Friday 17 January, 2003

Good morning, where today sees me enjoying warm weather in Orlando and all the wonderful diversions that it has to offer.

And, talking about wonderful things, the nicest part of my travel experience when flying to Florida last week was not having to bother about my luggage. How is that possible, you might ask? Read this week's column to find out.

This Week's Column :  No Luggage Worries When Traveling :  For many of us, the most inconvenient part of traveling is managing our baggage.  New airline security rules and crackdowns on luggage allowances make this worse.  Here's a wonderful solution that makes your traveling carefree - and luggage free, too.

Florida Impressions

The most memorable experience was going for a two hour cruise on a WW2 era PT boat - the only one still in military form.  PT 728 operates out of Key West and has sunset cruises for $45 where they cruise around the harbor and occasionally take the boat up to its full speed of 40 knots, and stage mock attacks on some of the other boats!  This PT boat was featured in McHale's Navy and various other tv shows and movies, and is just like the one that President Kennedy commanded.  A fascinating and fun experience.

The next day we hired a small speed boat for an hour.  The first one nearly sank before we returned it to the dock (broken bilge pump).  As for the second - should I have worried that although a placard in the boat referred to the Coast Guard requiring us to wear lifejackets, none were provided!?  Or to the other reference to a 'safety lanyard' (ie, if you fall out of the boat, the lanyard kills the motor) which also was missing?  One of the other rented boats broke down, and the couple stranded in that boat told us that this was the second boat they had hired which broke down.

Epcot, now 21 years old, is looking tired and jaded.  Although admittedly not their peak season, the park seemed empty.  No lines - not even for two or three minutes - on any of their rides.  In the 39 months since I was last at Epcot, I saw no major additions or changes, either.  A big disappointment.

We went to a new theme park, the 'Holy Land Experience'.  Epcot seemed empty, but this other park truly was empty.  Maybe there were 200 people total in the park!  Although it advertised itself as being a fascinating recreation of the areas and life and times of Jesus, it was not a secular experience at all, and so is not recommended for people who are not comfortable being preached at.

Orlando continues to grow at an extraordinary rate.  My hotel was on a(nother) new stretch of International Drive.  At present, this part of Intl Drive is almost empty, but - showing amazing foresight - the new road has three lanes in each direction, plus occasional extra cutouts for turning lanes!

They might be able to get a rocket to the moon, but they can't answer their phone.  I tried to buy tickets to attend a Space Shuttle launch on Thursday.  After waiting on hold 9 minutes on Monday, I chose an option to leave a message with a promise to expect a 'prompt call back'.  24 hours later - no call back.  I phoned again, twice on Tuesday, and waited on hold for up to 51 minutes each time (with an automatic phone voice telling me that the average wait on hold was 'less than two minutes' for much of the time!) and then gave up and left two more messages.  Again, no call back.  So we drove to Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, only to be told that we were now too late for tickets to the launch!  Disappointing.

Although they can't answer their phone, the Kennedy Space Center continues to impressively develop the material it presents to visitors.  It really does take a full day (or even two!) to thoroughly see and do everything on display.  Note that the special bus tours require you to get there early in the morning in order to be sure of getting a place on the tour.

Tickets to see the Space Shuttle launch would have cost us $56 each, and required us to be at the collection point at 5.30am (the launch was timed for 10.39am).  Instead we stayed at a motel in Titusville for the night, and could look out the motel room window the next morning, across the water, and directly to the launch site.  We weren't much further away than the official seating, and had a much more convenient experience, and at lower cost.  Perhaps it is just as well they don't answer their phone!  Best free viewing is anywhere along Hwy 1 in Titusville, between about Howard Johnson at one end and the Holiday Inn at the other end.

The Titanic exhibit is worth visiting.  Two experiences stood out.  First, upon entering the exhibit, your ticket has a randomly selected name of one of the Titanic passengers printed on it.  At the end of the tour, you match your name against the lists of survivors and casualties.  The reality of seeing both our passenger names on the casualty list made everything much more personal and much less abstract.

The second experience was a solid wall of ice that was at the same temperature as the water into which the Titanic passengers found themselves.  We all know that holding an ice-cube is cold, but placing your hands flat against this wall of ice was COLD.  An ice cube does not absorb heat from us as fast as we replenish it, so while cold, it is bearable; but this huge mass of ice just soaked the life force out of one.  The cold was painful and overwhelming.  No wonder they died so quickly in the water.

Traffic moves amazingly fast.  I was in a line of cars in moderately dense traffic on the Turnpike and averaged 83 mph for an hour of driving, with occasional bursts of speed well in excess of that.

Visiting Key West's 'International' Airport was like stepping back in time 50 years.  It is a lovely facility, with a small single level terminal, and friendly people inside, and no feeling of it being an awful institution like most modernday airports.

Church St Station in Orlando has closed.  This has always seemed such a vibrant and central part of Orlando - but after carefully following the freeway and surface street signs, then parking in a parking lot marked 'Church St Station', upon walking around the corner - darkness, 'To Let' signs, and nothing.  This is almost as unthinkable as Seattle closing down its Space Needle!

After the all too brief excitement of watching the Space Shuttle lift off, I was struck with a feeling of sadness.  Truly the 1960s were an extraordinary decade of innovation - not only did man progress from being earth-bound to walking on the moon, but also the modern jet age dawned, giving us all much greater freedoms of travel.

But what has happened since then?  In space, the shuttle is now more than 20 years old, and we've abandoned the moon.  Closer to earth, jets fly no faster than they did 40 years ago.  Indeed, at ground level, cars use the same technologies and work essentially similar to how they did 60 years ago, with only minor improvements in speed and comfort.  NASA and the space program no longer capture the public's imagination, and there are no bold new projects under way.  Even Boeing's now cancelled Sonic Cruiser would have only been a minor tweak in passenger jet speeds.

What has happened to the innovation that ruled the first two thirds of the twentieth century?

A new 'record' for passenger jet service was, however, claimed by Qantas last week when it set two new records - the longest passenger jet flight and the fastest average speed, when it flew one of its new Airbus A330-200s from Toulouse to Melbourne nonstop.  The flight was 16,910 km (a little over 10,000 miles), and lasted 20 hours 4 minutes, at an average speed of 865 km/hr (a little over 535 mph).

But excuse me if I'm underwhelmed by this - more than ten years ago they flew a 747-400 between London and Sydney for a nonstop flight record, and if Toulouse-Melbourne is more distant, it can only be by a hundred miles or so.  And 535 mph is only fast in the context of not having to stop for fuel - in actual jet speed terms, it is merely an ordinary speed.  Nothing startlingly innovative here.

Year end figures have now been released by both Airbus and Boeing.  Airbus counts 303 deliveries in 2002 and plans 300 deliveries in 2003, while Boeing counts 381 deliveries for 2002 and a planned 285 in 2003.  In terms of new plane orders, Airbus claims to have received 300 orders for new planes while Boeing claims 251.

Some welcome good news about Boeing, for a change.  Australian carrier Virgin Blue has announced an order for 'up to 50' 737-800s, of which 10 are firm orders.  Meanwhile, the next battle between Boeing and Airbus looks to take place in Boeing's own backyard - Seattle, where Alaska Airlines announced that it will consider Airbus jets to replace 40 aging planes in its fleet.  Alaska currently operates 31 MD-80 and 71 737 planes.

And the number of parked planes continues to increase.  According to this report, there were 2537 aircraft parked in mid December compared to 2507 in mid November.

My pick for the biggest trend in commercial aviation in 2003 :  The growth of regional jet (RJ) services.  Regional jets now serve 223 different North American airports (nearly half of all airports), with new service growing at a rate of 3.5 new city pairs per week during 2002.  Only 17% of new services are replacing former turbo-prop flights, with most flights being totally new service.  RJ service is also increasing in stage length - more than half of the new routes in 2002 were 750 miles or longer.

The modern regional jets have significant range (up to 1500 miles) and passenger capacity (up to 70 passengers) and very low operating costs.  Traditional carriers are finding that RJ service is a very cost effective way of replacing traditional full sized jets, and due to the smaller size of the planes and lower break-even points, they can operate direct service between cities using RJs,  whereas the only way before to service such cities would have been through a hub, or with more expensive, less reliable, and less comfortable turbo-props.  An example of this shift to RJ services is the announcement last week by Delta - they are dropping 24 mainline flights but adding 56 RJ flights at their DFW hub in April.

Regional jets make it easy for new startup carriers to compete on 'thin routes' and to build up profitable small airline operations.  While few investors are interested in startup airlines at present, look for greatly increased focus on RJ services, both by the major carriers and, in time, by new startups too.

Chicago's O'Hare Intl Airport has kept its title as the world's busiest airport for 2002.  Preliminary FAA figures show ORD with 922,787 takeoffs and landings in 2002 (911,861 in 2001) - a record high number for the airport.  Atlanta had 890,923, and DFW was third with 777,386.  ATL had nosed past ORD in 1999 and 2000, but ORD reclaimed its title in 2001 and kept it in 2002.  ORD was the world's busiest for 38 years prior to ATL's brief two year reign as champion.

Although ORD's flight movements were up, they represented more RJ flights and fewer mainline flights - actual passenger numbers are projected to be very slightly down in 2002 compared to 2001.

And largest US airline for 2002, in terms of RPMs (revenue passenger miles - ie the number of miles flown by paying passengers), was AA, carrying 122 billion RPMs (a 4.2% decrease compared to 2001).  UA staggered in to second place with 109 billion RPMs (6.2% decrease) and then DL at 102 and NW at 72.  Completing the top ten were CO (59), WN (you do know that WN is the abbreviation for Southwest, don't you!) at 45, US (40), HP (America West - 20), AS (13) and FL (AirTran Airways - 10).

Some more statistics, and an award for 'let's blame everything on 9/11' to, who blamed a downturn in worldwide travel and an increase in customers booking directly with hotels for the 25% fall in its share price. But rival operator reported an upward trend of online bookings for Q4 in 2002, with the number of rooms booked rising 130% to 16,783, and visitor numbers for the quarter rising 144% to 1,699,060 million people worldwide.

More people plan to travel in 2003, according to a December survey for Travelocity.  However, travel would decrease by 16% if the US engaged in a war in the Middle East.  The most popular type of vacation for 2003 is spending time with family, followed by a beach vacation and then camping/outdoors/nature trips.  The full survey is here.

Its that feeling of deja vue all over again.  Amtrak President David Gunn warned Congress on Wednesday that Amtrak could begin a shutdown within months if lawmakers make wholesale cuts in his request for $1.2 billion in funding.  Is there no more positive argument he can evince to get the funds that Amtrak needs and deserves?

Talking about trains, here's an interesting article about a 250+ mph 'maglev' train, now operational in Shanghai.  That's a comparable speed to what many turbo-prop planes fly at!  The German built train currently operates on a 20 mile route to the airport and takes only 7.5 minutes.  Plans are mooted to extend the line hundreds of miles further.  Amazing.

A developing story to watch out for is the growing gap in pension funding at some of the airlines.  Poorly performing investments have contributed to massive shortfalls in pension funds, which is labeled by Fitch airline analyst William Warlick as 'perhaps the most dire in corporate America'.  Largest shortfall is at Delta, with a $4.4 billion underfunding.  United is close behind with $4.1 billion, AA at $3.3 billion, NW at $3.2 billion and US at $3 billion.  In total, the industry pension plans are underfunded by approx $18 billion - an amount all the more staggering when one remembers that in 1999 they were overfunded by $1 billion!

Last week I expressed horror at AA's 5% of staff who report sick each day.  Here's an article with interesting statistics about sick leave - the US has an average of 4% daily absenteeism, which means that AA's 5% isn't as bad as it sounds.  One finding of this survey - public servants take twice as much sick leave as do people working in the private sector!

Winning the prize for this week's 'Most Specious Reason to Build a New Airport' are the enthusiastic backers of a new international airport that would be built on a man-made island in the estuary of the River Severn, in western England/Wales.  A report from the group advocating the airport, claims that there would be huge savings in aviation fuel because international jets would not need to fly the 130 extra miles to Heathrow.

Unfortunately, this claim fails for four reasons.  Firstly, the jet fuel used for 130 miles on a 5000 mile total journey is hardly a 'huge' saving.  Secondly, the route that flights take from the US is such that they do not fly first to Severn then to Heathrow - the route they take is such that the extra distance is much less than 130 miles.  Thirdly, jets from Europe and Asia would actually have to - ooops, fly further to travel to Severn.  Fourthly, notwithstanding any saving in jet fuel or not, the ability of airlines to fill large planes regularly with passengers traveling to South Wales and related areas is highly doubtful.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  An ordinary looking suitcase appeared to be packed with bombs when going through an explosives detection machine at Tampa Airport on Tuesday night.  And so the ticketing level of the main terminal was completely evacuated and the bomb squad called to handle the problem.  And what exactly was the bag that caused the alert?  Ooops - a TSA 'test bag' - a bag with contents deliberately designed to look like bombs to test the alertness of the screeners.  Unfortunately, no-one realised this at the time!

This is the third false alert at Tampa within the last three weeks - on Christmas Eve the airport was similarly evacuated due to something looking suspicious in a bag.  Authorities subsequently determined that the bag was perfectly safe.

And, earlier this week, a mousetrap showed up on an X-ray monitor and triggered evacuation of the airport for 45 minutes. Baggage screeners raised the alarm after spotting what looked like a "very, very, suspicious" object. Bomb squad officers used a robot to remove the object from the bag, only to find it was a mousetrap inside a coffee cup.

Reader Tom submits this next story as candidate for 'Family Feud of the Week'.  A couple of weeks ago I commented on a Paris baggage handler being arrested due to having a substantial quantity of weapons and explosives in his car.  It now transpires that he was set up - by members of his own family, who planted the material in his car then phoned in an anonymous tip to the police!

Compare the two stories following and then wonder which is the more level headed approach to 'air rage' and which is an extreme over-reaction that does nothing other than 'punish' all the other passengers.

Story One : 

A Delta flight carrying 156 passengers had to return to Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport on Saturday after a passenger became unruly, an airline spokeswoman said.   About an hour after Delta Flight 308 departed Atlanta for New York's LaGuardia Airport, a male passenger began smoking.  "Of course the flight attendants asked him not to smoke, and when he refused, the passengers and flight attendants restrained him," the spokeswoman said.   North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was alerted and monitored the situation by radio.

"We had aircraft already in the air and began to posture those aircraft to head toward the region if necessary, but the situation was under control before our aircraft arrived, and there was no need to do anything," said Maj. Barry Venable, a NORAD spokesman.  The man was detained by authorities at the airport and will be charged with interfering with a flight crew, a law enforcement source said.

Story Two : 

An air rage incident on an Air New Zealand flight to Los Angeles on Monday wasn't pleasant, but didn't cause disruption to the flight, the airline said.   An intoxicated passenger who allegedly attacked and threatened to kill other travelers and crew when the flight was six hours out of Auckland was escorted off the plane by LA airport police when it landed.   He was detained until FBI agents arrived, and subsequently released.

Air NZ spokeswoman Rosie Paul said such incidents happened "from time to time" in the aviation industry.  In this case, the cabin crew had not been serving the man alcohol, but he had been drinking his own, she said.   "The individual got quite irrational and crews are trained to deal with these situations.  It did not cause disruption to the flight other than verbal abuse, which is not terribly nice on a flight."

Ms Paul said the crew would have contained the man as much as possible until the aircraft landed in Los Angeles.  She said the matter was in the hands of the local police and the airline would not be laying charges.

Of course, as a New Zealander myself, I might be thought prejudiced, but was it really necessary to notify NORAD about a man smoking on a plane?  And can someone please tell me exactly how can a fighter jet help when a passenger becomes unruly - short of shooting the entire jet out of the sky!  After having restrained the passenger, why couldn't the flight have continued as scheduled to New York? 

I wrote about the vulnerability of planes to SAMs back on 6 December.  Six weeks later, officials are starting to discover this problem.  This Washington Post story tells how 'top federal officials' are developing plans to protect against such attacks.  But don't expect anything too sensible.  Their plans range from varying take-off schedules so that terrorists can't predict when planes will depart - but, ooops, that doesn't help us passengers much, either, does it!  And at a busy airport with planes taking off 50+ times an hour, does a terrorist really care in what order the planes are flying overhead?

Another wonderful idea is to educate people that live and work near airports to recognize SAMs so they can alert authorities if they see one being readied to fire.  But in less time than it takes for the person to dial 911 and report the SAM, the terrorist will have been able to launch multiple rockets at multiple targets and then drive off.  Yet another idea is to teach pilots how to land their planes in an emergency if one of their engines has been shot off.  Did no-one tell these 'experts' that pilots routinely practice such things already?

And some startling news out of the GAO on Wednesday, which made the headlines in the New York Times.  A special study that the GAO conducted has revealed that airplanes remain vulnerable to terrorist bombs hidden in air cargo.  Of course, the GAO (and NY Times) could have read any of the articles I've repeatedly written about this over the last year and saved themselves some bother and expense!  About 22% of air freight is transported on passenger planes (providing the airlines with $13 billion of profitable income in 2001).

At times like these, all you can do is laugh helplessly at the idiocy that is supposed to be protecting us.  And so it is good to report that Southwest has started cracking funny again- the airline's trademark humor was curbed after September 11, and some jokes - those about crashes and threats are still off-limits. Recently, passengers indicated that they miss having the flight attendants make jokes, and the humor was brought back on a limited, volunteer basis, and now the airline is back up to its previous shenanigans.

Next week will see me writing to you from Salisbury, England.  And although I'm reluctantly flying BA yet again, I'm delighted to advise that my next trip to Britain, in March, will be much more pleasant - I'm traveling with Virgin Atlantic Airways instead.

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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