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2 December, 2005 

Good morning

It has been a busy week, with Monday setting a new record for web visitors, probably as a result of a weekend mention in a NY Times article on using cell phones internationally.

It is a slightly shorter newsletter than normal this week, due to a minor emergency at my end.  Something that isn't supposed to ever happen, did happen to me earlier this afternoon - my Landrover got stuck in the snow while driving up to my house.  Yes, I know Landrovers aren't supposed to get stuck in the snow, especially on a regular county road, but this one most definitely is, and indeed I'm very grateful that it stopped when and where it did.  It was sliding backwards and sideways, and another couple of inches would have had it (and me) tumbling down a steep bank.

This occasion is worsened by the fact that the Landrover so-called 'Roadside Assistance' people are now telling me there's no way they can find anyone within 75 miles of me to get the vehicle rescued.  This is a disappointment, as you can probably imagine, and for now I'm not quite sure what to do next!

These items have consumed most of my afternoon that was otherwise scheduled for the newsletter.

My request that readers with att, comcast, or optonline email addresses complain if they don't receive the weekly newsletter, and my offer to give them free Gmail addresses brought about a large number of people asking for Gmail accounts.  Amusingly, almost none of the people so requesting had current service with att, comcast, or optonline.  I have more invitations available, so if you too would like a Gmail account, (and no matter what email service you use at present) feel free to ask.

I've been doing what I love most for the last several weeks - playing with new gadgets, and re-visiting other gadgets I've reviewed earlier in the year.  I've created a list of interesting items you could buy for yourself, or for other people this Christmas season.  The items are useful and unusual - they are generally things other people might not already have, and things which they'll truly appreciate if you give them as gifts.  This year's list ranges in price from sort of free up to less than $200 :

This Week's Feature Column :  2005 Christmas Gadget Gift Guide :  Here's my top ten list of unusual, innovative, and useful gadgets, taken from the products I've reviewed or received during 2005.  Whether you're looking for $5 stocking stuffers for the most technologically averse of your friends and family, or a fancy piece of electronics for the technophile, the chances are you'll be sure to find something for everyone, plus lots that you might wish to, ahem, buy for yourself, too.

My favorite item?  Rather to my surprise, I ended up loving a little gadget that I'd never otherwise have thought to buy - the Petzl Zipka night light.  But, do go look at the whole list; there's sure to be something you will like, too.

Dinosaur watching :  If you don't find anything you like on my Christmas Gadget Gift Guide, don't despair.  Take a flight on Ted.  From 1 December, flight attendants on Ted are selling items ranging from magic kits to sunglasses on about half their flights.  Products are priced from $5 to $25 and will be sold for cash on flights of more than 880 miles or 2 1/2 hours.  A United spokesperson said it is the only major carrier to sell retail goods during US flights.  Flight attendants will receive a personal 2% commission for each sale they make.

A spokesperson for the flight attendants union commented 'United would probably sell parts of the airplane if they thought it could increase revenue.'

Filing for Chapter 11 doesn't necessarily end an airline's problems.  Northwest has lost a further $346 million since filing on 14 September, and Delta has managed to lose an impressive $1.1 billion since its same date filing.  $472 million of DL's loss was ordinary operational losses, with the other $648 million being described as reorganizational expenses.

Never missing an opportunity to try and shift the blame, Delta was quick to point out that jet-fuel 'soared' to $642 million during the period, and is its largest single expense.

So what?

Indeed, here's an industry consultant acting as expert witness at the DL bankruptcy hearings, who says that while high fuel costs have crippled DL's attempts to recover from its problems, discount competition and Internet fare shopping are 'more fundamental' reasons for Delta's underlying financial crisis.  Delta's biggest problem is simple and easy to understand - a massive drop in average fares.

Some bankruptcy good news :  Aloha Airlines had its reorganization plan accepted by the bankruptcy court, allowing it to exit Chapter 11 as early as 15 December.  The airline filed Chapter 11 on 30 Dec 2004.

Bad news for US Airways.  Southwest plans to double the number of gates it leases at Philadelphia, which will probably mean it will increase its flights from the present 53 a day up to around 110 a day.  You can be certain that these new flights will be on routes that currently are high yielding rather than low yielding, and so US Airways is going to find itself losing valuable high fares on still more of its routes.

Average fares dropped 26% when Southwest started service from Philadelphia last year.  This expansion of service will doubtless see a further drop.  Which means the gloomy projection US Airways issued last week should be turned another notch gloomier.

Except that, in finest dinosaur tradition (remember the good old days when the dinosaur airlines ignored and pretended that low cost competitors either didn't exist or weren't important?) US Airways spokesman Philip Gee told The Philadelphia Inquirer that US Airways isn't fazed by Southwest's expansion plans.

He said America West Airlines, which acquired US Airways out of bankruptcy court, has competed for years with Southwest in Las Vegas and Phoenix, where both airlines have hubs.

So that's apparently okay then.  According to Mr Gee, anyway.  And continuing its contrarian path, the stock price has strengthened another 5% since last Friday's open.  Perhaps US Airways' investors believe that competition will be good for the airline?

Telling it like it is :  The CEO of Cheapflights says American travelers despise US carriers as their service levels fall far behind those of European and UK flights.  He predicts not all will survive and he said this week

Airlines in the US are in disarray.  They are not the great national employers they once were and the poor old US taxpayer is subsidizing them for tens of billions of dollars.  There will be other failures.  The US aviation industry trails behind the European market in many respects and have a reputation about as good as British Rail had in its heyday.  They are hated by US travelers but they operate lots of aircraft on very popular routes.

The new broom sweeps clean?  Apparently so, if the broom is new CEO Willie Walsh, formerly with Aer Lingus, and the company is British Airways.  British Airways announced on Wednesday it would cut up to 600 management jobs as part of its effort to reduce labor costs.  This represents about 35% of its 1,715 senior and middle management staff, who would become redundant by 2008 (no point in rushing these things - wouldn't you love two years notice?).  Senior managers would be hardest hit with about 50% of them leaving the company.

What a great idea.  There's hope for BA yet.

I've occasionally commented on the incredible growth of Emirates Airlines.  They're based in Dubai, which seems like a very smart move, because things are done differently in Dubai.  Dubai has just announced it will create the world's largest airport, with six runways and a capacity of 120 million passengers a year.

And when will this mega-airport be complete?  Oh, in less than 18 months.  They're projecting it to be open during the first quarter of 2007.

In ugly comparison, my local airport can't build a single extra runway in less than a decade, and similar speeds of development occur through most of the rest of the western world.

Perhaps the worst example of all is at London Heathrow.  The new Terminal 5 took 14 years to go through the planning process, was finally approved in November 2001, with a first phase expected to open in 2008 and completion perhaps in 2011.  The new terminal will be able to handle about 30 million passengers a year; one quarter the capacity of Dubai's new mega-airport.

Talking about airports, the Greater Rockford Airport in Rockford, IL stumbled across a great strategy to boost services in and out of its airport.  It renamed itself the 'Chicago/Rockford International Airport', prominently taking the name of Chicago even though it is 90 miles from downtown.  It now has new service by Northwest and United; although to be accurate, it was not just the name change alone that encouraged these two bankrupt carriers to add flights to Rockford.  Northwest has been guaranteed $2.8 million in fares, and United has been guaranteed $2.5 million.

I wrote last week about Air New Zealand being found guilty of deceptive advertising.  Fairness compels me to report this week that Qantas is now being charged with similar offences.

One of the offences Air NZ was found guilty of is failing to include fuel surcharges in the cost of their air fares.  The airline most recently increased its fuel surcharge by 28% on 1 September, and now is upgrading its profit forecast for the year by a massive 40%, because its actual fuel costs are dropping, while the fuel surcharge is remaining at its all time high level.

The cost of fuel, for Air NZ, has dropped 23% since its most recent fuel surcharge increase.  But Air NZ says it will only review its surcharge when prices have been stable for 30 days.  That would be fine if it applied the same measure for when it decided to increase its fuel surcharge, but of course that is absolutely not the case.

It is good that Air NZ is getting its hand smacked, but there should be a separate offense for profiteering from fuel surcharges.  A fuel surcharge should be allowed only when it is a straight cost recovery item, not when it boosts airline profitability.

And as for Air NZ's loss in the NZ courts last week, a spokesman has now uttered a statement.  He said that the judge found one third of the advertisements were acceptable.  Is the spokesman implying that, for Air NZ, being guilty of illegal advertising 'only' two thirds of the time is a sufficiently high standard of business practice?

Talking about unfair pricing strategies, here's an interesting story about six of Paris' top luxury hotels being found guilty of conspiring to fix their prices artificially high.  They've been fined US$829,000.  Probably only a small fraction of the extra profit they've earned.

Here's an interesting statistic.  The risk of dying in an air accident is one in ten million.  The risk of dying due to a medical error in a western (civilized) hospital is one in three hundred.  Gulp.

Going cruising?  Perhaps consider a Holland America Line cruise.  They have been named the Best Overall Cruise Value by the World Ocean & Cruise Liner Society, a 24 year old organization with thousands of experienced cruisers as members.  This is the fourteenth straight year that HAL has been chosen for the award.

Talking about cruise lines, here's a peculiar news item.  Carnival is being sued by the family of a Wisconsin woman who disappeared while on a Carnival cruise.

Her purse was found in an area where there was a surveillance camera but the camera was covered so there was no indication of whether she fell overboard or if she jumped (or was pushed!) and her body was never found.

The peculiar part of this story?  Guess how much the family is suing Carnival for?  A mere $15,000.  I guess they didn't like her all that much!

Flu Focus :  The great worry with Bird Flu is that it might mutate into a human to human transmittable form.  How likely is this to happen?  No-one really knows, but what is known is that the virus is mutating.  It just hasn't mutated the way we fear - yet.  But each new mutation is another roll of the dice.

Shanghai is now screening international passengers for fevers or other symptoms of Bird Flu.  All passengers entering or leaving the airport must complete a health declaration form that asks if they have had close contact with poultry, birds, bird flu patients or suspected cases over the past week.  The form also asks whether they have symptoms such as fever, coughing or shortness of breath.  Travelers will be screened with an infrared camera for high temperatures and must declare any symptoms they might have.  Those with temperatures over 38C will be further examined.

The latest chapter in the possible dangers of cell phone radiation suggests that cell phone radiation might affect your mood and behavior, and could even make you suicidal.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Do we now need to show ID while on a bus?  A Colorado grandmother, with one son retired from the military and the other serving in Iraq, refused to show her ID when federal security agents demanded it.  She was arrested and detained, and has now been charged with several crimes.

Apparently the federal agents were simply establishing the fact that everyone on the bus had ID.  They weren't carefully checking IDs, or comparing them to lists, or entering the names into any database.  They merely were ensuring people had ID on them.  Since when has this become mandatory in the US?

It isn't just on the Denver buses that ID may now be mandatory.  This article quotes the Miami police proudly announcing that they plan to commit 'random shows of force' around the city.  Deputy Police Chief Frank Fernandez said 'People are definitely going to notice it. We want that shock. We want that awe.'  He then hastily added 'But at the same time, we don't want people to feel their rights are being threatened'.  No mention was made of what would happen if an illegal immigrant was accidentally encountered during one of these anti-terrorist sweeps.

Although the ACLU seems able to reconcile these two statements, I'm not entirely sure I'm comfortable with an America where we must carry ID and where the police are proudly mounting shock and awe campaigns with random shows of force.  As I find myself saying way too often, the US is becoming increasingly like the society we used to mock, in the former Soviet Union, while Russia these days is becoming increasingly like the former, free, United States.  What's wrong with this picture?

Worst of all, these cursory checks for ID are useless.  As this article explains, getting realistic fake ID is easy, quick and cheap.

Back to the lady on the bus.  She's due to appear in federal court next Friday.  Wish her luck.  Details here.

There's a very sensible article about security on the Wired site, written by a member of the government's Secure Flight Working Group on Privacy and Security.  He asks a very relevant question :  How can a person be so dangerous that they're not allowed to fly on a plane, under any circumstance (ie, they're on the TSA's 'No Fly' list), but not be arrested and prosecuted for that which makes them so dangerous?  He also reports on the findings of the government group he belonged to - in his words, it found 'a complete mess: poorly defined goals, incoherent design criteria, no clear system architecture, inadequate testing'.

His conclusion - there have only been two things that have materially made air travel safer since 9/11.  The first is strengthened cockpit doors, and the second is a change in attitude on the part of passengers, who now realize that it is their responsibility to resist terrorists rather than meekly cooperate with them.  A good article well worth reading.

The Keystone Kops are alive and well in Philadelphia.  Chaos reigned at Philadelphia International Airport Wednesday night when a checked bag on an American flight set off an alarm at Terminal A -East.  Fire trucks and the bomb squad were called in.  It took about two hours to identify the offending 'bomb'  - it was garlic paste.

Thanks to reader Mayer, who is in the security field, and who sent in this story.  He received it from a colleague, but can't personally verify it.

Detective ________ and I [Mayer's colleague] flew to San Diego last week to pick up a murder [highlighted subsequently - this single word caused many email filters to refuse to deliver the entire email] suspect who was caught trying to cross the border into Mexico. Getting there was no problem, but after picking up our prisoner, we went to the airport at San Diego and met with TSA people.

We presented our credentials, including badges, letter from the chief, etc. We were then taken to the 'by-pass' room. The TSA guy found all our paperwork in order and then said, 'So, will both you officers be traveling armed?' I explained to him that only I was armed, and that Detective _______ was not, as he would be sitting next to the prisoner.

'So, Detective_______ does not have a gun?' was the reply. I assured him that was correct.

'Is there a problem?' I asked.

The TSA guy replied, 'If he is not armed, he will have to go back through the inspection line.'

'But, we have all the paperwork here. He is AUTHORIZED to be armed!'

'Yes, but since he is not armed, he has to be inspected for dangerous items.'

'But he is AUTHORIZED to carry dangerous items!'

'But, because he's NOT carrying anything dangerous, he has to be inspected.'

I thought about arguing further, but I suddenly remembered that I was dealing with a federal employee. Detective _______ dutifully went through the line as I, and the prisoner, waited for him on the other side.

The prisoner commented, 'This is the stupidest thing I ever heard of!' I nodded in agreement.

Mayer also sent in this story, from Associated Press in Oslo :

It's not uncommon for airline passengers to doze off during their flight. But for 21-year-old Tor Martin Johansen, the snooze lasted an entire round trip.

Mr Johansen fell asleep on a short flight from the central Norway city of Trondheim via Roervik to his hometown of Namsos on Thursday. When he woke up he was back in Trondheim. When the plane landed in Namsos nobody noticed the sleeping passenger or reacted to the extra person on board. So it returned to Trondheim with Mr Johansen still on board.

The Wideroe airline gave him a free ticket to his original destination.

We're all expecting good news today (Friday) when the TSA will announce new policies on what may be carried onto a plane.  It is believed small tools (less than 7" in length) and scissors with pointed tips less than 4" long will now be permitted.

My big interest is whether I'll be able to travel with my Swiss Army Knife in my carry on bag again.  I take this knife with me everywhere, and for the last four years, I've had to check a bag - an inconvenience I'd rather accept than be without my trusty Swiss Army Knife.

So far, for this year alone, TSA screeners have confiscated 3 million scissors and 819,450 tools, according to the Homeland Security Department.

The TSA also said they'll be varying their security routines at airports, so as to be less predictable.  They believe this will confound terrorists; I think it will just annoy passengers.  A spokesman quoted in particular the example that maybe one day passengers will be required to take their shoes off, and the next they'll be allowed to walk through with shoes on.

Let me get this right - it will be more secure to let people with shoes go through half the time than it is to require them to take them off all the time?

Border security is important - we all can agree with that.  But, apparently, corporate profits are more important.  Or so companies in BC and WA apparently believe.

Similarly, airplane security is important, but not if it costs too much.

Here's an interesting story - interesting not for what it tells, but for what it doesn't tell.  Why is the passenger not named, and why do the police have no comment?

Lastly this week, and referring back to my getting stuck in the snow earlier today, I hasten to state, most definitely, that I was not, ahem, visually distracted at the time the incident occured.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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