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Friday, 30 October, 2009
My weekly happy-making celebration first :
another ten of you became Travel Insider supporters
last week, including two more 'Platinum Elite'
members - Don D, and Skip L.
We now have 868 current supporters for 2009,
which is an extraordinarily high level of voluntary participation.
Thank you all for making this possible.
I had an email from Pro Travel Gear's David
Dillinger yesterday advising of an across-the-board 44% discount on
everything in his main website range of travel related products.
This special only runs through Monday
evening, and last time he had a deal like this, he sold out of just
about everything in his warehouse long before the sale expired (no
rainchecks - sale limited to stock on hand), so go
check out what he has
if you're starting to think about Christmas shopping.
I've been spending some of the money you
have so generously volunteered to respond positively to the several
people who asked me to review a new set of noise cancelling headphones
that have been well reported on elsewhere. We're all always
hopeful of finding headphones that are better than the $300
Bose QC15 'best of
breed' noise cancelling headphones, and there was a hope expressed that
these headphones (costing barely half the price of the QC15s) might be
comparable in performance to the Bose.
So I willingly obliged and now report back
to you :
This Week's Feature Column :
ATH-ANC7b Noise Cancelling Headphones : My findings
after testing these mid-priced headphones? They're not as good as
the more expensive Bose headphones, but better than other, less
expensive, headphones. My conclusion? You get what you pay
Dinosaur watching :
Incredible shrinking airlines - Perhaps the only surprising thing
about American Airlines' decision to close down its Kansas City
overhaul base is that it took so long to do so.
The base was a relic from TWA, and in its
heyday (in the 1960s and 1970s), it employed over 10,000 people.
AA bought out TWA in 2001.
Puzzlingly, AA signed a new 25 year lease on
the site in 2005, at which time 2,000 people were employed there.
Currently, employment is only about 500 people.
US Airways is shrinking its route system
and increasing its focus on hub and spoke flights. It already has
about 93% of all flights departing from or arriving at one of its main
three hubs (PHL, PHX and CLT) and aims to increase this to 99% by early
This is an interesting snub on the 'best
practices' of the industry's most profitable airline (Southwest).
Southwest is not so much a hub focused airline, but US Airways has
clearly decided it knows better than Southwest how to run a profitable
This focus on hub and spoke routes rather
than point to point flights also shows that US Airways could care
less about the extraordinary profit and growth exhibited by
Allegiant Air (discussed last week).
All joking aside (and who is joking) why
doesn't US Airways choose to copy what is working for other airlines
rather than increase their reliance on a failed business strategy?
It is interesting in this list of hubs to
see US Airways' total abandonment of any pretense of maintaining
Pittsburgh as a hub, and the 'legacy' hub of Las Vegas, formerly a key
part of the America West operation (America West bought out US Airways
and then took the US Airways name for the merged expanded operation) has
also been further de-emphasized, shrinking from the already massively
reduced 64 flights a day at present down to a mere 36 flights a day.
Talking about last week, I should clarify
what I said regarding the 'Brancatelli Effect' about airline
fees. I had said Joe Brancatelli correlated dropping profits with
increasing bag fees. That is not actually correct.
Joe correlated dropping revenues with
increasing bag fees - sure, dropping profits sometimes track dropping
revenues, but the purest statement of the 'Brancatelli Effect' is that
as bag fees rise, total revenues drop. Joe says that since he
first published this, a number of airlines have now reported third
quarter revenues, and the Brancatelli Effect continues to hold good for
Q3 just as it has for Q1 and Q2 this year.
Of course, one of the reasons for dropping
revenues is that airlines are selling tickets for less money than they
were a year ago.
This article suggests that average ticket prices in the
second quarter were at about the same levels as they were in 1998.
But since then, the airlines are trying to claw back as much revenue as
they can - there have been three fare rises in the last three weeks
(and six in total for the year), the most recent of which rolled out on
And talking about luggage (and the need for
airline innovation), here's an interesting new concept being tested
by Virgin America. Passengers with no carry-on luggage can
board the plane first.
However, there is a bit of a grey area about
what constitutes a carry-on for the purpose of this policy, and it seems
the airline is allowing people even with a laptop bag to board as if
they have no carry-on. As we all know, a laptop bag can vary in
size tremendously while still being called a laptop bag, and it will be
interesting to see how the airline makes consistent decisions on when a
laptop bag is too big.
In theory, allowing people without carry-ons
to board first means that they can all quickly move to their seats and
sit down, without blocking the aisles while stowing bags in the overhead
bins, with the net result being an overall faster boarding time for
Whether it proves to be worth the extra
complication or not, kudos to the airline for at least trying something
interesting report on a recent survey of airline passengers, asking
them which is their favorite airline and what factors influence their
choice of favorite.
There is however an interesting disconnect
in the survey results. 55% of people people responding said that
service is important to them in deciding which is their favorite
carrier, and 47% said price.
Now, this may or may not be true for what
people consider in designating their 'favorite' airline, but it
certainly is not true of what people consider when choosing the airline
they travel on. Price overshadows almost all other considerations
(when people are traveling on their own dime) and frequent flier issues
take priority when traveling on someone else's dime.
Believe it or not, airlines would dearly
love to compete on service (while keeping fares high!), but as has
been incontrovertibly proven time after time, it is the price rather
than the service which determines which flight leaves full and which
flight leaves empty.
interesting article speculating that the current tough economic
climate and difficult trading times for airlines might make it the
ideal time for new low cost carriers to start up service across the
For sure, there's been almost no perceptible
change in flights and airlines since the much heralded 'open skies'
agreement was signed between the US and EU, making it easier for
airlines to operate flights between any cities on both sides of the
Atlantic. Why hasn't there been an explosion of low cost startup
carriers? Perhaps due to the tough economic times, and in
particular, until late last year, the run-up in fuel costs making it
difficult to sell low cost fares.
With low fuel costs at present (but for how
long?) and a glut of planes about making lease costs lower than normal,
and with cutbacks in service by the major carriers, the factors are
currently looking positive for possible new startups to appear.
Let's hope so.
Talking about new airlines, here's an
interesting very small airline in Oregon - one with its main claim
to fame being offering its passengers a way to avoid the hassles of
Poor old Heathrow. Even though
it now has its lovely new terminal 5 open and working - or perhaps
because of the teething problems it suffered in the first part of 2008 -
the airport has been voted the worst airport in the world for the
second year running in a poll of 14,500 frequent fliers while
Singapore's Changi was again ranked as the best (followed by Hong Kong).
The survey participants, all member of
airport lounge program Priority Pass, rated Paris' Charles de Gaulle
airport as the world's second worst with LAX coming third worst.
Also in the bottom five were Frankfurt and Miami.
interesting article about airbags in airplanes, and the introduction
of a new requirement that airplane seats be able to withstand a 16G
16G - sixteen times the force of gravity -
is the force you'd feel when changing speed by 350 mph in a single
second. By comparison, a car going from 0-60 in a very speedy six
seconds is creating 0.5G of force.
Of course, a crash impact seldom takes that
long - when you crash your car into a concrete wall, for example, you're
looking at a tenth of a second or less (the time it takes for the car to
crumple and stop). And if you're in a plane that 'falls out of the
sky', you're going to suffer a great deal more than 16G when the plane
impacts on the ground.
But if you're in a plane that has just made
a very hard bad landing, and then goes skidding off the runway, flips
over a couple of times, hits a few trees and ends up colliding with a
building, you're probably going to stay well under 16G. So being
kept securely in your seat is a good and meaningful safety
Talking about plane crashes, we're lucky
that the plane flown by the Northwest pilots who were, ahem,
'inattentive' for almost an hour and a quarter last week didn't run
out of fuel and crash during their period of inattention.
The pilots have changed their story.
After first claiming they were in a heated discussion about airline
policy, they now are saying they were both working on their laptops.
Unfortunately, we'll probably never know
the truth, because the cockpit voice recorder was an older model one
which only stores the last 30 minutes of voice recording (newer ones
that are being phased in will store 2.5 hours). And, as chance
would have it (hmmm), there were more than 30 minutes between when the
pilots became responsive again and when they landed the plane.
Many of us continue to think the pilots were
asleep. We find it impossible to credit that the pilots wouldn't
have heard their flight number being called over the radios, let alone
not noticing they'd overflown their destination and were continuing on
past it. However, the actual reason is almost irrelevant -
the one fact the pilots can't deny is that they were 'inattentive' for
whatever reason for an hour and a quarter.
Acting with alacrity, the FAA has already
cancelled (not suspended, but cancelled) both pilots' flying licenses,
calling the pilots actions 'a total dereliction and disregard for
your duties'. Well done, the FAA.
But, oh dear, the pilots union felt
compelled to support the unsupportable, and said 'We do not condone
the abandonment of due process that will result from a rush to judgment;
instead we implore all interested parties to move with deliberate and
unemotional professionalism as the events surrounding this incident are
Just exactly how long does it take to
investigate this? What part of 'didn't answer the radio for 75
minutes and apparently didn't touch the controls of the plane either'
needs to be further researched?
There are several interesting derivative
The first is that the procedures put
in place after 9/11 for what to do when planes become unresponsive were
not followed. The FAA is supposed to notify defense
authorities within ten minutes of such a situation, but instead it took
an undisclosed amount of time (but known to be greater than 40 minutes)
for that message to be initiated (and, of course, no fighters were ever
launched to go have a look-see at the plane through the cockpit
windows). It is a good job that the plane had not been hijacked.
I'm sure many potential terrorists are as
surprised as I am that apparently we haven't learned the lessons so
vividly illustrated back on 9/11.
The second is that in a manner so
typical of much of modern society where criminals are never held
responsible for their actions, and instead people blame society; many
commentators have hopped on the 'the poor pilots need more sleep'
bandwagon. But a look at the facts does not support this.
Both pilots were freshly onto their first
flight of the day (probably their only flight of the day) and had just
had a 19 hour layover in San Diego. It is hard to support a claim
of the pilots being excessively fatigued by the grueling schedule
foisted on them by a dangerously uncaring airline in that situation,
The third point is to put this one
event in context. Over 100,000 commercial flights operate safely
every day in the US.
The fourth point is to wonder why -
if pilot fatigue is such an issue - cockpits aren't fitted with 'dead
man's throttles' and/or sleep alarms.
The dead man's throttle concept is something
that the pilots must be gripping at all times - if their hand relaxes
(and muscles relax at your extremities first when you start nodding off)
then the throttle closes (in the case of a train). You wouldn't
want to stop the engines in a plane, but a sudden jolt of electricity
from the pilot's seat cushion into that part of him on the seat cushion
might return him to wakefulness.
A sleep alarm (also fitted in trains) is a
buzzer or bell that sounds intermittently and regularly, and the driver
must press an appropriate button to respond to the alarm each time it
sounds. If he doesn't do so quickly, then the engine again stops
(or, in the case of the plane, the electric shock is triggered).
Maybe we would be better off with pilotless
planes. There is a probably fictitious account of certain airplane
engineers who claim that all the cockpit crew needs to consist of is one pilot and
The dog is to bite the pilot if he
touches anything and the pilot is there to feed the dog.
Lastly, Delta/Northwest has rushed to send
letters of apology to the passengers on the plane, complete with $500
I'm strangely disquietened by that gesture,
because it smacks of 'one law for the rich, one law for the poor' - or,
more particularly, one pr motivated response for high visibility
flight problems, but a totally different and totally unsatisfactory
non-response for most problems and most passengers.
If DL is espousing a new policy that any
time something goes wrong on a flight, they'll give passengers $500
vouchers, then that would be wonderful. But I don't believe that
to be the case.
Talking about high visibility problems,
remember David Carroll - the guy who had his guitar broken by United
Airlines, and the (so far) two viral video songs that he released on
Youtube about the event?
Guess what - he was flying on United last
week and this time they lost his bag for three days. Ooops.
says he has no plans to make a new video on this latest misfortune.
The end of an era occurred earlier this week
United retired its last 737 (the airline has replaced them all with
Airbus A320 series planes).
Meanwhile, Boeing continues to stumble
along in unusual ways. They decided to open a second
production line so as to increase the rate at which they can produce
their long delayed but popular 787.
Let's see if you are smart enough to be a
Boeing executive. So you're going to open a second production line
to increase the rate at which you build 787 planes. You have two
choices of location :
The first location is right next to your
present production line, which is also right next to all your other
production lines too. You've a massive resource of skilled
labor and all the support infrastructure in place.
The second location is way over on the
other coast, and is at a facility that you recently purchased and
which has given you probably more problems to date in terms of what
it has been doing to build sub-assemblies for the new 787 planes
than any other facility in the world. It is almost as far away
from the rest of your manufacturing operation as is possible while
still remaining in the US.
Which would you choose?
Well, all of you who chose the first option
- bad news. You don't have what it takes to run Boeing.
the news of Boeing's decision to open a second line, not in the
Seattle area, but instead in SC, and here's
This is of course only a few years after
Boeing made the extraordinarily strange decision to split off its
headquarters and move that away from Seattle and instead locate in
Some people wonder if the physical removal
of management from the plants, people and processes they manage has not
been a contributor to the problems with the 787 and 747-8 new plane
programs. Certainly, whether that is a factor or not, it was hard
at the time and remains equally hard now, some years later, to see any
good thing that has come from this decision to remove management from
proximity to the things they manage. (Remember 'In Search of
Excellence' and one of the ten principles - 'Management By Walking
Oh - talking about the 787, Boeing
to insist that the plane will somehow struggle into the air prior to
the end of this year. I'd be surprised if that happens, but not
astonished. When one thinks back to how ludicrous and meaningless
their staged 'roll out' of the 787 was way back when, it is entirely
conceivable that they may manage to somehow get a plane into the air,
even if it does not actually signify much at all.
The milestone I'm fixing most closely on is
the 'first commercial flight' of the 787 - currently set for the end of
Bad news if you're flying to or from
Britain. From 1 November, the UK Air Passenger Duty is being
increased by about 25%, and will be increasing again by another up to
50% on 1 November 2010.
Now for the hypocrisy of this.
These increases are being instituted under the justification of
combating global warming and negating the alleged harmful effects on the
environment of passenger planes.
Fair enough? Well, and yet again, to
answer that question, we don't need to even agree or disagree on if
global warming is real or not, and neither do we have to try and puzzle
out how charging a fee to air passengers saves the planet.
Instead, just consider this :
Using official calculations, the total cost to 'offset' the carbon
emissions from all UK aviation is about £572 million. The amount
of Air Passenger Duty being collected? About £2,500 million.
Did you know there's a low cost cure for
global warming (assuming global warming exists)? But - and
possibly because it is such a low cost thing, all the eco-freaks refuse
to consider it, preferring instead to attempt to destroy the comfortable
lifestyles we enjoy and consider to be civilization as we know it.
What is this low cost cure, and how come it
isn't front and center in the global warming debate? Well, I can't
answer the second question, but if you click
here you'll find the answer to the first question.
A national network comprising 17,000
miles of high speed rail service in the US, with trains traveling at
speed up to 220 mph? Wow - who wouldn't love that.
But, alas, who could afford it?
this article, such a project would cost about $600 billion, on the
basis of $30 billion/year between now and 2030.
On the other hand, how much have we given to
companies 'too big to fail' so far this year alone - money that has
vanished without trace? How much more than this has been thrown at
every sort of ill-considered but 'shovel ready' project as part of the
government's stimulus spending? And what trivial percentage of the
total annual government budget is $30 billion?
Why couldn't we spend that sort of money?
And - an apparently unanswered question - what would be the flow through
benefits, not just in immediate jobs created, but in terms of longer
term improvements to the nation's transportation system. There'd
be less stress on our air routes and airports, there'd be less stress on
our interstates, and we'd be able to travel in more fuel efficient
trains, reducing carbon emissions (assuming you care about that).
So let's not look at this, laugh, and look
away again. Let's embrace this as a challenge. As a
nation, we embarked on the largest civil engineering project in the
history of the world when we built the national interstate highway
system subsequent to WW2. Why can't we now countenance a second
major building program, and put in place a national high speed rail
system that would end up being comparable to that which will be
completed in China long before 2030?
Thanks to everyone who sent in information
on their favorite iPhone apps last week. If you haven't yet
done so, and you have a favorite iPhone app you've added to your phone,
let me know so I can include it in the article I'm writing about
I used one of my favorite iPhone apps
earlier this week - RedLaser. I was in Best Buy, purchasing a
webcam for a friend. I found one that seemed good, and BestBuy
were asking $79.99 for it. Using the RedLaser app, I scanned the
webcam's bar code, and within a couple of seconds, RedLaser presented me
a list of other stores and the prices they were selling it for.
The cheapest online merchant was selling it for only about $55, and I
noticed Wal-mart selling it through their stores for $66.82.
So I asked an associate 'do you price
match?'; he said 'yes'; I showed him my iPhone screen and the $66.82 Wal-mart
price, and he instantly reduced the webcam price down to that. The
RedLaser app costs a mere $1.99, so it more than paid for itself in a
Better still, RedLaser also calls up reviews
on the product you've scanned. So I subsequently discovered that
the otherwise very nice looking Microsoft webcam only has a 15 fps video
rate, whereas other webcams do 30 fps.
What a wonderful program - RedLaser helps
you make informed buying choices, and then helps you buy at the best
price possible, without having to drive all around town and argue with
shop assistants. Who'd have thought that such a thing would be
possible at all, let alone on a cell phone.
But as much as I love my iPhone, Apple
will have to do some serious upgrading in the next models, probably
to be released in the middle of 2010, if it is to retain its current
pre-eminence among smart phones. A new phone based on Google's
Android OS, and made by Motorola - the 'Droid' - is being released by
Verizon next week, and much as I dislike anything tainted with CDMA (the
type of phone service used by Verizon and Sprint) this new phone is
stunningly better than current iPhones.
Two quick examples. The new phone has
a 3.7" screen with an amazing 480x854 pixel resolution. The
smaller iPhone 3.5" screen has only 320x480 resolution; giving the new
Droid 2.67 times as many pixels and clarity of image. That,
together with the slightly larger screen, makes the Droid even better
suited for eBook reading than the iPhone (and the iPhone is already
excellent). (Need I remind you - do not buy an eBook reader
- buy an iPhone or now a Droid instead).
Second example - the Droid has a new version
of Google Maps, complete with turn by turn voice directions - it is now
a fully featured GPS. Underscoring the significance of that
announcement, Garmin's stock price tumbled 16% and rival GPS maker
TomTom suffered a 20% drop.
While Apple's iPhone currently has a much
larger share of the smartphone market than do phones using Google's
Android OS, there is such a flurry of Android development activity at
present with it seems just about every handset manufacturer
developing Android based phones, all the US carriers about to release
various different Android based phones, and Google continuing to make
huge leaps forward in terms of Android capabilities; the net result is
that Android is coming up from behind at a million miles an hour and
looks likely to overtake the iPhone in the near future.
All this assumes, of course, that the iPhone
does not similarly evolve. Bottom line - while there's never been
a boring time in cell phone evolution and development, now is a
particularly exciting time for sure.
One of the probable casualties of this
evolution may be Microsoft and its Windows Mobile operating system -
an OS that never had much to recommend itself, and which is looking
increasingly irrelevant compared to all the excitement and action
generated by Android and Apple. The Palm Pre also does not seem to
have met with the success that Palm was hoping for, and Nokia's Symbian
OS is also more moribund than alive.
The only other smartphone manufacturer
showing any signs of a future is RIM/Blackberry, although I find this
totally inexplicable. I've been forced to re-activate my very
disappointing Blackberry 8900 this week, and I'd forgotten how awful it
was (and still is). Sure, the new Blackberry phones look nice, but
actually using them is cumbersome and unwieldy (I spent about an hour on
the phone with T-Mobile on Thursday unsuccessfully struggling to get
email working on the 8900 again).
Blackberry is doing a great job of
marketing, and are flooding the market with lots of new models of phones
and they have good distribution through the wireless companies, but
sooner or later their historical reputation for excellent email service
has to collide with the current shortcomings of their phones and the
user interfaces on them.
One more tech thought :
Here's a reason to rush to Windows 7 - apparently it has
better power management in it for laptops, giving about 20% longer
battery life to your current laptop. That's an extra hour for many
of us, and it sure would make a welcome difference on occasion to me.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
One of the worst jobs for a journalist is to be a writer for an industry
trade journal. You have to adopt a tone of enthusiasm for some
incredibly boring topic and industry and write happy articles full of
positivism about things that in truth you care nothing about and which
in reality are unimportant and not worth the paper you're printing the
stories on. But, hey - you've got a magazine to publish each month
and you need at least some content to separate the advertising which is
really what the magazine is all about.
Now I'm not saying that is the case with
but you have to wonder exactly what will follow when the article opens
with the massively weak claim 'Statistics show SPOT program works,
regardless of whether it has yet to disrupt a terrorist plot'.
SPOT is the TSA's acronym for its passenger
behavior monitoring program - 'Screening Passengers by Observation
Techniques', and as the article concedes in its opening statement, it
seems that it has never yet caught a terrorist, even though 1575
passengers have been arrested during the 3.5 years the program has been
active. (I never did understand how statistics can show that SPOT
Vague references to Israeli security don't
really make the article a convincing cheerleader/advocate for SPOT, and
its disparaging reference to 'civil rights proponents would like to
weaken, if not outright cripple, TSA’s SPOT and other behavior
detection-based initiatives' doesn't actually reassure me that there
aren't civil rights violations aplenty in what appears to be a 100%
Since when has it become appropriate to
sneer at civil rights proponents? Aren't civil rights one of the
bedrock principles of our society?
helpful article on what to do if your ID is stolen and you need to
fly somewhere without ID.
Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you
just pleased to see me? In the case of a 22 year old man stopped
by Customs when entering Norway, it was neither. He was
discovered to have 14 royal pythons and 10 albino leopard geckos
taped to his body, plus a tarantula in his bag.
The law of unintended consequences is always
interesting to see in action. For
furniture sales are surging, apparently due to people who can no longer
afford to vacation deciding to at least spend a few dollars to get a
comfy chair to stay in at home.
Lastly this week, as you probably already
know, I'm originally from New Zealand, and so I'm delighted to
occasionally spot something interesting, clever, or bizarre done by my
fellow Kiwis. I think
this particular achievement may qualify under all three headings.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels