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Friday, 3 April, 2009  

Good morning

Well, last week I suggested celebrating the Dow's anticipated break through 8000 by joining the (now) 22 fellow readers who are traveling with me on our European Discovery Cruise this June/July.  I guess I shouldn't have said that, because a series of negative Dow days made 8000 seem increasingly distant, but then on Thursday this week, a rally carried us through 8000 before subsiding back down to 7978 at the end of the day.

So that's close enough, don't you think?  Please do consider joining what promises to be a lovely tour through a beautiful part of Germany (and optionally France and the Czech Republic too).

I was flying Alaska Airlines down to Las Vegas on Tuesday for the CTIA cell phone and wireless communications show.  Prior to pushback, we (in first class, I was the beneficiary of an MVP upgrade) were handed tiny plastic bottles of water.  Then, as the plane was taxiing, the flight attendant came back through the cabin and told us we had to stow our water bottles for take-off.

Okay, no major drama.  Except that he told us, as we obediently stuffed the bottles into the seat back pocket in front of us, that the FAA bans water bottles from being placed there for take-off or landing.  He told us they can be placed on the floor (where they'd roll all around the cabin, of course), but not in the seat pocket.

You might think this silly, but trivial.  However, what makes it completely stupid comes next.  He then looked over to the passengers on the other side of the aisle and pointed to one of their seat pockets, which had a much larger personal nalgene water bottle in it.  He said 'You can stow your own water bottle in the seat pocket okay, but not our (small) water bottle'.

He then had the good grace to laugh at this regulatory nonsense, and didn't enforce the FAA's peculiar policy.

Las Vegas may indeed be suffering a massive collapse in visitor numbers, but it sure didn't feel that way to me.  Both my flights to and from Vegas were overbooked, and there was a terrible 40 minute wait for a cab at the airport (and that was for a Tuesday late morning arrival - hardly a peak time of day, surely).  (A tip if time is valuable and the taxi line long - go to the other side of the terminal and take a limo to your hotel instead.  You'll pay maybe $30 or more above the cost of a taxi, but if the 40 minutes time saved is worth that to you, then that is a great option to consider.)

Even my hotel room rate had increased by a massive 15% from the last time I stayed there, about one month previously.  On the other hand, it is hard to complain too much when the 15% increase is merely from $22/night to $25/night!

I continue to like staying at the Sahara when attending a convention.  Sure, it is a dreary hotel with little else to recommend it, but it has two massive things in its favor.  Firstly - the rate!  Why pay literally hundreds of dollars more to stay at one of the 'name' hotels on the strip when your time in your room is limited to sleeping and little more than that, and when the difference between a $250/night room elsewhere and a $25/night room at the Sahara is surprisingly minor.  I've also stayed at name brand hotels, including a suite at the Venetian (currently costing more than $250/night), and when you ignore some of the frippery and glitz, the actual functional parts of the room - the bed and the bathroom - are pretty much the same.  If you're going for a romantic break, or seeking to impress someone, you'll do better at the Venetian for sure, but if you're just going to a trade show, consider this - the tax on the suite at the Venetian is more than the total cost of the room at the Sahara!

The other reason I like the Sahara is convenience.  Yes, it is at one end of the main strip, but it is right next to a monorail station.  That makes it brilliantly easy and inexpensive to travel between the hotel and the convention center (which has a monorail station too).  A short ride costing $5 (or a day pass for $13) sure beats the hassle of waiting for a taxi (see comment above about the 40 minute airport wait!), the slower journey time in a taxi, and the much greater cost.  The convenience of the monorail also means I sometimes break my convention days in two, with a return to the hotel at lunchtime to empty out my by-then full bag of literature and materials and to get some lunch, then return back again for the afternoon.

Several other hotels have monorail stations along the strip as well, but beware of hotels which claim to be at a monorail station but which are actually on the other side of the road (such as Caesar's Palace), or some distance from the actual station.  Assuming your convention is hosted at the convention center (or at a hotel with a monorail stop) then choosing a hotel that is very close to a monorail stop is a big plus.

Another advantage of the Sahara is that for CES and other mega-conventions, when even the monorail is operating at maximum capacity, the short leg between the Convention Center and the Sahara is usually almost empty - nearly everyone travels from the Convention Center to the main stops in the other direction.

One more thing I noticed with wry interest.  I saw flight crews from Delta and another unidentified airline at the hotel - gone are the days when flight crews stayed at some of the finest hotels in town.

One last thing about the Sahara, and all the other hotels on that side of the strip.  It pays to tell the taxi driver 'take me along Paradise' when going to hotels on that side of the strip.  Otherwise they may try and do an elaborate end run around the strip via the I-15 freeway - it is arguably a little faster, but is much longer and your fare will be much higher.

There was a very Vegas feel to one part of the show; an evening event showcasing some of the products, for members of the press only.  In past years one of the attractions of this event has been the great food and drink provided.  This year, the food was a pale shadow of its former self - for example, instead of a lovely large slab of prime rib being carved up onto bread rolls, there was a loaf of pressed ham being sliced and put onto plates with nothing else.  But - underscoring the Vegas ethic, perhaps - the open bars were as generous as ever, with a broad range of top brand spirits as well as beers and wine.

As for the show itself, it continues to amaze me how three different factors are massively changing our lives, almost without us realizing it.  These three factors are the internet, GPS, and wireless voice/data service.

A cell phone these days is - potentially - so much more than just a device to send and receive calls on.  Perhaps one of the best examples of the combined potential of these three technologies is a new application for tourists.  Point your phone at something, and you'll be given information about what you're pointing your phone at.  The phone knows from its internal compass and GPS where you are and what you are pointing at, and it accesses from the internet information about whatever you're pointing at and displays it on your screen.  Amazing.

Another example is the growing number of shopping comparison services.  Use your phone's camera to scan a product bar code in a store, and you'll be told about other nearby locations that also sell the product, and at what price, as well as online merchants too.  Again, amazing.

Two factors are fueling the growth in location (ie GPS) based services.  The first is the increasing ability of a phone to work out approximately where it is by triangulating its location from nearby cell phone towers, even if it doesn't have GPS.  The second is the increasing sophistication of the increasingly miniaturized GPS receivers in the phones.  I saw a new chip at the show that can receive 50 GPS signals simultaneously (an incredible number when you think there are not even 50 satellites in the sky, and typically never more than 12 or so visible) and with extraordinary sensitivity.  It was locked on to eight satellites inside the convention center (by contrast, my phone's GPS could not receive any satellites at all indoors).

The most unusual device that I saw at the show was possibly this - a classic phone handpiece such as you'd find on a traditional low-tech landline phone, but which you plug in to your cell phone to talk on.  High tech meets low tech?

The most useful device is something that I've been bemoaning the lack of for years - a clever gadget that provides a way to carry your Bluetooth headset with you, other than on your ear all the time or in your pocket.  I'll be reviewing the two slightly different versions of this product in full, perhaps next week.  Suffice it to say I'm delightedly using one myself now.

One other thing I noticed.  For the last few years it has become increasingly common for companies to distribute press kits on USB flash drives (previously they used CDroms).  And while the size of the materials in an electronic press kit remains small (a few megabytes) the capacity of the flash drives is getting larger and larger.  This year several companies were giving away 2GB drives.  Amazing.

By coincidence, I had updated my review about USB Flash Drives last week.  When I first reviewed them in March 2004, I recommended a 256 MB drive costing $50-60 as being the 'sweet spot' in pricing.  Five years later, I'm recommending either an 8GB or 16GB drive, both of which now cost much less than the 256MB drive did back then.  In these five years, the amount of storage you get for $50-60 has increased about 70 fold.  It has been more than doubling every year.  One more time - amazing.

Perhaps the most exciting new use for this type of removable memory is in video cameras.  No longer do you need to bother with video tape.  And don't buy a camcorder with a hard disk built in.  Instead, choose a camera that uses removable memory cards (best choice being the SDHC memory cards) and record your video onto memory cards.  This will give you much longer battery life in the camcorder, because there are no moving parts to power for recording/playing back the video, and allows you to store your video onto a much more compact form of storage.

I hope you found the first two articles in my new series on London's five airports helpful last week.  The overview articles last week will be supplemented by a series of airport-specific more detailed pages, the first of which I'll release this week.  I don't intend to stretch this over a series of five weeks, one airport per week, but having been distracted by being out of town for three days, one airport is all I had time for this week.  Happily, I chose the biggest and most important one to start with, and so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Heathrow Airport :  It may be the best known airport in the world, but it surely isn't the best loved.  My factfile on LHR will help you get around the airport and between it and London with the least amount of aggravation.

A small request.  If you think there is other helpful information about Heathrow I could include on this page, please let me know what else you'd like me to add.  I do want it to be a helpful guide and reasonably self-contained.

My comment about pilots last week predictably aroused some heated response from pilots.

To be fair, I do indeed 'feel their pain' - no matter how you dress these things up, and whether you be earning $20,000 a year or $20,000 a month, it is hard for anyone to see their income slashed by 30% or more, and benefits and future entitlements (ie pensions) also reduced or even eliminated.  One sets one's life style and expectations to match one's income, and a 30% or greater cut in income causes massive lifestyle changes.

I've even argued on the side of the pilots in the past, pointing out the terrible inequity of suddenly finding your future pension rights have disappeared.  That is, and always will be, colossally unfair.  If an airline makes a deal with its employees, be they pilots or baggage handlers, then it needs to stick with that deal.  Sure, change things for future employees, but don't jerk the rug out from underneath employees who have built up their lives in the expectation that the airline would honor the obligations it voluntarily assumed on behalf of its staff.

But, to still be fair, having been paid inappropriately high sums in the past does not justify a continuation of such pay rates into the future, especially for new hires.  Furthermore, comparisons between what pilots earn and what surgeons earn (as was advocated by a couple of pilots who wrote in) leave me unmoved.

While it is typical union negotiating to try and 'catch a free ride' off some other group of workers, somewhere else (and I'm a former union official, and I used that technique for all it was worth back then, too) I do not accept that whatever a surgeon earns should have any bearing on what a pilot earns, any more than it should have any bearing on what a street cleaner earns, or what you or I earn (unless, of course, you're a surgeon!).

Two particularly interesting comments.  One from the former pilot who said that in days now long since past, a quick rule of thumb was that, for many years, a pilot's monthly salary was consistently the same as the cost of a new Cadillac.  I checked - an entry level CTS sedan is the least expensive Cadillac currently available, and its starting price is $36,560.  This as a monthly salary would equate to $438,720 a year, and certainly shows how the relativity of pilot pay levels and their spending power has slipped.

The other comment, from a pilot who, if I'm understanding him correctly is probably earning $150 - $170k, is

If I sound bitter, I am, I invested a lot my profession. I donít enjoy subsidizing the traveling public out of my pocket.

His six figure salary, plus benefits, etc, represents a subsidy to the traveling public?  That perception is so far removed from any possible version of reality that the rest of us understand as to make it impossible to rebut.  Suffice it to say that there I was, all these years, thinking the money we paid for our tickets flowed, in part, to the pilots and their wages, but apparently I'm wrong.  He is instead subsidizing us.

Oh - and his answer to what other job he could get that would pay as well?  Although he still has 15 years of possible flying time, he is taking early retirement instead so as to protect his pension.  So his 'investment' in his profession has repaid him handsomely - he has a job that is currently paying him about $160k a year with a broad range of benefits, a job which has probably paid him even more than that in the past, and a job which allows him to now walk away and retire at age 50.

So, do you understand exactly what it is this guy is complaining about?  Most of the people in this country would love to have such a job and such an 'investment'.

The best answer to my last week question about finding an alternate high paying job for pilots and other people who don't necessarily have many qualifications outside a specialized field came from Lynn :  Become a Congressman.  Wonderful pension plan, great perks and benefits, far from onerous hours, and a base salary of $168,000 (in 2007, probably more now).

An interesting example of the wrong-headed negotiating by both the pilots and an airline is the announcement this week of an agreement between Southwest Airlines and its pilots.  The airline has promised its pilots that it will increase the number of planes it operates in 2011 and 2012 as part of a new contract.

That is a bit like General Motors promising its unions that it will increase the number of autos it manufactures.  As it happens, GM's unions have never been as stupid as to insist on that (but with their job banking, they probably don't care!), and the ability to grow or shrink to meet the needs of the market is surely a management prerogative that must be kept by the company, not given away and locked into a union contract.

However, Southwest, which had 537 planes at the end of 2008, and which projects to have 535 by the end of this year, has promised to grow to 541 planes by the end of 2011 and 568 planes by the end of 2012, representing 5% annual growth.

Perhaps the worst part of getting such an uncalled for concession from the airline is the potential for the pilots to have one more thing to complain about in the future if Southwest breaks that agreement.

Interesting goings on at Air Canada.  CEO Monte Brewer was apparently ousted by the airline's board on Monday night, and he has been replaced by Calin Rovinescu, an executive who has experience in Chapter 11 type corporate restructurings.  The airline lost about US$800 million last year and currently has a huge US$2.55 shortfall in its pension funding, and has about US$4.3 billion in other debt, as of the end of last year.  More details here.

This move follows a statement last month by UBS analyst Fadi Chamoun, who said Air Canada could be forced to file for bankruptcy protection if it does not secure additional financing and succeed in renegotiating covenants in credit card agreements.

If Air Canada does enter bankruptcy again, this would be the second time in six years.

In other Canadian news - and a development that is hardly a positive turn for AC, Canada has now created a similar 'Open Skies' agreement to that now in place between the US and EU.  This will basically allow any European carrier to fly between any European city and Canada, instead of only from cities in their home country, and will take effect later this year.  It is expected to boost air travel between Canada and Europe by about 40%, as a result of greater competition between airlines.  Details here.

On the other hand, similar lofty expectations after the US/EU agreement have yet to translate into much tangible boost in traffic or benefit to us as passengers.  Yes, airfares are wonderfully low at present, but that's more a result of the hard economic times than of any tangible increase in competition.

Air France has announced it will be adding a Premium Economy cabin on its services between Paris and New York, Tokyo, and Osaka.  Passengers will get dedicated check-in desks, priority boarding, and more generous checked bag allowances.

Air France is joining a slow but definite trend by airlines to adding a Premium Economy service to their flights.  Although often referred to as a fourth cabin, my feeling is that what we're seeing is that first class is now being replaced by business class, and premium economy is replacing the previous business class.

Interestingly, if you think back perhaps 20 years, today's business class is as good or better as first class was then, and premium economy is comparable to what business class was.

Talking about Air France, 'If you can't beat them, join them' might be its motto.  The airline is in talks with Germany Railways (Deutsche Bahn) and European rail freight operator Veolia about starting a competing passenger train service through the Channel Tunnel.  In January 2010 Eurostar will lose its monopoly rights on that service, and other train operators will be able to offer services too.

That would be a very positive development for us all.  More train services, and inevitably lower fares too.

Here's an interesting article about how some corporate travel departments are experiencing varying degrees of success in attempting to negotiate lower baggage fees for their travelers.

Bird strikes and the effects on planes when they hit birds are getting more attention now, after the bird strike that caused the US Airways plane to land in the Hudson.  But the FAA has decided to make its bird strike records secret, saying that the information, if released, might mislead the public.  The FAA has also shown little interest in making bird strike incidents something that must be reported.

Details of this strange situation here.  What does the FAA have to hide?

Good news for the Type A's among us.  Look for more planes being equipped with Wi-Fi.  Yes, you'll pay money for the service, but - assuming you have a first class seat with room to conveniently work on your laptop, who wouldn't pay $12.95 for two or three or more hours of online access?

Working on a plane reminds me of the benefit of the 3M Privacy Filter - a screen you fit over your laptop screen and which restricts viewing to only people directly in front of the screen.  I reviewed it back in 2003, and saw them at the show earlier this week - still the same as ever, and of even more value to those of us who use our laptops in public places.

Here's an interesting article with a lesson for the US.  London is launching a new $2.9 million international marketing campaign to boost overseas visitors.

In return for not quite $3 million of advertising, the campaign is expected to bring almost $90 million of benefits to the London economy by the end of this year alone.  Yes, each dollar in advertising is bringing in $3 of value.

And if you think that is good, how about the now completed $881,000 marketing campaign that brought $10 million to London - an elevenfold return on investment.

Don't you think the US should spend a bit more on promoting itself internationally.  Couldn't our airlines, our hotels, our rental car companies, our restaurants, and everyone/everything else, benefit from a boost in activity?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  After a delay described as 'hours long', a 60 yr old passenger on a Delta flight stuck on the ground at JFK got fed up, so opened an emergency exit to leave the plane.  He was arrested on the ground, and has been charged with reckless endangerment and criminal tampering, and could face up to a year in prison if convicted.

I guess the Queens district attorney who proudly announced this on Monday has never been stuck on a plane.

Let's hope the passenger counter-sues Delta for illegal imprisonment and the laundry list of other torts that any good attorney can think up at the drop of a hat.

Also stuck on a plane was this person - a baggage worker who apparently fell asleep while loading baggage into a plane, and woke up to find the plane in mid-air.  Fortunately, it was a pressurized hold, so he survived his journey.  If you read the article, you'll see that this is not the only time such an event has occurred.

Note to airlines - never mind matching bags to passengers.  How about counting your own baggage handlers, too?

April Fools Day saw some good jokes on the internet.  Here's one of my favorites - the Swiss clean their mountains for the benefit of tourists.  And here's a roundup of travel fool stories that are, alas, seriously true rather than jokes.

Lastly this week, here's a story that is apparently not an April Fools Day joke, but rather a sad reflection on what happens when idiots interpret union awards.  And in my own country of NZ, no less.  Whereas in the past, employees would stagger their meal breaks, the new law apparently requires all air traffic control staff to have their breaks at the same time, meaning the control tower has no-one manning it for 30 - 45 minutes at a time, twice a day.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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