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Friday 16 January, 2009  

Good morning

Wow.  You've doubtless heard about the US Airways A320 that crash landed into the Hudson River yesterday mid afternoon, coming neatly to a stop opposite midtown Manhattan, a mere five minutes after taking off from La Guardia.  It appears the plane flew through a flock of birds - probably geese - and ingested one or more into both its two engines, causing both engines to fail.

The pilot, who had been flying NNW from La Guardia, was not able to fly back to LGA or to any other airport, so turned almost 180 degrees around and landed towards the south on the Hudson River.  The landing was as smooth and good as one could ever hope for with a water landing, and the plane didn't flip or plunge down or misbehave much other than slightly veering off course.

It was a full flight, but all 150 passengers, 3 flight attendants and 2 pilots were able to safely make their way to the over-wing or forward exits and leave the plane (which started settling/sinking from the tail first).  Some passengers simply stood waiting rescue on the wing, while others from the forward exits entered life rafts that automatically inflated when the doors opened.

Rescue boats were on the scene within a couple of minutes, and everyone made it safely to shore.  Some people suffered from exposure to the cold - outside temperatures were below freezing, and one person apparently had a couple of bones fractured, but that was all.  Amazing.

People who like to be prepared might note one small lesson from this incident.  Have a warm layer of clothing at hand in case of a crash immediately at takeoff (or at landing) in cold/wet climates - there's no way you'll have time to get something out of your carry-on in the overhead after a crash landing, and even if you think you can, I can promise you that the people behind you will not patiently wait while you block the aisle and do this!

Having a jacket with you while seated for take-off and landing is about the only thing one can do in advance for such scenarios.

I sometimes (rarely) do this.  But I do always make sure I don't take my shoes off until after the flight has climbed a few thousand feet, and always put them on as part of the preparation for landing ritual - if something goes wrong, I'd rather not be running down the aisle, possibly on fire, with broken glass and who knows what else on the floor, with only socks on.

The people on this flight were lucky in every respect, including being rescued from the cold outdoors within a few minutes of landing.  This event provided an excellent reminder of an article I wrote five years ago, which I've now updated to reflect Thursday's events.  I'm happy to say that the Thursday crash was consistent with my predictions back then, so not a lot of updating was required other than to add the new information.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  What Happens if an Airplane's Engines Fail? The A320 crash into the Hudson River yesterday afternoon gives a very positive example of a best case scenario outcome.  Was this a miraculous event, or is it realistic to expect everyone to walk away from a water landing?  I explore the issues surrounding 'crash landings' and the possible outcomes in such cases.

One more comment about the crash.  While experts can argue whether it was an example of consummate piloting skill, or just outrageous good luck, or whatever else that caused the plane to land without problems in the water, there's one thing that everyone must agree on, and that is the selfless heroism of the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger.

It appears that after the plane landed (and immediately started slowly sinking), he was the last person off the plane, and delayed leaving until he had done two walk-throughs in the cold dark interior of the plane, fastidiously checking that every passenger was safely off his plane.

That's real class.  He can fly me anywhere, anytime.

An interesting aside to the crash on Thursday.  I first found about about the crash from a Twitter user, and then went searching for news on the internet and couldn't find any.  And I, in turn, advised my Twitter followers of the event through a 'Tweet' - a Twitter message - too.  Twitterers (or is that Twitterees?) were first with the news.

My understanding and appreciation of Twitter is still evolving.  What is it? Here are a couple of examples - in the last week I've sent out a dozen or so tweets, including things like this :

Least likely excuse for cutbacks so far this year - 'Giving away free beer wasn't popular' - http://tr.im/5yqc

and

Latest eco-lunacy assertion : Googling is bad for the planet. http://tr.im/4hhc Still to come - living is bad for the planet?

Some of the things that do appear in the newsletter are foreshadowed in tweets during the week, too.  Joining Twitter is free and easy.  If you choose to join, you can then follow me - my id there is davidrowell.

Dinosaur watching :  Let's stay on a safety theme for a minute, and, yes, the concept definitely is a positive one of safety rather than danger in the air.  Here's a couple of reassuring statistics.  Every month in the US, there are over 700,000 plane flights.  There have been no fatalities - in the US - in either 2007 or 2008 - in round figures, none during the last 17 million flights, during which 1.5 billion passengers were carried.

Those are pretty good odds, aren't they.  Indeed, according to this article, you've more chance of becoming President of the United States than you do of dying on a flight in the US, Canada, Europe or Japan.

Hmmm - so my chances of dying increase, the more flights I take - I wonder if that means my chances of succeeding Mr Obama increase too, the more flights I take?

On the other hand, while it is wonderful that there have been no fatalities in the last two years, there have been accidents; but lucky accidents, like the one today, and the one three weeks ago where a plane ran off the runway in a failed takeoff at Denver.  Another example of a lucky escape was the BA 777 crash at Heathrow a year ago.  These are non-fatal accidents that could have become very fatal if things had gone slightly more wrong.

That's not to say that air travel is dangerous.  Walking to the mailbox or taking a bath is more dangerous than air travel in the US.  We are very fortunate, and should definitely see the statistics as giving us a glass much more than half full, rather than slightly empty.

Talking about the December Denver crash, the circumstances, such as have so far been made public, are puzzling and don't point to any obvious certain cause.  The NTSB is of course investigating, and has yet to release any significant findings.

But that hasn't prevented two of the passengers for deeming that the pilot negligently aborted the take-off.  They apparently have an inside scoop that no-one else does.  Needless to say, they're suing Continental Airlines.

And talking about suing airlines, during the major snow fall in Seattle before Christmas, one of the Alaska Airline jets inadvertently left its external air intakes open while it was being de-iced.  A white mist of de-icing fluid was sucked into the cabin and started coming out of the overhead vents - not very nice, and the 140 passengers had to abandon the plane.

A few passengers suffered from mild eye and respiratory irritation, but did not require medical care.

But now one of the passengers is suing Alaska Airlines, claiming she is suffering persistent headaches as a result of being exposed to the toxic ethylene glycol de-icing fluid.

Ethylene glycol is indeed toxic, and can also be found in automotive antifreeze.  But there's apparently a small weakness in this lady's law suit that may give her a bigger headache than those she's allegedly experiencing at present.

According to Alaska Airlines, no ethylene glycol was used by them.  They use propylene glycol, a substance considered so harmless that it is used in toothpaste and as a food additive (but, bizarrely, while 'generally recognized as safe' by the FDA for human food, its use is prohibited in cat food).

I'd mentioned before the strange situation in Canada where airlines are now obliged to give, for free, a second seat to people who need two seats (ie due to being obese).  The question remained, after the legal ruling, how to determine when a person needed a second seat and qualified for a free second seat.  Just how tight a fit do you have to suffer?

The airlines have now decided that this is a decision that only a doctor is qualified to make, and require people requesting an extra free seat to get a doctor's note to that effect.  The Canadian Medical Association has said that this puts undue pressure on doctors.

It is hard to know who to poke the greater fun at here.  The doctors, for claiming that this would put too much pressure on them?  Excuse me, but don't doctors deal with life and death issues on a daily basis?  Certifying a patient as qualifying for two seats on a flight shouldn't be any more stressful than giving them a sick-note to take time off work.

But are doctors really the competent authority here?  Does the average family doctor know the inner width/distance between arm rests on a standard airline seat?  Does he have a sizing template he will use, and some sort of force meter to see just how much discomfort is involved?  Does he realize some seats on some flights are wider than others?

Call me insensitive, but why can't airlines have 'sizing templates' for passengers?  This would be the fairest and most consistent approach.

There's some speculation that Ryanair might be considering operating charter flights between Dublin and Niagara Falls, NY, and apparently the airport has pitched a proposal to Ryanair (which almost certainly would involve the airport subsidizing Ryanair's costs and maybe paying it massive fees to fly there.

My best read on this - don't expect anything anytime soon.  Ryanair doesn't have the appropriate planes to sensibly fly between Dublin and Niagara Falls, and its occasional public mutterings about service to the US have always been very vague on details and timings, and involve such things as being able to buy cheaply second hand the planes it would need.

For sure, Niagara Falls is just the sort of place Ryanair might be attracted to, especially if it gets a very favorable deal from the airport, but I'm reasonably sure we'll not see them in the US this year.

My series on why airlines are shrinking last week was extraordinarily popular, and what was even more surprising was how many people appeared to carefully read all three parts of it.  It also got picked up and featured in The Economist's blog and newsletter, which brought in thousands more visitors.

I've now slightly updated it - October traffic numbers have now been released, and it seems my estimates were slightly too optimistic - the actual numbers were lower than I'd been guessing.  But this merely underlines my conclusions rather than contradicts them.

There are plenty of other things that could go into a fourth part of the series, and I'll briefly mention one right now.

The airlines say their declining passenger numbers are all to do with the crumbling economy.  So how then to explain the growth in cruising?  Princess Cruises just reported its best ever single day for new bookings, up 17% on its previous best day of writing new bookings.  As a whole, the cruise industry projects a 2.3% increase in passengers this year compared to last year.

Let's contrast some of the things airlines and cruise lines are doing.

Airlines are cutting back on flights.  Cruise lines are adding more ships.

Cruise lines are zeroing out their fuel surcharges from last year.  Airlines aren't.

Airlines are cutting back on the routes they fly.  Cruise lines are adding new itineraries.

Cruise lines pay full commissions to travel agencies.  Airlines don't.

Cruise lines have in some cases increased their commissions to travel agencies, and actively try to sell through travel agents.  Airlines have cut back and zeroed out their commissions to travel agents, and actively try to avoid them.

Oh, there's one more difference.  Cruise lines are consistently profitable.  Airlines aren't.

Do you see a pattern forming?

It isn't just the cruise lines that continue to enjoy increased business.  Eurostar - a direct competitor and alternative to airlines said that it carried an extraordinary 10.3% more passengers in 2008 than in 2007 - a number all the more credible because it had to operate a reduced schedule for an extended time after a fire in the tunnel in September.

One more distinctive thing about Eurostar.  Its trains arrive as scheduled 92.4% of the time.  Flights on the same routes have a 65.4% ontime arrival record.

Do you see a pattern forming?

Now, to look again at the ugly side of the airlines, here's an outrageous example of airline fee charging.  We know the airlines are nowadays running amok with the fees they charge, but here's a case of an airline that doesn't even know what the excuse for its $25 fee charge is.  What exactly is the passenger getting?  No-one at US Airways seemed to know or care, and their only advice to the passenger was to dispute the charge with his credit card company.  Details here.

Just in case air traffic does increase again (and it surely will), the UK government has finally approved, this week, a third runway at Heathrow.  This new runway, and a new Terminal 6, will allow Heathrow to increase its passenger handling capacity from its current 67 million or so (with overstressed facilities) up to a new design capacity of 115 million passengers.

It took five years from the first government paper proposing a third runway to its decision to proceed with it.  Now guess how long it will take to pour a bit of concrete, add a few taxiways, and get the runway operational?  Six months?

The hope is the runway will be in service in 2020 - 11 years from now.  And, I'll wager it will take even longer.

Meanwhile, the airlines continue to threaten their imminent demise as a bludgeon to bully regulators into giving them anything they ask for.  But do any of us really care if the dinosaurs die out or not?

The latest example of this is a warning from BA chairman Martin Broughton, who said that the Oneworld alliance may face collapse if a bilateral deal between BA and American Airlines is not approved.

The two airlines, hoping to get permission to 'coordinate fares and schedules' (a polite way of saying stop competing with each other), need anti-trust clearance due to their current dominant position across the Atlantic and at Heathrow.  They are currently on their third request for this anti-trust exemption, the last two having been refused, but they remain ever hopeful that sooner or later, they'll get lucky.

How would we as passengers would be harmed if Oneworld collapsed?  What would change?  Almost nothing.  BA and AA would still codeshare as much as they could get away with.  They'd still be enthusiastically partnered with and by Qantas wherever possible.  And the other carriers that make up the rest of Oneworld would still try to pick up as many scraps at the table as they could.  And so on and so on.

My request to the DoT and/or DoJ :  Call their bluff.  Don't give them an anti-trust exemption, and see what happens.  No matter what does or does not happen, we as travelers can only stand to benefit if you force these two airlines to, gulp, actually compete a little bit against each other.

A rose by any other name?  The answers.travel domain name has just sold for $3.3 million.  According to Alexa, it is ranked at the 4,794,770th most popular domain on the internet in terms of numbers of visitors.  By comparison, thetravelinsider.info is currently at number 76,087, and sometimes gets into the top 50,000 sites.

Who in their right mind would pay $3.3 million for an almost entirely overlooked domain name?  Please put the purchaser in touch with me - I'll certainly sell mine for that price, any day of the week!

The website claims to answer questions related to travel, although with the nonexistent traffic they get, I suspect they're not very busy doing much at all.  Perhaps I should have routed two very strange emails I got this week that were akin to asking 'How long is a piece of string'.

Julie wrote to me

Hello,
How much does a vacation cost? Because of your experience I was hoping you might be able to shed some light on the subject.
A little advice would go a long way right now.
Thanks.
Regards, Julie

and Kim wrote

Hi,
How much does it cost to take a vacation?
Since you have experience, I was hoping you could give me some clues as to what you look out for.
Please help me. Thank you for your help. Regards, Kim

I'm still wondering what would be the best answers to give these two people.  My guess is an elementary school gave their students some sort of assignment that prompted these two emails.  Yet again, an example that not everyone who can send an email should send an email.

Of course, I'm not seriously considering selling this domain or business (although $3.3 million can make anything serious very quickly), and one of the things that has always kept me here is the fact that I can't think what I'd do instead.

Until, that is, this week.  The perfect job is now being advertised in Australia.  Perhaps I shouldn't tell you about it, because anyone can apply (no need to worry about work visas - it is all being taken care of as part of the job).

The only drawback - it is only a six month posting; but for six wonderful months, you get paid $105,000 to do almost nothing except enjoy a life of leisure on the Great Barrier Reef, and doing a bit of blogging and publicity for Australia, Queensland, and the Great Barrier Reef Islands.  You also get free accommodation in a gorgeous villa, and lots and lots of sightseeing.

There's - of course - a website that explains the details.  But you may or may not be able to access it - the huge amount of interest from all around the world has caused it to crash several times.  www.islandreefjob.com

Here's an exciting new development in Italy.  Noting, no doubt, the enormous growth in river and canal cruising in Europe, Italy has decided to get a piece of that action, and will be reopening some of its medieval and renaissance waterways to allow craft to navigate 300 miles from Lake Maggiore to Venice via Milan.

The Italians want to eventually be able to navigate all of the 14th-century, 90 mile stretch of waterways from Locarno in Switzerland to Milan.  The canal system would eventually connect to the River Po and then to Venice.  Engineers are to start work on the first five miles from Lake Maggiore to Somma Lombardo shortly.

In total, the project will cost about $1.5 billion.  It is not thought the waterways will provide commercial freight carrying services, but will be for tourism.

Talking about Europe, I received Bob Bestor's (publisher of Gemutlichkeit) latest free newsletter earlier this week, and he's got some excellent advice about driving and car hire in Europe.  I hope he doesn't mind me simply copying and pasting his comments on three points (and I'll include his contact details to remove the sting of the plagiarism, and because he truly does have great rental car rates and wonderful service).

YOU'RE GOING TO NEED AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVER'S LICENSE Let's start with the "breaking news" as the CNN and Fox mouthpieces are so quick to label any Barack Obama sneeze or yawn. An international driver's license (IDL) is law in Germany and, as of last Monday, Europcar won't give you a rental car without one (please hold the emails telling us you just picked up a car yesterday without an IDL; this is new policy and may not be applied by every agent in every office - better safe than sorry). In addition, we know of two recent instances where Avis offices in Germany refused to rent cars to Americans not in possession of an IDL. With many European countries already requiring an IDL, we now strongly recommend that all North Americans who plan to drive a car on the Continent obtain an IDL prior to departure for Europe. According to our source in Germany, if you are stopped and don't have an IDL the cops have the power to deny permission to drive further. The license, which is a translation of your U.S. or Canadian license, is available for about $15 from most AAA offices. For more info call us at 800-521-6722 x 3.

WHY YOU SHOULD BOOK YOUR EUROPEAN RENTAL CAR ASAP The October/November surge in the dollar pushed guaranteed-in-U.S. dollars rental car prices down. Even though the dollar has sagged in recent weeks, for now those lower dollar-guaranteed rates remain, making January a great time to book your 2009 rental car. If prices go up you are locked-in to the current low rate. In the unlikely event they drop, you can cancel and rebook at the better rate. This is made possible by our policy of not charging for changes or cancellations. A one-week rental of a compact car in Germany is currently $233, including unlimited mileage, value added tax, and 3rd party insurance. Last summer that same car cost $256. (Get us to email you quote on a European car rental or, if you prefer, phone Andy at 800-521-6722 x 3).

ADDED INCENTIVE TO AVOID AIRPORT/RAIL STATION CAR RENTALS The cost to pick up a rental car at a German airport or rail station rises in 2009 from 19 percent to 20 percent. That's 20 percent of the total rental, including taxes. The compact car mentioned above for $233 will cost $280 at an airport or rail station. Please be aware that this fee applies only to rentals originating at airports and rail stations, meaning you can avoid the 20 percent fee by picking up off-airport/rail station and returning the car to an airport or rail station. Some countries charge a flat fee for these "premium station" pickups. In France, Spain and Great Britain, for example, these fees range from about $35 to $55. (Get us to email you quote on a European car rental or, if you prefer, phone Andy at 800-521-6722 x 3).

You can sign up for his Europe Travel Tips newsletter, for free, on his website.  The newsletter joining form is about halfway down on the right.  He's a straight shooter and his newsletters are excellent.

If your travel plans are to stay closer at home this year, consider Vegas.  Hotel rooms can now be had for less than $20/night, and airlines are regularly discounting their flights there.  Now if they'd just drop the price of the all-you-can-eat buffets back down to under $10 like in the 'good old days'....  More information here.

My comments about Blu-ray caused several people to point out to me this rather pessimistic article about the format and its future in the NY Times.

The article suggests that Blu-ray will be superseded by internet downloading of high definition movies.  I think this is wrong for two reasons.

The first is that buying a movie has always had an alternate rental type option.  Blockbuster Video, or Netflix, or whatever.  People buy movies because they are collectors, or as impulse purchases, or as gifts.  That will always be true.

The second is that I truly doubt if the internet has the bandwidth to enable people to download and watch, real time, high definition movies.  A high definition movie requires between about 18Mb/sec and 25Mb/sec of bandwidth.  Who has that much bandwidth coming into their home - and even if they did, the internet backbone itself, and all the other steps along the connection to your home, are not necessarily reliable.

Can you imagine how unpleasant it would be to settle in to enjoy your high definition movie, only to have it suddenly pause for 10 seconds until the internet speeds up again, and continue to stop and start all the way through?

By comparison, internet radio services, which are reliable but not always 100% reliable, typically use about 32kb - 96kb of bandwidth.  You can have up to about 700 music channels in the bandwidth it takes for one single HD video channel.  HD movies over the internet?  Maybe if you order one in the afternoon and plan to watch it in the evening.  But not if you expect to click on a title now and start watching it immediately.

Here's a much more upbeat article that claims Blu-ray sales are vastly higher, at this stage in the product life, than DVD sales were at a comparable point in their product life.  That is encouraging (for us Blu-ray enthusiasts) but I suspect it is a bit misleading, because it is doubtless counting all the Play Station 3 game playing units that include Blu-ray capabilities, even if they're primarily (or exclusively!) used for games rather than movie watching.

Worst case (or should that be best case) scenario is that real time HD movie delivery over the internet becomes more or less practical.  But it isn't going to be free.  I guess it will be somewhere between $5 and $20 to download an HD movie - especially with many of the internet service providers seeking to limit the amount of data we can download a month, and charge us extra for more data.  I pay $2/GB for data served from my webserver at present, and if this rate applied to residential downloading too, a typical two hour movie that was 12GB in size would cost $24 just to download, plus a royalty to the studio, and they're going to want perhaps $2 - 5/download, and a margin for the company providing the service.

Compare that to the dropping cost of Blu-ray discs - you can sometimes get a movie on Blu-ray for $10, other times for $15, and we all know that prices will drop as the format becomes more mainstream and popular.

So, which would you prefer?  To buy a movie to keep forever and play as often as you like on Blu-ray disc for, say, $15, or to download and watch it once for, say, $25?

Talking about buying things on the internet, taxes on internet purchases are moving inexorably closer to becoming a nationwide reality.  Details here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  There's one part of the airline industry that isn't shrinking at present.  The TSA.  Yes, passenger numbers and flights might be down 10%, but the TSA is staying at its present size, and is aggressively looking for ways to become more and more involved in more and more aspects of aviation.

Here's an article detailing what general aviation participants feel about the latest TSA moves to police/secure smaller and smaller planes and their flights, a move which threatens to make corporate and hire private flights almost as hassle filled as regular commercial flights.

Note in particular this quote from a pilot 'The imposition of this proposed regulation will, in fact, result in the terrorists’ objective of crippling our free society and profoundly altering our democratic way of life.'

With the departure of Mr Bush from the Presidency in a few days time, we all must agree on one thing about his presidency.  He took a sleepy complacent and vulnerable nation and hardened it so that, in the 7.5 years subsequent to 9/11/01, we suffered no more terrorist attacks of any description on our soil.  If you'd have asked any one of us, on 9/12/01, what we expected for the future, I don't think there was a single one of us that wasn't grimly accepting a future filled with additional terrorist attacks.

Does that excuse the TSA lunacies we all must suffer?  Are the TSA lunacies actually profoundly effective and sensible?  My own feeling is that the lack of terrorist attacks is due more to our actions elsewhere in the world, rather than to our successfully creating an impassable barrier that keeps terrorists out of the US, because we've clearly done no such thing.  But, whatever the situation, the bottom line is simple.  To our mutual surprise, and to what should also be to our mutual acclamation and appreciation, the outgoing President has kept us all safer than we ever expected, these last 7.5 years.  I sincerely - and selfishly - wish similar success on Mr Obama's watch.

Lastly, while many people are no doubt rightly thinking that the pilot of the plane that landed in the Hudson River yesterday should win some sort of 'pilot of the year' award, may I suggest another possible contender.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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