23 March, 2007
And welcome to Spring. We've passed the spring equinox, and for the next six months, the further north you go, the longer your days will be. If you like longer and warmer days, these six months are, more or less, the best time of year to travel to more northerly destinations, with the other six months being better times to travel to more southerly destinations.
Our Russian cruise is now formally closed, with 36 of us heading off to Moscow in early July. But as one door closes, another opens, and now is a great time to consider joining our Christmas Markets cruise this December.
Last year's cruise was a tremendous success, and we've added still more itinerary enhancements to make this year's cruise even better. Details here.
Please join us if you can.
May I comment some more on the sense of wonder I have with respect to my new fiber optic internet connection. It really is as I said in last week's newsletter - quite transformational. What incredible times we live in - I remember back to modems with a download speed of 300 baud and an upload speed of 75 baud. So, from those speeds in 1981 until now, download speeds have increased to 5 Mbps - 17,000 times faster, and upload speeds have increased to 2 Mbps - 27,000 times faster, all in 25 years.
Staggering. Imagine if cars or planes had improved on the same scale - or even just doubled once in speed; wouldn't that change our lives amazingly too? Instead, flying often takes longer than it did 25 years ago, and while the double nickel speed limit has mostly gone, congestion makes normal car travel slower than it was back then.
Progress is a funny and selective thing.
In 1965 Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, first uttered what is now referred to as Moore's Law - he said the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double every 18 or 24 months (there are differing stories about the time frame). Although his law was focused primarily on the increasing sophistication of chips, his law has held surprisingly accurately in many elements of the computer industry, and the increase in data comm speeds above also represents a doubling somewhere between every 18 and every 24 months.
Another example occurred to me this week when I was updating the web page about USB Flash drives. When I first wrote about USB flash drives in March 2004, I bought a 256MB card for $50. Currently, you can get a 2GB card for $25 or less, and a 4GB card for the same cost as my 256MB card three years ago. The cost of memory has dropped sixteen times in three years - that is a doubling every nine months, twice the rate of Moore's Law.
But are we now approaching a point where it can't drop any further? Current technologies are at close to their limits. Perhaps so.
Coming back to the comparison between electronics and airplanes, it is interesting to match the Airbus A-380, the latest and largest plane to cross the Atlantic (its first 'proving flight' was this Monday), with the first plane to cross the Atlantic, the Spirit of St Louis, 80 years ago in 1927.
And most of that growth was in the early years. The last few decades have seen no doubling of any relevant parameter. Compare, for example, early model 747s with the new A-380.
But, enough of such disappointment. Turning back to the sometimes more exciting world of electronics, this week sees the second part of my new series on GPS navigation units :
This Week's Feature Column : How to Choose a GPS Navigation Unit : I list 69 different considerations and things to look for when selecting the right GPS for you. And if you think that's too complex, don't worry - I'm continuing the series with hands-on detailed looks at specific units, and rating them against all 69 factors.
Dinosaur watching : Surprising and unsurprising news from Delta this week. The unsurprising news : Despite bold past promises to the contrary, Delta has asked for a further extension of time to submit its exclusive plan to the bankruptcy court for its exit from Chapter 11.
Even more unsurprising - the judge has agreed, extending their deadline now to 1 June.
Surprising news : Delta's reorganization plan will not include a 'jackpot' payoff to current CEO Gerald Grinstein. Unlike the United reorganization plan which lavishly rewarded United's CEO and other top executives with 8% of the new airline's stock, Delta CEO Gerald Grinstein is not accepting any extra pay or bonus or stock when his airline exits from Chapter 11. Indeed, he stands to lose about $1 million when the shares he held in Delta are zeroed out as part of the reorganization. In contrast, United CEO Tilton received a package worth $33 million that vests over four years.
Instead, Delta has set aside funds to share among all its non-management and management staff. Nonmanagement employees at Delta will get 3.5% of the company's new shares approx $350 million. They will also would get a lump-sum cash payment of $130 million, $250 million in retirement contributions, $60 million in pay increases and another $35 million if Delta hits certain operational-performance targets this year.
A previously announced profit-sharing plan would give employees an additional $170 million in next year's first quarter, if Delta remains on track to meet its 2007 financial targets. Pilots aren't included because their union struck a separate deal that includes a stake in the airline.
In total, these benefits represent about $25,000 per employee. Well done, Delta.
Here's another lesson in how not to treat your most valuable customers. Thank you, US Airways, for this vivid lesson.
The EU Transport Ministers unanimously voted to support an Open Skies Agreement with the US on Thursday. As discussed last week, this would make it easier for any airline to fly from anywhere in Europe to the US and vice versa, and also removes the restriction on additional airlines flying between Heathrow and the US (currently only BA, VS, AA and UA are allowed to fly between LHR and the US).
Most major US carriers supported the agreement, which took four years to negotiate, and which will take effect from 31 March 2008.
What impact will it have on air services and air fares? Probably not much. Virgin (VS) is talking about maybe flying from other European cities to the US, but it is unlikely that any flights they'll add will have much overall impact on the market. And as for flying to Heathrow, do you really care, when flying to London, whether you arrive at Heathrow or Gatwick?
After the massive negative reactions to several high profile airplane delays where passengers were trapped on planes for up to eleven hours - planes that were sitting on the tarmac at airports, but unable/unwilling to take-off or allow their passengers to deplane, it seems the airlines are now - surprise surprise - massively over-reacting in the other direction. At the slightest hint of any weather problems, they'll cancel flights every which way, as happened this last weekend, causing hundreds of thousands of passengers to suffer from delayed or cancelled flights.
Let's clearly understand one thing. Weather delays are not unforeseeable acts of God which can't be planned for or solved. They are just as much someone's fault as are any other operational problem. There's almost no weather related problem which can't be solved with the application of sufficient money and resource, and most of the weather problems and delays boil down to lack of ground support resources to clear runways and taxiways and to de-ice planes.
So the airlines absolutely do not deserve a 'Get out of Jail Free' pass when they choose to cancel flights for weather related issues, except for the exceedingly rare case when it is simply unsafe to take-off, land, or fly. The real world doesn't cut us any slack if we miss things because of weather - births, deaths, marriages, business meetings, and everything else all continues apace, and we suffer the consequences of missing such events. So why should the airlines be able to avoid similar consequences?
Part of the reason for the escalating service problems can be seen in the following statistic - the airlines employed 2.6% fewer staff in January 2007 than they did in January 2006. There was a larger decrease in each of the two preceding years, while concurrently air passenger counts have been increasing.
More nickel and diming in travel taxes. Airports want to increase the amount they can charge us as their 'Passenger Facility Charge'. This charge, first introduced in 1992 at up to $3 per airport we fly from, through or to, is currently capped at no more than $4.50, and the FAA is asking for it to be increased further, to $6. But even this isn't enough for some airports, who say the cap should rise to $7.50.
Over $50 billion has been raised by these fees since their 1992 introduction.
Proponents of the fee increase - airport operators - use the specious reasoning that because air travel is increasing, they need more income to fund the cost of infrastructure improvements. Are they just plain stupid, or are they deliberately ignoring the fact that because these fees are generated on per passenger traffic, any growth in passenger numbers already automatically increases the fees they receive?
Indeed, it is probably fair to say that an (eg) 20% increase in passenger numbers only requires a 10% - 15% increase in servicing costs, which at the same time bringing in a full 20% increase in fee income. To use this logic more correctly, growing passenger numbers should allow for the per passenger fee level to slowly drop rather than rapidly increase.
But have you ever met any type of government official, anywhere, who doesn't leap at the chance to tax people who can't vote him out of office?
But am I being overly cynical? Perhaps so. In an AP article today, Ben DeCosta, the Atlanta airport's general manager, seeks to reassure us and quell my doubts. He is quoted as saying 'We as airport directors would not be asking for an approval of a PFC more than what we need'.
Good news for Virgin America. Their long delayed plans for starting service received a boost earlier this week when the DoT announced a tentative approval to Virgin's amended application for an Airline Operating Certificate. There is a three week period during which other interested parties can appeal their decision, at which point, assuming no appeals, approval will be granted.
Bad news for the new airline's CEO, however. The airline had offered to fire their CEO, Fred Reid, if the DoT felt that would make them seem more independent of Sir Richard Branson. The DoT accepted their offer, and have required Mr Reid's dismissal. Mr Reid had formerly been with Delta and joined Virgin America way back in 2004.
I wonder if the DoT has noticed that Virgin America's Chairman, Don Carty (formerly AA's CEO), holds dual US/Canadian citizenship? Would that also concern them in terms of the new airline being controlled by non-US interests?
The new airline hopes to start service this summer.
Another Virgin is also setting its eyes on the US. Virgin Blue, the domestic Australian airline, has announced its plans to acquire seven 777 aircraft to allow it to operate services to the US, expected to start sometime in late 2008. The seven planes would be enough to provide two roundtrips a day between cities such as Sydney or Brisbane and Los Angeles or San Francisco (hey - how about Seattle?).
At present, only Qantas and United offer nonstop service between Australia and the US. Another airline would add some much needed competition. Air Canada applied, over a year ago, for permission to operate LAX-SYD service, and SQ regularly asks for permission to fly the route too, but to date it has always been rebuffed by the Australian government. On occasion one also sees suggestions that possibly Delta might consider adding service too - this would make sense because the alliance they are affiliated with - Skyteam - currently has no carrier on that route.
It is close to impossible to get a free upgrade with BA to first class - unless you're dead.
BA have done it again, and 'upgraded' a coach class passenger who died to first class for the balance of her flight. They also upgraded the passenger's daughter, who unsurprisingly proceeded to wail and cry about her loss.
Not only was the first class passenger who found himself seated next to a dead person and adjacent to her demonstrative daughter somewhat surprised, but all the first class passengers received a special bonus - they were kept on board for an extra hour after the plane landed so that some could be interviewed by police.
BA is refusing any type of compensation to the first class passengers, most of who probably expected, when paying $10,000+ for their ticket, that they'd enjoy a quiet uninterrupted flight and the ability to be first off the plane upon landing.
So let me ask you, in an instant email reader survey, what you would suggest BA to do next time they have a coach class passenger die :
Please click on the link that best matches your suggestion; it will cause an empty email to be created with your response coded into the subject line. Answers will be tabulated and reported on next week, and forwarded on to BA for their future guidance.
Possibly one of the most unusual places in the world is the United Arab Emirates. The city of Dubai is an unbelievable place growing at an astonishing pace every which way, and here's a good three page article on the destination.
However, the question it rhetorically almost asks - 'Why would any American go visit Dubai?' (other than for business reasons) remains relevant. Perhaps in recognition of that problem, neighboring city (and capital of the UAE) Abu Dhabi is spending a staggering €400 million (US$532 million) to be able to use the name of the French museum Le Louvre for a new art museum. The money buys the right to use the name for 30 years (ie $17.8 million a year, and secures various other cooperations with Le Louvre.
The phrase 'more money than sense' springs to mind.
Abu Dhabi is not content merely with spawning a second Louvre, it is also developing the world's largest Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry.
And so on and so on. The superlatives never seem to stop. Maybe we need a Travel Insider Tour to get some first hand exposure to the extraordinary phenomenon that is the UAE?
Something else which seems deserving of superlatives is the newly refurbished St Pancras railway station in London. Here's a fascinating article about this and Britain's high speed rail link, via the Chunnel, to Europe.
This article suggests the FCC may be backing away from removing its ban on using cell phones in flight. But note the closing paragraphs. While cell phone use may remain prohibited, if airlines proceed with their plan to allow passengers access to broadband internet, what's to stop them from using Skype or any other VoIP service to make and receive phone calls?
This Week's Security Horror Story : In 2003, the Canadian Government's Security and Defence Committee issued a report roundly lambasting the nation's aviation security, pointing out gaping holes in the security procedures. What has happened in the four years since then?
According to the same committee, its report has been met with 'vagueness, obfuscation, non-response and seemingly endless procrastination'. It adds 'So many of the gaping security holes we drew attention to in 2003 are still gaping holes more than four years later'.
Some airports, they say, have up to 50 different organizations variously responsible for elements of security. And while passenger numbers have increased, airport police numbers have decreased, for example, from 290 at Toronto's Pearson Airport in 1995 down to 162 in 2005. And only 2% of airport workers are subject to the same security searches that passengers must undergo.
The global warming bandwagon continues to gather speed, with increasing focus being misdirected on the role of air travel as a contributor to global warming. On Thursday night, the esteemed Drudge Report had a headline 'Tourists cause global warming'.
Two comments in response. Firstly, global air traffic in total is estimated to contribute a mere 2% of total CO2 emissions. Focusing on this 2%, while ignoring much larger other factors, is foolish.
Secondly, here's a fascinating - and inevitably controversial - program what was screened on British tv a couple of weeks ago. Watch as much of it as time allows. It's balancing message needs to be heard and re-heard.
We need to be careful at making public policy on complex scientific topics based on emotional soundbite (il)logic. One interesting case in point is windpower. Is it a clean renewable ecologically friendly source of free power? Or not? Here's an interesting BBC article (and sensible reader comments) that provides a surprising view of this issue.
Turning to a more positive ecological thought, look at this amazing picture of a 'fire rainbow' - and the name has nothing to do with fire or global warming.
This isn't a rainbow in the traditional sense—it is caused by light passing through wispy, high-altitude cirrus clouds. The sight occurs only when the sun is very high in the sky (more than 58° above the horizon), and when the hexagonal ice crystals that make up cirrus clouds are shaped like thick plates with their faces parallel to the ground.
When light enters through a vertical side face of such an ice crystal and leaves from the bottom face, it refracts, or bends, in the same way that light passes through a prism. If a cirrus's crystals are aligned just right, the whole cloud lights up in a spectrum of colors.
This particular arc spanned several hundred square miles of sky on the WA/ID border in June 2006, and lasted for about an hour.
Lastly this week, one of the perks - to me - of an international journey is a chance to buy some duty free liquor on the way home. In theory there is a limit of one liter of alcohol per returning US citizen, but in practice, Customs officers universally allow you to bring back two liters per person (and of anything at any price), so my single malt whisky collection increased by two large bottles every visit. However, my own indulgence pales into insignificance compared to this gentleman. But I wonder what the allowance is in China for its returning citizens?
It isn't only drink, of course. I'm reminded of when I had my travel company. One time a couple bought our bargain basement one week in Australia package for $999 per person and spent their week in Sydney. On their return, they proudly told me how they'd bought $12,000 worth of opals (at one of the more overpriced opal stores!) while down there. I didn't have the heart to tell them they'd paid way over the odds and probably could have bought them for the same price at their local jeweler.
Next week I'll be writing to you from Florida. It will be a very short newsletter, due to attending a trade show about mobile phones and related technologies. But I will be reviewing a new GPS unit I'm taking down with me.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
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