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Friday 10 September, 2004 

Good morning

The gloomy weather outside my window matches the Labor Day end of the traditional summer season, and the darkness when my alarm goes off each morning confirms the loss of our summer for another year.

Naturally in such a situation, one's thoughts turn to travel and escaping the gloom of fall.  However I'm uncertain if my upcoming travel plans to some of Scotland's islands in October will actually bring an accompanying improvement in weather!

The last two years I've resisted the temptation, but this year I'm giving in to it.  We are today one day away from the third anniversary of 9/11, and during these 36 months, we have had plenty of time to adapt, adopt and improve the security and safety of our air transport system.  On the face of it, our nation has been blessed with 36 terror free months, notwithstanding many tempting events and targets for terrorists.  But does this really mean we are now safe and secure?

This Week's Column :  Are We Safer?  Are We Safe? :  The billions of dollars we have spent to improve the security of our nation's air transportation system, and the billions of hours we now spend standing in security lines should be measured against two simple tests - has it made us safer than before, and has it made us now sufficiently safe.  I investigate the key vulnerabilities with air travel and test to see if they've yet been resolved.

I'll return to the luggage review series next week, with item by item reviews of $2000 worth of carry-on bags and clear recommendations as to which bags are the best for which purposes.

Dinosaur Watching :  US Airways suicide countdown - We are now seven days away from the deadline set by their Chairman and major shareholder, when he said in August if there is not a new cost-cutting agreement in place with the unions by mid-September, the airline might have to be liquidated completely.  As of Thursday night 9 September, no new agreements have been achieved, with the pilot's union not even allowing its members to vote on US Airways' wage and benefit cutting proposal.

In possible preparation for at best a Chapter 11 re-re-organization, or at worst a Chapter 7 liquidation, the airline has retained the Seabury Group, the same aviation restructuring and consulting firm it used during its last bankruptcy, and a bankruptcy firm, Arnold & Porter.  There is some speculation that the airline might even file a new bankruptcy this weekend, before the expiry of their self-imposed deadline, including a Friday article by Micheline Maynard in the NY Times.

On Thursday evening a news item from Reuters announced an emergency meeting of US Airways' pilots will be held today (Friday).  If the pilots accept the US Airways request for givebacks, the bankruptcy filing might be avoided (or at least delayed).  If they don't, it seems close to inevitable.

Standard & Poors have cut US' credit rating again this week, making it the second time in two weeks and fourth time this year.  S&P also added a negative outlook to their new CCC- rating, implying a further downgrade may yet follow.

Reader Bob writes to explain why he believes United should hurry into extinction :

I consider myself a veteran traveler, have held high status on airline programs, and travel domestically and internationally. I have had my share of not so great experiences, but one this week takes the cake.

We had tickets on United to fly to Miami on Thursday Sept 2nd and return on Monday Sept 6th after enjoying a Bahamas cruise over the Labor Day weekend.  Hurricane Frances changed all of that.

Carnival contacted us on Sept 1st to let us know the cruise was cancelled. They gave us the option to rebook with full credit or get a refund. We took the refund. Our hotel for Thursday night, Hyatt, also gave us a full refund, even with the booking being a pre-paid restricted Internet rate. But then we come to United Airlines.

At first, they were going to charge a $100 change fee to reuse the tickets. Then they stated they would only give a waiver of the $100 fee if we rebooked the entire trip right that instant. I tried to explain we could not rebook immediately because other influences will determine the dates we travel.  I tried to talk them into waiving the change fee if we rebooked a bit later, but United refused. They said the hurricane was an Act of God and not their fault, so they would only waive the fee if we rebooked right then.

We called our credit card company and explained the situation. The rep was actually sitting in Miami and was appalled by United's intransigence. Citibank immediately issued a retraction of the funds, and said they will get the full refund and we will have the funds back within 48 hours.

We were more than willing to rebook with United if they would have given us sufficient time to change our plans and use the tickets. However, due to their stupidity and greed, they now get nothing since Citibank took the money back.

United is a dinosaur that deserves to go extinct. Unlike the cruise line and hotel they try to gouge their customers during times like Hurricane Frances.

Continental has joined NW and AA in charging $5 for tickets purchased direct from their phone sales people, or $10 for tickets issued at the airport.

Anyone with half a brain understands the reason CO is doing this is because the other two airlines are doing it.  But do they tell us this?  No.

They too apparently woke up with a blinding flash of revelation one morning, and trot out the same thin justification almost identically as originally uttered by NW and echoed by AA.  Says Jim Compton, their executive vice president of Marketing 'From a competitive standpoint, these new fees are necessary to bring us in line with the distribution costs of low cost carriers.'  Apparently Jim was entirely uninfluenced by the actions of his fellow dinosaurs in making this decision.

US Airways has also joined this new trend.  But rather than trotting out the same justification, their senior VP of marketing and planning instead resorts to an impenetrable wall of jargon to explain their actions :

Our Transformation Plan is built upon a platform of lower costs and increased revenue, and as we continue to implement that plan, we will be better positioned to provide customers lower fares, while maintaining our commitment to a high level of service for US Airways customers who desire that service.

United also announced it will start charging the same identical fee, but at least was original enough to offer the other 'catch-all' excuse as to why it has decided to charge these fees - record fuel prices and a weak revenue environment.

Delta's much awaited reorganization plan has now been made public.  Among other details, it sees them pretty much pulling out of DFW, reducing flights there from 256 a day down to only 21.  To many people's surprise, they have decided to expand their Song discount 'airline within an airline' operation, and will be adding another twelve planes to Song's current fleet of 36 in late spring next year.

In announcing the restructuring plan , CEO Grinstein warned Delta still faces a real threat of bankruptcy if some issues are not resolved quickly.  'Time is running out' he said.  Some industry analysts are currently giving close to 50/50 odds on a DL Chapter 11 filing.

Considering the urgency of needed reforms, why wait nine months to expand Song services (which were originally planned for early this year)?  If Song is a valuable part of Delta's business turnaround, why not add extra Song services as soon as possible?  A nine month leadtime hardly shows management acting decisively to resolve issues quickly.

You have to feel sorry for the DFW airport, losing 235 flights a day.  AA is adding 70 extra flights, but the net impact on the airport for 2005 is estimated to be a reduction of $20 million in revenue.

How many people will the airport lay off?  None.  However, showing that the airport management is definitely on top of responding to this massive loss of income, we are told 'employees will be asked to keep a close eye on costs and expenses'.

Here's some airline good newsHawaiian Airlines have launched a new service that not only allows you to check in for your flight via the internet, from home or work or wherever, but also will arrange for a courier service to deliver boarding passes and collect your luggage from whatever convenient location you specify.  The bags are taken to the airport and put onto your flight, and you simply collect them off the carousel at the end of your journey.  You can go straight to the gate and onto your plane.

Requests for this baggage service must be made at least 12 hours before the flight, and there is a $30 fee for one passenger with up to two bags and $15 for each extra passenger (and two bags) traveling together.  Currently the service is only available in Honolulu, some parts of Maui, and Los Angeles, but it hopes to soon spread to other mainland gateways serviced by Hawaiian Airlines.  Not quite as convenient as the Sports Express service I reviewed eighteen months ago, but not quite as expensive, either.

I continue to get more comments from readers about hotel rip-off charges, with Catherine complaining at paying $35 per night to have her car parked at the Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay, CA.  Catherine describes the car lot as little more than an undeveloped tract of land, and with the hotel's remote location, rightly feels this to be an outrageous charge.

Even more interesting are the possibilities uncovered in this NY Times article by Chris Elliott.  Chris wonders if the reason some people find their cell phones strangely don't work inside certain hotels is because the hotels have installed cell phone jammers to force their guests to use the over-priced hotel phones.  US hotels deny this, of course, because jammers are illegal in this country, but .....  Definitely a 'must read' article.

Some interesting aviation news.  I've always maintained that Boeing's advantage (if any) with its new 7E7 plane will only last as long as it takes for Airbus to respond.  It now seems that an Airbus response may occur sooner rather than later, with their CEO saying they might introduce a new plane as early as late this year.

The threat of Airbus developing a new plane explains why Boeing has recently been trotting out its familiar complaint about Airbus being unfairly subsidized by the EU - an accusation that was once, many years ago, probably true; but which is, today, probably no longer true.

Another familiar refrain of mine is the lack of (and need for) real revolutionary progress in airplane design.  So imagine my delight to read about an extraordinary new approach to designing planes, by an archetypical 'eccentric inventor'.  The new wing design on this plane is immediately understandable as a clever idea, and if you're like me, you're probably thinking - as did the inventor himself - 'why didn't someone think of this obvious idea before?'.  Here's an interesting story about the man and his plane, and here is their corporate website.

The relentless march of technology - Samsung have announced plans to include a 1.5GB hard disc in a new cell phone they are releasing this month.  It will also have a digital still camera, video camcorder, MP3 player, stereo speakers, electronic book and dictionary.

More and more people are taking advantage of the ability to take your cell phone number with you when changing cell phone carriers.  5.4 million have done so since November, with over half doing this in the last three months.  Another 544,000 people have transferred their home or business number to a cell phone.

And some technology that is too much of a good thing.  The perhaps aptly named Progressive Insurance Company has been running a pilot program of installing black boxes in cars to monitor driver behavior, alerting to things such as driving too fast or braking too sharply.

Now for the corporate double-speak (what used to be called, in the good old days, lies).  Progressive says this information will not be used to penalize drivers, but instead to reward good drivers.  But if there is, for example, a $50/month spread between 'good' drivers and 'bad' drivers (or even just drivers who refuse to be monitored), who is to say who is being rewarded and who is being penalized?  The assumption that sharp braking is dangerous is not always valid - is it better not to brake sharply and hit something?

As a very fast but also very safe driver, with a high performance car, I resent having to set my driving to what some timid insurance clerk thinks is safest, and paying a financial penalty if I vary from that, no matter whether I have accidents or not.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  I've written several times about bad batteries in cell phones that catch fire or even sort of explode.  Some people have been moderately burned when this happens.  A nasty surprise if it happens to you, but not life threatening, and not dangerous to anyone else, even close by.

A flashlight battery 'exploded' on Saturday.  The 'explosion' was apparently caused by a buildup of gas inside its five year old 'C' size battery.  The person handling the torch suffered swollen hands, and several people nearby said they had ringing in their ears for a while after.

But because this was at LAX airport, the entire International Terminal was evacuated for three hours.

To make matters worse, at almost the same time, a passenger entered one of the other terminals through a 'no entry' exit, requiring terminals 6, 7 & 8 all to be evacuated as well.  All terminal roadways were also closed for three hours - only the second time in the airport's history that this has been done (the first being after 9/11).

The two incidents caused 200 airport police, Los Angeles police, firemen, FBI and federal transportation security officers to be mobilized, and caused an estimated 10,000 passengers to be forced to leave the airport and stand in a line stretching over a mile down Century Boulevard.  20,000 cars were diverted.

The passenger with the naughty flashlight wasn't charged with any crime.  And the man entering through an exit was never located.

The flashlight passenger was luckier than a hapless passenger on a KLM flight last week.  He was overhead apparently saying he had a bomb in his carry-on luggage.  Although this was just a comment from him to his companion, it was enough to cause the plane to be evacuated plus all baggage unloaded and rescreened.  KLM is now suing the passenger who made the private comment to his friend for the costs of the delay.

Passenger Hazel O'Leary asked to be allowed off a four hour delayed United Express flight.  One other passenger was allowed to deplane, but apparently because Ms O'Leary had checked luggage on the plane, the pilot refused to allow her to leave.

An argument ensued.  Ms O'Leary not unreasonably thought it unfair to be trapped on the delayed flight when there was another flight due to leave shortly that she could make if allowed to leave the United Express flight.  The pilot called the police who arrested her for disorderly behavior.  After some three hours of questioning by police and FBI, they eventually released her.

Ms O'Leary is not only a former US Secretary of Energy, but also a current board member of United Airlines, and has been for almost five years.

I'm sure we should congratulate the lady pilot for not letting that minor detail intrude upon her fear that Ms O'Leary may have been a terrorist with bombs in her luggage that were certain to explode if she allowed the lady off the plane.  And we should also congratulate the police for thoroughly questioning her for three hours before reluctantly concluding she was nothing more than a frustrated passenger annoyed by the inanities of the airline she is a director of.

Privacy advocate John Gilmore is challenging the requirement to show ID before boarding a commercial flight.  The Department of Justice is asking an appeals court to be allowed to keep its arguments in favor of this requirement secret, due to, of course, security concerns.  Catch 22?

A businessman was flying from Salt Lake City to Seattle, planning to buy stock for his business while in Seattle.  Dealing in arts and crafts, he buys from craft stalls and normally in cash, so he had $26,000 in cash with him to finance his purchases.

His carry-on was searched and the cash discovered.  Apparently having a large sum of cash, these days, is quasi-illegal.  A TSA agent told the man it is TSA policy to contact the police when large sums of money are found.  A police officer in turn contacted the local DEA, and a DEA agent allegedly said by phone to the passenger 'If you're gonna play hard with me, I'm going to come and seize your money and it'll take your lawyer at least a year to get it back.'

The passenger was taken away in handcuffs and questioned for four hours, not allowed to contact an attorney, and then released with no charges filed.  But his money was indeed seized, and only after nine months and $20,000 in legal expenses did he get it returned (although several thousand dollars are now missing).

What part of truth, justice, and the American way is this?

Here's a fascinating story with shades of 'The Phantom of the Opera' about it, set in the underground beneath Paris.

If you've ever sat in a fighter plane, you'll know that one thing they stress to you very very carefully is to keep all body parts a long way away from the ejector seat handle(s).  Bad things could happen if you accidentally touched them.  Just ask Lt. Col. Patrick Marshall.

A wiser and more experienced writer told me that closing jokes in a newsletter should be very short, and if they need any explanation, they are a failure.  However, I received this email that is so sidesplittingly hilarious that I'm breaking both rules.  It is from an Australian flier, and other pilots will immediately appreciate its humor.  I'm translating some of his industry buzz-words so hopefully the rest of you will appreciate it, too.

Having had the dubious pleasure of flying with people like this (upside down in a biplane at a mere 1000' over an Australian city, being piloted by a person just finishing convalescence from his last serious airplane crash being one of the more memorable incidents, another one being the time we descended through cloud not knowing where the nearby mountain might be) I'm not sure if it is intended as humor or a serious story.

Hi Mate,

I am writing to you, because I need your help to get me bloody pilots licence back (you keep telling me you got all the right contacts, well now's your chance to make something happen for me because, mate, I'm bloody desperate). But first, I'd better tell you what happened during my last flight review with the CAA Examiner [Australian Civil Aviation Authority, similar to the US FAA].

On the phone, Ron (that's the CAA d**khead) seemed a reasonable sort of bloke. He politely reminded me of the need to do a flight review every two years, since I had been flying Caribou [ungainly twin propeller powered freight plane] in Vietnam for a year.  He even offered to drive out, have look over my property and let me operate from my own strip [grass runway].

Naturally I agreed to that.

Anyway, Ron turned up last Wednesday. First up, he said he was a bit surprised to see the plane on a small strip outside my homestead because the ALA (Authorized Landing Area) is about a mile away. I explained that because this strip was so close to the homestead, it was more convenient than that strip, despite the power lines crossing about midway down the strip (it's really not a problem to land and take-off because at the half-way point down the strip you're usually still on the ground).

For some reason Ron seemed nervous. So, although I had done the pre-flight inspection only four days earlier, I decided to do it all over again. Because the p***k was watching me carefully, I walked around the plane three times instead of my usual two.

My effort was rewarded because the colour finally returned to Ron's cheeks - in fact they went a bright red. In view of Ron's obviously better mood, I told him I was going to combine the test flight with farm work as I had to deliver three poddy calves from the home paddock to the main herd.

After a bit of a chase I finally caught the calves and threw them into the back of the ol' Cessna 172 [a small four seater single engine plane]. We climbed aboard but Ron started getting' into me about weight and balance calculations and all that crap. Of course I knew that sort of thing was a waste of time because, calves like to move round a bit, particularly when they see themselves 500 feet off the ground! So, its bloody pointless trying to secure them as you know. However, I did tell Ron that he shouldn't worry as I always keep the trim wheel set on neutral to ensure we remain pretty stable at all stages throughout the flight.

Anyway, I started the engine and cleverly minimised the warm-up time by tramping hard on the brakes and gunning her to 2,500rpm. I then discovered that Ron has very acute hearing, even though he was wearing a bloody headset. Through all that noise he detected a metallic rattle and demanded I account for it. Actually it began about a month ago and was caused by a screwdriver that fell down a hole in the floor and lodged in the fuel selector mechanism. The selector can't be moved now, but it doesn't matter because it's jammed on 'All tanks', so I suppose that's OK.

However, as Ron was obviously a real nit-picker, I blamed the noise on vibration from a stainless steel thermos flask, which I keep in a beaut little possie between the windshield and the magnetic compass. My explanation seemed to relax Ron because he slumped back in the seat and kept looking up at the cockpit roof.

I released the brakes to taxi out but unfortunately the plane gave a leap and spun to the right, "Hell" I thought, "not the starboard wheel chock again". The bump jolted Ron back to full alertness. He looked wildly around just in time to see a rock thrown by the propwash disappear completely through the windscreen of his brand new Commodore [Australian brand of car]. "Now I'm really in trouble", I thought.

While Ron was busy ranting about his car, I ignored his requirement that we taxi to the ALA and instead took off under the power lines.

Ron didn't say a word, at least not until the engine started coughing right at the lift off point, then he bloody screamed his head off, "Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!"

"Now take it easy, Ron" I told him firmly, "that often happens on take-off and there is a good reason for it." I explained patiently that I usually run the plane on standard MOGAS, but one day I accidentally put in a gallon or two of kerosene. To compensate for the low octane of the kerosene, I siphoned in a few gallons off super MOGAS and shook the wings up and down a few times to mix it up. Since then, the engine has been coughing a bit but in general it works just fine, if you know how to coax it properly.

Anyway, at this stage Ron seemed to lose all interest in my flight test. He pulled out some rosary beads, closed his eyes and became lost in prayer (I didn't think anyone was a Catholic these days). I selected some nice music on the HF radio to help him relax.

Meanwhile I climbed to my normal cruising altitude of 10,500 feet (I don't normally put in a flight plan or get the weather because as you know getting Fax access out here is a f#*% joke and the bloody weather is always 8/8 blue [ie not a cloud in the sky] anyway. But since I had that near miss with a Saab 340 [passenger plane], I might have to change me thinking). Anyhow, on leveling out I noticed some wild camels heading into my improved pasture. I hate camels and always carry a loaded .303 [hunting rifle] clipped inside the door of the Cessna just in case I see any of the bastards.

We were too high to hit them, but as a matter of principle, I decided to have a go through the open window. Mate, when I pulled the bloody rifle out, the effect on Ron was friggin' electric. As I fired the first shot his neck lengthened by about six inches and his eyes bulged like a rabbit with myxo [fatal disease]. He really looked as if he had been jabbed with an electric cattle prod on full power. In fact, Ron's reaction was so distracting that I lost concentration for a second and the next shot went straight through the port tyre. Ron was a bit upset about the shooting (probably one of those pinko animal lovers I guess) so I decided not to tell him about our little problem with the tyre.

Shortly afterwards I located the main herd and decided to do my fighter pilot trick. Ron had gone back to praying when, in one smooth sequence, I pulled on full flap, cut the power and started a sideslip from 10,500 feet down to 500 feet at 130 knots indicated (the last time I looked anyway) and the little needle rushing up to the red area on me ASI [air speed indicator]. What a buzz, mate!

About half way through the descent I looked back in the cabin to see the calves gracefully suspended in mid air and mooing like crazy. I was going to comment on this unusual sight but Ron looked a bit green and had rolled himself into the fetal position and was screamin' his f*&%# head off. Mate, talk about being in a bloody zoo. You should've been there, it was so bloody funny!

At about 500 feet I levelled out, but for some reason we continued sinking. When we reached 50 feet I applied full power but nothin' happened; no noise no nothin'. Then, luckily, I heard me instructor's voice in me head saying "carby heat, carby heat" [an adjustment to the carburettor setting], so I pulled carby heat on and that helped quite a lot, with the engine finally regaining full power. Whew, that was really close, let me tell you!

Then mate, you'll never guess what happened next! As luck would have it, at that height we flew into a massive dust cloud caused by the cattle and suddenly went I.F. bloody R, mate [IFR - Instrument Flight Rules - how you fly at night or in clouds].  BJ, you would've been bloody proud of me as I didn't panic once, not once, but I did make a mental note to consider getting a civil instrument rating as soon as me gyro is repaired [the essential instrument that helps you to fly when there is no outside visibility] (something I've been meaning to do for a while now).

Suddenly Ron's elongated neck and bulging eyes reappeared. His mouth opened wide, very wide, but no sound emerged. "Take it easy," I told him. "we'll be out of this in a minute." Sure enough, about a minute later we emerge; still straight and level and still at 50 feet.

Admittedly I was surprised to notice that we were upside down, and I kept thinking to myself, "I hope Ron didn't notice that I had forgotten to set the QNH [adjusting the altimeter to read zero] when we were taxying". This minor tribulation forced me to fly to a nearby valley in which I had to do a half roll to get upright again.

By now the main herd had divided into two groups leaving a narrow strip between them. "Ah!," I thought, "there's an omen. We'll land right there." Knowing that the tyre problem demanded a slow approach, I flew a couple of steep turns with full flap. Soon the stall warning horn was blaring so loud in me ear that I cut its circuit breaker to shut it up, but by then I knew we were slow enough anyway. I turned steeply onto a 75 foot final and put her down with a real thud.

Strangely enough, I had always thought you could only ground loop in a tail dragger but, as usual, I was proved wrong again!

Halfway through our third loop Ron at last recovered his sense of humour. Talk about laugh. I've never seen the likes of it; he couldn't stop. We finally rolled to a halt and I released the calves, who bolted out of the aircraft like there was no tomorrow. I then began picking clumps of dry grass.

Between gut wrenching fits of laughter Ron asked what I was doing. I explained that we had to stuff the port tyre with grass so we could fly back to the homestead. It was then that Ron really lost the plot and started running away from the aircraft.

Can you believe it?

The last time I saw him he was off into the distance, arms flailing in the air and still shrieking with laughter. I later heard that he had been confined to a psychiatric institution - poor bugger!

Anyhow, mate, that's enough about Ron. The problem is I just got a letter from CASA [a bit like the US NTSB] withdrawing, as they put it, my privileges to fly; until I have undergone a complete pilot training course again and undertaken another flight proficiency test.

Now I admit that I made a mistake in taxiing over the wheel chock and not setting the QNH using strip elevation, but I can't see what else I did that was so bloody bad that they have to withdraw me flamin' licence. Can you?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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