Friday 19 July, 2002
Good morning.  Shock news is coming in as I type this (Thursday evening) - TSA chief John Magaw has just announced his resignation.  Breaking reports suggest this may be at the request of Transportation Secretary Mineta, notwithstanding a statement from Mineta praising Magaw - praise that is surely contradicted by the facts if Mineta has indeed fired Magaw!

The TSA has certainly had its fair share of justified criticism, but the target for such criticism should equally be Secretary Mineta (amongst other things, the key opponent of any type of passenger profiling).  Magaw and the TSA have been given an impossible task; I doubt that Magaw's replacement will be any better at working miracles.  This event does, however, provide extra focus to this week's column.

This Week's Column :  What's the Big Deal with Bags? :  Twelve years ago Congress first required the FAA to screen bags at US airports (with a 1993 deadline for implementation).  The latest deadline is 31 December 2002, and while the TSA seems to think they'll meet this date, no-one else believes them.  But there are two much larger problems than just the implementation date - the technology they are choosing is the most expensive solution, while not being the most effective; and even if it works perfectly, a huge security loophole remains open.

Continuing a TSA theme, they are spending money at a rate that is impressive even for a government department!  Taking a leaf from Amtrak's negotiating book, they are now asking for a further $4 billion (in addition to their present $4.8 billion budget) because they will run out of money in a few weeks time!

There is one possible reason why TSA is going through so much money.  They are replacing what were formerly minimum wage positions under private security firms with rates of pay so generous that other law enforcement officials are resigning from their present positions in a rush to join the TSA, causing personnel and security problems in other branches of government and law enforcement!  Senior TSA security personnel earn up to $84,000, and a 3 year veteran of the Secret Service can double his income by leaving the Secret Service and joining the TSA.

The whole new 'security' industry seems to be one outrageous cost after another - all of which comes back to us in the form of more security surcharges, higher airfares, and higher taxes in general.  Here's an extreme example :  Many years ago, it was fashionable to make fun of the military for paying thousands of dollars each for hammers, coffee makers and toilet seats.  Now, let me ask you - how much each do you think the new specially strengthened secure cockpit doors should cost?  One company has already sold more than 1500 of these new secure doors, so you'd expect the price to be fairly reasonable, due to the large number of doors being supplied (close on 5000 required in total).

So what do you think is the likely cost per door?  Almost $50,000 a piece!!!  That is enough to pay for 11 pounds of solid gold - are these solid gold doors?

Last week's trivia question was 'which country used to manufacture and sell up to 2500 planes a year, but last year only sold four?  The answer is, of course, Russia.

In an interesting move, speculation is increasing that the new FAA head (to replace Jane Garvey who is completing her term) might be the current head of the NTSB.  For many years, NTSB has regularly been very critical of the FAA's lack of follow-through on NTSB safety recommendations - is it too much to hope that with a former NTSB administrator at its head, the FAA may become more safety conscious?

And, talking about safety, poor old Concorde - the plane that went from having the honor of the world's safest airplane to almost the opposite extreme after the spectacular July 2000 crash in France - has been having more problems.  A flight from London to New York on Monday had to return to London after engine problems caused the shutdown of one of its four engines.  Interestingly, the plane was only half full, which probably explains the BA specials giving massive discounts on Concorde flights to/from Britain at present.

Aloha Airlines, now boldly fighting to maintain its viability after its merger with Hawaiian Airlines fell apart, announced that it will continue to pay travel agent commissions, at least through 31 December 2002.  It will be interesting to see if this earns it any tangible additional support from the travel agency community - this is a golden opportunity for travel agencies to show how they truly can assist an airline in its marketing and distribution.  I sure hope to hear travel agents recommend Aloha to me (it's a fine airline, by the way!) next time I enquire about travel to Hawaii from the various west coast cities it offers service from, or between the islands.  Readers may recall a thoughtful contributed column from Aloha's Senior VP, Jim King, last year.

ASTA praised Aloha's decision (of course).  But, after starting a correspondence with me several weeks ago, ASTA have remained silent and apparently have chosen not to reply to my follow up questions.  If travel agent readers have an opinion about ASTA, please feel free to send it in, I'll add it to those already appended to the correspondence.

Major airlines are releasing their latest financial results at present, and its ugly all around, except for Southwest, who proudly reported a $100+ million profit.  The prime reason for the major airlines' losses is due to business travelers refusing to pay the over-inflated airfares that the airlines demand of them, and changing their travel planning so as to be able to buy discounted advance purchase fares.

In the past, larger companies have shunned purchase of non-refundable tickets because of unwieldy advance-purchase requirements, costly change fees and one-year expiration dates. But that was before corporations attacked travel costs.  'Corporations are angry today at the prices airlines charge for business travelers, and they are resorting to mandating their employees do whatever is necessary to get lower fares,' says Lynn Hamper, president of  The answer, she adds, is buying more non-refundable tickets.  Confirming this trend, Topaz International, an airline ticket auditing service, says 54% of the corporate tickets it reviewed in the second quarter were non-refundable, up from 42% a year ago.

