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Friday, 5 June, 2009

Good morning

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 identified here.

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 almost half that bad (but only very briefly - I got out of it as quickly as I could!).

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 stall.

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 home environment.

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 preferences.

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 to end.

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 on Northwest 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 loss.

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 fuel hedging.

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 full year.

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 present year.

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 onboard toilets 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 this?

If you can't beat them, join them part two?  Dinosaur carrier Air 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 received.

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 competitors.

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 here.

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 its customers $184 million by a superior court judge in Seattle.  The judge ruled that Expedia's collection of 'taxes and service fees' violated the company's terms of use on its website during the period 18 Feb 2003 - 11 Dec 2006.  The then terms of use stated that its 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.'

Expedia's 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 basis.

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 this case, if you're a high school student, it may cause you to be tasered by a police officer.

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 ostensible rules.

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.

More details here.

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 behavior.

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 board.

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 material 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 week.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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