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Friday, 5 June, 2009
The big travel related story this week has
regrettably been the loss of the Air France A330 en route from Rio de
Janeiro to Paris on Monday. As I quote in my multi-part article
about how to
survive plane crashes, 96% of passengers in plane crashes survive,
and even if you filter out the less severe crashes and only look at the
most major crashes, there is still a 50% survival rate.
However, in this case, clearly no-one
survived at all. And that is about the only thing we're certain of
at this stage. The cause of the crash remains very unclear.
Was it the result of lightning damage to the
plane's electronics? Planes are hit by lightning all the time.
It is true that lightning varies as much as 100-fold or more in
intensity, but apart from vague concerns about plane fuselages and wings
being increasingly made by composite fibers rather than by lightning
conducting metal, there are no specific vulnerabilities currently
Was it the turbulent air tearing the plane
apart? Up drafts of 100 mph were recorded - this sounds like a lot
and shouldn't be trivialized. It is 8,800 ft/minute; I've flown gliders through weather
that bad (but only very briefly - I got out of it as quickly as I
Was there a mysterious explosion on board?
If so, it is unlikely to be a terrorist bomb - no-one has claimed
credit, and an Air France flight between Rio and Paris is surely not on the
top of any terrorist group's hit list.
Was the plane flying too slow? Some
reporters learned of an unrelated new suggested flying guideline about
to be issued by Airbus that is recommending pilots do not reduce their
speed so much as they currently do when flying through turbulence.
This is however an unlikely cause of the plane loss - an A330 probably remains air-worthy
and flyable at speeds down to perhaps 130mph, and it cruises at about
565 mph. I don't know what speed the pilots might have reduced to,
but let's say they dropped the speed by 150 mph down to 'only' 415 mph.
This means the plane could handle gusts of wind from behind of up to 285
mph and still remain above its stall speed, and if the plane did briefly
stall, the pilot would have 35,000 ft or thereabouts to recover from his
So - lots of mysteries and lots of
questions, but so far, no answers and no obvious lines of enquiry.
I hesitate to hazard any type of guess myself, but if pressed, I might
opine that perhaps a lightning strike knocked out some electronics that
caused the plane to lose some of its 'fly by wire' intelligence, and
subsequently the pilots - perhaps without much IFR instrumentation still
operational - did something that aggravated the effects of the
turbulence, causing the plane to be broken into pieces by the
turbulence. Alternate explanation - after several minutes of major
weather related turbulence, maybe a mega bolt of lightning somehow
caused a fuel tank that had just the right (ie wrong) fuel air mixture
in it to explode.
The most likely outcome is that the
crash was caused not just by one single thing, but by a series of
events, any one of which, by itself, may have been survivable, but as
they accumulated, they ended up causing the crash.
There's another line of questioning as well
that is also unanswered but very relevant. How is it that the
plane flew into the middle of this weather system in the first place?
Were the pilots asleep? Or did they lack sufficient fuel to divert
around the storm and still make it to Paris without needing to divert
and refuel, such they felt pressured to fly through rather than around
the storm? Again, more questions, and no answers yet.
As is usually the case with mysterious plane
losses, the answers to these questions may (or may not) be revealed by
the data stored in the airplane's two black boxes. But therein
lies another challenge - these two units are believed to be at the
bottom of the ocean, which is about 12,000 - 15,000 ft deep in the
region where the plane crashed. And with a huge wreckage zone
(which some people suggest points to the plane exploding or in some
other way breaking up in mid air) the location of the black boxes is as
yet very problematic.
The black boxes emit regular pings to help
searchers locate them, but these pings are of course battery powered,
and the battery life is about 30 days maximum. So there is a race
against time to locate and retrieve them.
An unanswered issue that needs to be
revisited (and, even more, needs to be resolved) is why don't black boxes
float. Yes, this would require the black boxes to be
expanded in size (to give them compensatory buoyancy to ensure they
could float) but this should not be an impossible task, and if it were a
challenge, the alternate strategy would be to reduce the volume of heavy
components inside the boxes (which are actually orange not black).
