Version of Newsletter] [Newsletter
Archives] [Advertising Info] [Website Home Page] [Please Donate Here]
Friday, 18 September, 2009
Wow. With the formal closing of our
annual reader fundraiser we have
a current total of 756 readers who chose to add their much
appreciated support and help keep the newsletter and website up and
running. Special thanks to more 'super supporters' -
Joe I (doubling up on his earlier appearance), Joseph W, Fred H, Allen U
(who has contributed three times this campaign), John R, Charles S, Hugh
F, Steve H, Leslie E, Richard A, Ralph H, Peter V, and Elaine C.
When you consider the very worrying slow
start to the fundraiser a month ago, and what seemed for a while an
unattainable objective of 630 supporters, this result - and in tough
times for us all - is extremely encouraging and enormously appreciated.
We have almost exactly 100 more supporters this year than last year, and
while the total amount received is, alas, down on last year, it is
enormously encouraging to have so many people choosing to help out.
Most heartfelt thanks to everyone who
participated. And, if you you are one of the 20,000 who have not
(yet?) responded, that's okay too, and please note there is a link at
the top right of every newsletter - your support is welcome at any/all
just during these annual appeals.
A small housekeeping note on this topic - I
believe I have sent thank you notes to everyone who has contributed.
A couple of times, my emails bounced back as undeliverable (I guess some
people don't keep their Paypal addresses up to date) and a couple of
checks came from people who I couldn't match up to an email address. If you haven't heard from me, I'm not being ungracious - please let me know so I can pass my thanks (and the information about
how to get many thousands of frequent flier miles for free) directly to
Moving to one of my favorite topics each year, our
annual Christmas Markets
cruise is now getting excitingly close, and I booked my own travel
to/from the cruise earlier this week. I'd got an email from
British Airways promoting a new airfare special, but their special price
ended up being about $400 more than with Northwest, so I'm going to be
enjoying the fine service on NW/DL's lovely A330s between here and
Amsterdam once again, and then the short flights within Europe on KLM.
I had to laugh at one part of what the airlines would doubtless tell our
passive 'regulators' are a benefit of codeshare flights. For the
flights in Europe, I generally could choose from three different airline
flight designators (all on the same physical plane/flight) - KL, NW and
OK (Czech Airlines). Did it matter to me which airline designator
was on the flight - and/or was I advantaged at all by this code share?
Well, it did matter - I get more frequent flier benefits if I'm on a NW
rather than KL designated flight. But there was an almost $500
extra cost if I took the short 336 mile flight between Nuremberg and
Amsterdam on the NW flight designator rather than on the KL flight
designator. Can you believe that? Same flight, same plane,
and closely partnered airlines, but a $500 difference in cost for a 336
mile flight as between choosing the KL or the NW designator for the
That's just ridiculous, and it also shows that the two airlines aren't
doing a good job of balancing their inventory. Only a very foolish
person would choose to spend that much more for the flight on the NW
designator. If NW is short of seats for its share of the flight,
and if KL has too many, wouldn't it be a 'win win' by allowing NW to
sell a few of the seats, at moderate prices, that currently KL is
concerned it might not get to sell at all?
According to this survey, 88% of Americans plan to take a vacation in
the 3.5 months that remain of this year. Make sure you're in their
number, and why not make vacation a special one to remember by joining
us on our Annual Travel
Insider Christmas Markets Cruise.
The good news is that there continue to be some great airfares for
fall/winter travel to Europe, and I'm sure we'll see more in the months
that follow. So if you'd like to take advantage of the wonderful
combination of low airfare and $500 per person cruise discount, please
do consider joining us for this lovely cruise. There are still
It has been a busy week, gadget-wise. Last Wednesday saw
announce its annual lineup of iPod players, and this Tuesday say
Microsoft release its new series of Zune players, too.
had a chance to use both a new iPod and a new Zune. Some of the
new iPods are very exciting indeed, while neither of the two Zunes
really offers any solid competition to Apple.
It is amazing that the mega-giant that is Microsoft - a company that
actually does make some excellent hardware products (such as keyboards
and mice) just does not seem able to come up with a digital audio/video
player (and, notably, the software to run on it which defines a large
part of the overall user experience) and is getting so extraordinarily
trounced by Apple.
Apple has about a 75% market share.
Microsoft has about a 1% - 2% share, and the new Zunes give no
indication of allowing Microsoft to capture any more share than it
Many of us were willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt when
the first generation Zunes came out three years ago. But this is
now the 'fourth generation' of Zune players, and while they are
extremely much better than the first generation units, the Zunes are still as
far behind the current iPods as the original Zunes were in 2006.
If you want to watch video, neither the iPod nor the Zune has nearly big
enough a screen. But here's a
new product from Archos that would do an admirable job of showing a
more sensibly sized video image.
Want to know more? Hopefully you do, because here now is :
This Week's Feature Column :
Apple's 2009 iPod Lineup :
All you need to know about the latest enhancements and upgrades to
Apple's wonderful range of iPod players, plus details of the Microsoft
Before moving on to the usual dinosaur watching, I wanted to comment on
one more gadget sort of thing. Many of you probably know that the
new Dan Brown novel (he who wrote 'The Da Vinci Code') came out this
week. But did you know not just that it predictably zoomed
straight to the top of Amazon's best seller list, but also that Amazon
has been selling more copies of the book in electronic Kindle eBook
format than in the normal hardback version?
That is the first time this has happened, and is an
amazing pointer to
the future of book publishing. If anyone was doubtful about the
inexorable and permanent shift towards eBook publishing, this must
surely make them into a fellow believer.
I also have a guilty confession. After reading all the hype (but
none of the reviews) I decided to download a copy of the book myself.
This is, after all, one of the seductive pluses of eBooks - you can buy
a book now and have it on your eBook reader seconds later, and at an
under $10 cost, it becomes almost a discretionary spend that you don't
think twice about.
Now for the stupid bit. I started
reading it last night, and found that while it deteriorated in quality
and became less and less interesting as the story moved forward (to say
nothing of having some plot flaws and unrealistic foundations to the
story to start with) I couldn't put it down, and so I didn't
finish the book (and go to bed) until just after 4am this morning.
Ugh. Suffice it to say that this is one book which is an excellent
candidate for being improved by transforming into a Reader's Digest
Oh - one last thing about eBooks. You can read eBooks easily on
the iPod Touch and iPhone, but as far as I can tell, there's no way to
add eBooks and easily read them on the Zune. How do I know this?
I read the entire eBook on my iPhone; it was as easy and convenient as
it would have been on a regular Kindle or with the hardcover book
If you're thinking about getting a Kindle, my new advice
is to get an iPod Touch or an iPhone instead. You're getting a
much more flexible unit for a similar price.
Dinosaur watching : Interesting things afoot in Japan, where Delta
and American Airlines are competing against each other to get a
shareholding in financially very troubled Japan Airlines. Delta
first announced its intention to buy into JAL, with American quickly
saying it too wished to buy in, and now British Airways and Qantas are
watching anxiously too.
There's a lot more at stake than the obvious, here. On the face of
it, a small minority share-holding in JAL is hardly a game-changer for
either Delta or American. But there's an underlying big deal.
JAL is currently a Oneworld alliance member, and Oneworld has
transitioned from being perhaps the strongest of the three airline
alliances to now being perhaps the weakest of the three alliances.
If Delta buys into JAL, you can bet they will pressure JAL to switch
from Oneworld to Skyteam (which DL belongs to). This would
massively weaken Oneworld, the alliance that AA, BA and QF all belong
to. So it has become a much higher-stakes game to see which
airline can buy into JAL.
Talking about American Airlines, here's an
interesting article about how
both UA and AA are offering flights between Heathrow and Brussels this
I completely agree with the writer's analysis - the
airlines are doing it not because there's anything approaching a good
sense need to fly their long-haul planes on this short 200 mile route,
but rather it is a way of maintaining their LHR slots (that they might
otherwise lose under the 'use it or lose it' rules of congested LHR slot
allocation). Another example of how the real reason for an
airline's actions is not the obvious reason.
Talking about United, they have come up with a clever product
innovation. Called 'Premium Travel', this is a bundle of benefits
which are sometimes given for free to high level frequent fliers, but
which anyone can now buy. You get to check in two bags at no
charge, use priority security and boarding lines, get a seat in Economy
Plus (if available) and a 25% bonus on the miles earned for the flight.
A higher level product, Premium Travel Plus, gives you double miles and
access to United's lounges (as well as all the benefits of the Premium
Travel package). United says that these packages can save you up
to 50% compared to buying the components individually.
So how much does it cost? Rates vary depending on the length of
the flight, and start at $47 for Premier Travel and $84 for
Premier Travel Plus (which is good for about a 300 mile flight).
Rates can go as high as $167/298 for long journeys such as San
Francisco-Tokyo. These rates are each way, not roundtrip.
If you can be sure of getting a Economy Plus seat, and if you have two
bags to check, maybe Premier Travel makes sense. But the murkiest
part of the deal is what happens if you can't get the Economy plus seat,
or if you (or they) make a flight change that causes you to lose the
better seat. United says you'll get a refund, but how much?
And note that the bonus miles don't count towards your annual elite
Southwest continues to get more and more like the major airlines.
It has now decided to eliminate lemon slices from its onboard beverage
service, offering only lime slices instead. Apparently this is
hoped to save the airline $100,000 a year - although one has to wonder,
because presumably most people who formerly asked for a slice of lemon
will now accept a slice of lime instead.
Has airline management reduced to this -
obsessing variously over lettuce leaves and lemon slices? To put
the $100,000 into context, in the last three months alone, Southwest had
$2.6 billion in revenue (and $54 million in profit).
A more substantial policy change is also being pursued. You may
recall that Southwest's initial point of differentiation was that it
offered short distance point to point flights. Since that time the
airline has been slowly adding longer and longer flights, with many
flights now going coast to coast nonstop, and has a small amount of
But one thing has remained inviolate - no international flights.
That too is now being re-examined. Last month Southwest's CEO said the
airline was 'seriously considering' international flights to Canada,
Mexico and the Caribbean. And now their Director-Network Strategic
Planning has said the airline is also looking at service to Europe and
It does seem strange to see an airline which
became strongly successful by doing more or less the opposite of what
its competitors were doing, now becoming more and more like its
competitors. Is it merely a coincidence that Southwest's
profitability is becoming less certain at the same time?
I wrote last week about how the world as a whole, and the UK in
particular, are inappropriately obsessing on airplane flights as a
source of carbon emissions, which may or may not cause global warming,
which may or may not be occurring.
My point was - and remains -
that if we are to genuinely be concerned about some of the Armageddon
like prophecies about what may be happening to the world's eco-system
and the damage being caused by carbon emissions, surely we should treat
it seriously and focus on the most cost effective solutions and largest
Last week I pointed out that money spent on birth
control gives five times the benefit of most of the 'traditional' types
of carbon emission controls.
This week, here's a
truly amazing set of statistics about industrial growth in China.
While the west obsesses over restricting flights - an action that at
best might reduce carbon emissions by perhaps 0.1%, look what is
happening in China. A recent study suggests that China will
produce 60% of the world's carbon emissions - just for its energy
production (everything else, including Chinese aviation, is extra) by
Even after assuming a steadily diminishing rate of growth
compared to that shown during the period 2002 - 2008, China will burn
100 billion tons of coal in 2050. To put this into perspective,
the entire world consumed 16.1 billion tons in 2008. These
numbers - and their implications - are beyond comprehension.
If you're worried about carbon emissions - and even a skeptic such as
myself has to sit up and take notice when confronted by these
extraordinary numbers - how can you justify, for a single minute, any
attention at all on the miniscule impact aviation has on global carbon
emissions when China's growing energy needs alone are sufficient to
destroy the world's ecological balance?
I don't mean to pick on China unfairly. But I do mean to point out
that if there is a genuine problem with too much carbon being emitted,
we need to get serious and stop playing around with airline regulation
and focus on the enormous and currently completely unregulated
emissions elsewhere. Instead, we suffer
lunacy, perpetrated by lunatics.
Naughty Spirit Airlines has been ceremonially slapped on the wrist by
the Department of Transportation. The DoT levied a fine
on the airline due to violations of regulations to do with
advertising airfares (showing all fees and other costs), lost baggage
liability, and denied boarding compensation. But while described
as a $375,000 fine, it is actually a $215,000 fine, to be paid in four
equal installments between Oct 1 2009 and June 1 2010, with the threat
of a further $160,000 fine a year later if the airline continues to
The DoT found that Spirit bumped passengers from oversold flights but
did not provide compensation or a written notice of their rights to
compensation, and that Spirit failed to resolve baggage claims within a
reasonable period, on one occasion taking 14 months to provide
compensation. In addition, Spirit violated DoT rules by providing
compensation for delayed baggage only for the outbound leg of roundtrip
flights and only for purchases made more than 24 hours after arrival.
The airline also violated baggage-liability laws governing international
travel by refusing to accept responsibility for missing laptops and
certain other items it accepted as baggage.
Spirit also violated DoT rules requiring fare ads to state the full
price to be paid. The DoT said Spirit omitted carrier-imposed fees
from the base fare in the ad. It also failed to make available on
request a copy of the DoT's rule prohibiting discrimination against
Spirit's perfidy continued in other areas. The DoT also cited
Spirit for referring to DoT and Federal Aviation Administration
regulations when responding to consumer complaints even though the
complaints did not concern DoT or FAA rules (if I had a dollar for every
time an airline and its staff has referred to non-existent DoT/FAA rules
to justify some ridiculous action, I'd not need my annual fundraisers!).
Spirit also tried to obscure its failings by not retaining copies of
consumer complaints and not filing required reports in a timely manner.
It is good to see the DoT levying this fine, but here's an
interesting alternate viewpoint that sees our glass as air travelers
being half empty rather than half full. Bottom line : The
DoT could - and should - be much more aggressive in going after airlines
for many issues.
In a similar but different piece of news, the
Alaska Attorney General is
'cracking down' on retailers who advertise 'blowout' sales and
'everything must go' sales, with such sales tending to be ongoing rather
than temporary, and perhaps therefore designed to deceive tourists who
briefly visit a town (reminds me a bit of rug shops that seem to be in
an endless cycle of massive 'going out of business' sales in this area).
The AG says the signs found in Juneau, Ketchikan and other Southeast
shops are misleading and violate advertising regulations. The
state has sued two jewelry store owners for displaying such signs when
regular prices for the items did not exist. 'It's deceptive to the
consumer because they think they're getting some sort of reduction when
they're not,' said Assistant Attorney General Cynthia Drinkwater.
'Sometimes stores will do what essentially becomes a continuous sale.
If something is always on sale, then the sale price is the regular
This article cites two recent studies, both of which show that
when businesses spend money on travel, it benefits rather than penalizes
their bottom line. Clearly the studies require some reasonable
restrictions on the type of travel dollars spent, but one of the two
studies suggests that each dollar of prudent travel expenditure results
in an average of $3.80 in extra profit.
Wow. No more fundraisers for me.
I'm just going to fly around the country and world, hoping that every
dollar I spend brings me back $3.80!
Of course, one of the curses of frequent
fliers is the all too frequent situation whereby one catches a cold
or something more serious after a long plane journey. Sure,
the airlines continue to 'prove' that cabin air is clean and safe, but
our personal experience contradicts their proof.
Now here is potentially
good news - new improved air filtration systems that promise a
massive reduction in airborne germs. But how to get the
airlines to spend money on adding them to their planes?
new route for Amtrak? Possibly, yes, but with an
associated $517 million need for track and rolling stock investments,
the plan to add passenger rate in an Ohio densely populated region
between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati by 2011 looks far
from certain to proceed.
Even if it does proceed, how successful will
it be, with trains limited to a top speed of 79 mph (and averaging much
less)? If you want to travel from Cleveland to Cincinnati (about
4.5 hours by car according to the article, or 4 hours according to
Google maps) you're looking at 6.5 hours by train. Sure, there is
discussion about adding Wi-Fi to the train, but who really wants to
spend 6.5 hours on a train (plus time to get to the train station and
the hassle of what you do at the other end without your own
transportation, and the restrictions of fitting in with when the trains
operate) compared to the flexibility and simplicity of just getting in
your car and driving to your destination, when and how it suits you?
If train service is to be viable, it has
to be truly fast and truly frequent. Look at Britain and
Europe, where trains depart every hour or so (sometimes several times an
hour) to wherever you want to go, and take appreciably less time to get
there than driving would require. A moderately high speed train
could travel the 250 miles from Cleveland to Cincinnati in less than
2.5 hours, compared to the projected 6.5 hours of this possible new
As always, please understand that I really
like trains, and wish to see Amtrak expand and improve. But (and
again, as always) I'm far from convinced this will be a successful
enhancement to Amtrak's network - indeed, Amtrak's own projections
suggest the route would lose $17 million a year.
So - we should invest something over half a
billion dollars, then continue to pay out something more than $17
million every year, for exactly what in return? Does Amtrak really
need to invest all this money in another loss making service,
increasing its annual dependency on a government handout still further?
In other Amtrak news, they are offering a
US Rail Pass that allows for semi-unlimited travel over certain time
periods, ranging up in cost from $389. This might be good value
(depending on where you'd choose to travel), but you should understand
that the pass covers only a 'seat in carriage' fare - if you want to
upgrade to first class seating or to a sleeper roomette, you will pay
substantially more (sometimes potentially this much again for a single
However, this is a good idea on Amtrak's
part - their current services are primarily of interest to leisure
travelers, and they need to more aggressively promote themselves to
retirees and other people who are 'time rich' and can afford (and may
enjoy) the lengthy journey times involved in Amtrak travel.
Talking about rail passes, Britrail are
offering their usual winter discounts for their UK rail passes - 20% off
the usual rates.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
In an astonishing display of stupidity and naivety, the TSA said it
welcomes electronic boarding passes that show a bar code on your cell
phone screen because 'The security benefit is that the bar code cannot
be manipulated' - or so says TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis. Her quote
and related details can be seen
That is outrageous nonsense. While
there might not be readily available off-the-shelf programs that you or
I could conveniently buy from Amazon or eBay tomorrow, there are plenty
of specialized bar code print programs (and bar code reading programs)
that can be purchased by terrorists or anyone else wishing to prove a
point and create fraudulent bar coded boarding passes.
I'm in favor of electronic bar code images
on cell phones. But I don't for a minute think they add any extra
security at all; indeed, because they are a 100% 'virtual' and low
resolution document that only appears on a phone screen, they are in
many ways easier to forge than a printed out onto paper document.
How on earth can the TSA describe these as not being able to be
As you may vaguely know, although you
probably don't care, we currently have a five stage security alert level
system in place in the country. This is used to set a level of
readiness/precaution against terrorist attacks. Currently we are
on the second from top ('orange' or 'high') level of risk, and have been
on that risk level continuously since 2006.
This is nonsense, to be at the second from
top of five levels, nonstop, for three years. We have never been
at either of the lowest two levels since the system was deployed shortly
So now a
new task force is recommending we simply delete the bottom two
levels. The lowest level would not be green (low level of attack)
but instead would be yellow. Does that mean our nation will never
be able to relax again in the future? Is this an admission of
failure and of the impossibility of creating a lasting and permanent
solution to terrorist attack?
Or is the whole thing - the system as it is,
and the findings of the task force - all a load of ridiculous
bureaucratic nonsense that we're best off ignoring entirely?
Would it be too much to ask the government
to annually publish a report listing all the terrorists they have
successfully caught and convicted of plots against the US? Why
should this be secret? The terrorists for sure know if they've
been caught or not. Why can't we too have this information, so we
can all understand just what value we're getting from the billions of
dollars spent on 'security', and just what level of ongoing terrorist
attempts against us are being detected and foiled.
The chances are that the report wouldn't
cost a lot of money to create and print. My feeling is that a
detailed list of any year's terrorist convictions could be easily
listed, in big print and double spaced, on a single sheet of paper.
Perhaps if we could reduce our level of
paranoia slightly we'd have fewer situations like
this, where an airport screener decided that an X-ray image of a
pair of hair clippers and a bottle of cologne in a checked suitcase was
a grenade, causing a (mercifully brief) airport alert in
On the other hand, here's a
short video clip that shows the truly impressive effects of a liquid
bomb placed inside a bit of old plane fuselage. The potential
threat is real.
Lastly this week, would any of my annual
supporters object if I allocated some of their kindness towards
this? It would of course solely be for the purposes of
subsequently writing a review.
Many years ago I had the great good fortune
to fly a 747 simulator in what was then the Pan Am International Flight
Academy in Florida. It was 99% the same as flying the real thing -
the same sounds, the same sights, and the same physical feelings.
Truly this is the ultimate 'video game', and
if you should find yourself with free time in England, and if you
already know a little about the principles of flight (buy a copy of
Flight Simulator and practice) so as to understand what you're doing and
why, this would be an incredible thrill.
Until next week please enjoy safe travels