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Friday 8 August, 2008
As the 737 I was flying pulled into its gate
at SFO, the captain spoke over the public
address system 'Ah, folks, if you look off to the left hand side, you
can see the new Emirates Airbus A380. Yes, it is the largest
passenger plane in the world.'
He spoke in the envious admiring tones that
I was to hear repeatedly when discussing the plane with 'outsiders' that
day. Because, on Monday, I was relishing my role as an 'insider' -
I was flying down to San Francisco so as to enjoy a two hour
demonstration flight on this massive new airplane.
It is a long
time since a new plane evoked excitement and passion among the traveling
public in general, but there can be no doubt at how the huge double decker A380 has done exactly that.
And what an experience the flight was!
It was the first time I've gone for a joyride on an airplane - a flight
purely to enjoy the experience of flying - since, well, perhaps since
flying on Concorde over 20 years ago.
Emirates - an airline blessed with
outstanding profitability through their own
high standards of service
and management - chose to pull out all the stops for a lavish
extravaganza, underscoring their own excitement at taking delivery of the
first of some 58 A380s they have on order, and their pride in being the
first airline to start A380 service to the US (flying between JFK and
I guess if your airline makes almost US$950
million in annual profits you have a bit of extra budget to spend on
such things, and - well; perhaps the most fun measure of the
extravaganza they staged is my calculation that the flight, even with
jet fuel at the high cost that it is, probably ended up costing them
more for the countless bottles of finest Dom Perignon champagne they
were opening and pouring nonstop than they spent on jetfuel
(assuming the other passengers drank as much as I did!).
I've reviewed a number of airlines in the
past, including a review of
business class service, but it seemed to me, after this wonderful
experience, the best topic for my review should not be just the Emirates
A380 service, but instead the broader subject of the plane itself.
And once I got started on chronicling the fascinating history of how the
A380 evolved and came to be built, what was planned to be a short
article became very much longer. I'm splitting it up into
four parts, with the first two parts available this week and the second
two parts (including the actual review of the Emirates flight) coming
For those of you who can't wait, or who
don't want to read all four parts of the article, the quick 'executive
summary' is that Airbus really triumphed with this new plane, which
offers tangible benefits to passengers in all classes of service, and
the Emirates cabin design (complete with a couple of spacious shower
cubicles in first class) is well up to their usual high standard.
Bravo to Airbus for an excellent plane, and bravo also to Emirates for a
wonderful adaptation of the plane for their passengers.
And, for those of you who do want to enjoy
the full story, here now is :
Week's Feature Column : The Development of the Airbus A380 :
Designing the biggest passenger airplane in the world is a massive task,
because you have no guidelines to work from. In these first two
parts of a four part series, read how Boeing failed and Airbus succeeded
at this challenge.
Dinosaur watching : Continuing the
A380 theme for a paragraph or two more, the A380 deliveries are finally
starting to speed up. Singapore Airlines now has five, Emirates of
course has received its first, and on 19 September Qantas becomes the
third member of this exclusive group of airlines (in stark contrast, none of the sixteen
customers who between them have ordered 202 A380s are American
Qantas will receive two more A380s before
the end of the year, and will start using them on commercial flights on
20 October, flying from Melbourne to Los Angeles - a flight which
also flaunts the huge range of the A380 and its ability to fly nonstop
between Los Angeles and Melbourne without any weight restrictions
(unlike the 747).
Or maybe not. Qantas has threatened to
move the new A380 flights to San Francisco unless Los Angeles upgrades
its facilities. San Francisco has the best A380 facilities of any
US airport, with three (yes, three) jetways to connect simultaneously to an A380 at its
A380 gate. A Qantas spokesperson said the airline would not put up
with passengers having to exit its planes at remote gates and then bus
to the airport terminal. The threat has LAX officials puzzled, and
they claim the airport already has two jetways at an A380 compatible
gate, with more to follow. Details
And a news item with an unexpected tie-in to
the A380, much to the chagrin of American Airlines.
An AA flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu
turned round and returned to LAX after some type of smell or mist or
smoke was detected on board. The pilot declared an emergency so as
to get priority access to the airport, brought the plane straight in,
landed it, and brought the plane to a complete halt on the runway.
Although the mysterious whatever-it-was may have still been present,
there was no fire detected, the plane was functioning normally, and
passengers okay. So far, so good.
What happened next is a bit puzzling, but
apparently some of the flight attendants then decided - on their own,
and without telling the captain - to open some (but not all) of the
emergency exits and get passengers to evacuate down the slides.
Can you imagine the surprise in the cockpit?
There the two pilots are, doing their safety checks after an emergency
landing, determining everything is perfect, and they're about to then
taxi the plane in to a gate when, perhaps :
'Hey, Bill - what's that red light that just
lit up on the dash over there?'
'I dunno, Bob. Never seen it come on
before. Let me wipe the dust off its label.'
'Umm, looks like it is the emergency slide
'How did that happen?'
'Beats me. Must be a faulty
'Write it up in the maintenance log...
Hey - look out the window! There are people on the runway.
Where are they all coming from?'
American's flight attendants have the
authority to unilaterally deploy the slides if they feel there is a
serious and imminent threat but normally they check with the captain
first. Apparently, in their excitement, they forgot to check with
Oh - the Emirates A380 tie-in? Television camera crews had
gathered at the airport to film the arrival of the A380, which was due
shortly after the AA 'emergency', and so were on hand to film the whole
embarrassing situation, something that, for sure, American Airlines
definitely had not wished to happen.
You can see one such video
clip on this
page (the second of the two clips on the page is the less
Ooops. One suspects (and hopes) the flight attendants are being
given a lesson in emergency procedures.
Airline July traffic data is emerging, with some surprising winners and
losers. Biggest surprise is Southwest; with a slight drop in
passenger numbers, even though they increased capacity for the month
(compared to same month last year). Southwest reported a decline
in Revenue Passenger Miles from 7 billion down to 6.9 billion, even
though it increased capacity by 5.2%.
The drop in Southwest numbers is even more puzzling when contrasted with
an uptick for Northwest (up 3.9%).
JetBlue had a 1.7% increase - not so surprising, and good to see.
Other dinosaurs also performed closer to expectations - US Airways was
down 1.7%, American was down 3.5% domestically, and United was down
Delta/Northwest merger lurched a bit further forward this week, securing
clearance from the European Commission for the merger. The
Commission said the merger would not hurt competition in transatlantic
markets. Still needed is US Dept of Justice approval and a
unusually cynical take on Sir Richard Branson, an industry
personality who usually seems to be given very positive write-ups in the
Occasionally a friend asks my advice about
joining a program that offers them a chance to become an instant
travel agent. Typically these deals cost about $500, and
promise you an official travel agent ID card that will get you huge
industry discounts when you travel yourself, and further promise you the
chance to make big money selling travel to all your friends.
The reality is, of course, very different.
The official travel agent ID card is not an official one. The huge
industry discounts don't exist. And you'll probably not sell any
travel to your friends, and if you do, you'll get maybe a 5% commission.
One of the bigger name enterprises offering
this sort of deal is YourTravelBiz.com. Earlier this week the
California Attorney General sued them for $25 million in fines and
restitution for people who'd bought into their programs, saying
YourTravelBiz.com operates a gigantic
pyramid scheme that is immensely profitable to a few individuals on
top and a complete rip-off for most everyone else. Today's lawsuit
seeks to shut down the company's unlawful operation before more
people are exploited by the scam.
Apparently in 2007 the company (known as YTB)
took in over $103 million in fees, but paid out only $13 million in
travel commissions, and nearly two thirds of all YTB members didn't earn
a single commission during the entire year.
here. Until the matter is resolved, could I suggest that you
think carefully before buying in to the YTB operation....
Where do you think the most expensive
street in the world is to buy property? The answer can be
This Week's Security Horror Story :
It is necessary to remind ourselves that our Constitution was framed by
individuals who did not like and distrusted government. The
Constitution seeks to limit and control government, it does not seek to
empower and expand it.
In particular, let's keep these two
Amendments in mind (full text of the 'Bill of Rights'
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses,
papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,
shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon
probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly
describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be
No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property,
without due process of law...
The point I'm making is that we have
constitutional rights not to be searched without the issuance of a
specific search warrant detailing the things to be searched/seized and
the probable cause for so doing, and that we are protected against the
government taking anything of ours without due process of law.
Now it is true these rights were enshrined
well before iPods and computers were imagined, but not before
international travel existed, and there's no reason to believe that
these rights only relate to such property as was in existence 200+ years
So how then to justify the latest
announcement (uncritically accepted and reported as fact
here) that US federal agents (ie Customs officers, but presumably
any other US federal agent as well) have been 'given new powers' to
seize our laptops and other electronic devices, without any suspicion
of wrongdoing on our part, and to hold them for unspecified periods.
What are these new powers? Where did
they come from? Who bestowed them upon the federal agents?
And what was their authority to do so? Most of all, how do these
new powers co-exist with our rights under the Fourth and Fifth
Amendments to the Constitution?
It goes without saying that this latest
assault on our liberties and our rights is being justified as 'needed to
prevent terrorism'. But I don't see that blanket waiver of our
rights being mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.
Okay, so maybe you and hopefully I don't
have anything to fear from these so-called anti-terror policies.
Except that - we do. Even if we have nothing to hide on our
laptops, in our iPods and cameras, and so on, who among us wants Customs
agents to be able to take all our electronic gadgets on a whim, and keep
them for maybe a month (maybe longer) and to run the risk that when they
are eventually returned to us, the data on them has been damaged or
What's more, this is inefficient and bad
operationally for the Customs people. They should be required to
focus their attentions on cases where they have specific suspicions that
they can formally state (even if only internally to a supervisor) before
devoting the massive resource it takes to impound a computer and
forensically scan it for hidden and encrypted files, and to read through
potentially gigabytes of data, looking for evidence of terrorist
Someone needs to control and focus the
energies of the people who are supposedly fighting terrorism on our
behalf such that they are validly directed at potential terrorists, not
at you and me.
We're not the enemy - a fact too often
Do you remember the disappearance of
adventurer Steve Fossett last year? His plane disappeared without
trace in September - I lightheartedly joked that maybe his disappearance
was to do with him stumbling too close to Area 51.
Here's an even more bizarre
possible explanation for his mysterious disappearance.
Talking about mysterious disappearances, as
the proud and doting father of a four year old daughter myself, I find
this following item hard to comprehend. An Israeli couple with five children inadvertently left the youngest, a
four year old girl, at the airport, boarding their plane and flying away
A policeman found the girl
wandering around Ben Gurion airport earlier this week looking for her mother. The family had been running late for their Paris flight,
and having 18
suitcases and duty free shopping and the five children to worry about,
somehow they missed the youngest daughter in the confusion. It was only
when airport police contacted their flight, and they were informed that
their child had been left behind, did they realize she was missing.
The child was placed on the next flight to
Paris, along with an airline staff member.
It seems that once every year or two plans
are announced for a new type of 'everyman' plane - a plane that we are
all expected to rush out, buy, and put in our garage next to our SUV.
Usually such concepts are laughable and self-evidently (to all except
the optimistic developer and his backers) doomed to failure.
But here's the
latest example of such a plane, and I find myself quite attracted to
it (a shame about its sticker price, but to some Travel Insider readers,
it is far from prohibitively priced).
Lastly, today marks the start of the 2008
Olympics, being held in Beijing and elsewhere in China.
The Chinese have apparently solved the
chronic pollution problems in Beijing that have worried the world.
Apparently the thick smog like looking stuff that currently envelopes
Beijing is not pollution at all, we are told. Oh no, it is merely
nice clean benevolent mist. Not everyone is quite so sure
harmless nature of this 'mist' however (oh dear, this is going to be
another issue of the newsletter that is blocked in China, I fear).
Many of us believe the Olympics today are
an over-developed, bureaucratic, political and commercial monstrosity
that has mutated terribly and lost sight of its original praiseworthy
roots as being a forum where amateur athletics could meet and compete
and celebrate the best elements of sportsmanship in a spirit of
uncomplicated international camaraderie.
What were the Olympics like, way back then?
Thanks to reader Fred for finding this
charming and delightful account of the Olympics 100 years ago, held
in 1908 in London.
Progress is a funny thing, isn't it.
Until next week,
please enjoy safe travels