Version of Newsletter] [Newsletter
Archives] [Advertising Info] [Website Home Page] [Please Donate Here]
Friday, 3 April, 2009
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
week predictably aroused some heated response from pilots.
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 -
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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