Modern electronics could surely allow the key components to take up no
more space than an iPod or iPhone, leaving a lot of space to ruggedize
the box, for batteries and location aids, and for flotation.
Of course, sometimes the black boxes might
be trapped inside other airplane wreckage, but that's merely another
design consideration to optimize, not a reason to not attempt this
sensible step at all.
Another concept that should be considered
more closely is to increase the amount of real-time flight data that
planes continuously relay via satellite back to their operations base.
I should add that the A330 remains a plane
with an excellent safety record, and I confidently booked an
international flight on a Northwest A330 myself earlier this week.
On to a happier topic. I define the
focus of this website as covering 'travel and travel related
technology', a broad definition that covers most things. But on
occasion, I will shamelessly stretch that definition past breaking
point, and this week is a proud example of such shamelessness. As
regular readers may suspect, I am an ardent gadget lover, and I recently
came across a product that addressed a need I'd had for a long time.
I've trialed and tested other solutions to
this need, but none have been sufficiently good in the past, but now
I've found a brilliant solution. Every so often a new product
comes out that defines a new category of consumer electronics - for
example, both the iPod and the iPhone created completely new categories
of products, even though earlier examples of both existed previously.
There were plenty of earlier MP3 players before the iPod, and plenty of
semi-smart phones before the iPhone, but these two devices (re)defined
their product categories and now dominate them.
I'm so enthusiastic about this product that
I want to share it with you. There's a good chance you too might
see the value and benefit of it, and if so, do like I did and rush out
to buy it. My enthusiasm for the product grew into a two page
moderately lengthy article :
This Week's Feature Column :
The Logitech Squeezebox
Network Music System : These units enable you to play music from the
internet and from your computer, anywhere in your house. Easy to
use and fairly priced, they integrate all the music on your computer and
the thousands of music feeds now available on the internet into your
Just one more comment about this. I've
been watching the growth of internet music services enviously (I'd tried
to start one myself back in 2000) - it is truly amazing how services
such as, for example, last.fm
operate. They intuitively learn the sort of music you like and
then feed you songs based on their understanding of your tastes and
These services fill a gap that the iPod can
not and never will fill - they send you music you like without you
having to make the choices yourself. I often stare blankly at my
collection of CDs or iPod music tracks, uncertain which one to choose
and play. With last.fm, the choices are made for me, and any time
I don't like a track, I can simply skip past it rather than wait for it
Dinosaur watching : As
mentioned above, I booked a flight on an A330 between Seattle and Europe
on Wednesday as part of my travels to/from our Rhine River Cruise at the
end of this month.
My first choice
was to use frequent flier miles, and I had a chance to travel on British
Airways between Seattle and London in Business Class for 120,000 miles, plus $606.90 in
fees and taxes. Alternatively I could buy a ticket in coach class
Airlines that would cost me $920 inclusive of all fees and taxes, and from which I'd earn about 16,500 frequent flier miles.
Let's look at these choices two ways.
First, the true value/cost of the BA 'free' ticket is a net saving in
money spent of only $313 (ie $920 - 607), and a net cost to me in terms
of miles of 136,500 miles (ie 120,000 + 16,500). Sure, this isn't
totally fair to compare a business class and a coach class ticket, but
those were the two options I ended up needing to choose between.
Would you choose to spend 136,500 miles to
save yourself $313 in airfare? If you think this is a fair return for your
miles, please let me know. I'll happily buy an unlimited number of
miles from you at that price - $0.002 (or 0.2¢) per mile.
Secondly, the BA so-called 'fuel surcharge'. They
are demanding $418 on this supposedly free ticket to cover the extra costs of fuel over and above
their normal fuel cost.
Who knows what their 'normal' fuel cost
would be, so we can't be sure what their extra cost is. But their total cost for the jet fuel used to fly me roundtrip from
Seattle to London and back again would be about $65.
Perhaps the base price for fuel that they
are using to then add a surcharge on top of is half the total cost, so
this would mean the extra fuel cost they seek to recover is in the order
of $33. So BA seeks
to make a $385 profit on its fuel surcharge - a surcharge that any fair
minded person would never seek to impose on a free ticket anyway.
Amazingly, even with these odious rip-offs,
BA managed to record its worst ever financial result for its financial
year just ended, recording a £401 million loss ($640 million).
Maybe BA should try treating its remaining passengers fairly and
honorably - perhaps that might encourage those of us it has outraged by
their dishonest 'fuel surcharges' to return back to viewing them with
less hostility and suspicion.
Until that time we have to wonder
why BA calls this $418 fee a fuel 'surcharge' when it is more than ten
times greater than the extra cost of fuel, and seven times more than the
total cost of fuel. It is, of course, not a fuel surcharge, but
rather a profit surcharge.
Form your own opinion
about the corporate immorality and dishonesty that such
outright lies seems to imply.
Talking about BA causes one to inevitably think of its arch-rival,
Virgin Atlantic (VS), and BA's CFO has cast an alternate light on VS's
claim last week to have made a £68.4 million
($109 million) profit in their last fiscal year.
According to his
analysis, the Virgin profit was not from flight operations, but rather
from a paper profit in currency cover, as a result of having prepurchased some dollars. The weakening pound made these dollars
more valuable as of the end of the VS financial year, so VS recorded a
one-off profit of £68 million from its exchange rate paper profits.
However, with the dollar now dropping again, that paper profit has in
some part disappeared, and will need to now appear in this present
year's accounts as extra costs and therefore reduced profit/increased
Perhaps that might explain why VS was so
pessimistic about making a profit this year.
The bottom line that the BA CFO seems to
establish is that VS's profit was almost entirely the result of a lucky
currency trade, rather than due to clever airline operations. This
is analogous to airlines that have variously made or lost large sums on
On the other hand, a profit is a profit.
No matter where it comes from, £68.4 million is just as sweet.
An unexpected loss was reported by Ryanair for their most recently ended
However, their loss was due to a one-time cost
item to do with the diminished value in their competitor airline, Aer
Lingus. Without this one-time cost, Ryanair would have shown a
profit of $149 million, which was ahead of expectations.
Ryanair is much more positive for its future than VS is, and predicts it
will at least double the $149 million (before one-off costs) profit this
And, dear oh dear, their CEO, Michael O'Leary, continues to get mileage
out of his claim a few months back about charging passengers to use the
This article gives him way too much free publicity (as perhaps I am
too, now), including his offer near the end to, ahem, personally assist
passengers with their needs for £5 a time.
If you can't beat them, join them part one? This increasingly
seems to be Southwest's strategy as it slowly abandons its former
distinctively different style of operating - a style which formerly had
worked very well for the airline, helping it grow consistently and
profitably from year to year to year. The latest change is a
reversal of Southwest's 'No Fee' strategy - a strategy it had been
heavily promoting. It is about to introduce fees to allow small
cats and dogs to be carried in the cabin, an unaccompanied minor fee,
and to double their fees on third and overweight bags.
Yes, there are still many other fees that some airlines charge which
Southwest does not, but now that it has taken a first step in the
direction of charging fees, how long will it be before it starts
charging many of the other fees, too?
My point here is not so much to lambast Southwest for charging fees in
line with what other airlines do, but to point out the continued
evolution of Southwest, moving away from their previously proven
profitable business model to the dinosaur's business model which has
been just as clearly proven to be unprofitable. Why are they doing
If you can't beat them, join them part two? Dinosaur carrier
Canada, continuing to suffer from the relentless and effective
competitive pressures imposed on it by the newer and 'good' airline Westjet has already backed away from some of the fees it formerly
charged passengers. And now it has decided to copy another of
Westjet's strategies, by matching Westjet's 4% commission paid to travel
agencies (up from the former zero commission).
In announcing this
reversal, Air Canada said, doubtless through gritted teeth, that it was
doing this in recognition of the essential role travel agents play in
the airline's distribution network.
Good for Air Canada. Let's hope to now see some of the US carriers
rediscover the value inherent in the travel agency network too.
Tiny US airline Frontier had some good news this week, reporting a $2.4
million net profit in April, a nice improvement from the $26.9 million
loss they had a year ago.
United Airlines has announced a possibly bold move. Notwithstanding
their May traffic data showing a 12% reduction in traffic compared to
the same month last year, UA has asked both Airbus and Boeing to
quote on an order for up to 150 new airplanes.
However, most of the new planes would apparently replace old
and less efficient planes currently in United's fleet (ie 747s and early
model 777s) as well as their increasingly elderly 757s, rather than add
new capacity to the airline. And even if United were to order new
planes today, it would still be some years before the new planes would
start to arrive, and more years still before all 150 planes had been
So - bold move? Or an essential and prudent caution? More
likely the latter, and with the probable steady rise of jet fuel once
more, more fuel efficient planes will pay for themselves in shorter and
shorter time frames, while also giving United a cost edge over its
There's another new discount airline starting up. This time it is Flydubai, a carrier sharing common ownership with Emirates Airlines.
However, don't start looking for a Flydubai plane at your local airport
any time soon, unless 'local' for you means the Middle East. The
airline plans to receive 50 737 planes to operate on moderately
short-haul regional routes, with its first two routes being from Dubai
to Beirut and Amman. More details
It isn't often I find myself taking the airline's side in a lawsuit, but
here's one where I feel American Airlines to be in the right. They
are suing a former employee, seeking to prevent him from moving to Delta
to take the same equivalent job as his former position as New York
regional head of sales for AA. They are accusing him of stealing
company secrets including confidential strategy and pricing documents,
and have been granted a temporary injunction pending a full trial.
In this case, it seems AA has a devastating 'smoking gun' to bolster
their allegations. Apparently they have records, in their email
server, of the employee having emailed these confidential documents from
his work email address to his home email address. Ooops.
And another good court case. Expedia has been ordered to pay
$184 million by a superior court judge in Seattle. The judge ruled
that Expedia's collection of 'taxes and service fees' violated the
service fees cover costs.
The plaintiffs successfully argued that the
fees also include Expedia's mark-up of net hotel rates, while Expedia
countered that covering costs could include a wide array of elements. The judge ruled that the plaintiffs
'correctly concluded that profits,
not costs, are the subject matter of these service fees.'
terms and conditions no longer contain the disputed language. Instead,
it states 'We retain our service fees as compensation in servicing your
travel reservation' (whatever that means). The court has yet to
rule whether Expedia violated the state's Consumer Protection Act by
bundling "taxes and fees" without breaking them out on a line-item
Hmmmm - maybe someone should start a class
action against British
Airways (and all the other airlines too, of course) for a 'fuel surcharge fee' that is way more than just
a recovery of their extra costs of jet fuel.
Cell phones are dangerous for your health?
Using a cell phone too much can cause ..... well, in
if you're a high school student, it may cause you to be tasered by a
Notice the ridiculous distinction between
normal tasering and a 'drive stun' - the police pretend that being
tasered by the unit itself rather than by the probes it can optionally
shoot out is somehow less harmful and less painful. It is exactly
the same - indeed, common sense shouts this to one - why would the
police do a 'drive stun' if it only immobilized a 2" - 3" portion of the
limb that was tasered? Such a result would be absolutely useless
in attempts to subdue or control a person violently resisting arrest.
The police are trying to play us as much for
fools as is British Airways when it claims a $418 profit surcharge is
merely a desperate attempt to recover some of the extra fuel costs
involved in flying their passengers.
This Week's Security Horror Story : Mairead Maguire is the
youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, earned at the tender age
of 32 in 1976, as a result of her efforts to help end the conflict in
Northern Ireland. Since that time she's been further honored by
being given the Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) Award by Pope John Paul
II, and the United Nations selected her (along with the Dalai Lama,
Desmond Tutu, Jordan's Queen Noor and a dozen or so other fellow Nobel
Laureates) as an honorary board member of the International Coalition
for the Decade.
But even Nobel Peace Prize winners are viewed by our paranoid border
patrol as potential terrorists, and Ms Maguire (now 65) ended up being
hassled and detailed for two hours while attempting to do no more than
merely change planes in Houston, en route back home to the UK, causing
her to miss her connecting flight.
Never mind that she had no intention to ever leave the airport, and just
wanted to get off one plane and onto the next. This didn't prevent
our ever-vigilant border patrolmen from hassling and detaining her until
external pressure was brought to force them to play by their own
Ms Maguire's more recently held political views and opposition to some
US and Israeli policies might not appeal to all of us, but we reduce
ourselves to the level of playground bullies when we hassle people who
pose us no harm just because we disagree with their politics. The
US was formed on the concept of encouraging people to freely disagree
with official policies, but now seeks to penalize people who act in the
same manner that our revered founding fathers did. Other countries
roll their eyes at our hypocrisy, especially when we try and impose 'Do
as we say, not as we do' codes of conduct on them.
Once again, I find myself siding with an
airline - this time Jetblue, and the vexations they were caused by a
very unsympathetic woman passenger who is seeking to claim undeserved
entitlement by playing all the traditional 'victim' cards.
The lady is originally from Pakistan, and my
vote goes to the reader comment at the end of the
newspaper article which points out that if she'd indulged herself in
such behavior back in Pakistan, she'd likely have been summarily shot
where she sat. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but no way would she
end up claiming compensation from a Pakistani airline for her bad
A year or two ago a British Airways pilot
exhibited dubious judgment when his 747 suffered an engine failure
shortly after taking off from Los Angeles, en route to London.
Rather than return to Los Angeles, he continued the flight all the way
to London, over the polar route, and eventually running out of fuel
(planes burn more fuel on three engines than four) and needing to land
short. Although the company commended him for following their
approved procedures, many other industry commentators felt uncomfortable
at his decision.
Well, apparently BA has now undergone a
massive change of heart in terms of operating planes that are less than
perfect. Another 747, this time due to fly from London to Mexico,
was held at the gate for 30 minutes due to a problem that was deemed
sufficiently severe as to prohibit the plane from pushing back, taking
off, and flying to Mexico.
What was the problem? Two or three or
all four engines not working? A great big hole in the fuselage?
Ummm, no. The plane, about to embark on a 100% no-smoking flight,
was discovered to be lacking one - just one - of the many ashtrays on
Apparently it is against EU regulations for
a plane to take off if it does not have its full set of who knows how
many dozens of ashtrays. Sure, there seems to be no problem if one
of just four engines fail, but lose an unnecessary ashtray and you must
cancel the flight.
I know you won't believe this story - surely
no-one, no company, and no set of external regulations would be so
inconsistently stupid as to allow a 747 to fly with a failed engine but
not with a missing ashtray, so please do check out the source
here. One can only assume that the same person who adds
outrageous $418 fuel surcharges to free tickets also mandated the
holding of this flight prior to the replacement of the missing ashtray.
Lastly this week, happy 150th birthday to the clock popularly known as
Big Ben. It started ticking on 31 May 1859, after being built at a
cost of £2500 by the same clockmaker (Edward Dent) who built a
chronometer for HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his
worldwide voyage that led to his publishing his theory of evolution.
It is the world's largest four sided chiming clock, with each clock face
being 23 ft in diameter, and the Big Ben bell is cracked, which causes
its note to be less pure than it otherwise should be.
The name 'Big Ben' originally referred to the largest of the bells in
the clocktower (St Stephen's Tower on one side of the Houses of
Parliament), but now popularly refers to the clock in general. The
tune that the four 'quarter' bells play on every hour prior to the great
bell (ie 'Big Ben') ringing the hours has words to it, which are
engraved inside its clockroom : All through this hour; Lord, be my
guide. And by Thy power; No foot shall slide (bet you can't get
the 'Westminster chime' tune out of your head now!).
At the risk of dwelling overly long on the subject of Big Ben, do you
know how it is possible to hear Big Ben strike thirteen times rather
than the twelve times it should strike at midday and (more commonly)
midnight, in certain parts of London? I'll provide the answer next
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels