Version of Newsletter] [Newsletter
Archives] [Advertising Info] [Website Home Page] [Please Donate Here]
Friday, 11 September, 2009
This week will be the final week of our
PBS style annual reader fundraiser -
although I hasten to add that support is, of course, welcome at any time
The last week has seen the number of
supporters swell up to a heartening new total of 611 people.
Special thanks in particular to the latest 'super supporters' - Leah M, Suzanne C, Charles J, Dean V,
Antoinette W, Ken A, Teri M at
Travelrest, Steve W,
and Richard H.
We need just nineteen more readers to
help out, and we will then reach this year's target of 630 supporters.
This is tremendously encouraging, and I'm now hoping for 20 or more
extra supporters, so we can exceed our (modest) target, even in these
tough times. Thank you to all 611 supporters so far, and to the 20+
extra who I hope will respond to this last call.
I'm not going to go on at length again about
the vital need for your support - you've probably read this in the last
few newsletters already. Instead, here is an extraordinary letter
from a reader that says things I can't say, and better than I could say.
As you hopefully also know, I never wish
anyone to send me more than they conveniently can afford, and in this
case, I ended up refusing to accept this person's contribution, because
it did not feel fair and equitable.
I am enclosing a check for $50, in
response to your 2009 Fundraising Drive. This is twice the
amount I sent you last year, even though times are tough for me
(unemployed for a year and four months, no end in sight). I
can see how much work you put into The Travel Insider, and I feel
you deserve a contribution from every one of your readers for that
reason. Frankly, I am shocked that so few respond to your
Even though I cannot afford to travel
right now, I learn a lot from your writing. I look forward to
the day (and I know it is coming) when I join some of the tours you
So, I close
this year's fundraising drive with a request - can you too now help
us reach our target, and send in some part of the $50 that reader K so
kindly offered but which I didn't feel able to accept?
I'll give you a final total of reader
support next week, and will trouble you no more this year on this
Today is 9/11 - eight years after that
9/11. And, almost to the day, we have a would-be hijacker who
succeeds in smuggling not just a box cutter but a mock bomb, including
three juice cans filled with sand, wires, electronics and a stop watch
on board a plane flying from Cancun to Mexico City. This was not
something he hid in his shoes - it was much too big! It was simply
brought through security and onto the plane in a carry-on suitcase.
Okay, sure, it was a domestic flight from
Cancun to Mexico City, and as such not subject to US oversight or
security regulations. But you could still have been on that
flight, and a bomb is a bomb, a hijack is a hijack.
My question, eight years after that fateful
day in 2001 is simply this : Are we safe? Are we safer?
And so, for this week's article, I'm featuring a column I wrote five
years ago, on the third anniversary of 9/11. The article has not
been updated in five years. But there is almost zero need to
update it - sadly, almost nothing has changed in five years, unless you
feel that the need to now give our full names and dates of birth, or to
have no more than 3 oz of liquid per container are positive steps that
enhance our safety.
This Week's Feature Column :
Are We Safer? Are We Safe?
: Written three years after 9/11, but largely the same story four,
five, six, seven and now eight years later. The situation is much
the same, as is the 'security' with the only notable development for
most of us being being new restrictions introduced on liquids and having
to match our full name and date of birth to our ID.
One of my frequent laments is that
airport security remains an ineffective charade - whenever its
effectiveness is tested, it seems that about 20% of weapons continue
to be smuggled through X-ray machines undetected, the same as has
been the case for many years past.
In other words, five terrorists go to the
airport. Maybe four will be caught, but the fifth will get through
security undetected. And, if they're clever (believe it or nor,
terrorists can be clever) maybe two or three (or even all five) might
get their weapons through 'security' with no problems at all.
What is to be done? A hint
comes from the
news this week from Britain of the 'liquid bombers' being found
guilty of attempting to blow up planes in the mid-Atlantic. These
people, who were the cause of the 3 oz liquid limits we now suffer, were
not caught at airport security. They were caught by good old
fashioned police work and counter-terrorism intelligence, long
before they headed to the airport.
The most surprising thing to me is that the
9/11 events have not been repeated in some form or another. We
still have gaping vulnerabilities - not just in aviation, but in
every other part of our lives, and in every other place where people
congregate. A terrorist group could kill more people by bombing a
single multiplex cinema while a popular movie is showing than the total
number who died on 9/11/01 (266 passengers on the four planes, 2595 at
the WTC site and 125 at the Pentagon - a total of 2986 people).
I'm not saying we should discontinue airport
security. But perhaps we need to recognize that airport
security is only our last ditch, final, desperate, and imperfect attempt
at impeding only one type of terrorist attack, and task some of the
billions of dollars and tens of thousands of employees towards more
counter-terrorism resources to detect and catch terrorists long before
they get to the security line, or to the multiplex, or to anywhere else.
One last thing. Is it only me who
feels some sadness that we've yet to complete
the memorial on the WTC
site? It isn't as though we're talking about a massively
overwhelming piece of construction, either.
Dinosaur watching : Do you
remember, from time to time, whenever one of the major airlines
'threatens' us with bankruptcy and closing its operations entirely, all
sorts of 'experts' pop up and proclaim that the loss of the airline and
its services would be very harmful to the nation as a whole, for reasons
that are always vague and unclear.
Now here's an interesting statistic to put
such claims into perspective. It is projected in
this article that airline capacity at the end of this year will be
6.8% down from capacity at the same time last year. That mightn't
sound like much, but it equals the entire market share of US Airways.
Add to that the 10% or so reduction in passenger numbers in the year
prior to then, and you're talking about not just one but perhaps two
airline equivalents being taken out of the market.
So the airlines are voluntarily shrinking
themselves by an entire major airline (or even two) capacity share
equivalent, and there's little appreciable harm or even inconvenience
being suffered by any of us. Let's remember that the next time an
airline threatens us with closure. We can manage just fine without
The poor airlines - not only are they
suffering from reduced passenger numbers, but they're also suffering
from jet fuel costs that are starting to rise upwards once more, right?
Well, actually, wrong on both counts.
Firstly, I have never accepted that the
capacity cuts are because of shrinking passenger numbers. Let me
ask you - is it your perception that flights are emptier these days than
they used to be? Absolutely not! Capacity cuts are
causing the reductions in passenger numbers, rather than vice
versa, as is confirmed by the fact that capacity cuts are often
preceding the reductions in passenger numbers (ie flight loadings are
increasing). My three part article series written in January about
airlines (and cited approvingly in no less an august journal than
The Economist) is even more true today than it was eight months ago.
Secondly, jet fuel. We all know that
petrol prices bottomed out and have been inching upwards again, and I
now find myself sometimes paying over $3 a gallon (for regular
unleaded). However, the price of jet fuel is only mildly linked to
the price of automobile gasoline. So - get this. Jet fuel
prices in July reached a five year low (see
this article). Jet fuel has never been cheaper at any time
between July 2004 and now.
And, thirdly (a bonus point), let's not
forget that the airlines today are leaner (and meaner!) than they
ever have been. Their staff are paid less and work harder.
They've saved themselves 10% in travel agent commissions. They've
saved themselves more in call center staff, and even in checkin counter
staff, using websites and machines instead. Airlines and their
staffing today are vastly more efficient/productive than they formerly
So tell me again about the need for fuel
surcharges, and baggage fees, and every other bit of financial pain and
travel inconvenience the airlines are foisting on us? Rather than
'sharing their pain' with us, shouldn't they be celebrating some of the
most wonderful underlying business fundamentals they've ever had?
Oh - yes, that's right. Our recession.
The collapse in business travel. Well, at the risk of stating the
obvious, the collapse in business travel isn't quite as the airlines
define it. Business people are still traveling. But
they've revolted and rebelled against the airlines and their
ridiculously high fees for appallingly poor 'first class' service, and
are now flying in the back of the plane on the cheapest fares they can
The airlines kept on 'saving money' by
removing lettuce leaves off their first class salads until it got to the
point that people started to realize 'hey, first class isn't worth it
any more' and stopped paying the exorbitant price premiums the airlines
As much as the airlines try and blame
everyone and everything else; they are, and have been, responsible
for their own destinies and their own failures.
Here's another transparently ridiculous
reason for raising baggage fees. Ryanair said that because its
average fare has decreased some 20% this year, it needs to raise its
baggage fees. This is nonsense - no-one forced the airline to drop
its fares; it is simply shifting how it collects money from its
passengers. As for their increases in baggage fees, they're not
too bad for your first bag, but if you're traveling with two bags, the
second bag will now cost three times what it formerly cost (new price,
each way, of £/€70 if checked in at the airport, half that online).
And don't think you can outsmart the airline
by simply squashing everything into one big bag. They impose a
33lb per bag weight limit. With an empty suitcase sometimes
weighing half that, you try to pack a week or two of vacation clothing
into a 16lb weight limit!
With Ryanair, two checked bags could now add
€200 (almost US$300) to your ticket price.
The good news : The Senate has now
passed the Travel Promotion Act in a 79 - 19 vote. The bill
has already been passed by the Congress. This will create a new
Corporation for Travel Promotion as part of the Commerce Department, and
will be tasked with promoting the US as a tourist destination to people
in other countries.
The even better news : There will be
no cost to us as taxpayers for this new government department.
Huh? Which, alas, leads to -
The bad news : The cost of this new
program will be recovered by charging visitors from 'visa waiver'
countries (countries where visitors to the US don't need to get a full
visa prior to traveling) a $10 per visit fee. Which is sort of an
extension of the concept long espoused by cities, counties, and states
when they charge visitors to their region taxes on things like rental
cars and hotel rooms.
Why is this bad news? Because other
countries, especially in the EU, are somewhat upset about this, and are
threatening reciprocity - ie, they may start charging us $10 fees
when we visit their countries, too. Don't think these countries
are bluffing. They'd love to be able to charge visitors rather
than taxpayers for their own longstanding tourist development
organizations, and now that the US is about to become the first country
to actually take the step of charging visitors for the cost of
encouraging them to visit, expect to see a spiral of other countries
start charging visitors more and more fees for more and more things.
I remember when the total taxes on an
international air ticket were less than $10. Today they can be
anywhere from $100 to $200. What's another $10 on top of so much
already, you might ask? But that's the logic that has seen less
than $10 in total balloon out to sometimes more than $200 in the last 15
- 20 years. We're being nickeled and dimed to death with taxes
and fees on our tickets.
And where are the airlines in all of this?
Do they not realize this $100 - $200 is a disincentive to us to travel?
For that matter, do they not realize this $100 - $200 is money that, if
it weren't going to the various governments and other taxing/fee-levying
authorities, could be going to their pockets instead? Maybe the
blow out in fees for international travel is another part of the reason
why airfares are so soft and passenger numbers so low?
So how should this new department be
funded? Simple. The people who benefit should be the
people who fund it. And we are the people who benefit.
Studies consistently show that every dollar spent on tourism
promotion brings back many dollars in extra benefits to the region
that is promoting itself. Indeed, as amazing as it may seem,
studies suggest that not only does the promotional investment benefit
the region, but the rise in taxes (sales taxes, income taxes, all taxes)
as a direct result of the increased tourism activity is also greater
than the amount spent on tourism promotion.
So, it sort of truly could be free.
Talking about fees, last week I'd mentioned
KLM adding a surcharge for ticket purchases charged to a credit card and
had wondered how else the airline expected people to buy tickets.
Two follow ups to that :
First, debit cards are more widely used in
other countries to pay for such things, as are other forms of electronic
payment such as direct transfers out of a person's bank account.
The US tends to lag behind much of the rest of the world when it comes
to banking services.
Second, it is not only KLM that is doing
this. In the UK alone, I'm aware of the following charges -
British Airways credit card fee is £4.50; no fee for debit cards
(charges are per passenger, per booking). Brittany Ferries charges
£5 per booking for a credit card fee, none for debit cards. BMIbaby charges a credit card fee £3.75; debit card fee £2.75
(per person, per one-way fare). easyJet charges a credit card
fee of 2.95% of the total transaction with a minimum charge of £4
or a debit
card fee of £2.95. Eurostar charges a credit card fee of £3 per booking,
none for a debit card. P&O Ferries charges a credit card fee
per booking of £2; no
fee for debit cards. Flybe charges a credit
card fee of £3.50; debit card fee £1.50 (minimum £2 per booking, and charges are per person, per one-way flight). Ryanair's fee is £5 for a
credit card, debit card fee £5, per passenger, per one-way
Is this an unstoppable wave of the future
that will arrive in the US too? Almost certainly.
article that suggests airlines are worried by unhappy passengers now
complaining on Twitter. I disagree. If airlines truly
cared what their passengers/customers thought, wouldn't they simply
take some steps to providing consistent decent service?
Longer term readers know that I'm what could
politely be termed a global warming skeptic. Some readers
sometimes castigate me for airing these doubts in the newsletter, and
for highlighting, for want of a better term, the inconvenient truths
that rather negate the main thrusts of the global warming advocates, and
say that a discussion about global warming has no place in a newsletter
with a primary focus on travel and travel related technology.
I wish that were true. I wish we could
all allow the global warmers to do whatever they wished, and not to
have to fear the consequences of their actions and how such actions
might intrude on our lives as travelers (and technologists - I've seen
studies pointing out that computers cause more carbon emissions that
But the sad reality is that, even though air
travel represents as a teensy tiny source of the much vaunted 'carbon
emissions' (about 3% of the global total) it has been seized upon by the
global warmers as a vulnerable and evil villains, and one to be
mercilessly restricted and controlled. This week's example is a
recommendation by advisers on climate change to the UK government that
air travel be rationed in the future. Needless to say, the
rationing mechanism is being suggested to be the imposition of massive
fees to be added to each airline ticket so as to restrict our ability to
afford air travel.
The tens of billions of pounds in fees
that would be added to tickets in Britain alone are being suggested
to be spent helping developing nations build flood defenses in response
to climate change. Why not, ahem, spend some of the money to
encourage the developing nations (most notably China and India) to
reduce their burgeoning carbon emissions - emissions that are rising at
rates that make the emissions from ever-more-efficient planes a
trivial non-event on the global carbon emission stage.
This issue is actually unrelated to
global warming. Whether you support the view that carbon
emissions cause global warming or not, my point here is simple.
If we want to reduce the world's carbon emissions, there are a dozen
much more cost effective and appropriate ways to tackle the problem.
Airplane related emissions are a trivial part of the issue that are
being unfairly picked on.
In addition to the suggestion that
developing nations improve the ecological standards of their industry,
here's another suggestion about controlling carbon emissions.
Carbon emissions track population growth - twice as many people cause
twice as much carbon to be emitted. As reported in
this article, the London School of Economics has just released a
study that shows money spent on contraception is five times more
effective a way of reducing carbon emissions than any of the
conventional green technologies.
What could be simpler than that?
A week is a long time in politics, or so they say. And,
occasionally, in an industry that these days more commonly moves at a
glacial pace, it can be a long time in the aviation industry too.
Last week Boeing and its fans started gloating when the first 1,000
page part of a
World Trade Organization ruling appeared to find for Boeing (another
report and interpretation
here) and against Airbus, supporting the claim that some loans to
Airbus by EU member states were illegal subsidies rather than bona fide
But rather than being the conclusion to a dispute that dates back to
2004, this is - in Churchillian terms - not the beginning of the end but
rather, the end of the beginning. The WTO still has to rule on
Airbus' counter claims that Boeing also received subsidies from the US
government (in the form of NASA research projects and defense
contracts), and even when the rulings are both in, there is the
possibility of appeals. Some observers predict that the case may
not be settled until 2012 at the earliest, and even when the WTO ruling
is finalized and absolute, it may have no real world impact on either
Boeing's brief flash of gloating and good news quickly faded, however,
and then both Airbus and Boeing had to face bad news from a new source
(and one which might also be susceptible to WTO claims as well!).
China's new passenger jet, the 168 seater C919, and built by the Chinese
government-controlled Commercial Aircraft Corp of China, enjoyed another
bit of public exposure with this
news item, and just because it is not something we as lay passengers
are familiar with, don't think for a minute that airlines aren't very
aware of its development.
The C919 is - or should be - a terrifying threat to both Airbus and
Boeing. I've commented before that the current duopoly enjoyed by
the two western airplane manufacturers seems to have an unwritten
agreement between them - 'you won't replace your A320/737 family with
newer planes and we won't either', causing these two families of closely
competing planes to continue with a surprisingly long model life and
massive profitability to both companies. Although their technology
has been somewhat updated, the planes are based on old and no longer
'best practice' aircraft design and construction (most notably, with the
737, a fuselage design dating back to the mid 1950s).
The 737 first flew in 1967, and so the original 737 is now 42 years old,
with no announced plans for the 737 series be replaced. Compare that to the 727,
which first flew in 1963, and which ended production in 1984 (a
production life half the 737s), or the more modern 757 (first flew in
1983 and discontinued in 2004 - again, a 21 year production life).
But, back to the C919. It is due to first fly in 2014 and to be
placed into commercial service in 2016; timings which mean that unless
Airbus/Boeing immediately start work on a competing product, the C919
will enjoy a massive advantage over the older 737/A320 families.
How massive? The purchase price of the C919 is not yet known, but
it is unsurprisingly expected to be appreciably below the western
planes. And - as important as the purchase price - the C919
promises to be very fuel efficient, claiming to use as much as 15% less
fuel than its western competitors.
There's a lot more to choosing an airplane than 'just' its purchase
price and fuel economy, of course. But you can be sure that
customers in the world's largest airplane market - China/Asia - will be
more than willing to positively consider the C919 when choosing their
future airplane purchases.
Why is it I get the feeling that Boeing and Airbus are fixated on each
other and are not giving sufficient attention to new competitors such as
the Commercial Aircraft Corp of China and the new C919?
Something else that may be off the radar screen is the
regional jet, because it is 'too small' to be a threat to the Airbus and
Boeing range of planes. The MRJ will hold up to 96 passengers, but
could well be the precursor to subsequent and larger models of airplane.
Need I remind readers of how the Japanese auto industry started off as a
niche player making low grade small cars, and now dominates every sector
of the market, including sectors that the 'experts' said the Japanese
could never conquer such as luxury and sports models.
Interestingly, this week saw an announcement from Mitsubishi about its
development of the MRJ. The company has decided to switch from
predominantly carbon fiber construction and will instead use traditional
aluminium. Oh - and showing that some things seem to be universal,
it also disclosed about two years in delays to the program. Look
for the first plane to fly in Q2 of 2012 and the first plane to be
delivered and commercially operational in 2014.
Amtrak, eat your heart out (continued) :
Here's a thrilling
video of an experimental new train in Europe that reached a
maximum speed of 574.8km/hr on a recent trial. That's 357 mph.
Stunningly fast. New York to Chicago in little more than two
hours. Boston to Washington, or Los Angeles to San Francisco, in
little more than an hour. And so on. Oh well, one can dream,
interesting article on cell phone radiation. Did you
know that some cell phones emit four times as much radiation as others?
The article is incorrect on one thing,
though. It is possible to get radiation data for just about every
cell phone, as is explained on the FCC website
Apple announced its new lineup of iPod
devices on Wednesday. I got one of the lovely new iPod Nanos
on Thursday afternoon - too late to include a full review this week, but
I'll be writing on the full model range and the specifics of the fun new
Nano next week.
One of the new features is a built in video
camera, and if you can't wait for my full review, you can see a silly
short 20 second video clip I took immediately after getting the Nano as
a demonstration of the quality of its video camera, and now on
According to Steve Jobs himself, this is the
prime purpose of the built in video camera - a way to capture casual,
low quality (my words not his!) video for simple posting on YouTube, and
he sees the Nano as an alternative to some of the other tiny and very
basic digital video cameras that have been appearing for sale at
relatively low prices.
More next week on the Nano and other new
This Week's Security Horror Story :
promised last year by the then TSA chief that the liquid ban/limit
we all suffer at present would be removed by this fall. Since
then, liquid analyzer machines have been developed that are so sensitive
that they can
tell the difference between Pepsi and Coke, while still in the
But we're now being told that the liquid ban
will not be removed or changed this fall, or indeed, any other time
Instead, we're now getting hints that the
restrictions on liquids might be extended to powders as well. In
an innocuous seeming announcement, the TSA said 'Passengers should know
that while common powders are not prohibited, a small percentage may
require additional screening. Typical security checkpoint procedures
will remain the same. The vast majority of commonly carried powders,
like most medication, infant formula and makeup, are unlikely to need
Apparently the TSA has only now discovered
that explosives can come in powder as well as liquid form. Heck, I
was making wonderful explosions with powders from my high school
chemistry set decades ago.
article that makes several interesting points about airport
security. It contrasts the difference between the 213,000
passengers referred to 'secondary screening' by TSA 'behavioral
specialists' with the apparently zero number of terrorists actually
caught as a result of these 213,000 secondary screenings.
Kinda makes one wonder about the value of
these secondary screenings, and the 2,400 TSA 'behavioral
specialists' now roaming around our airports.
It also points out that these behavioral
specialists can be a bit trigger happy - having one time questioned the
article's author about what he was doing after noticing he was simply
writing in a notebook.
In the UK, Boy Scouts are no longer allowed to take pocket knives with
them when they go camping, writes the Daily Telegraph. The ban
extends on to parents who accompany their sons, too. So much for
the Boy Scout code which says 'The Scout is to be trusted' and the
concept of always being prepared.
Britain, having banned most types of
firearms such that only criminals and police now have them, is now
fixating on knives as the next evil weapon to be restricted and
must-read article that will frustrate and anger you about how
sellers of electronic items are not taking the reasonable and fair steps
they should to help us when we have them stolen from us.
And, lastly, here's a
must-visit webpage if you haven't
already helped out in this year's fundraising drive. :) Please do
choose to become an active Travel Insider supporter.
You never know - the person who benefits
from your support could well be you - either in the form, at present, of
the article you'll receive in return about how to get thousands of free
frequent flier miles (for US residents only), or in who knows what new
'how to' guide or review or something else that will be of value to you
over the course of the next year.
Until next week please enjoy safe travels