Friday 22 August, 2003

Good morning.  I hope you have electricity - last week's power outage (or should I say outRage) was an extraordinary event in the supposedly most technologically advanced civilization ever, and should encourage us to avoid the sin of hubris when criticizing other allegedly 'less advanced' countries.

While many of you were suffering the effects of no power, I was enjoying as much electricity as I liked in Moscow.  But, just to even things up, there was no hot water here!  The city closes down its entire city-wide hot water service for between two weeks and two months each summer.

My flight from Seattle to Moscow was with Aeroflot (SU).  Like most people, my choice of carrier is primarily influenced by two key factors - route convenience and cost.  In the case of SU, they are the only airline to operate nonstop service between Seattle and Moscow, and they also have by far the cheapest business class fares.  And so they get my business.  But just how bad (or good) is SU?  Read this week's column and find out!

This Week's Feature Column :  Aeroflot Business Class :  Aeroflot, the Russian flag carrier that once served as the monopoly carrier of the Soviet Union, undoubtedly has one of the worst reputations in the world. Is this reputation fairly deserved? I flew a modern Aeroflot 777 to Moscow and report on my experience.

Yesterday saw me at the two-yearly Moscow Air Show.  Billing itself as the largest airshow in the world, it was a curious contradiction of western chic and Soviet disfunctionality.  For example, there was a brand new widebody model IL96-400 prominently on display.  I was interested to look inside, and started to climb up the steps to go in.  I was refused entry - although this was a trade-only show with a massive qualification procedure required to obtain permission to attend, visitors were not allowed to actually go inside this plane!  The fllight line of fighters was of course also restricted, with 5000 machine gun toting police and soldiers not allowing the public to get close to them (there truly were that many security personnel present, due to terrorism concerns).  But, as this photo shows, in Russia it is easier to sit in the cockpit of a fueled and armed SU-27 fighter than it is to visit a safely inerted passenger plane.

A bewildering array of weaponry and high-tech equipment was being offered for sale - sometimes literally.  While walking down an aisle, an over-eager salesman came rushing over, trying to interest me in purchasing his anti-ship missiles!  :)

Super Deal Alert

How'd you like to get a roundtrip business class ticket on BA to Europe for only $1740?  Or first class for only $2580?  Regular business/first class fares on BA run as much as five times higher!

Frequent Flier loophole guru Steve Belkin has developed an amazing new program to do with a  side effect benefit of buying multiple copies of Randy Peterson's Inside Flyer magazine - something you probably should subscribe to, anyway.  So why not do your Christmas shopping a bit early this year, and buy everyone a subscription to Inside Flyer, and get yourself some amazingly discounted BA tickets as a result.  Lots more details on Steve's website.

Dinosaur watching :  If I have a power cut at home, then my first level response is for the UPS devices to keep my computers and other essential equipment operating.  If the power cut continues for more than a short time, then I start up my generator.  Easy, simple, and inexpensive.  But apparently this simple solution was too much for the dinosaurs, who had varying degrees of disastrous problems handling the power cut last week.

Who knows what - if any - backup arrangements UA had; their Detroit reservations center was described as having a 'complete power outage'.  At least UA had backup call centers.  But the worst airline response of all was surely provided by Air Canada.  Apparently, AC's backup power system in their main operations center in Toronto completely failed.  Ooops!  As a result, their entire international operations, everywhere in the world, had to be cancelled!

Air Canada should also be awarded a prize for uttering the understatement of the week.  An AC flight made a 'precautionary landing' in Iceland after smoke poured into the passenger cabin, causing the crew of the 747 to turn off all non-essential electrical equipment.  'Precautionary landing' seems to be a politically correct way of describing a fully configured emergency with passengers in desperate fear of their lives every minute of the hour it took between the smoke appearing and the plane landing.

Air Canada had a real run of bad luck last week.  An AC flight from Honolulu to Sydney had to immediately make a 'precautionary landing' back at HNL after blowing two tires during takeoff.  These things occasionally happen, and there was no damage to plane or passengers.  The flight landed at about 3.15am, but then the airport closed the runway until after daylight so as to allow for the runway to be checked for dangerous tire fragments littering the runway.  Doesn't Honolulu Airport have any mobile trucks with searchlights to conduct night inspections of runways?  Or even half a dozen employees with flashlights?!

Honolulu wasn't the only airport with a closed runway last week.  Tokyo's Haneda Airport had to shut down a runway three times on Friday as seagulls prevented planes landing and taking off. Haneda has been nicknamed 'Big Bird' because of the seagulls. The runway was shut down because of reported bird strikes. Eights flights were cancelled and scores of flights were delayed. The airport was investigating why so many birds flocked to the runway at that time.

Birds can damage or even sometimes destroy engines on a plane.  But have you ever thought about the effects of hail?  Only those readers that don't suffer from a fear of flying should allow themselves to click on these amazing pictures of hail damage suffered by an easyJet flight a week ago.

I received an email that sums up the problem and the massive marketing mistakes of the major airlines.  Here's the simple seeming request :

I thought maybe you could help me. I am going to be taking a relatively short flight in the next few months, and I'm not sure which airlines are the best.  I've gotten quotes from American Airlines, US Airways, Continental and United Airlines.

The prices are very similar for all of them, I was hoping you could shed some light as to which airline is better.

And what is the massive marketing mistake?  Simply this :  There are no perceived differences between the major airlines.  They offer the same type of flight experience, on the same type of plane, and at the same type of price.  The only significant point of differentiation - their frequent flier programs - are being debased and made less valuable.

Now think of the new successful breed of airlines.  If you think of JetBlue, you probably think of 'leather seats' or 'free inflight entertainment', and similarly, if you think Southwest you probably think 'low fares' or 'no seat assignments'.  The new successful airlines each have their own 'personality' and 'image', whereas the dinosaurs all blend into each other.

Should you use a travel agent when booking travel?  As long time readers will know, my answer is generally yes - a view that is not often shared by the 'mainstream' travel press.  Here's a good column that discusses this issue in Smarter Living; and the only thing I'd clarify is the closing recommendation that you should seek an agent that is a member of ASTA.  As you can see from my correspondence with ASTA, it is an organization with problems and one which many travel agents also dislike.

On the other hand, ARTA is an excellent organization devoted solely to working with travel agents and helping them provide the best possible service to the public.  ARTA is also the source of many of the news articles I pass on to you in this newsletter - their daily email briefing to travel agent members is of the highest quality and a strong reason for all travel agent readers to quickly join.  And, for non-travel agent readers, please remember :  When choosing a travel agent, ask if they belong to ARTA, not ASTA.

A lot of focus during pilot training is on 'cockpit management' and ensuring the two pilots share the decision making responsibility for everything that occurs in a flight.  But a charter pilot seems to have established a new level of shared decisionmaking last week when he asked his 300 passengers to vote on whether they thought their plane was safe to fly or not!  He told the 300 passengers (none of whom had any particular experience in aviation safety and operations!)  of a problem with a faulty warning light which he had fixed himself, then asked for a show of hands for who trusted his repair and would agree to fly with him back to Leeds-Bradford Airport in the UK.  The pilot's description caused one sensitive passenger to say '"I've never had to make a decision like that in my life before.  If the truth be known, we thought it was a decision between life and death.'

Thirteen of the passengers then refused to board the plane, even though they were also apparently told that if they chose not to fly with this pilot and his plane, they'd have to make their own way from Spain back home to Britain!  The plane returned safely.

Maybe United's skies are sometimes too friendly.  United ran full-page ads in the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News on a new promotion to upgrade to first class.  Unfortunately the wrong number was put in the ads and callers got a recording directing them to a second toll-free number offering connections to "exciting people nationwide."  The second number is answered by a recording in which a woman with a company she calls Intimate Encounters asks the caller to enter a credit card number to pay for a live chat with "real working girls, housewives, students and fantasy girls."    The airline had to rerun the ads with the correct number yesterday.  United apologized but would not reveal how many complaints it received over the wrong number. 

This Week's Security Horror Story :  You probably already know that the million dollar explosives detecting baggage scanners have a problem differentiating between chocolate and plastic explosives.  And you probably also already know that garden fertilizers can excite the trace detector systems (the things that swab your luggage and then test the swap for explosive residues).  But did you know that some hand lotions can also be confused as being high explosives by some of these machines.  Some hand lotions contain glycerides, which is similar to compounds found in explosives such as nitroglycerin.  Ooops.  And, by the way - the 'nitro' part of nitroglycerin means that some foods that contain nitrates as preservatives (eg salami) can also be sometimes reported as high explosive.

The TSA has a policy against identifying how often the explosive trace detection machines spit out false positive results, said an agency spokeswoman.  'All I can tell you is they’re getting a lot of hits,' said one industry insider, who asked not to be identified because he works closely with the TSA.

However, this same 'expert' rather destroyed his credibility when he claimed that false alarms issued by the min-van sized 'CAT scan' type machines can usually be resolved in 15 to 45 seconds by experienced operators, although he did concede that not all operators are proficient to do so.   It sometimes takes two people up to 15 minutes to painstakingly and ridiculously work their way through my suitcase after the inevitable false explosives alarm.

I was amazed to get through the carry-on security without being stopped.  The increased attention to electronic devices seemed almost sure to result in my bulging carryon bag being carefully worked through, and all the more so after I politely declined the suggestion to remove my shoes!  I had in my carryon my laptop computer, a spare battery for the laptop, its power supply, a mouse, a PDA, a calculator, two cell phones, another power supply, my Plane Quiet headphones, my MP3 player, my digital camera, an electric razor, spare AA and AAA batteries, and a wireless networking card.  Nothing was examined.

It is impossible to reconcile 'increased scrutiny of electronic equipment' with my ability to carry virtually an entire electronics store worth of equipment onto the plane without anyone giving it a second thought.  Sure, I'm pleased I wasn't hassled, but what about all the tens of thousands of people that are being needlessly hassled?

With that in mind, here's a fascinating FBI sourced PDF file that illustrates many different type of concealable hard to detect weapons that might be found in carry-on luggage.

Last week I wrote about the fisherman who wandered onto an active runway at JFK, undetected.  Tom writes to clarify :

Apparently, it is worse than that: it was a father and two sons and they walked around the active runways for about an hour, dodging taxiing aircraft, and presented themselves by walking into the Port Authority police station, which is located over a mile away from where the washed ashore. They were never "detected" or "intercepted." Makes one wonder why none of the pilots called it in to the tower, which would have alerted the police.

And, finally this week, a naked rambler sighted on some of Britain's most famous walking trails has broken cover and revealed it was his ambition to walk the length of the country in the nude.  Steve Gough made headlines earlier this week when police in northern England reported several sightings of a rambler wearing nothing but his boots, a rucksack and a floppy hat.  His clothes-free journey from Cornwall in southwest England to northern Scotland has so far earned him 11 escorts to police stations, five arrests, two charges and a night in a psychiatric hospital.

Most of the walk has been on remote footpaths, where passing ramblers have greeted Gough with either smiles or "fixed gazes at the middle distance".

Until next week, please enjoy safe (and clothed) 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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