Version of Newsletter] [Newsletter
Archives] [Advertising Info] [Website Home Page] [Please Donate Here]
8 January, 2010
I've very exciting and positive news for
this week, and have been eagerly awaiting Friday's chance to share it
One of the very best Travel Insider tours
was also the very first one I ever did - way back in 2004; a tour around
Scotland's Highlands. Since that time I've been keen to repeat the
success of that Scottish tour, but have yet to find a chance to put
together another Scottish based itinerary.
At last, I can now offer a second Scotland
tour, in June, and instead of the Highlands it will primarily be of the
islands off the west coast of Scotland - the inner and outer Hebrides,
and places I love to visit myself.
Visiting Scotland's islands are in like
stepping back in time - you'll even encounter people who speak Gaelic
rather than English, and you'll find an easier pace of life - more
relaxed and more friendly, set in a range of island terrains from very
beautiful vistas to starkly barren and windswept (but still beautiful,
just in a different way).
Fortunately, with travel in June, we should
have good warm sunny weather and lovely long days rather than anything
too cold or nasty such as Britain and much of the world is currently
suffering (insert your choice of sardonic references to global warming
The tour takes us to seven different
islands, has probably eleven different ferry rides, plus as a huge
bonus, a ride on the Jacobite Steam Train (this starred in the Harry
Potter movies and has been described as the most beautiful railway
journey in the world). We also squeeze in a visit to Loch Ness
(monster sighting not guaranteed), and will stop at two (or possibly
more - our itineraries on Travel Insider coach tours are flexible and
vary based on the collective will/wishes of the group) of the unique
Islay distilleries and sample some single malt Scotch. Oh yes,
there are also castles a plenty, lots of other sightseeing, and just
about all the other ingredients for a wonderful travel experience.
Depending on how many choose to come on this
tour (I'm limiting it to a maximum of 24 people), the price will be
somewhere between $2495 and $2795 per person. A single supplement
of $595 is available. Want to know more? Please visit :
This Week's Feature Article :
Scotland's Islands Tour :
You'll visit seven islands, take eleven ferry rides and two steam train
journeys too as part of a ten night comprehensive tour of the beautiful
islands off Scotland's west coast this June.
One small request about this tour.
Please let me know as soon as possible if you wish to come on this
tour. With hotel rooms being extremely limited in some of the
small towns we visit, even a small group such as ours threatens to
overwhelm the town, and hoteliers therefore charge me major
nonrefundable deposits to hold rooms. So there's a limit to how
much speculative space I can hold, and for how long.
I also have advance notice of a special
deal that would enable you to fly business class from Chicago, New York
or Boston to join the tour in Scotland for $1898 plus taxes - and
that is roundtrip! If you'd like to know about this great deal,
please ask and I will share the details with you.
I may offer two other tours in 2010,
but I'm still working on the details. A Norwegian Coastal Voyage
in mid August that could be combined with a Queen Mary 2 crossing from
either Hamburg or Southampton back to New York on 26/28 August, and of
course a Christmas Markets cruise in late November/early December.
More details on these in the weeks that follow.
Dinosaur watching : December was a
good month for AirTran, setting a new record for passenger traffic,
with revenue passenger miles up 5.3% year on year. Westjet in
Canada also had a great December, with passenger numbers up 8.1%, not
withstanding weather and security disruptions. And Allegiant had a
19.2% increase in passenger numbers.
But not all airlines did as well.
American reported a drop of 1.6% in RPMs, and US Airways had a
substantial 7.4% drop in passengers.
Hmmm - what do you see in common between the
growing airlines on the one hand, and the shrinking airlines on the
other hand? Hint - it isn't 'the economy' and neither is it 'the
price of jet fuel'.
Some good leadership by example at
Continental Airlines, however. Their new CEO, Jeffery Smisek,
who just stepped into the position on 1 January, says he will not accept
a salary or annual bonus until the company makes a full-year profit.
And his hard hitting advice to employees?
He told them if they want better pay and benefits, then need to make the
airline profitable. And they seem to be doing something right,
because CO reported an increase of 6% in RPMs for December, helping to
soften the full year figure which was a net drop of 3.8% in RPMs.
Remember those hypocritical signs in
hotels - the ones that say that due to the hotel's environmental
consciousness, they won't change your linen as regularly, although we
all know that what really motivates them is the cost saving they also
experience? Well, Southwest has come out with a similar sort of
strategy. They say that due to concerns about the spread of
H1N1 flu, they have taken all the blankets and pillows off all their
H1N1 flu? Remember that? A scary
topic for a while, a year ago, but now fears about its lethality have
completely faded and it seems to be neither better nor worse than any
other annual flu.
Come on, Southwest, be honest :
This is all about saving money, isn't it? If you were really
worried about flu transmission, you'd simply launder the blankets and
pillow cases more. Or you'd have taken the pillows and blankets
off your flights years ago, because there's flu every year.
Indeed, Southwest is sending a rather
mixed message in its announcement. They said 'The pillows and
blankets do not pose a specific health risk, [my emphasis] but
removing them is one way that Southwest can be proactive in reducing the
spread of swine flu. We would rather take precaution and ensure that our
flight attendants and fellow employees who assist tidying the aircraft
do not handle these items that have also had contact from the public'.
The best way to help such 'environmentally
conscious' hotels and airlines is to stay and travel with their
Something I've sometimes thought about in my
more paranoid moments, and then dismissed, is the risk of having items
stolen from one's carry-on baggage on an overnight flight. When
everyone is half asleep in a darkened cabin, who really knows who it is
that get up and starts going through something in the overhead bin above
you, and there's a big assumption that they're not getting in to your
luggage and taking your items.
But then, on the other hand, maybe it is a
sensible concern after all. Five business class passengers on
an overnight Air France flight from Tokyo to Paris reported being robbed
while sleeping with some €4,000 in cash missing.
French police are investigating the incident
and believe it was an onboard pickpocket who did the deed while the
victims were asleep. The biggest loss was experienced by a woman
who lost about €3000 in cash that was in her handbag, the other
passengers had smaller amounts of cash taken.
Oh - and, needless to say, airlines claim no
responsibility for the safety of your carry on items. Which makes
for a 'heads you lose, tails you don't win' scenario - the airlines
disclaim responsibility for small valuables that you might check into
hold baggage, but also disclaim liability if you carry them on with you.
While the press (and our government)
continues to go berserk about the failed crotch bomber incident, a near
total silence and barely discernable response surrounds the 757
people who died around the world in 2009, not from aviation terrorism
(which claimed zero victims) but rather as a result of 30 different
airplane accidents. For those with an interest in such things, a
full listing of the 30 accidents can be seen
I ended up not going to the annual
Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas this week. The show is
seeing the usual steady stream of new product announcements (in total
over 20,000 new products are being released this week) but perhaps the
biggest announcements are not coming from the show itself.
Google chose not to participate in
CES, and as anticipated, announced its new Nexus One cell phone
earlier this week, but from Silicon Valley, not from Las Vegas. Is
it the iPhone killer that some people thought it might be, should you
junk your iPhone and rush out to buy a Nexus One? No.
The Nexus One is a perfectly good Android
phone, and possibly slightly better than the Motorola Droid, and in some
respects, it is indeed better than the iPhone too.
It has a slightly larger screen (3.7" rather
than 3.5") with more than double the resolution (480 x 800 instead of
480 x 320) of the iPhone. It has a better camera (5 MP and with
flash, rather than the iPhone's 3MP and no flash). Alas, it has as
short, or possibly even shorter battery life (but you can get spare
batteries and swap batteries if needed during the day), and has less
memory space for adding extra application programs (a mere 170 MB
instead of close on 32 GB with the iPhone).
By all accounts (I haven't tried one) its
Android interface, while the best Android interface to date, is still a
bit clutzy and clunky, even though it has a lightning fast CPU driving
it. It has some minor nice features (like a dual microphone noise
cancelling system for when you're talking in a noisy environment) and
all the bells and whistles that we've come to expect from the iPhone (eg
GPS, accelerometer, compass, etc).
The phone is available only from Google, and
lists for $529 without any service contract, or $179 with a two year
service contract from T-mobile (minimum monthly contract of $80/month).
Unfortunately, due to incompatible frequency bands for fast 3G data
service, this phone will only work with T-Mobile in the US, not AT&T,
just like how the iPhone will work with only AT&T, not T-Mobile.
Both the iPhone and the Nexus One can roam internationally on the
standard international 3G data networks.
A CDMA type phone that will work on the
Verizon network (but not on either the T-mobile or AT&T networks) is
expected to be released sometime soon.
Our hope is that the new generation of
iPhones (probably to be announced in the June/July timeframe and
available immediately thereafter) will catch up in the areas where
Google (and Motorola) are currently ahead.
Almost certainly we'll see the new iPhone
equal the screen size and resolution of these other two phones, and
again almost certainly we'll see an improved camera too. If only
we could get some more multi-programming capabilities too, then the
iPhone would again become the clear very best, but even without that
weakness rectified, our feeling is that the brilliantly simple easy
to use interface on the iPhone remains the biggest lead that Apple
and its iPhone has and retains over its competitors, and therefore also
remains the most powerful reason to choose an iPhone over any of the
Microsoft, in partnership with HP, announced
a new tablet computer at CES, attempting to steal Apple's thunder (Apple
is expected to announce a tablet computing device late in January).
But with the MS/HP device being based on the lackluster Windows Mobile 7
OS, few people are excited by it and most are waiting to see what Apple
comes up with. The fact that Microsoft did not give details on
either pricing or availability reduced the excitement level still
Dell also announced a smaller sized tablet
type device which runs on the Android OS, but it is again unclear when
it will be available for sale.
Talking about Dell, I'd shared my
frustrations about Dell's 'bait and switch' tactics in trying to trick
me into buying an inferior laptop computer prior to Christmas.
Needless to say, I wasn't fooled, and refused to be tricked. Dell,
in turn, sat on its hands and said it was impossible to give me the
machine I'd been promised, ordered, and paid for, even though their own
website continued to offer it for sale with prompt delivery.
So I've continued using my old Dell for now.
Last Friday, as part of an update, it crashed and when I restarted it, I
got a 'blue screen of death' type message telling me that a critical
file was now missing or damaged, and advising me to recover the
operating system from the original disks. I'd long since mislaid
those, and so I called Dell to order a new set. They said they
could do that and would ship them to me overnight, to arrive on the next
business day, which would be Monday.
I explained that my computer was 100%
dead and I urgently needed it restored to normal operation asap.
I offered to pay any reasonable price if they'd overnight the
disks with delivery on Saturday rather than Monday. To do this is
very simple - you just check a box on the Fedex or UPS shipping form
that says 'Deliver Saturday' instead of the box that says 'Deliver
Monday'; it adds $20 or so to the shipping cost, and I was more than
happy to pay that (or twice that or three times that or whatever else
Dell might choose to charge me).
Dell refused to do this. I
pleaded with the support person and his supervisor, but they flat out
refused to do it. Note that I wasn't asking for something for free
or arguing about the price - I said I'd pay whatever it took to get the
software two days sooner, but they just simply said no.
Why??? They could have made some
profit by agreeing to do this, as well as making me very much happier.
And as for getting the software on Monday as
promised? No way. They didn't even ship the disks until
Monday, and they arrived Tuesday. Thanks again for nothing again,
Dell. It seems that not only can I not rely on them when they are
trying to sell me computers, but I also can't rely on them when they're
fixing computers I've bought from them in the past, either.
