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Friday, 1 May, 2009
Many thanks to everyone who chose to read
some or all of the two articles on Bigfoot/Sasquatch last week and send
in their opinions. My brother's article was the
and mine was
Although more readers preferred my article
to Christopher's, many readers agreed with me that he did a
fine job of his first ever contribution to The Travel Insider. Both my brother and I got a good laugh from
people who chose the option, offered very much tongue-in-cheek and
presumably answered in the same spirit 'I haven't read either article,
but I'm sure Christopher's article would be better'.
Unless you've been living in a cave for the
last week, you'll of course have been bombarded by a story that
appeared, seemingly from nowhere late last week and now is hogging the
front page of most papers most days - the growing threat of Swine Flu.
I've vacillated during the week between
ignoring it and focusing on it for the newsletter this week, and as the
week has developed it seems plain the danger is greater than that
ascribed to it by Michael O'Leary, CEO of Ryanair, and there is a need
for common sense information, not the nonsense he offers.
On Tuesday O'Leary said
It is a tragedy only for people living
... in slums in Asia or Mexico. But will the honeymoon couple
from Edinburgh die? No. A couple of Strepsils will do
the job. [Strepsils are a brand of throat lozenge.]
The remoteness of the issue soon was
replaced by a much greater degree of immediacy, at least for me. There are now three cases in Seattle, and
noting that New Zealand too had a prominent early role in spreading
the infection (a student group returning from Mexico brought the disease
with them back to NZ), it has a certain visceral impact, and if
matters continue to escalate at the rate they are at present, before too
long they'll be impacting on you too.
There was another unexpected impact on me,
and potentially on you too. I went and bought some extra
quantities of long-lived and easily cooked food staples from Costco this
past weekend as part of some prudent 'worst case' planning. I
didn't buy anything I wouldn't buy and eat anyway, I just bought larger
quantities (eg 62lbs of rice!) than normal. So, if (as we all
hope) this pandemic scare fades away, I've not actually wasted any
Continuing my stocking up of essentials, on
Thursday I went to buy some hand sanitizer (which was already sold out
at Costco on Sunday). I visited two different major supermarkets,
and each had fully stocked shelves of all other healthcare products, but
in the hand sanitizer section, their shelves were completely bare.
Plainly some people are already stocking
up on relevant supplies, and if you're not careful, you might find
yourself too late for increasingly essential items. So perhaps a
bit of prudent precautionary shopping now might be a good idea.
On Wednesday the World Health Organization
declared a Phase 5 Pandemic Alert. This is the fifth of six
levels, with the six phases being defined as :
Phase 1 : No new
influenza virus subtypes have been detected in humans. An
influenza virus subtype that has caused human infection may be
present in animals. If present in animals, the risk of human
infection or disease is considered to be low.
Phase 2 : No new
influenza virus subtypes have been detected in humans. However,
a circulating animal influenza virus subtype poses a substantial
risk of human disease.
Pandemic alert period
Phase 3 : Human
infection(s) with a new subtype, but no human-to-human spread,
or at most rare instances of spread to a close contact.
Phase 4 : Small
cluster(s) with limited human-to-human transmission but spread
is highly localized, suggesting that the virus is not well
adapted to humans.
Phase 5 : Larger
cluster(s) but human-to-human spread still localized, suggesting
that the virus is becoming increasingly better adapted to
humans, but may not yet be fully transmissible (substantial
Phase 6 : Pandemic:
increased and sustained transmission in general population.
To put the Phase 5 status into context, the
much talked about Bird Flu was never rated at higher than a Phase 3
alert. So we're truly on the brink of a worldwide disaster,
which is what Phase 6 of course would be.
The good news for most Travel Insider
readers is that we may be 'too old' to be in the major risk group.
It seems that Swine Flu, in common with the Spanish Flu pandemic in
1918, primarily attacks people from their teens up to their 40s.
But that's not to say we can't or won't catch the disease, and it's also
not to say that we wouldn't become very ill or even die.
At present there is insufficient data to
understand the lethality of this type of Flu, which is of course a key
issue. Early reports from Mexico suggested it to be very lethal,
but these early reports are now being amended and the apparent mortality rate is
However, we don't need it to be very lethal
for it to be a big problem. The 1918 Flu was estimated to be fatal
'only' about 2.5% of the time in the US (compared to a normal Flu which
is fatal about 0.1% of the time). But with an estimated 25% of the
US population infected, that added up to a lot of deaths.
Or, look at it another way. The US
alone has about 30,000 people a year die from 'normal' seasonal flu.
Increasing that 25-fold to reflect a possible lethality rate for Swine
Flu, and then increasing it maybe another four-fold to reflect a higher
infection rate, leads us to a potential death toll of 1.5 million people
in the US alone, which is about the same number as if we work the other
direction (assume 300 million people, 25% infected, and 2.5% die), which
gives us a 1.88 million death toll.
Just as challenging will be caring for the
massive numbers of sick people - perhaps 75 million based on the
previous numbers. We don't have sufficient spare
'surge' capacity in our public health system to cope with the flood of
Flu victims needing treatment and hospitalization - indeed, although the
population has massively increased in the last 40 years, there are fewer
staffed hospital beds in the country today than there were in 1968,
during the last Flu pandemic (the 'Hong Kong Flu').
Even if it
were possible to double up the number of beds in every hospital ward,
the biggest constraint would be the shortage of trained staff to care for the
people in those extra beds.
When you also downgrade the current
resources to allow for health care workers getting sick themselves, our
health care system would likely be stretched beyond breaking point.
We need to consider our own personal 'worst case' scenarios for how to
cope with a Flu infection in a situation where we have minimal support
from other people.
Here's a thought to consider in assessing
your own potential risk to infection : You probably know how it is
estimated that any person is no more than six other people away from
anyone else in the world - the 'six degrees of separation' concept.
How many degrees of separation are you from someone
infected with Swine Flu? Probably already less than six.
You would be prudent to start considering
your pandemic plans before the degrees of separation dwindle down to
two, then one, then (gulp) zero.
411 Swine Flu Summary
What it is : A new strain of
flu, with a curious combination of other flu strains that has already
caused some people to wonder if there is a darker secret behind its
When it First Appeared : The
first US case occurred in San Diego, in the last week of March, but
wasn't identified as a new strain of flu until 14 April, and started
making the news a little more than a week later.
How Widespread : Unknown, due
to lead times in getting test results back from labs, etc.
Estimated more than 100 cases in the US (18 official new cases added on
Thursday) and more than 250 worldwide in at least 11 different
countries. Actual numbers could easily be ten times higher, and
possibly already 100 times higher.
Vaccination : This last year's
flu shot doesn't protect against this different strain of flu.
There are no other vaccines available, and developing one would take 4 -
Treatment : Tamiflu and Relenza
are moderately effective if treatment is started within 48 hours of
Risk of Infection : Currently
very low, but if the pandemic takes hold, then will be dependent on your
behavior, and could average 25% of the population being infected.
Risk of Death : Unknown.
Seems significantly high in Mexico, but data still imperfect.
Seems low in other countries, but maybe it is a slower acting flu and
mortality rates are only now starting to be measurable. Highest
for people from their teens to 40s.
Impact of a Major Pandemic :
Massive economic harm. Healthcare system unable to provide
comprehensive support for many/most victims. Possible major
interruptions to essential services, ranging from food distribution to
utilities. Current estimate of 1 - 2 million deaths in the US
Is Swine Flu Mere Media Hype : It
isn't media hype that caused the WHO to successively raise their alert
status to level five during this week. Public health care
professionals have been leading the media, not trailing it, on this
issue and at this stage it seems appropriate to take our cues from the
WHO and CDC.
Possible Future Developments :
This Flu encounter is at the tail end of 'winter flu season' which might
mean that we have a very mild brush with it now, and then only a very
low level of infection over the summer, followed by its major outbreak
in fall/winter. In other words, don't stop worrying until the end
of the year.
Prudent Response : Start
updating and expanding your own disaster preparedness.
For Further Reading :
Twitter Updates :
CDC_eHealth and CDCemergency
We're seeing an interesting range of
opinions expressed and responses to the threat of Swine Flu so far.
Unfortunately, the opinions are often wrong, and the responses
For example, Joe Biden
said he would recommend his family not travel by plane or subway,
and to avoid confined spaces, right now. His aides subsequently
'interpreted' what he said to make it more politically correct.
Also seeking to avoid air travel seems to
be, hmmmm, possibly flight attendants. Amongst other requests,
they want any
sick time for 'flu-like symptoms' to be given to them gratis and not
to count against their annual sick leave entitlements.
Can they/can't they wear masks?
some uncertainty whether TSA and other Homeland Security staff have
been prohibited from wearing masks while on duty or not, due to them
looking too intimidating.
And airports are trotting out the
temperature scanners they purchased back in the SARS scare, and using
them to scan passengers moving through the terminals, looking for signs
of people with fevers (a symptom of flu but not of colds).
Unfortunately, they are at best perhaps only
50% effective. A person gets infected one to three days before
they start to get a fever, and can also pass on the infection in the 24
hours or so prior to displaying any symptoms themselves. So while
these scanners will detect people with an already advanced case of flu,
they won't report people who are already infected, and possibly already
infectious, but still asymptomatic.
Lastly on this point, still more commentary
and advice from me.
I'd written two articles about Bird Flu back
in September 2005 when a Bird Flu pandemic seemed just around the corner
as a possible part of that winter season. Mercifully, Bird Flu
remained - and still remains - hard to transmit directly from one human
to another. While our awareness of that issue has faded, the
comments about flu in general, and steps to take to prevent your
infection remain as relevant to Swine Flu today as they were to Bird Flu
I've lightly edited the articles, and link
here to the one with the most immediate practical advice. If time
allows, you might also find the other article a useful boost to your
knowledge of the issue. And so :
This Week's Feature Column :
How to Survive Swine Flu :
My local supermarkets have already sold out of hand sanitizer. Now is
the time to be planning and acting on your personal Swine Flu Avoidance
Plan, and the information in this article will help you understand the
issues and options.
There is a third part of this series that
I haven't yet released. This is an article on how to survive
if a Flu Pandemic actually occurs. When read in the normal light
of a normal day, it seems extreme and inappropriate, and so I'm leaving
it unpublished for now. But if WHO upgrade their alert to the
highest level six, I'll release that extra material.
Dinosaur watching : A big and
as-yet unanswered question is what impact the developing Swine Flu
situation will have on airlines and the travel industry as a whole.
The markets have reacted carefully, with the airline index dropping
about 12% between Friday's open last week and Thursday's close this week
(and most of that drop being on Monday this week). During the same
week, the leading market indices were up about 3%, showing the airline
index had moved 15% below the market overall.
But maybe some people won't really be caring
what happens to the airlines. People like, for example, the CEO of
United Airlines. Why would that be? Well, look at last year.
In 2008, United ended up with an incredible $5.35 billion loss.
But CEO Glenn Tilton earned a total compensation package valued at a
stunning $6.5 million.
For sure, this is less than his $10.3
million package in 2007. That year, United earned a small profit
of $403 million, with Mr Tilton's remuneration single-handedly
representing 2.5% of United's total profitability.
If he shares so richly in the company's
successes, why doesn't he also share in its failures? Are
we to believe that successes are due to his efforts, but failures are
By way of indication, if he was to get a
similar 2.5% slice of net earnings in 2008, he would be required to
give $134 million back to United.
A secret document?
British Airways has been ordered by the Department of Transportation to
provide a top-secret document that Virgin Atlantic claims could
undermine BA's attempt to create its long-desired transatlantic tie-up
with American Airlines.
BA has been given two days to provide the
necessary information after the DOT threw out claims by BA and AA that
they should not have to hand over the data. The most interesting
information is on airport contracts which could highlight BA's leading
position at Heathrow where it controls more than 40% of the slots.
$150 million in federal subsidies, including
an $8.6 million radar tower that has never been used since it was
completed in 2004, and flights (that go only to DC) where the passengers
(four) are outnumbered by the security screeners on duty (seven)?
Anything is possible when the airport is the John Murtha Airport in
Johnstown, PA, and when the same John Murtha is also the immensely
influential head of the House Defense Appropriations Committee.
Alaska Airlines has now started charging $25
for a first checked bag each way on its flights.
At first, this seems like another airline
playing 'follow the leader' with this disappointing policy. But
Alaska Airlines is doing things differently. It is adding a
'guarantee' - if your bag isn't at baggage claim 25 minutes after the
flight parks at the gate, they'll give you either 2500 frequent flier
miles or a voucher for $25 off a future flight (most people should take
And at the same time they're adding this new
first bag fee, they're reducing their third bag fee from $100 down to
Few of us check three bags, so for most of
us, we'll be paying more not less for our luggage, but for those of us
who fly into Seatac, there's a great chance that we'll be regularly
claiming on the 25 minute guarantee.
I hope they make the guarantee claim process
easier and quicker than the baggage claim.
Here's an unsurprising story, but with a
slightly surprising twist. The lady who severely injured
herself in a toilet when her flight encountered turbulence is now
suing the airline. But note in this
reference to her 'disobeying warnings to remain in her seat' - which, if
true, could massively reduce her entitlement to damages.
Actually, I'd like to see a judicial review
of the status of 'warnings to remain in your seat' (which in this lady's
case might actually mean nothing other than the seat belt light
illuminating and a general announcement over the pa). It annoys me
to see some airlines so incredibly sensitive to the slightest bit of
turbulence, or even the remote possibility of some future turbulence,
such that they leave the seat belt sign on for most of a flight, even
though the air is perfectly smooth most of the time.
If you're bursting to go to the toilet,
and if the seat belt sign has been on for fifteen minutes of calm
flying, what are you to do?
article in Boeing's home town newspaper, loyally celebrating
Boeing's announcement of enhancements to their long-in-the-tooth 737
series of planes.
But what are these enhancements? Two
things for passengers - overhead bins that are higher up and blue LED
cabin lighting. And two things for airlines - a 1% fuel saving due
to some aerodynamic tweaks on the plane's airframe, and a further 1%
fuel saving due to some engine tweaks by engine manufacturer CFM.
That is the best Boeing can offer? For
sure, the 737 is the best selling plane model ever, but it is also the
longest in production model, and for much of its model life, it had no
competitors. Nowadays it is very vulnerable to competition from
Airbus and its modern A320 series of planes, and the 737 is way past
overdue for a complete model replacement rather than trivial tweaks
such as blue cabin lighting.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
An Air France flight, traveling nonstop from France to Mexico, was
forced to divert to Martinique after being denied clearance to enter US
airspace. There was a journalist on board who is on an American
'no fly' list, and when the US authorities discovered this, they refused
to allow the plane entry into US airspace (which it needed to do as part
of a normal routing from Paris to Mexico).
There is nothing to suggest that the
journalist is a terrorist, and that his presence on the plane was
indicative of his intention to hijack it and crash it into something
somewhere in the US. Rather, it
journalist found his way onto the list for being critical of the US and
currently researching a future book on the CIA.
If this is correct - and it sadly seems all
too likely that it is - it marks a terrible abuse of anti-terrorist
powers as a petty form of punishment of US critics, and is contrary to
international conventions on airline overflight rights.
The journalist later caught a flight to
Managua, after questioning by immigration officials in Mexico City.
Asked about experience with weapons, he indicated his 'only weapon was
writing, especially in denouncing the U.S. government which I regarded
as terrorist.' His interrogator reportedly commented, 'That weapon is
often worse than rifles and bombs' - and certainly it seems to have the
Talking about abuse of anti-terrorist
powers, did you know that all around
the perimeter of the United States there is a 100 mile zone in which
one's normal constitutional rights have been suspended; where Border
Patrol agents can essentially stop you for any reason, and search you
for any reason? The Fourth Amendment :
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers,
and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be
violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,
supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place
to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
does not apply in this zone. Or, if it
maybe still does, there is a delightful Catch-22,
recorded on videotape when a motorist attempted to get through a
checkpoint, at about the 8 minute mark and following on
clip. The Catch-22 is that the Border Patrol will
ask for your permission to search your vehicle, and if you decline to
give that permission, you've then acted suspiciously, giving them the
grounds they need to cite 'reasonable suspicion' as a cause to search
your car lawfully.
As you can see in the video - skip through the first part of it which is
unrelated - the Border Patrol agents struggle unsuccessfully to control
their smirks as they cite this Catch-22 to the stopped motorist, and
after first admitting they had no reason at all to stop/search this
person, to justify their wish to search his car, they say they believe
he is a terrorist (the motorist is a Baptist minister) based on his
attempt to assert his Fourth Amendment rights.
How often are you in this 100 mile zone - what the ACLU calls the
Constitution Free Zone? Estimates suggest that 67% of the US
population lives in it. Do you feel safer by its presence?
And is it even effective? If we look at this no-rights zone, where
the Border Patrol is supposedly attempting to protect us from illegal
immigrants, is it not also the part of the country that most illegal
immigrants are to be found?
The same person who filmed his confrontation with Border Patrol agents
in the link above had another run-in at another roadside stop some time
later. Note that this is a roadside stop on a public highway, not
part of a border crossing. This was also filmed, but only by the
Border Patrol, and they are refusing to release their film at this
stage. But the person - a local Pastor - talks about his
In quick summary, Border Patrol and Department of Public
Safety officers first invented a 'probable cause' reason for searching
his car, smashed windows on both sides of his car, tasered him
repeatedly, ground his face first into the broken glass then onto the
road surface (he ended up needing 11 stitches), and then, after finding
nothing illegal in his car, created a couple of misdemeanor charges out
of nothing and drove him 70 miles to Yuma to appear before a Judge.
His trial is continuing.
Most people react one of two ways when learning of such events.
Some react with horror, others say 'The guy was asking for it. He
should have cooperated; he deserves what he got.'
I can understand the latter point of view. It would have taken
this person less than a minute to pop his trunk, for the Border Patrol
people to look inside, then wave him on his way.
But the problem is that in doing so, we're traveling down a slippery
slope. We've already reached the point where two thirds of the
country now lives in an area where their Fourth Amendment right has
essentially been suspended - where the 'authorities' (a term which
encompasses a vast array of different groups of people) can act pretty
much as they wish, and with almost no recourse open to us when we get
caught up in such abusive situations. As unpalatable as this may
seem, one of the biggest unwritten rights we have is the right to be
stupid and still to be treated with respect rather than beaten up by the
public servants who collectively work for us.
That is the key difference between what our country should be and what
dictatorships are. We have 'the rule of law' that defines and
constrains how our law enforcement agencies can behave in the discharge
of their duties, and it is founded on the principle that people are
innocent until proven guilty, and that people - both innocent and guilty
- have rights of due process.
similar incident - a police sergeant (not an inexperienced low level
officer, but an experienced sergeant) arrested a news crew. Their
'crime' - filming a
traffic accident scene.
But in the reader comments, along with
many expressions of outrage at this terrible abuse of police power, is
this comment 'As citizens, we must just obey the authorities no matter
what, news teams and all.' Other comments urged the newsman to
cooperate and be respectful.
These concepts are so very wrong - it
may be a great mindset to adopt in Stalin's Russia (although if everyone
universally accepted that view, we'd still have a communist Soviet Union
angrily lined up against us on the other side of the Iron Curtain today) but
it is utterly wrong in a free society. What value are our 'rights'
if we are expected to voluntarily relinquish them in the name of
courtesy, and in the face of inappropriate abuse of those same rights by
discourteous law enforcement officers who should know better?
A lot of people suffered and died to earn us
these rights. Many more, in many places over many years, have died
to preserve them for us, and to attempt to spread these rights to other
people in other countries. The least we can do in return is to
value and respect them.
Neither the pastor, nor the French writer,
posed any threat to anyone. It was wrong to smash into the
pastor's car, then bash his head first into the broken glass and then
into the road surface, and to Taser him repeatedly. It was wrong
to refuse the Air France plane entry into US airspace. And it was
wrong to arrest the NM television news team.
This is not the country that truly millions
of Americans have willingly given their lives to create and protect.
We must demand better of those we appoint in positions of power over us.
Lastly this week, here's a
bizarre site, currently with very little content on it, but the
content it does have are pictures of the contents of lost suitcases that
the airlines subsequently 'find' and then sell at auction to highest
bidder. If you recognize one of yours, the site owner would be
pleased to sell it back to you.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels