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26 August, 2005 

Good morning

My despair about Microsoft last week brought several replies from Mac evangelists.  I'd truly love to switch to an alternative solution, and readily acknowledge that Macs (and Linux based machines, too) are more stable, but with Macs suffering less than a 5% market share, that is too much of an upstream struggle for even me to countenance.  Like most of the other 95% of PC users, we're stuck with Microsoft whether we like it or not.  Very similar to our choices with airlines, isn't it.

I'm working on a review of a potentially wonderful product, but I can't decide if it actually works as claimed, or is a modern version of snake oil.  Can I ask for your help by answering this instant survey.

The product claims it obscures your license plate when a photo radar or red light camera takes a flash picture of your car if you are speeding or going through a red light.  It is close to impossible to get anyone to truly tell me the truth about whether this works or not, because everyone involved has a not-so-hidden agenda influencing how they spin their side of the story.

The speed camera manufacturers obviously claim their devices aren't confused by this product.  I'm not sure if police departments feel they are better off pretending it does work, so as to catch offenders unawares, or pretending it doesn't work, so as to discourage people from using the product.  Most third party reviews of the product are unscientific and anecdotal in nature.  And while the product's manufacturer claims a very low rate of complaint, there's no way of independently confirming that.

Which brings me to the question I'd appreciate your answer on.  Apparently a lot of the speed/red light cameras, while flashing away at offending vehicles, are out of film, and so although you've been flashed, you never get a ticket in the mail because there was no film in the unit.  If you'd used the device I'm reviewing, you'd think it had saved you, even though in reality it was simply a lack of film in the camera.

So, assuming you are not using any type of blocker on your license plate, have you ever been flashed by a red light or speed camera, and, if you have, did you subsequently get a ticket in the mail?  Simply click on the link to send an empty email to me, with your answer appearing automatically in the subject line.

If you are currently using some sort of blocker on your car's plates, please let me know if you think it has ever worked, or if you know that it has ever failed.

Your replies will be very helpful in completing the evaluation and review of this product.  It may be the best $30 you spend, or it may be a total waste of money - the jury is still out!

And still on the subject of helping me with your advice, you may recall a few months back sending in many helpful travel tips.  In total, there is now a book sized quantity of ideas, and so I've had to split it into categories and edit it somewhat to distill the key concepts.  The first two topics are now available for you to look over :

This Week's Feature Column :  Essential Travel Tips part 1 :  Here's a mix of your ideas and mine, giving great advice and ideas on travel planning and packing.

Although a major skill in packing is to take as little with you as possible, perhaps the subtlest skill of all is taking the most appropriate and useful things.  With that in mind, I'm keen to build up a list of 'essential things to take with you when traveling'.  If you can add to the list already in the article, please let me know your suggestions.

I need to update our youngest reader award.  Jake writes in to say

My name is Jake and I am 14 years old.  I am the youngest reader of The Travel Insider.  I can send you a picture of me if you want, because I can prove it.

So it looks like Jack, at 15, is no longer our youngest reader, and that honor now must pass to Jake.  Until someone younger comes along.

John remains unchallenged as our 'Senior Reader' however.

Last week I wrote about the cabin pressurization in a typical plane subtly reducing your ability to concentrate and solve problems.

Several readers came up with the obvious question that I failed to ponder.  For example, John writes

Doesn't this mean that the flight crew sit in the same 8K pressure? That's not very reassuring.

Yes, John.  That's exactly what it means.  So perhaps it is just as well that most flights these days are managed by the autopilot from (very) shortly after takeoff until (very) shortly before landing.

Apropos of which, the British Airline Pilot's Association has raised concerns that passenger safety could be at risk because pilots are not being encouraged or trained to fly manually.

The union warns that pilots, under cost-driven pressure from the airlines, are becoming too reliant on automated systems. The union says this means the safe operation of a modern commercial aircraft is compromised.

The style of flying and training means that pilots will be less able or less likely to cope in an emergency, which has obvious safety concerns.   Aircraft manufacturers share these concerns and say they have seen a change in the profile of accidents, now tending to show a lack of technical skills and knowledge.  These claims have been dismissed by the airlines who say trends towards automation have increased passenger safety.

Reader Steve asks a different question.  He writes

I found your comments about oxygen depletion very interesting.  I wonder how long the effects from the 8000 ft cabin pressure level last on the average person?  Since I often travel to Europe for business, I wonder how long after I arrive am I impaired?  Usually I arrive one morning then schedule meetings for the next day.  But, am I potentially cognitive impaired?  Should business people wait longer before making serious business decisions?  It would be interesting information to know?

Neither our helpful MD consultant nor I were exactly sure of the answer to Steve's question, but our belief is that cognitive skills rapidly return.  A longer lasting problem is the lack of mental acuity caused by jetlag.

Dinosaur watching :  Disappearing Delta :  Delta's stock price continues to drop.  Thursday night closes and percentage drops from the previous week are :


Close Price

Drop from previous week

Thurs 25 Aug



Thurs 18 Aug



Thurs 11 Aug



Thurs 4 Aug


at the time, an all time low

Delta is currently worth a mere $194 million.  Anyone with $97.1 million could buy control of the airline - this is less money than a single new four engine passenger jet costs.  Want an airline cheap?  Why doesn't someone buy the airline and asset strip it, selling it off in pieces?

To no-one's particular surprise, Northwest's mechanics went on strike at midnight last Friday night/Saturday morning.  JoeSentMe readers have been getting Joe Brancatelli's daily updates, including ground breaking research that no other news source was offering in the early days of the strike, carefully determining the actual impact of the strike on NW's operations.

NW management have been preparing for this confrontation for over a year (and many people would say, deliberately provoked it) so it is no surprise to see the airline is managing reasonably well at controlling the impacts on its passengers, and it seems to be improving its operational performance with each passing day.

Yes, there have been delays, many of them major, and cancellations have gone up occasionally as high as 4% of flights, but for the airline, its other unions (who are uniformly displaying an apparent lack of solidarity or concern - don't they realize they'll be next?) and most of its passengers, it is business as usual, and while NW isn't commenting, it seems there has been little impact on their passenger numbers or future bookings.

Although some mechanics have said they'd rather drive NW into liquidation than accept the new contract terms offered to them, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that the mechanics, rather than the airline, are going to lose this strike.

United posted its July results, showing a $274 million net loss for the month.  However, this may be a better result than it seems.

The airline says that if it were to exclude one-time reorganization expenses, it would have made a $76 million profit, although it is silent as to if this otherwise profit includes any positive one-off financial adjustments.

In total, UA has lost, so far in 2005, $2.8 billion; and altogether, after going Chapter 11 in December 2002, $7 billion.  In the last seven months (23% of its time in Chapter 11) it has lost 40% of the total amount lost.

While you might think this a scary statistic, United's bankers clearly don't agree with you.  In late Thursday news, United said it has received proposals for up to $3 billion in exit financing for when it leaves Chapter 11 (exact timing undisclosed).

UA had earlier said it needed $2.5 billion in exit financing.  But, don't worry.  I'm sure UA will find a way to spend the extra half billion now on offer.

Some imaginative press release writing, this time about the very ordinary looking livery for the 'new' US Airways

... the new livery is a fusion of both carrier's designs, featuring updated editions of the US Airways stylized version of the flag and the waving stripes inspired by those that stream across the sides of current America West aircraft.  Near the aircraft door, the airline has positioned a Heritage mark that incorporates the classic logos of some of the largest airlines that have merged over the years to create the new US Airways:  Allegheny Airlines, America West, Pacific Southwest, and Piedmont airlines.   In addition 'throwback' aircraft, which will be painted entirely in the classic liveries of these airlines, will pay permanent tribute to each of them.

If only the airline could write a business plan as well as it writes a press release.

Malaysia Airlines' CEO announced a US$74.5 million loss for their quarter ended 30 June, and at the same time, announced his resignation, even though he had only joined a year earlier.  He said, with a degree of frankness that is missing in the US

We have not had an encouraging start to the year.  Fuel is not the only reason for the losses. We acknowledged that we have not been profitable in operating the airline business.

Imagine the revolving door on CEO's offices in the US if announcing a moderate loss for a quarter required their resignation.

Airline passenger numbers will grow at a rate of 4.1% annually over the next 15 years, resulting in a doubling in the number of passengers (to 7.4 billion) by 2020.  This will overwhelm the available airport and airspace infrastructure, with demand exceeding airport capacity by about 1 billion passengers, according to a study by Geneva-based Airports Council International.

Fastest growth will occur in the Asia/Pacific and Middle East regions.  Freight traffic will increase 5.4% and aircraft movements 3.5% over the same period.

Not really anything to look forward to.  Meanwhile, Boeing continues to claim there's no need for higher capacity aircraft such as the A380 super-jumbo.

Japan's space agency (bet you didn't even know they had one) announced plans to fly another supersonic aircraft prototype, perhaps in September.  Their first trial ended in disaster, but due to a problem with the launch vehicle, rather than the test plane.  The Japanese space agency is partnered with, amongst others, Airbus.

Boeing's response?  Nothing.  I guess they're too busy buying back their stock and investing into real estate to think about new (is supersonic new?) aerospace technology.

Enterprise Rent-a-Car's CEO gave some straight-talking criticism of the growing tendency to tax out of staters, via fees on car rentals, for local projects.  Note also the interesting reference in this article to a lawsuit against such practices, claiming it violates restrictions on interstate commerce.

One of the dangers of buying goods in tourist markets around the world is sometimes the apparently name brand goods turn out to be counterfeit.  Of course, what else can you expect when buying a Rolex for $20....

Beware of buying counterfeit goods in Italy.  ARTA warns that hefty fines are being imposed on tourists purchasing counterfeit goods purchased while visiting Italy.  Legislation was passed in May to help track down on the sellers and buyers of counterfeit items such as purses, sunglasses, watches, belts, etc bearing luxury labels such as Prada, Gucci and Fendi.  This is one of the toughest laws in the world and carries fines of up to 10,000 (US$12,300) for those caught purchasing counterfeit products (and criminal charges against those selling the goods).

The Italian Tourist Board recommends you do not purchase any counterfeit items as it may cost you more than if you purchased the real thing.  For example, a Dutch couple was fined 3,333 for buying a counterfeit Prada purse for $40.  A Canadian woman, on a day port stop off a cruise ship, was similarly fined for buying a purse.

The minimum fine is 3,333 and ignorance of the law is not accepted as an excuse.

The world's biggest cruise ship was launched in Finland last Friday.  The Freedom of the Seas, at 158,000 tons, now outranks Cunard's Queen Mary Two.  Both of these ships are longer than 41 London double decker busses parked end-to-end.  The Freedom of the Seas will carry 4,370  passengers plus crew.  The ship is part of a three-ship deal for Royal Caribbean.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority proudly announced its plan to spend $212 million to beef up security on the MTA's commuter services.  The money buys, amongst other things, a thousand more video cameras and 3,000 motion detectors.  We're told that special computer software will monitor the cameras and automatically detect if a person leaves a package unattended or strays into an unauthorized area.

As reported here, security experts agree this will greatly improve the MTA's ability to prevent the type of attack that occurred in London's Underground in July that killed 52 people.

Do none of these 'experts' realize that the 7/7 bombings in London did not involve unattended packages or trespassing into unauthorized areas?  Suicide bombers simply walked onto underground trains and pushed buttons to detonate the explosives they were carrying in their backpacks.  The MTA system does nothing at all to address that threat.

Welcome to the United States?  I wasn't the only one with viral problems last week.  Although I managed to still keep my website up, and publish a column and feature article, the US Customs and Border Protection department of Homeland Security weren't quite so responsive.

When their computer system was hit by a virus, some airport immigration posts switched to 'manual inspections' but at Miami, the officers simply refused to process anyone until the system was restored.  This caused about 4000 - 5000 people to be stuck in a holding area for up to six hours.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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