Friday, 5 April, 2002
Good morning, and if I sound a bit breathless, it is because I've spent almost the entire last week answering your emails and adding people to the mailing list - the response to last week's column about travel agents has been overwhelming!  We set a new record in terms of page visits and reader feedback; on Friday there were 10,395 page hits (the previous record was on the day that the second column in the 'finding the best seat' series was released, with a mere 4405 page hits).  I'm tempted to exclusively write columns about the travel industry - goodness only knows they deserve someone telling their side of the story!  Which leads in to this week's story.

This Week's Column :  Airline vs Airline? :  If you think that zeroing out travel agent commissions was simply an attempt by the major carriers to put the squeeze on travel agents, you might have missed a more subtle reason that could threaten airline competition across the board.  More in this week's column.

Sometimes you see a deal that is just so amazingly good that it is hard to believe it is true.  Fellow travel writer Scott McMurren has one such deal - if you're thinking of traveling to Alaska, click to find out about his 'Great Alaskan TourSaver' - a book of vouchers that can save you up to $17,000 on an Alaskan vacation.  Yes, of course, you're not going to take advantage of every discount, but even one or two of the discounts will more than cover the $99.95 cost.  Highly recommended.

Can you fill in these gaps?  Here is the statement :  President Bush called on ----- to be compassionate at checkpoints and border crossings, "sparing innocent ----- daily humiliation."  Now, who do you think he was talking about :

(a)  He called upon US airport and border security to spare innocent Americans daily humiliation

(b)  He called upon Israeli forces to spare Palestinians - including what seems to be several times daily suicide bombers - humiliation

Of course, the answer should be (a) but, sadly, is (b).  Open question to President Bush - Israel is in the middle of an undeclared war by Palestinian suicide bombers.  Why are you presuming to tell them to treat these people with compassion, while not imposing similar standards on the airport security personnel that are searching retired ladies and Congressional Medal of Honor winners?  Who presents the greater security risk - American citizens in the US, or Palestinians entering Israel?  Surely compassion begins at home!

February ontime data has been published by the DOT.  America West leads the pack with 88.5% of flights arriving on time, followed closely by Southwest at 87.3%.  At the other end, commission cutting Delta comes second last at 81.2% and Alaska last at 77.9%.

If you're like me, you occasionally drive a bit faster than you should, and perhaps, also like me, you make use of a radar detector.  I have a portable one that I take with me and use in rental cars.  But be very careful if you are taking such a device to use in Europe.  Many European countries ban the detectors.  Punishment for their use varies from imprisonment in Luxembourg to loss of licence and car and a fine of up to $1,500 in France.

The RAC Foundation in the UK cited the case of a motoring journalist who was stopped recently in southern France for carrying a radar detection device. Even though he did not have the device switched on, he had to pay a $750 on-the-spot fine and a police officer threatened to impound the car and take away the passports of the journalist and his family!  The journalist had to appear in court later where, with the help of a French lawyer, his fine was eventually reduced and the threat of a driving ban removed.

'In the event of a water landing....' - how many times have you heard those words and either watched or ignored as the flight attendants go through the motions of putting on a life vest. One of the great big unknowns has always been what would actually happen if a modern jet attempted a water landing, with the more gloomy amongst us being of the opinion that the plane would probably plunge directly to the ocean floor rather than calmly land on the water and float passively.

An interesting test occurred, inadvertently, this last week when an old Boeing 307 Stratoliner, dating back to 1937, was forced to land on the water in Puget Sound after suffering engine failure in all four engines.  The plane landed smoothly on the water and the four occupants simply strolled out along the top of the wing to the end where they were rescued by a passing boat!  I wish I could say that this reassures me as to how a modern jet would survive a water landing - they land at a much higher speed and with below the wing jet engines, present a very different profile to the water.

Last week I offered a 'cheap shot' about building new airplanes out of 'composite materials'.  A reader wrote in to explain about composites - and being as how we're all going to see more of these materials, here is an excerpt from his explanation.

Many new aircraft are employing these "composites".  Composites are fabric based (not plastic) and employ many exotic materials in their fibers. Fiberglass is a composite, as used on the Corvette and other sports cars.

Composite construction takes the "cloth" and "lays it up" using various epoxy compounds (known for their extreme strength).  Most aviation composites are made primarily out of carbon-fiber cloth. Carbon composites are much stronger and much, much lighter than aluminum, or even steel. This makes for more efficient aircraft that can carry more payload at higher speeds using less fuel. Composites have been in use in smaller planes for more than twenty years, and have much better safety records than aluminum-skinned aircraft. The only reason why we haven't seen more composites used is because of their higher initial cost and more complex production procedures.

In fifty years, building an aluminum aircraft will be like building a mobile home - quick, cheap, and easy, but definitely NOT better. Building a composite aircraft will be like building a stone or brick house; it may take longer and cost three times as much, but it will be built to last and built of the best materials for the job.

In the latest step in our 'war against terrorism' the State Department is to introduce new super-secure passports.  Effective Monday 8 April, all new US passports will have a special digitized photograph plus other security measures that are, ummm, being kept secret!

It appears that airports are getting better at processing passengers through the new 'security' procedures.  But now the airlines are increasing the amount of time prior to flight departure that you need to be at the gate and ready to board.  Both Northwest and Delta now require domestic customers, with the exception of those traveling to or from Hawaii, to be checked-in and at the departure gate at least 15 minutes prior to departure with boarding pass in hand.  Passengers are required to be at the gate 30 minutes prior to departure for travel to and from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean and 60 minutes for all other international destinations.

This week's security horror story :  We've got several to choose from (of course!).  How about the 20 members of a group that raised the suspicions of a flight attendant as they boarded an American flight  from Heathrow to the US, and so she arbitrarily had them removed from the plane.   Who were these suspicious people?  They were members of President Musharraf of Pakistan's security staff and were headed to New Mexico at the invitation of the U.S. government to take part in an anti-terrorism training course!

Or how about the America West flight that made an emergency landing in Wichita after an onboard air marshal found a suspicious wire on a bathroom floor.   Both the Wichita Police bomb squad and the Explosive Ordinance Division from McConnell Air Force Base inspected the plane but found nothing other than the original wire.  And what exactly was this wire?  Ummm.....  part of the toilet paper holder!

Last week I wrote about how airport security screeners are missing as many as 70% of knives that are taken through security checkpoints.  When I wrote that I added that maybe this was because they were busy fussing over innocent old ladies.  Well, it appears that not all old ladies are innocent!  Three passengers, all in their 70s, were arrested (in unrelated incidents) earlier this week at Palm Beach airport for having knives in their carry-on baggage.  The article did not comment on how many young middle eastern males went through security without any problems while the security staff were conducting this blitz on American senior citizens.  Mercifully, the FBI declined to press federal charges, but the local authorities are insisting on prosecuting under Florida statutes. The three offenders face up to a year in prison and a $1000 fine.

Is this an April Fool's Day Joke?  File it under the 'only in France' heading, perhaps, because the writer is very serious.  A book which argues that American Airlines flight 77 did not crash into the Pentagon on 11 September has become an immediate bestseller in France. Thierry Meyssan's book L'Effroyable Imposture (The Appalling Fraud) alleges the attack on the building, which houses the US defence department, was staged by none other than the American Government. "No plane crashed into the Pentagon," he said in a recent interview on France 2 television. "I believe the government is lying."  As far as I know, he has no explanation to cover the missing plane or its passengers and crew.

And now, for a real April Fool's Day joke, read of a new advertising campaign by Virgin Atlantic.

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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