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Friday, 10 April, 2009
Easter approaches, and the last week,
delightfully spent in the company of my 4.5 year old daughter, has
involved a growing intensity of excited discussions about Easter Eggs, Easter
bunnies, and all the related nonsense we associate with this strange
festival. I say 'strange' because, as anyone who can count up to
three presumably already knows, the one proof that Jesus offered the
world that he was indeed the true Messiah - that he would die, be dead
for three days and three nights, and then rise again - is rather negated
by the time period between Easter Friday and Easter Sunday. No
matter how hard I try and count it, this comes to only two days and two
But that's even more off topic than the
occasional political aside, isn't it. In case you care, I am
a Christian, although puzzled by the Friday/Sunday Easter
Not nearly so complicated or controversial
is the topic of this week's article, which is all about something
very simple and elegant. I mentioned last week that I'd uncovered
a wonderful device that neatly and simply resolves a problem that besets
all of us with Bluetooth headsets - how to carry the headset when not on
I've never been sure if the somewhat
ridiculous and definitely self-important looking people who walk around
with BT headsets permanently in their ear do this because they are
expecting nonstop phone calls, or just because they don't know where
else to put the headset between calls. As for me, the unresolved
challenge of what to do with the headset became such a hassle that I
simply gave up carrying it entirely, preferring to stuff a regular wired
headset in my pocket, and rely on a Bluetooth speaker phone setup in the
The chances are that if you too have a BT
headset, you've had a similar challenge.
At last, great news for us all. Which
leads to the two pages which comprise :
This Week's Feature Column :
Headset Holders : I love my Bluetooth headset, but have never
known where or how to carry it, other than stupidly (and uncomfortably!)
stuck in my ear. Until now. This week I reveal
a range of inexpensive devices ($15-30) designed to give you a simple
solution to the problem of carrying your headset.
Dinosaur watching : A Tale of
Two Airlines. Air Canada, thought by some to be a possible
candidate for another bankruptcy filing, reported a 13.1% drop in
passenger traffic (RPMs) in March compared to the same month last year.
Sure, last year included Easter in March,
and this year didn't, and of course, the economy is down. But
don't tell that to the folks at AC's competitor, Westjet, who reported a
0.6% increase in their RPMs for March.
Could there be some other reason for this
enormous disparity in performance between Canada's two leading
In other Air Canada news, their new CEO is
considering possibly removing some of its fees. Air
Canada's much vaunted 'A la carte' fares, where basically you pay more
for just about everything, have not proven as popular as Westjet's fares
which feature fewer surcharges and extra costs. Fancy that - what
The DoT rolls over again.
Continental has been given permission to join the Star Alliance with
antitrust immunity to apply to CO and its Star partners and for CO's
proposed trans-Atlantic 'joint venture' with AC, UA and LH. The
joint venture is to be called 'Atlantic Plus-Plus' (gack!) and the
four carriers applied for antitrust immunity to act as a single carrier
for international flights, sharing their planes, their sales and
marketing, and their revenue.
If you've any ideas at all about how
allowing these four very different carriers to act as one will benefit
us as travelers and encourage rather than reduce competition, then the
chances are you work for the DoT. Because, for sure, it seems
glaringly obvious to me that the exact opposite will occur.
In other Continental news, CO has been
voted Best Airline in North America in the Skytrax 2009 World
Airline awards. And Fortune magazine named the airline the No. 1
World's Most Admired Airline on its 2009 list of World's Most Admired
Companies. Congratulations to Continental.
Talking about competition across the
Atlantic, the tough economic times have prompted an extraordinarily
generous offer from British Airways. They have a short term
sale on business class fares - between now and midnight Tuesday 14th -
between all their US and Canadian gateways and London. Prices -
including fuel surcharges, but not government taxes - start as low as
$2078 from JFK, and that is roundtrip. Okay, it is still a lot
more than a discounted coach class fare, but it is massively less than
you'd normally pay for business class.
The discount fares are good for travel
between 30 May and 2 September, with no blackout dates, but various
limitations and fine print applies.
Why not use this to springboard yourself in
style to London, then take Eurostar over to Paris and join us for our
Europe's Heartland Cruise this
In slightly less positive news, a
potential class action against BA by US passengers complaining about the
airline losing their bags has passed another hurdle as it slowly
moves forward. Some interesting facts and figures about BA's bag (mis)handling
record can be seen in
And in slightly sad news, it seems that the
one Concorde that BA kept, ostensibly to display at Heathrow, may
be instead sold and sent to Dubai. My
analysis of the untruths and real reason why BA (and Air France) stopped
flying their Concordes remains a sad reminder of a once glorious
mode of air travel.
It is rather surprising, however, that Dubai
is currently investing in much at all. Here's an
eye-opening revelation of the tough times in
Dubai that I tweeted
earlier this week.
One last BA item. Perhaps British
Airways should rename itself 'Mainly British et un peu Français too
Airlines'. BA's subsidiary, Openskies, which in turn bought
out a competing French airline, L'Avion, has now fully eliminated the
last traces of the L'Avion brand (Openskies earlier told me it planned
to keep the L'Avion brand - it seemed a stupid idea at the time and one
which of course didn't last long).
But Openskies itself has now moved to be
headquartered in, gasp, Paris, and its airline operating certificate
is from France, not Britain.
I'd mentioned a few weeks back about a
competition being operated by Ryanair, offering a €1,000 cash prize
for the most innovative or amusing new fee they could charge
passengers. Their competition apparently attracted 12,000
suggestions (including more than a dozen from me!) and they've now
prepared a short list of their top five contenders for the prize.
You're welcome to go vote for your favorite
of the five, and the winner will get the €1,000 shortly after voting
closes next Friday. Details
Ryanair operates some flights from London's
Luton airport, and perhaps the airport itself has become infected
with 'fee-mania'. It is now proposing to charge a £1 fee for
cars that drop off passengers. They also charge for luggage carts,
for plastic bags to put your liquids in when going through security (if
you forgot to bring your own), and a £3 fee to use a priority lane
Easyjet also operates from Luton, and
while they're not quite as renowned for their fees as Ryanair, they've
come up with what must surely be a new low. They have told their
crews to bring their own coffee, tea, and other beverages with them
rather than to help themselves to the airline's beverage carts.
They will however be allowed to use the plane's hot water for free.
Lastly on fees, here's some good news.
The Dutch government has discontinued its 'Eco Tax' on air tickets.
The tax of between €11 and €45 per ticket on flights out of Holland was
predicted to generate €300 million a year in extra revenue. In
actual fact, it caused a loss of about €1.1 billion, because potential
passengers chose to either take a high speed train (with no taxes) or
travel a short distance to an airport in adjacent Belgium or Germany and
fly from there.
Apparently even giving this new fee the
politically correct name of 'Eco Tax' wasn't enough to encourage the
Dutch to feel good about paying it.
Don't you wish we had a similar option in
the US to quickly hop across a border and leave our fees behind?
Well, I guess I could drive up to Vancouver, but Canada's as awash in
fees as the US.
Talking about cutbacks, here's a wonderful
piece of Orwellian doublespeak. Disney has announced the
loss of 1900 jobs at its domestic theme parks.
Now you might think that with 1900 fewer
staff at the theme parks, lines would get longer, trash would be
collected less frequently, and service standards would unavoidably
drop. Apparently, if you think that, you'd be wrong.
Disney says that the cuts are essential to maintaining leadership in
I wonder what their view of 'leadership'
And some more good news. With the
reduced number of flights last year,
airline performance generally improved.
But talking about an 'improvement'
doesn't mean that things are now good. Here's a
story of a judge ruling that airlines are under no legal obligation
to provide passengers with a stress free environment, finding American
Airlines not liable for keeping passengers on a plane for 9.5 hours on
the ground, with overflowing toilets and little or no food and water.
And here's a
article from the Christian Science Monitor, revealing how the
airlines had uncovered and exploited a loophole allowing them to
under-report the number of flights with lengthy ground delays.
Let's end this topic with two vastly
different stories. Firstly this
tale of the horrors suffered by a United Airlines passenger.
And, to close on a high note, this came in
from reader Steve
I was flying from Johannesburg to Sydney on Qantas
QF64 last month. The
flight pushed back on time at 18:10 from JNB. As soon as the safety
briefing was done, the pilot announced there was a problem with one of
the engines and we would have to return to the gate.
We got to the gate,
and were kept informed as to what was going on every 10 mins by both the
pilot, and the highly entertaining cabin director. After an hour, they
deplaned us, advising that the fuel pump to engine 3 had failed, and
they were sourcing one within South Africa. Food and drinks were
provided by showing our boarding pass at a restaurant in the airport. The cabin director continued to keep us informed, across the entire
airport. We finally departed five and a half hours late, with a new fuel pump installed.
I knew I'd missed my connection from
Sydney to Melbourne, but had no concerns as
the flights are at least hourly between the two cities. Upon landing in
Sydney, we picked up envelopes at the gate prior to immigration advising
what had happened, complete with a big apology, and instructions on what to do next. Inside the envelope was a confirmed reservation at the
nearby Novotel in
Brighton Beach, a confirmed reservation for my flight in the morning,
two cab-charge vouchers to get a taxi to/from the airport/hotel, and
instructions that we were allowed to eat for free in the hotel
restaurant OR free room service, plus breakfast the next morning and $30
worth of phone calls from the hotel room!!
Needless to say, I was very
impressed. I fly to and in the US a lot, and although have been delayed
there many times, have never received such generous inconvenience
packages. I ended up getting home to Melbourne just 13 hours late, and
more refreshed because of my night in Sydney than I normally do when I
get home direct.
Not bad huh? But wait, there's more. A week later, I get a letter in the
mail from Qantas. There is another apology about the QF64 delay, PLUS (by
way of apology) a $400 MCO for use on future QF flights/holidays!
I was astounded by this voluntary generosity, and have happily just
booked a flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles on Qantas.
Qantas is very profitable, even though it
is also very generous. United, on the other hand, is neither
profitable nor generous. I wonder which airline has the better
policy - both from a customer facing perspective and a financial return?
If you're read my last two newsletters, you'll have noticed that I have
dared to take issue with the suggestion that pilots should be paid way
more than they are currently earning, in the interests of greater flight
safety (and greater pilot pay packets), thereby arousing the ire of many
of the pilot readers of this newsletter. And, arousing the ire of
many non-pilot readers as well who now venerate him as a saintly
ultra-hero, I've dared to question whether the fact
that Captain 'Sully' Sullenberger's feat in safely landing his A320 in
the Hudson River back on 15 January now qualifies him to lecture his
airline employer as to its management practices.
Although in the first rush of reporting, minutes and hours after the
crash landing, I too subscribed to the
'Sully is a hero' line, you'll note I preceded that comment with an
ambivalence as to whether his water landing was actually hard or easy
For me, the most difficult part of the entire process was not the
landing, but rather the nearly instant command decision/judgment call
that Sully made to head for the Hudson, rather than follow the gentle
suggestions of Air Traffic Control to try for Teterboro or Newark
airports. That was a very difficult decision to make, with almost
no time to make the decision, and little margin for error if he got it
He made the right decision for two reasons. The first reason was
that there was no doubt he could glide the plane to the Hudson, the only
doubt was how easy/difficult/survivable it would be to land the plane on
the river. On the other hand, there was grave doubt about his
ability to glide the plane as far as any of the various airport
alternatives, and if he got it wrong, he risked not only a certain crash
of the plane, but also potentially substantial casualties to people on
the ground as well.
The second reason was that the decision truly was right.
Enthusiasts subsequently recreated the exact scenario - airplane type,
height, location, and speed - and tested the feasibility of all the
different courses of action after the engines failed. None of the
other airports proved to be reachable.
This, to my mind - the decision to land in the Hudson - was the real
magic of Sully's flying.
But back to the actual landing. Easy or difficult? Simple or complex? I
wanted to know the answer to that, and so I decided to do some computer
modeling myself – which is a fancy way of saying that I blew the dust
off a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator and loaded it onto a computer.
Don’t laugh – MS Flight Simulator is actually a very sophisticated and
accurate simulation of what real planes do, and is the program used by
the other researchers in testing out the alternate airport scenarios.
My version didn’t have an A320 plane profile, but it did have a 737,
which is reasonably similar, and so I tried landing with that.
To my surprise, the first time I tried, I safely landed the engines-out
737 in the water. But then I noticed the simulation had a ‘no crash
landing’ option selected! Trying several more times, with the most
ultra-realistic and demanding settings all maxed out gave me a not quite
50% safe water landing rate, which I actually thought to be very good,
considering that it is probably harder to fly a simulator (less sensory
inputs and feedback than in a real plane) and that I didn’t have any of
the ‘facts and figures’ about what to do to optimize a no power water
But this still didn’t really answer my question –
was Sully’s landing a
magnificent feat of extraordinary skill, or was it ‘all in a day’s work’
and something any typically skilled average pilot could similarly do?
So imagine my delight at encountering a column on Thursday from
co-pilot Patrick Smith in which he talks about Sully’s feat. He says :
Actually, gliding into the river was probably a lot easier than gliding
to an airport. Sully had the benefit of a 12-mile long runway of water
and didn't have to worry about crashing short or running out of room.
His discussion starts about a third of the way down
this page and continues on to the first part of the second page of
I understand also Patrick’s envy at learning about
Sully now having
signed a two book contract with a major book publisher. (I’ve reviewed
Patrick’s own book, ‘Ask the
Pilot’ and will look forward to reading and possibly reviewing
Sully's book/s too when they appear) but I don’t think his comments now
are motivated by sour grapes.
My feeling is and remains that it has generally suited the pilots’
unions purposes to make out that Sully is a pilot extraordinaire and
that if we don’t (continue to?) pay over the odds for pilots, we’ll be
confronted with inadequate pilots who can’t fly so well in the future,
putting us all, as passengers, at greater risk of experiencing a crash.
(On the other hand, the risk of being in a fatal air crash is so low -
about one in 40 million per flight - that one could perhaps argue that a
moderate elevation in this risk would still see us safely live our full
lives, no matter how frequent a flier we may each be, with no danger of
being an airplane crash fatality!).
Bottom line – it is refreshing to see a pilot publicly break ranks with
his colleagues and offer a different version of reality for our
consideration. Thank you, Patrick.
Do you still think or hope the US leads the world in terms of
technological innovation and acceptance?
That's not really been
the consistent case for quite some time, with the US only now starting
to catch up with the rest of the world in cell phone technologies.
And when it comes to internet connectivity - surely something the US
would be on the forefront of,
this article paints a distressing picture about how we are paying
too much and getting too little in return, compared to other countries.
Talking about cell phones, if you're considering treating yourself to an
iPhone 3G, you might want
to wait. It seems almost certain that there'll be a new version of
Apple's iconic phone released this June - indeed, there may possibly
even be two new versions added. Look for the new phone to
have a 3.2 megapixel camera instead of the current 2 megapixel camera,
plus the ability for video conferencing (which may require two cameras -
the main high quality one on the camera's back plus a lower quality one
on the front for videoconferencing. Video editing is also hoped
for, and there are reliable industry leaks suggesting an even higher
resolution 5 megapixel camera is due soon too.
In addition, it is thought the higher end of
the two models will have longer battery life and more powerful computing
Happy belated birthday to Gmail.
This paradigm changing free email service launched on 1 April 2004, and
it was so extravagantly better/more generous than the two market leaders
(Yahoo and Microsoft) that some people thought it to be an April Fool's
Day joke. The other two services limited their free mail services
to no more than 10MB of storage, and Yahoo would allow an upgrade to
100MB for a $50/year charge. Google launched with 1GB of free
storage, and these days offers more than 7GB. Both Yahoo and
Microsoft have massively upgraded their free products in response.
I remember that in the early days, Google
was limiting its email service to only small blocks of people at a time,
and getting an invitation for a Gmail account was a highly prized
treasure - so much so that I successfully raised quite a lot of funding
for the website by selling some bulk blocks of invitations I'd been
These days anyone can sign up for Gmail, and
selling invitations is not only pointless but also banned by Google.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
I really can't decide which of these two to make the featured story for
the week, so we have two 'first equal' horrors.
Firstly, an Ohio man returning from Mexico
found himself suffering from an attack of, ahem, 'Montezuma's Revenge'
on his Delta flight. As you know, if so afflicted, you have very
little ability to patiently wait your turn to get to a restroom.
He got up, only to find the aisle blocked by a beverage cart. The
flight attendants refused to help him squeeze past, and also refused to
allow him to go forwards to the business class restroom instead, lying
to him that it was an FAA policy that passengers only use the restrooms
for their class of service.
He returned to his seat, but after waiting a
few minutes absolutely could not wait any longer. The aisle to the
back of the plane was still blocked, so he had no choice (well, he did
have a choice, but we don't want to think what the alternative would be)
but to rush into the business class restroom. In doing so he had
some type of altercation with a business class flight attendant - the
stories differ on that.
After doing what he had to do, he returned
to his seat and thought no more about things, only to find himself
arrested upon landing. He spent two nights in jail (so far) and
has been charged with assault.
Well done, Delta. You refuse your
passengers the smallest bit of courtesy in a 'medical emergency' and
then bring assault charges after your stupid passenger-hating flight
attendants get in an unnecessary altercation with a passenger.
What did you expect or want the man to do? Shit explosively all
over the airplane's seats and carpet?
Tying for first place with this is the St
Louis TSA officers who harassed a passenger trying to go through airport
security while carrying $4700 in cash. Let's understand two
important things up front - there's no law against carrying $4700 in
cash with you when flying anywhere - indeed, if you're flying
internationally, you don't need to disclose any sums of less than
$10,000. And, secondly, money is not a dangerous weapon. You
can't assault a passenger or take over a plane with cash. Money is
not on the TSA's banned list.
But some over-jealous TSA officers decided
to press the passenger about the money he was carrying - where did he
get it from and why was he carrying it. The young man (who looks
like an All-American Honor Student) politely asked if he was required by
law to answer that question. By this time he was already being
detailed in a windowless office, and the TSA agents proceeded to swear
at and roundly abuse him, and trotted out the old homily about 'If
you've nothing to hide, you'll answer the question' while never
answering his question about if he was required by law to answer their
questioning or not.
Instead, they played the usual tricks of
threatening him with missing his flight, and arresting him and, in this
case, taking him to the DEA for further questioning. They even
apparently did arrest him, and were in the process of taking him to the
DEA airport office when it seems someone - possibly an FBI agent - came
up to them and quietly told them to release the man immediately, because
they were way out of line with what they were doing.
Extraordinarily, one of the TSA agents refused, but eventually relented.
Okay, so this is just another inconclusive
case of the passenger's word against several TSA officers, right?
And we know who wins and loses in such cases, don't we.
No. The passenger activated an audio
recording function on his cell phone, and recorded 25 minutes of his
encounter. So we have an impossible to deny recording of what it
is like to be captive at the hands of out of control TSA agents running
amok and roundly abusing passengers and their inalienable (?) rights.
The TSA - unable to deny the audio recording
- is investigating. Whatever that means. Care to guess if
anyone will lose their job?
here, and some of the recording is played
Lastly this week, we all know what a
'clothing optional' beach or resort is. But the Hotel Rosengarten,
in Germany's Black Forest, now has a strict 'clothing not optional'
policy in all its public areas (what you do in the privacy of your own
hotel room is apparently okay).
Oh - don't misunderstand me. 'Clothing
not optional' means you must not wear any clothing at all.
Something special in the air? At an
airport near you? An
artificial scent, that is.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
and have a great Easter. And if you're flying anywhere with Delta,
better pack some Imodium - for you and your nearby passengers, just in