Friday, January 4, 2002

2002 promises to be a good year for us all - let's hope so!  The various doom and gloom predictions - especially on the terrorism front - have all consistently been contradicted by the realities.  There was no resurgence of terrorist activity after Ramadan, there was no resurgence of terrorist activity over Christmas, and the New Year was safely celebrated all around the world.  Meanwhile, the stock market is showing some early strength, consumer confidence is up, and hopefully not all of your New Year resolutions have yet been broken!

And in a sign that the world may be slowly returning to normalcy, the Swiss are now allowing pocket knives to be taken on board flights departing from their airports, as long as the blade is less than 6cm (2 1/3rd inches) and can not be locked back.  A cynic might wonder if the Swiss Army Knife manufacturing lobby is really that powerful in Switzerland!

A few friends and I were playing a game over the festive season, imagining all the things that we could misappropriate on board a plane as a weapon that is at least as fearsome as a 2" bladed pocket knife or nail file.  We came up with a very long list, but on the positive side, most of such improvised weapons could be defended against by determined fellow passengers armed with laptops and seat cushions as bludgeons and shields.  So the Swiss decision to allow small pocket knives back on their flights is a sensible return to realistic threat assessment.  But, they do deserve a different sort of prize as well - read on!  :)

This week's prize for the stupidest misuse of the 'We can't tell you for reasons of security' excuse goes to Daniel Goering, a spokesman for the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation, who refused to say, on 3 January, when the restriction on pocket knives had been lifted, citing security reasons.  The prize is awarded magna cum laude, due to other items in the press freely advising that it was lifted 'a few days before Christmas'.

More good news.  AirTran is now using a 'PowerCart', a wireless mobile cart, that will increase efficiency for its check-in process and print boarding passes for passengers waiting in line at the ticket counter. The cart will be in use at its Atlanta hub - customer service agents at the ticket counter will be able to wheel the wireless cart along the ticket line and check-in passengers waiting in line who need a boarding pass with no bags. Passengers can then go directly to the gate.

'Thank you for the bomb threat' - An ATA plane was evacuated and searched at Los Angeles International Airport last Sunday after a caller told the carrier there was a bomb on an airplane.  A search revealed no explosives but, in the course of the bomb search the plane was discovered to have unrelated mechanical problems and needed to be replaced for its scheduled Los Angeles-Chicago flight!

This week's security horror story is told by the Bonehead Awards newsletter :  The following two incidents last week received Bonehead awards.  US Airways removed a man, a Sikh, and his travel companion from an Ontario to Dallas flight because one of the other passengers complained that 'he looked at them'.  US Airways explains "We have to rely at this point on the ability of the flight attendants and the captain of the aircraft to make a decision that they feel is the right decision. We learn from the things that we do wrong and hopefully we don't do them again." They have apologized (yes, at last, an airline prepared to admit it made a mistake rather than 'refuse to comment on the incident due to security reasons'!  Well done US Airways!). The second Bonehead award goes to a Canadian Airlines crew for hauling a terrified deaf-mute Muslim man from their plane because he didn't respond to them when they told him, through the plane's restroom door, that he had to go back to his seat. Duh! And then becoming unglued when he began to use sign language.

This Week's Lead Story :  A major new danger to film from airport X-ray machines.  Don't check undeveloped film - even a single scan may seriously damage it.  See some startling 'before and after' images showcased in this column.  Plus - sending film or many computer products through the mail may also be dangerous.

In a typical good news/bad news story, airline travel (and the airlines) are rebounding, slowly but surely.  Some airlines are rehiring laid off staff and reversing earlier cancellations of new plane orders, with load factors also inching up.  So, of course, the response is a firming in air fares to match the return of passengers, with a 4% increase in air fares occurring in December compared to November alone.

It pays to complain :  US Airways has begun returning blankets and pillows to all of its flights. The airline removed these items to cut costs but a spokesman for the airline said the carrier had so many complaints that it reversed its decision. The airline is also resuming meal service in its first-class cabin on longer routes.  Looks like US Airways is the 'airline of the week', all the more so for turning its back on a government loan, saying that it can manage without the government's money!

It is an ill wind that blows no good.  With most carriers having cut their capacity by the best part of 20%, the skies are less congested.  This means that 84.7% of the major U.S. airlines’ flights arrived 'on time' (ie up to 20 minutes late!) in November.  The previous month, October, with an 84.8% score was the best on time result in more than four years.  By comparison, November 2000 showed only 73% of flights arriving on time.

Lastly, this week's prize for the most unusual (and unappealing!) tour guided tours of the Tora Bora cave complex, starting at $300 (international airfare and local transportation definitely not included!).  And, if you get hungry, you can buy crackers, taken from the air dropped US aid packages for $1.75, or packets of peanut butter (which most Afghans apparently dislike and refuse to eat) for 10c!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.....

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
ps :  Don't forget to visit Joe Brancatelli's site for his weekly updates, too.

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