passengers to go through the premium passenger line.

They acknowledged they were doing this, and replied 'well, we can't turn them away, can we'.  I opined that they very well could do exactly that.  The thought was abhorrent to them - apparently BA would rather risk upsetting a first/business class passenger than they would risk upsetting a coach class passenger.  Meanwhile another (non premium class) passenger came up behind me and volunteered his unasked for comments - he told me to 'leave them alone'.  I told him to shut up.  This caused the gate staff to now start accusing me of being rude and offensive - apparently it is fine for other passengers to join in a discussion, whether it affects them or not, so long as they choose to support the BA position, but not fine for me to tell them to mind their own business.

I asked to see a supervisor, but only got to see another gate agent who claimed to be a supervisor, but refused to give me her business card.  She agreed with the first gate agent that anyone could go through the premium passenger lane and they'd do nothing about it, and saw nothing wrong with that concept.  I was then told if I didn't immediately rush on board the plane, I'd be left behind, because I was the last passenger not yet on board and they were about to push the jetway back.

That threat of course ended the discussion, and I went down the jetway, only to have to wait another three minutes to board the plane due to all the people in front of me not yet boarded, during which time a number of people then came up from behind me, also to board the plane.  So much for being the last passenger and them being about to push the jetway back.  And, once I got on the plane, we sat at the gate for another hour before finally leaving, so there would have been plenty of opportunity to discuss the matter further with a real supervisor.

As for nearly being forcibly removed, as I approached the plane to board, a BA staff member in a bright yellow jacket at the plane's door started a walkie-talkie conversation, presumably with the staff back at the gate.  'Oh yes, I see him now', he said.  'Yes, I'd say that is a fair description' he said with a conspiratorial smirk, while looking at me.  'He's just about to go on board.'  I walked past him, hearing him say 'Yes, I'll go do that', and then I turned left into the first class cabin, to hear, behind me a slightly panicked voice now saying uncertainly 'Oh, he's gone into the first class cabin, what should I do?'.  A minute later he walked past me and huddled with the flight crew for several minutes before leaving the plane.

My clear sense was that if I hadn't gone into first class I'd have been pulled off the plane for the serious offense of daring to complain about BA's poor customer service.  He certainly wasn't hurrying after me to offer an apology!  I didn't dare drink a drop of wine or even a glass of beer on the return flight for fear of setting myself up for false allegations of being drunk and disorderly on the flight.  No six bottles of wine on my table for the return journey.

An indifferent crew that impersonally did the absolute minimum they could on the flight, bad food, faulty video, arriving over an hour late, and the inevitable delays whereby my first class/priority tagged bags came onto the carousel only after some hundreds of non-priority bags had first been disgorged all made for a dreadful experience in any class of service, and many times more so when matched alongside the $21,000 fare BA charges for their 'first class'.

It is interesting that BA's first class has inferior video screens in it to their business class.  Amazingly, if you want to watch good quality video on a big screen, you're better advised to fly BA's business class where the video screens are newer and bigger than they are in first class.

One final BA comment - at the end of my flight to London the crew offered me to choose any bottle of wine to take away with me as their 'thank you' for being a good passenger (and perhaps in return for my having filled out one of their questionnaires with plenty of positive comments).

I accepted a very nice bottle of white, but when going out and back in through security at Heathrow for my flight on to Budapest, it was taken from me by security!  It was a kind thought, but....

And one more final comment (yes, I know, some things just have no end).  My flight from Prague back to London left Prague on time, and arrived into London on time, and in theory my flight on to Seattle should have left on time as well (I'm not sure what occasioned its long delay on the ground).  Everything seemed normal at the airport.  But another group member flew back to London on BA's second flight of the day, several hours later in the morning, after me.  She was told that her flight to London was delayed an hour due to bad fog in London the day before.

Question to BA :  If bad fog was still delaying flights at mid day the day after the fog occurred, how is it that my earlier flight took off and arrived into Heathrow on time with no problems?

What's that?  You want more?  Oh, okay, one more final final comment.  When boarding the flight from Prague to London, I went through the usual procedure of approaching the jetway and handing my boarding pass and passport to a gate agent.  The gate agent checked my passport, and then scanned my boarding pass.  Only after the computer returned a confirmation/acceptance code did she hand back the boarding pass and passport to me.  So far, the same as always.

I then walked the ten feet to the jetway, walked down the jetway, and, at the plane door, a BA flight attendant asked to see my boarding pass again for, as she explained it, a 'security check' which involved checking my flight number and flight date.

Question to BA :  If both your computer and gate agent has validated the boarding pass at one end of the jetway, why do you need a flight attendant to do this again, less than a minute later, at the other end of the jetway?

And now we're well due for a topic change.  My flight to London (yes, truly this will be a topic change) again saw me testing multiple sets of noise cancelling headphones.  If you are a follower of my Twitter messages, you'll know about this already.  The 'star' set of headphones was a $400 pair of Sony headphones that claim a new type of digital rather than analog noise cancelling.  Unfortunately, they had a fault that curtailed my ability to fully evaluate them, but I managed to use them enough to decide that they weren't really any better than the $300 Bose Quiet Comfort 2 headphones.  I never thought I'd consider paying $300 for the Bose headphones good value (and I still don't think that) but they are definitely better value than the $400 Sony MDR-NC500D headphones.

One of the other headphones being tested was also a Sony, and this one, while not quite as good as the two top end headphones, presented as being a much better value product and more sensible choice for most of us.  But, in follow up testing back in my office here, I uncovered a potential flaw with these headphones that reduced my initial unqualified enthusiasm for them.

On balance, I thought it better to first write about the headphones that perhaps you might want to buy, rather than the ones I'm suggesting you don't buy, and so here is what has become the fourteenth in my ongoing series of noise cancelling headphone reviews :

This Week's Feature Column :  Sony MDR-NC60 Noise Cancelling Headphones :  Combining a relatively moderate $135 street price with good noise cancelling, these headphones promise to become a good value choice for many of us.  But, alas, they also have a weakness that might argue against you choosing them.

In my last newsletter, two weeks ago, I asked if you enjoyed my new 'Blast from the Past' section of each newsletter or if you'd rather see it discontinued.

Results were fairly evenly distributed, and instead of asking a simple yes/no question, perhaps I should have allowed for a finer range of responses with a 1-5 scale type thing for your replies.  55% of readers said they liked it, and 45% said they didn't like it.

Which brings me to an interesting point of difference compared to a print publication.  In a print publication, there is a finite amount of space, and everything you include in the publication in effect forces something else to be left out.  In such cases, you want to ensure that every single item has the broadest possible appeal to the largest number of readers, and if a feature was only pulling a 55% positive rating, it might well be discontinued.

But, here, anything doesn't necessarily displace anything else, and with the 'Page Down' key and the colored paragraphs making it easy to skip bits you don't find so interesting, I think I'll consider this to be a passing grade and so will continue it, perhaps not slavishly, but as regularly as time allows, and if there's nothing interesting to pass on to you, I'll also not run it merely for the sake of running it.

Blast from the Past :  In 2001 I published the second part of a three part series with the series title 'How to Save up to 60% on Business and First Class International Air Fares'.  Not all the strategies offered then remain valid today, but the opening suggestion in this article - using Round the World and Circle Pacific fares - was one that I returned to in March this year when I wrote a five part series on these types of fares.

To put things in current context, I mentioned, above, that a roundtrip first class ticket on BA from Seattle to London can cost $20,000.  In contrast, a RTW fare using BA and other Oneworld airlines can cost as little as $11,600.  Sure, the RTW ticket has some availability restrictions and advance purchase requirements, but look at the saving - and at how much extra you're getting included.  Perhaps you should read both article series - maybe something to do if you have quiet time over Christmas.

In 2002 I reviewed Bob Bestor's excellent Gemutlichkeit newsletter, and nothing has changed, either in his ongoing publication or my opinion of it.

In 2003 I published the third part of a five part series about Boeing, with this third part titled 'Boeing in Decline - the 1970s to 2003'.  Since then Boeing half managed an amazing turnaround in its fortunes with its very promising - on paper - 787 plane that has already sold many hundreds of units.  But, the other half - the 787 continues to be plagued by delays and there continue to be rumors floating around about, when it eventually does take to the air, perhaps the plane will not achieve all its promised performance specifications.  Meanwhile, with every delay, the eventual Airbus response to the 787 - their A350 - gets closer and closer to matching the delivery timeframes promised by Boeing (assuming, of course, no delays in turn for the Airbus plane).

It took Airbus way too long to first accept that the 787 was a game changing plane (their initial response was to claim that their A330 was as good as a 787) and then they first came out with a design that wasn't sufficiently different as to excite any airlines.  By the time a better version of the A350 was finally offered to the market, Boeing had what appeared to be an unassailable lead over the A350 in terms of becoming the dominant plane for that part of the market, but that lead has now been steadily declining - both due to the 787's success pushing delivery times for new orders out closer to the A350 delivery times, and the 787 program delays that threaten to add years to the promised delivery times for all the 787s on order.

One last comment - I called the 787 in the previous paragraph a game changing plane, but really, much as Boeing likes to think of it this way, it isn't a game changer at all.  A commercial success?  Undoubtedly.  But a game changer?  No.  It is merely the latest rehash of traditional airplane design technology, with most of the efficiency benefits it offers coming not from the plane but from the new generation of jet engines that power it.

My lament in this part of the Boeing series about the death of courageous innovation remains as sadly true today as it was when written five years ago; indeed, with the passing of another five years in an industry that was only 100 years old in 2003, the only advance in 'state of the art' worthy of note is the Airbus A380, already being developed in 2003 and now a regularly flying part of the aviation scene.  The increasing scrutiny of aviation by eco-sensitive pressure groups and their willingness to vilify aviation and its trivial but high profile carbon footprint, combined with the on-again/off-again rise/fall in the price of fuel should surely be seeing some true game changing developments appearing, but none are yet apparent.  November 2003 saw the last ever Concorde flight - if anything, aviation is moving backwards rather than forwards in terms of speed (and perhaps in terms of service and comfort too).

Dinosaur watching :  I almost feel sorry for United.  A passenger on a United flight may have got drunk.  What is certain is that 20 minutes after landing, he started beating his wife, and was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and assault and battery.

The man says that it is United's fault he hit his wife repeatedly.  He says United got him drunk, and he was unable to control himself.  And his wife has joined him in suing United for a minimum of $100,000 and as much more as they can get.  Details here.

As an aside, you should be aware of four things when drinking on a plane.  First, the lower pressurization reduces your sensitivity to taste, so drinks (and food) won't taste as good as it would on the ground.  Second, the intoxicating effects of alcohol are more than doubled, again due to the lower air pressure.  Thirdly, drinking alcohol slows down your ability to adjust to the new timezone at the other end of your flight.  Fourthly, stronger alcoholic beverages can actually increase your dehydration rather than reduce it, making the stressful effects on your body even greater.

So don't try and copy my example photographed above, or that of the wife beater, and do exercise moderation.

In other United news, UA has sold 15 757s that they formerly owned to a leasing company and are now leasing them back.  This gives them an up-front boost of about $150 million in cash, while of course giving them an ongoing lease burden they didn't otherwise have.

This move on United's part would seem to imply they anticipate needing some extra cash.  Perhaps they don't expect any profit any time soon, even with oil costs today below $36/barrel?  Or maybe they're going to use their $150 million to buy up as much oil as they can at these low prices - my feeling is these low oil prices won't last, and when the pendulum swings back in the opposite direction again, it may well reach and pass $150 then keep on going much further.

It is the current collapse in oil prices that is the short term aberration, not their run up to $140 earlier this year.

In still more United news - and read this in context with my complaining about BA happily allowing anyone to go through their business/first class lanes to board planes and refusing to police their own policy that the lanes are only for premium passengers - United will now allow any passenger to go through their 'Premier Line' both at security screening and at the gate to board the plane.

But whereas BA does this by being bumblingly incompetent, and for free to anyone and everyone who chooses to cheat their system; United is going to sell the privilege for $25 each way, and it will initially be available at 14 airports (ORD DEN LAX SFO IAD BOS MSP LGA EWR SNA PDX SAN SEA and DCA).

Question to United - if I volunteer to be last on the plane, will you give me some cash back?

Maybe the opportunity to charge passengers another $25 each might encourage BA to enforce their first/business class lanes?

United also features, in cahoots with American, in an agreement with O'Hare Airport.  The two airlines have agreed to support the airport's plan to construct extra runways, but in return they want to extend their dominance of the airport's gates.  This dominance, which currently runs through 2018, has worked to our disadvantage as passengers recently by forcing Virgin America to abandon their attempts to offer service to O'Hare.

The airport also wants to add a new terminal, but UA & AA aren't so keen on that.  I wonder why?

Talking about Virgin America, here's an amazing coincidence.  The airline recently announced its plans to add new service from San Francisco to Boston.  And now - surprise surprise - Jetblue has said that it will resume the service it previously discontinued between Boston and San Francisco.

Isn't it amazing that at a time with apparently falling passenger numbers everywhere, and with low cost/high quality airline Virgin America appearing in Boston, all of a sudden Jetblue decides that a route it previously failed to make profitable now has a good chance to succeed.

Jetblue (yes, I know they like to capitalize the 'b' but I don't feel the need to follow their idiosyncrasy) clearly feels protective about Boston, because they're also adding flights from Boston to Charlotte, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Raleigh/Durham, Buffalo, Long Beach, Dulles and JFK.  Let's hope Jetblue's new expansionary program will prove to be less ill advised than their last one was.

Still talking about Virgin America, their vaguely related company V Australia, the international subsidiary of domestic Australian airline Virgin Blue, has said it will now start its new Sydney/Los Angeles flights on 27 February.  The first flight was to have been this week, but delays in getting planes from Boeing caused its postponement.

Painfully for the new airline, this delay means that instead of starting service at the beginning of the peak season when all flights are full and fares are at their highest, it will instead be starting service at the end of peak season, with falling passenger numbers and falling fares.  Ouch.

And, echoing the low fare comment, newly merged South Pacific travel wholesaler Travel2 are offering packages combining roundtrip air from Los Angeles to Sydney or Brisbane, plus four nights accommodation in either city, at prices from as low as $999.

That's a great deal, and the Menzies Hotel in Sydney is a fine choice of hotel to include.  Package details on Travel2's website.

More on BA - I'd written before at my disappointment with BA's new London/Heathrow Terminal 5 arrivals and business class lounges.  Disappointing food, no workstations to use with one's own computer, and a general lack of anything special.  This journey saw me flying first class, so I was keen to see just how special their private first class lounges were.

In Seattle, the first class lounge was an empty room with a few easy chairs and one small table in it.  Nowhere to work on a computer, and if you wanted a drink, you had to go next door to the business class lounge to get it.  Disappointing.

At the new T5 first class lounge, an impressive entry portal guarded by two bronze horse statues quickly deteriorated to more of the same - nowhere to work on one's own laptop computer, and a lack of anything other than very boring food choices.  But what really made me realize that BA just absolutely has no sense at all about the needs of a business traveler was going to their so-called business and entertainment center.

Let's start off with the observation that business and entertainment are opposing incompatible concepts.  Putting them together means that I'm trying to concentrate on writing these comments while being bombarded by big screen television images complete with audio.  Do I want to listen to advertisements and be distracted by television programs while trying to concentrate on work?  Apparently BA thinks so.

The room was appallingly hot and stuffy.  I'm in a short open necked shirt and still am uncomfortably hot.  Does BA not know that productivity drops precipitately as temperatures rise?  Apparently BA could care less at allowing us to optimize our personal productivity during a layover (nearly five hours in my case).  I asked twice for the temperature to be adjusted, and while 'the engineers were called' there was little change in temperature, and it seems to me that BA just doesn't have enough air flow feeding into a room full of computers, all generating heat.

But wait, there's more.  Most of the computer terminals are arranged around the outside walls of the room, facing in to the center; the others are on circular tables, with most of them also facing outwards into the public part of the room.  So if you're trying to do something sensitive on a computer that you don't want everyone else to see - forget it.

And - still more.  The desk surfaces are covered in glass.  If you have an optical mouse (and if you don't, you should, they're so much better than the old trackball mice) it won't work on the glass.

So, to summarize - here I am, sweltering uncomfortably in the heat, with a laptop I can't use productively, while eating a filled baguette that I had to go out and buy from Pret a Manger in the public concourse, along with a bag of humble potato chips, courtesy of the lounge, while drinking a glass of water.  First class is a funny thing, isn't it.

Of course, I could be drinking champagne, and just around the corner there are six opened bottles of champagne sitting there, slowly going flat.  I've not seen anyone approach them in the last several hours and apparently BA doesn't realize that champagne goes flat if just left sitting in an open bottle for hour after hour.  What a waste.

The price of jet fuel might be dropping, but that isn't stopping airlines from seeking new ways to cut down on fuel consumption.  The latest example of this is an attempt by Emirates to operate what it is calling 'the world's longest green flight' - a nonstop flight between Dubai and San Francisco.

The airline hopes to save 2,000 gallons of fuel and 30,000 pounds of carbon emissions on the 16-hour flight by using a more efficient route, and on a plane that has been specially pre-washed to reduce drag, and using airport power rather than onboard power until the last possible moment.

Other features will include priority clearance for take-off and landing and the related ground taxiing between gates and runways, a continuous descent approach, and single-engine taxiing to the gate.  In addition, waste paper and cans will be collected for recycling.

This is all well and good, and a nice publicity stunt, just like the Air NZ flights a couple of months earlier, but proves very little, because in reality, you can't have every airline and every flight with super priority access to everything all the time.

Talking about fuel efficiency, Italy is inaugurating new high speed train service between Milan and Bologna, with a planned extension from Bologna on to Rome expected to be operational next year.  The high speed trains cut the travel time on the 130 mile journey to a mere 65 minutes.  Milan to Rome now takes 3.5 hours, and will drop below 3 hours when fast train service goes all the way.

Transportation planners generally say that three hours is the magic point at which train service starts to compete favorably with flights.  The Italian rail company hopes to get 60% of the total passenger traffic between Rome and Milan - more than 3 million people travel between the two cities each year.

Meanwhile, in the US, new 'luxury' train service is being added between Atlantic City and New York's Pennsylvania Station.  The distance is almost the same as between Milan and Bologna, but will take 'about two and a half hours'.

A previous attempt to offer train service between the two cities was discontinued after failing to turn a profit during six years of operation.

Mini-factoid :  Airlines collected $349.8 million in baggage fees during the third quarter this year.  Biggest winner - AA with $164 million.

And, talking about baggage, good news for BA.  It is not Europe's worst airline for losing luggage, according to the Association of European Airlines.  The worst airline during the 2008 summer season was BMI, which averaged a loss of 24.6 bags per 1,000 passengers.  An average flight with say 150 passengers would therefore have 4 lost bags.

Have you ever been on a flight that has had to divert due to weather conditions at the destination airport?  Have you ever been told 'We're sorry, but due to fog/low visibility/something' we are unable to land and so we need to divert to (somewhere else - or possibly even return back to where you started from)'?

If so, you've probably been annoyed at the bad weather interfering with your plans, but thought no more of it.

Well, earlier this week, a flight from Cardiff to Paris had to turn back due to fog at CDG airport in Paris.  Nothing new, you might think.

Except that, this time, instead of blaming the weather, the pilot was unusually frank, and explained to passengers that he had to take the flight back to Cardiff because he wasn't qualified and authorized to land the plane in foggy conditions.  The plane was capable of making the landing, but he wasn't authorized to pilot it.

This is actually not as unheard of as it might sound, and it makes one wonder just how often that might be the real reason for other weather related diversions.  More details here.

And we shouldn't make fun of pilots not being able to land their planes.  Theirs is a stressful job, and sometimes the most modern 'improvements' actually turn out to cause more problems than expected.  For example, the poor pilots who have to fly the lovely new A380s are complaining that they can't sleep during rest breaks during the flight.

Their problem is not too much noise, but rather, not enough noise.  The cabin crew area on Emirates' A380s is at the rear of the main deck instead of behind the cockpit in other planes.  The wonderfully quiet cabin of the A380 (see my A380 review) is so quiet that it doesn't drown out all the other onboard noises of passengers talking, toilets flushing, babies crying, etc.

The pilots have asked Airbus for a solution to their problem.  My suggestion would be earplugs.  Or perhaps they could play a recording of a noisy plane in the background to lull them to sleep.  Isn't life tough....

Lastly about pilots, here is a web page with a series of fascinating videos that shows you what actually happens in the cockpit when a plane comes in to land, or when it takes off.  My sense is the videos are edited, so while it seems like the pilots are in a constant rush of things to do, that is perhaps not completely the case, but other than that, it is a fascinating glimpse into the cockpit for those of us who like such things.

The highest and the lowest?  The world's highest hotel, the Park Hyatt Shanghai, fully opened for business last week. Situated in Pudong, the Park Hyatt Shanghai occupies the 79th to 93rd floors of the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Centre.  The hotel has 174 rooms, all of which have views over the Huangpu River and Pudong.

In contrast, possibly the lowest, and possibly also the world's worst hotel opened a week ago.  The hotel rates itself as zero stars, and this article amply explains why that is a fair rating.  Its only saving grace - you'll pay as little as 6/night to stay there.

I wonder how much they charge for internet access?  I was charged $37.50/day by the Budapest Hilton, which is, I think, the most I've ever had to pay.

And, in contrast to the contrast, how about a hotel where the swimming pool is cooled rather than heated.  Some sort of cruel joke on the guests?  Nope.

In Dubai, a new hotel is being built that will feature cooled sand on its beach and cooled water in its swimming pool.  With outdoor temperatures reaching 125, this is perhaps understandable.  Details here.

Lastly about hotels, here's an amusing, but on-target list of ten things to hate about hotels.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Organized rings of thieves at LAX work out which bags to pilfer by being tipped off by TSA baggage screeners, who tell them which bags have the most interesting looking objects in them.  More details here.

The financial crisis seems to continue to wax and wane from week to week, although for many of us, the chance to refinance our house at a lovely new low interest rate is becoming increasingly a positive outcome.

However, spare a thought for those less fortunate, with more pressing problems.  Here's a video that encourages you to help support some of these needy creatures.

Gosh - it will be Christmas next week.  But there'll be a newsletter on 26 December, even if I have to spend my Christmas evening writing the newsletter rather than in festive celebration.

Please do have a very merry Christmas indeed, and may any travels you make be free of weather problems (or, if they do arise, may your pilot be properly qualified to handle them)

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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