Talking about major airlines, British Airways is no longer "the world's favorite airline" - Lufthansa now has a stronger claim to the title. BA's tag line is based on IATA statistics relating to international passengers. While BA carried 31 million passengers this year, Lufthansa is to carry 32 million. By 2006, Air France is predicted to also be carrying more international passengers than BA.  US carriers such as American, Delta and United cannot (yet!) claim to be the 'world's favorite' because most of their clients are domestic.

Last week I spoke about a potential new supersonic plane.  Sadly, its test flight ended in disaster this week when the booster rocket that was carrying the model plane went out of control and crashed.  The model alone cost $80 million to build (it must have had a solid gold door into the cockpit!).  Note however that the fault was nothing to do with the model plane but rather of the rocket that was carrying it.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Thank you to the many readers who suggested the story of the group of Indian actors that were thought to be acting suspiciously on a flight.  A nervous fellow passenger complained about the Indians changing seats and passing notes between themselves, and as a result the plane was escorted by two F-16s and the Indians arrested upon landing.  One of them turned out to be a famous (Indian) movie star and their shifting seats was merely so that each of them could have a turn at the window!

But I don't really think this is a horror story; merely a sad reflection on the fine line that responsible people now must tread between watchfulness and paranoia.  At least the Indian passengers were not abused or mistreated, unlike the lady that joked about testing the pilots for intoxication that I reported last week.  Here are more developments on that appalling incident.

America West is defending its crew's action as being safety-related (oh how predictable!), saying it wanted to investigate further whether the passenger had information that crew members had been drinking before the flight. It was not, they say, retribution against the passenger for making a joke about a sensitive subject.  America West's 'Passenger Care Chief' Joette Schmidt was asked how much freedom of speech remains for its passengers.  Her answer 'It's hard to say'.  She added 'There are no hard and fast rules.  We would ask customers to be sensitive knowing what's going on in aviation today'.

Schmidt does acknowledge that the airline 'overreacted', has apologized to the passenger, and has revised the policy on how to deal with passenger comments without regard to how insulting they may be.  Her new policy statement earns her this week's 'How to say something that means nothing' award.  Henceforth, America West crews and ground staff will be better listeners, she says. They should "spend more time with the customer" and "make sure they have all the information" before taking action.  Can anyone tell me what this actually means?

Meanwhile, it was a sad case of history repeating itself at LAX.  This time, a partial evacuation of Terminal Two was ordered after a suspicious item was observed passing through a scanning machine.  The terminal was closed for an hour before passengers were allowed to trickle back in.  And the suspicious item - tubes of jam!  The LAPD Bomb Squad determined they were safe.  Am I the only one that wonders why the passenger wasn't just asked what the suspicious objects were?  Officer Lee from LAPD explains 'It's routine that we check these things out.  When we do that, we evacuate the immediate areas all the time.'  I'm sure the evacuated passengers were pleased to learn that their inconvenience was merely routine, and I'm a bit worried about the implications of the phrase 'all the time'!

One can almost understand, therefore, the sense of frustration that overwhelms some of us in such situations.  But, as understanding as I might be, I don't think I can sympathize with the irate French man who was arrested after dropping his pants while being searched and yelling to screeners "is this good enough", according to the police report .  Banker Marc Danselme, 61, a Washington resident, 'appeared very disturbed that he was being bothered by the screener and was instantly very vocal to all in his immediate area', the report said of the incident at Miami International Airport.  When he was requested to turn over his belt, the French national 'became irate and suddenly dropped his pants in front of both male and female screeners.  The police report sternly advised that female passengers accompanied by small children witnessed the incident and 'were horrified'.  Monsieur Danselme was charged with disorderly conduct.

Danger apparently lurks in the strangest places these days.  The inflatable neck cushions used by many airline passengers could explode - or even end up strangling their wearer, say experts, who describe the devices as potentially lethal and recommend banning them at once.  The danger comes if the aircraft suffers a sudden loss of cabin pressure, say testers.  The loss of cabin pressure could cause the cushion to expand - perhaps to three times its normal size. This could cut the flow of blood to the brain, perhaps causing brain damage or even death.

But wait, there's more!  In addition, the cushion could explode loudly, causing temporary deafness and perhaps damaging the vertebrae at the top of the spine!  I must say that I find this rather difficult to take seriously - the only time I tried to use one of these, the air kept leaking out of the tube that you blow in to inflate the cushion, and any change in air pressure would just make the air leak out all that much faster.

And, lastly, thanks to reader Peter for sending in an interesting counterpoint to the story several weeks ago about the California Highway Patrol shamefully shooting some cattle that had strayed to the side of a highway.  This is taken from the San Francisco Chronicle on 10 July.

Nick Fain of Fairfax called to tell us he was driving south on 101 near Corte Madera just after 4 pm Tuesday when a California Highway Patrol officer shot past him with lights blazing.

Then, just ahead, the CHPer slowed to 30 mph and began zig-zagging across traffic to slow the traffic behind him.

A horrible accident ahead, perhaps? Or maybe another one of those freeway stand-offs with a crazed gunman?  Nope.  'A mother duck with her brood of ducklings crossing the highway,' says Fain, adding 'He got there just in time, too, because they crossed right in front of the traffic.'

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and give way to ducks on the freeway!

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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