As for other buzz from CES, as best I
can tell from Seattle there are two major themes. One is 3D
television, video and games, doubtless fueled by the success of
Avatar at the theaters currently.
I'm a bit skeptical about this (most 3D I've
seen has been gimmicky rather than realistic - it actually detracts from
the viewing experience rather than adds to it), but it never pays to
underestimate the eagerness of electronics companies to develop new
technologies and push them down our throats, whether we need/want them
or not. With most current electronic product lines having reached
marketplace saturation, 3D technologies represent an exciting growth
opportunity for electronics companies, if not necessarily so exciting
The other theme is the rise of eBooks and
the hardware to read them on, eBook readers. A large number of
new eBook readers from a large number of new manufacturers are appearing
at CES, but my feeling remains that eBook readers are a go-nowhere
technology that will quickly be superseded by multi-functional tablet
devices, by phones, and even by regular laptop and desktop computers.
Amazon was right to develop the Kindle and
release it two and a half years ago - back then it was necessary to
offer both an eBook reader as well as a comprehensive range of eBooks so
as to kickstart the marketplace awareness and acceptance of the eBook
But now that eBooks have clearly reached
critical mass (with some reports suggesting Amazon may have, at
least by some measures, sold more eBooks than regular books over the
2009 Christmas season), if Amazon has any sense, it will gracefully bow
out of the hardware market - particularly because, by all accounts, it
was not making much money out of the sale of its Kindle readers anyway.
By releasing its Kindle software for phones and personal computers,
Amazon is already showing its willingness to share the hardware
marketplace with third party solutions; it needs to continue this
process and release its Kindle software to run on all the growing number
of generic eBook readers out there too.
My continued strong advice is that you
should not buy an eBook reader.
A smaller trend, or so the manufacturers of
such devices hope, is energy consumption displays that show you,
more or less realtime, how much electricity you are consuming.
Okay - so you could go outside and look at your meter, but these show it
to you in a much more convenient and 'high tech' seeming way.
There's not a great deal of use for the
information presented to you, but the proponents of such things are
hoping you'll not think about that in your rush to be 'green'.
that tells you a bit more about such things, and it offers the dubious
explanation/justification that by making you aware of your energy
consumption, you'll be driven to reduce your energy usage.
This year's Ice Hotel has opened in
Quebec City. The Hotel de Glace will remain open until 4 April,
and is built entirely of snow and ice, with 36 rooms and suites, an Ice
Bar, Ice Cafe, Ice Chapel, and - necessarily outside - a hot tub.
It required 15,000 tons of snow and ice and
six weeks construction time to build, and is the only such hotel in
North America. More details
interesting article on Arizona's speed cameras. There
are two particularly interesting points in it - the first is to note
that they only trigger when detecting someone driving 11 mph or more
over the speed limit, and the second is the helpful information that
because the tickets are sent to you in the ordinary mail, there is no
proof of you having received them, so you can ignore them with impunity.
Apparently most people are doing just that,
with $127 million in fines resulting in a mere $37 million in payments
Draw your own conclusions as to what to do
if driving in Arizona and receiving a speed camera ticket in the mail.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
Oh my, where to start? The last week has seen a never ending
comedy of over-reactions to non-existent threats, resulting in massive
public inconvenience but absolutely no terrorist threats being uncovered
or prevented. Perhaps the best place to start is a continuation of
a theme from the previous week that I'd not felt it wise to mention in
last week's newsletter.
I've spent much of the time from 25 December
through 2 January at a 'secure nondisclosed location' for fear of
getting a visit from TSA security agents if I were at my usual home address.
After the TSA's ill-thought out temporary security directive rushed out
after the crotch-bombing attempt was published on many different
websites and blogs, the TSA apparently decided to make examples out of
some scape-goats, and went after two bloggers, issuing them with
subpoenas requiring the two bloggers to reveal where they got the
notionally secret documents from.
One of the two bloggers apparently
'cooperated' in a blue funk and as a result of bullying threats from the
TSA. The other - Chris Elliott
- was made of stronger stuff and refused to reveal his sources, choosing
to challenge the TSA's subpoena in open court.
The matter made national and even
international news, and to my astonishment, it seems that the TSA were
sufficiently embarrassed by the spotlight of public attention as to step
back and withdraw their subpoenas. Bravo. Details
Two interesting things came out of this.
First, who would have thought that there's apparently an investigative
branch of the TSA - plain clothes officers with guns and badges - who
seem to have the authority to go off-airport and do pretty much whatever
That was sure news to me, and seems like a
wasteful duplication of effort and major 'mission creep' from the
TSA's stated purpose. If the TSA need to do anything more than
check people as they go through security, shouldn't they pass the
request over to the FBI or one of the many other already existing
agencies - agencies that already have the resource, the infrastructure,
and, most of all, the training and expertise to handle complete
Second, it is interesting to note that the
subpoenas were unilaterally created by the TSA themselves, and never
actually involved any judge or courtroom hearing. The TSA issued 'administrative
subpoenas' which are a civil rather than criminal process - but
backed up these civil documents by having them served by their own armed
special agents, which seems to massively blur the line (in an abusive
manner) between civil and criminal proceedings.
Imagine if the regular police, FBI, etc,
alternated between getting formal search warrants and issuing their own
administrative subpoenas without any judicial oversight, whenever it
As it turns out, the public exposure of
the ridiculous TSA ruling did us all a good service - it embarrassed
the TSA sufficiently to cause them to step back from their secret and
therefore unaccountable unanswerable new set of mandates that would have
had us virtual prisoners of our airplane seats for the last hour of
incoming flights to the US, unable to use the bathroom and not allowed
to even read a book or keep warm under a blanket.
Some aspects of the security process are
validly secret and should remain so, but trying to keep this set of
requirements a secret was not only foolish (how can you not disclose the
details when you tell a passenger what they can not do) but was again
an abuse of the TSA's powers and regulatory process.
The TSA directive has now expired and has
been replaced by a new semi-secret directive, and I have to note with
disappointment that the many sources of the first semi-secret directive
have all been silent at sharing the new longer lasting directive.
Clearly the TSA's on-again/off-again subpoena process has silenced most
of these sources.
It seems that passengers traveling to the US
from nations listed as 'state sponsors of terrorism' (ie Cuba, Iran,
Sudan and Syria) as well as passengers from ten other countries
(Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi
Arabia, Somalia and Yemen) will now get more rigorous screening prior to
boarding their flight to the US.
These new screening measures apply both to
citizens of those 14 countries and to people who visited those countries
and are now traveling to the US.
But the willingness of foreign countries to
comply with these requirements is being strongly tested. Political
correctness is causing some countries (notably Canada, our largest
source of inbound passengers) to be reluctant to do what they observe as
profiling people based on their racial origins. Their logic seems
to be 'it is okay for terrorists to selectively choose their targets
based on the racial origins of the people in the target zones, but it is
not okay for us to in turn vary our security screening based on an
opposite set of racial parameters to those used by terrorists'.
political correctness is also slowing down the initial panicked rush to
adopt new whole body imaging machines at airports, due to the ridiculous
worries about screeners seeing shadowy black and white images of
people's bodies, even though those same screeners don't also get to see
the people whose images they've just looked at on their remote monitor.
Here's one of the most graphic examples I've
seen so far - generally the computers blur out facial features.
Hardly the sort of material that you can buy at any magazine rack or
readily find all over the internet, is it.
Which would you prefer? To have
some anonymous screener somewhere see an anonymous X-ray type image of
yourself for a few brief seconds as part of viewing a hundred or more
such images every hour, or to have a screener intimately pat you
down/feel you up in front of everyone else in the security line over the
course of several minutes?
Sadly, there are credible concerns that even
the most accurate and graphic imaging technology may still fail to
detect explosives carefully hidden in and around a terrorist's body.
German security experts say these scanners are not effective at least
70% of the time in detecting dangerous items.
We're also seeing the usual chorus of
experts who say we should adopt the Israeli method of airport/airline
security. While it is true that Israeli security is both very
'in your face' and also apparently very successful, the simple fact is
that the Israeli system can not and would not scale to handle the volume
of passengers we have in the US.
Even a simple attempt to emulate the Israeli
model would require the current 50,000 or so TSA employees balloon out
to many hundreds of thousands of employees, and the current suggested
two hour checkin time allowance extend unpredictably out to a much
Here's an excellent rebuttal from a reader
who is involved in these issues :
El Al has something like 39 aircraft,
about half of which are required to remain on the ground at any
given time since they are also part of the Israeli defense
contingency plan. El Al does not hub; they fly only
point-to-point and back again. They have only two
The entire Israeli population is in the
government data base, and all airport security are current or
ex-military. They know/understand their threat, much of which
is close by. Their passenger traffic is quite small, relative
to most other countries, and most certainly ours, with 460 airports
and 650+ million pax/year.
They also don't have much concern for
long delays at points of origin, or about downline turnaround times
/ connection times, and thus, throughput.
Yes, the Israelis train their security
people well. For THEIR environment. They're not afraid
of the profiling bugaboo, or delays via interview process.
Anyway, enough of the sense. How about
some of the nonsense of the last week.
Like for example, at Bakersfield Airport on
Tuesday, where the entire airport was shut down and flights diverted due
to a suspicious chemical found in a passenger's baggage.
The man who owned the bags, a 31 year old gardener, was held for
questioning for several hours, and said the liquid was honey.
A bottle was opened and two TSA screeners
sniffed the contents. They reported a strong chemical odor, said
it made them feel sick, and they had to be sent to hospital.
Some hours later the mysterious chemical was
identified. It was, ummm, honey.
Or how about the flight from Portland OR to
Hawaii on Wednesday that turned around and returned to Portland
airport under the escort of two F-15s that had been scrambled to
shepherd the plane back.
The reason for the turnaround and fighter
escort (and will someone please tell me what exactly a fighter 'escort'
is for, other than to shoot down the plane)? There was reportedly
a passenger aboard with 'concerning' behavior.
The man - a 56 yr old resident of nearby
Salem, was taken off the plane in handcuffs by the FBI, but released
without charge after questioning, which makes one wonder exactly how
concerning his behavior truly was.
And then there is the lockdown of one of
the terminals in Newark for over six hours while the Keystone Cops
TSA and airport police tried to locate a man who walked into the secure
part of the terminal by going in the out door, rather than through
formal security screening. It seems more than 10,000 passengers
were affected, with some passengers ending up waiting 2.5 days to get
alternate flights to where they were going.
This article reports on some of the comedy of errors that occurred,
article suggests that the man in question was no-one more sinister
than a lovelorn person saying goodbye to his female friend.
Whoever he is/was, his identity remains a
And then there are the Slovakian officials
who were conducting a live test of their baggage screening by using live
explosives. The good news - eight of the nine packs of explosive
The bad news - the ninth pack was undetected
and flew on to Ireland, where the Irish police and the Slovakian
authorities managed to miscommunicate sufficiently as to cause the Irish
police to perceive the hapless and unaware passenger (who didn't know
his bag was being used as part of the test) as a dangerous terrorist.
But perhaps the ultimate story of the week
is one which, while on the face of it is as outré as any of the others,
alas also has a sad but certain ring of truth to it - the TSA officer in
Los Angeles who was arrested for 'behaving erratically'. He had
just finished duty at Terminal 1 in LAX and was apparently telling
people 'I am god, I'm in charge'.
If he was still on duty, he'd probably have
been scarily close to telling the truth.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels