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9 December, 2005 

Good morning

Little more than a dozen shopping days until Christmas, or perhaps I should say 'the holiday season'.  Hopefully you found last week's Christmas Gadget Gift Giving Guide of some assistance.  Since its release last week, there's been one minor enhancement - our Emergency Phone Recharger now has an optional extra adapter for the Motorola V3 and other devices powered by mini USB.

An item that didn't make my list was satellite radio.  Perhaps it should have, because, as this article points out, prices are falling to encourage purchases during the Christmas season.  As I said in my two part series on satellite radio, everyone who buys it ends up loving it.

And reader Mark suggests this as a Christmas treat for that 'special' person in your life.  My favorite, I think, is the roulette chocolate.

Continuing the Christmas gift guide theme, there's a new book out that many of you might want for yourselves or your frequent flying friends :

This Week's Feature Column :  Mileage Pro book review :  Written by the two pre-eminent mileage gurus, Randy Petersen and Tim Winship, this book promises to be the definitive answer to all your frequent flier questions.  But does it deliver on its promise?  Read my review to find out.

Talking about delivering on promises, thanks to the many people who wrote in offering advice and suggestions after last week's report of my getting stuck in the snow, and the refusal of Landrover's Roadside Assistance to send anyone to come and help me and my Landrover.

To be fair to Landrover, their Roadside Assistance service is not provided directly by them, but through a third party company (USAC) that provides similar service to other car marques as well.  However, the bottom line is that it is Landrover's name on the product/service I signed up for, and at present, Landrover are being less than responsive about resolving the issue.

As far as I can tell, USAC is lying to everyone about everything.  Amongst other whoppers, they told Landrover that their staff member had spent 2½ hours trying to help me.  Aren't cell phone call detail records a wonderful thing.... according to these records, from the end of my call to them until when they first called back to tell me they couldn't help - a mere 20 minutes.  From the end of their call to me until their second call back to say 'this time we really mean it, we're not doing anything more' - a further 20 minutes.  Include the phone calls, and we're at 50 minutes, not the 150 minutes they're claiming.

They have also said ridiculous things like claiming I was in such an out of the way location the local Fire Service told them they don't even provide fire service to my house (a claim that surprised the local Fire Marshall when I checked with him, and which would terrify the insurance company providing full fire insurance on the dwelling, if it were true).  For some bizarre reason, they continue to maintain I was somewhere very remote.  In reality, as anyone with the Google or Yahoo mapping service can tell, I was less than a one mile walk from the center of downtown Leavenworth.

The biggest lie of all was saying they'd called all the local tow operators within 75 miles and all of them refused to come and help.  The first local operator I called the next morning was only too pleased to come up and recover the vehicle, and furthermore told me he never received any call from Landrover the previous afternoon!  He said he never gets calls from the Roadside Assistance people because they're not willing to pay his rates (he charged $143 for what took about 60 minutes onsite to do).

So Landrover, while not hesitating to charge me top dollar when I bought their vehicle, are apparently too mean to pay the local going rate when it comes time to honor their Roadside Assistance service, and lack the balls to then give an honest explanation for why they wouldn't help me.  They're now ignoring my emails, although I gather via a back-channel they plan to offer to buy me a free dinner as an apology.  Noting their tightwad approach with spending money on customer services, I guess Denny's can look forward to my upcoming visit.

Fortunately, all of this took place 10 yards from the front gate of my house, so the inconvenience was minor and I was able to comfortably and conveniently research and arrange alternate assistance.  But what if I truly was somewhere remote when they refused to help?  What would have happened then?

More spam filter lunacy.  Last week's newsletter suffered a strangely high number of rejects by overly protective spam filters.  Eventually I found out why this happened.  The newsletter last week had 3500 words in it.  3499 of the words were apparently okay, but one single word - a common word, completely normal - was enough to trip some of the filters.  You'll never guess what the word is, and of course I can't tell you for fear of having this week's newsletter censored as well, but if you're interested, you can follow this link to see what this terrible word is.

I still have invitations for free Google Gmail accounts if anyone wants them.  So far, Gmail seems to be reliably delivering the newsletters every week with no complaints or problems.  Let me know if you'd like one.

Dinosaur watching :  Are you wondering what will happen to United's creditors and shareholders when it finally exits bankruptcy in February (update below)?  Secured creditors will be paid in full.  Shareholders will lose everything.  And unsecured creditors can expect to receive stock in the restructured airline, with the value of stock being between 4c and 8c in every dollar they were owed by United.

Creditors get to vote if they'll accept this plan or not - sort of.  In theory, the more than 90,000 creditors get to vote, and United needs to get approval from more than half the creditors, representing between them more than two thirds of the money United owes.

But, if the creditors don't vote to accept the plan, the bankruptcy judge can simply overrule the vote and impose United's plan on them, whether they like it or not.  Which rather makes the vote meaningless (but costly).

Who are the biggest winners in United's bankruptcy?  Get prepared for a big surprise (not).  Top managers and directors are to receive a combined $285 million worth of stock in the new airline or 15% of the total equity value estimated at $1.9 billion.  8% of that stock is to be distributed immediately on coming out of bankruptcy.

I wonder what the unsecured creditors think about that?

And - oooops - that February exit from bankruptcy?  United has now asked the court to extend the time it has to file its plan through to 1 March 2006.

Talking about timetables, Independence Air's timetable for its own Chapter 11 transition (a transition to who knows what) is proceeding at high speed.

They say they have received a number of expressions of interest from companies who may want to buy the airline as a going concern, or to invest in the company, or to buy some of the company's assets, prior to the 1 Dec deadline.  The next deadline is to receive firm bids by 16 Dec, and if more than one bid is received, an auction will occur on 3 January 2006.

It is possible that within a month, we'll know the outcome and what Independence Air's future may be.

Some people had been speculating Sir Richard Branson might try and do something with Independence Air as part of his long delayed plans to get his own US airline, Virgin America, up and running.  News on Thursday suggests this is unlikely, because Virgin America has now announced it has secured the US financing it needed to create a US majority owned and controlled airline.  In total, they've secured $177.3 million in financing, giving them a good base to build an airline from (JetBlue started with less).

Virgin America filed for permission to operate passenger services with the DoT on Thursday.  It will take some months for this to be reviewed and (presumably) approved.

Apparently we all misheard Sir Richard when he promised to have his airline flying by the end of 2005.  It seems he probably said he promised to have his airline filing by the end of 2005.  As for the first flight, it is now expected at a non-specified time in 2006.  Virgin America have committed to taking delivery of 33 Airbus A320s.  To put this in perspective, JetBlue currently have 77 A320s.

Virgin America have also slightly changed their operating plan.  Initially they'd planned to have an administrative headquarters in New York and an operational headquarters in San Francisco.  Fortunately this stupid idea has now been abandoned, and all parts of the airline will be based in SFO.

Has United found a new way to save money?  Are all those jokes about the airlines choosing to no longer offer free toilets about to become truth?

A United flight from Los Angeles to Sydney had its toilets stop working, one by one, until only two of the fifteen still functioned.  The captain's response?  He told passengers to stop flushing the two remaining toilets, and to stop drinking.  The captain chose to save money and not divert the flight to Fiji, but to fly another four hours to Sydney.  Details here, including the startling fact there are no federal standards applying to toilets on planes.

Doug Parker, formerly CEO of America West and now CEO of the combined America West and US Airways had some insight to offer this week which shows just how clever you have to be to become an airline CEO.  He said the merger between America West and US Airways was just the beginning of a wave of consolidation that will grow in the coming years.  While declining to give specifics of who he sees merging with who, he said it is possible to randomly pick any two of the six major carriers and sensibly consider merging them.

On the face of it, his comments are sensible.  But lurking in the background is the reality that US Airways foundered last time around due to its obsession with merging with United, a merger which eventually proved impossible.  There's no reason to assume the Justice Department would allow future mega-mergers, although some mergers seem to be sneaking in the back door through increasingly cozy alliance and code-share agreements that are as close to a merger as you can get without equity sharing.

Parker also has a dubious subtext to his statement - the assumption that bigger merged airlines will be better than they were unmerged.  There's precious little historical evidence to support that assumption, and there's no correlation at present between airline size and airline success.  The most successful airlines in the country at present are small regional carriers and low cost recent startups, and - of course - Southwest, an airline that is steadily growing to become a super-carrier, but almost entirely through internal organic growth rather than buyouts and mergers.

Most ironic of all are the statements over the last couple of weeks from his own newly merged airline saying that it will be harder than they thought to create synergies and efficiencies from their merger.

There is some underlying sense in the need for airline consolidation.  The greatest need is for the national carriers of tiny countries to be consolidated into some of the mega international carriers, although national pride, international aviation treaties, and the fear that without their own airline, no-one will offer flights to their tiny country often interferes with rational analysis.  At the end of this article about Boeing, there is the interesting comment that the 13 European national airlines should reduce down to a sustainable three or four carriers.

Airline passenger complaints are up 29% this year, according to the DoT.  The three most complained about airlines are US Airways (the worst scorer, with 1.91 complaints per 100,000 pax), Delta's Comair (1.7) and Independence (1.68).  The three least complained about airlines were Southeast based regional carrier ExpressJet (0.34), JetBlue (0.29), and a very clear winner for best airline with least passenger complaints, Southwest, with a mere 0.18 complaints.

US Airways had more than ten times as many complaints per 100,000 passengers flown as Southwest.

Flu Focus :  Does Tamiflu actually work?  This article raises alarming doubts.

This article projects the path of a bird flu pandemic, with the US Health & Human Services Secretary postulating it may originate in a village in Thailand, turn into a pandemic within a couple of weeks, and be in the US and Europe within 50 days.

The projection calls for 722,000 pandemic cases in the US by the end of week 6, 37.4 million by the end of week 9, 90.8 million by the end of week 12, where it levels out, with only a small increase to 92.2 million cases by the end of week 16.

What does this mean for us?  It means from when the first reports filter out of human to human bird flu appearing in South East Asia, we have a month of relative safety, followed by a month of trouble as the flu spreads like wildfire through the US, a month of calamitous misery, at the end of which, one in every three will be infected (the projection doesn't say how many die, but figure on 10% or more).  Next comes a month during which society pretty much completely fails to function, and then a slow recovery.  Prudent people will prepare themselves to face perhaps three months with scarce food supplies, and disruptions to utility services such as electricity, water, sewage, trash hauling, phone and internet, and just about everything else.

If you turned off your power, gas and water supplies, and attempted to live with only that already in your house or on your land, how long would you last?

Here's an interesting USA Today story on how some people are preparing for Bird Flu, and in this associated article listing practical disaster preparedness steps we can all take, there's a scary quote that there is no spare capacity in hospitals to cope with any type of increase in flu cases - all 100,000 ventilators in US hospitals are fully used each regular flu season already.

You've got to love a bit of spirited competitioneasyCruise has taken out an ad in the Miami Herald that says 'If spending nights at sea in tacky ballrooms full of old folks is not your idea of a holiday then easyCruise.com is for you and any similarity with Carnival ships is purely coincidental.'   easyCruise is a no frills cruiseline that has been operating in the Caribbean since last month.  The ad is to run for two months.

Carnival has not commented on the ad as yet.

Here's an interesting way to get out of your current cell phone contract.

What would you do if you dropped your cell phone in the toilet?  This happens to a lot of people.  Hopefully, whatever you do wouldn't have such unexpected negative consequences as happened to this unfortunate man.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  In the past year alone, almost 30,000 airline passengers have found themselves to be mistakenly on the TSA's terrorist watch lists, as this article reports.

Passengers mistakenly on the watch list have to submit onerous paperwork to prove they are innocent (hey, what happened to the assumption of innocence in our society?).  But - and making this truly a horror story, even if their proof is accepted, their name is not removed from the watch list; instead, it is added to a 'clearance list'.  They still can't automatically checkin for their flight and, every time they travel, have to go to a checkin counter and get someone to match their name against the clearance list and then override their watch list status.

Interestingly, 60 of these people have not been added to the clearance list.  But if they can't have their innocence proved, why are they not in a federal prison on terrorism charges?  Why are they still free to do whatever they wish, and why are they still being hassled every time they go to an airport.  They're either a terrorist or not.

Well, we now know the new TSA rules on what we can and can't take on planes with us.  The good news - scissors with cutting edges 4" and shorter, and shall tools less than 7" are now allowed.  The bad news - no pocket knives, no matter how short their blade is.

Apparently a two inch pocket knife blade is deadlier than a 4" scissor blade or a 7" Philips head screwdriver.

And as part of their security overhaul, the TSA is changing the name of their staff.  From their press release

In addition to these changes, the agency’s 43,000 Transportation Security Screeners have been re-classified as Transportation Security Officers (TSOs). This new classification illustrates that TSOs will be more empowered than ever before to use their knowledge and training to detect and defeat terrorists and to focus their attention to areas where the threat is greatest.

So the TSA thinks that by calling their employees something different they'll do a better job?

I wonder if nipple piercings will now be allowed?

It isn't just the TSA that sometimes seem to have ridiculously stupid policies on 'security' measures.  Here's a sad tale of metal detector stupidity at a county juvenile hall.

The Miami situation on Thursday where two air marshals shot a passenger after he got off the plane four to six times, killing him in the process, is interesting and complex.  Should we be reassured or alarmed by this action?

Political correctness was present everywhere, as was covering your hind quarters.  This early report quotes an unnamed spokesman as saying that shots were fired as the air marshals attempted to subdue the subject.  Since when is having two air marshals shoot a person dead, firing four to six times, an attempt at subduing?

Later on, we were told the passenger told the air marshals he had a bomb in his carry-on luggage (here's a good telling of this version of the story).  Well, no-one could criticize the marshals in that situation, could they?

But what if this version was not true?  And let's not overlook the dead man's wife desperately pleading with the air marshals, telling them her husband was mentally disordered.  Oh yes, that's not mentioned in the first two articles.  Here's a more unsettling report that starts to move from a clear cut situation to one with a lot less certainty.

And if you carefully read this report, you'll see no-one is now claiming the dead man said exactly the words 'I have a bomb'.  Instead, the current phrase being offered in justification of killing him is the dead man 'uttered threatening words that included a sentence to the effect that he had a bomb'.

Not quite so clear cut, is it.  And surely a terrorist doesn't make a fuss, get up, leave the plane, and try and run away?  And while the air marshals must err on the side of caution, what actually is caution?  Is caution shooting a harmless deranged person running away from a plane?  Let's not forget this man had been through security, which surely at least slightly reduces the chance of him truly having a bomb on his person.

It is easy to look at this calmly from a distance, and we can all understand how the air marshals may have panicked and got 'buck fever' and shot someone they shouldn't.  Let's be supportive of the air marshals for honestly making the wrong decision, but let's also try and ensure this doesn't happen again.

Good news for Mrs Davis, the lady who refused to show ID while riding on a Denver bus.  On Wednesday, she was told that the various charges against her had been dropped.  A group of her supporters plan to celebrate by riding the same bus route this Friday - care to guess what would happen if any were asked for their ID.

However, this is a weak victory rather than a strong one.  Chances are Mrs Davis wanted her case to go to court, so as to get a formal ruling confirming (or otherwise!) the right to travel on public transport without needing to show ID.  Instead, the various authorities can continue hassling people in other situations, in the hope that others won't insist on their rights being observed and protected.

A similar case is slowly proceeding through the legal system.  John Gilmore was not allowed to fly on a domestic US flight because he refused to show ID.  He asked why he had to show ID, and was told it was the law.  He asked which law, and was told that the law was secret.

We have secret laws in the US?  Apparently so.  The latest hearing in this case was a series of oral arguments, given on Thursday this week in the San Francisco US Court of Appeals.

Whether you think it prudent or not to be required to show ID to be allowed to fly (and remember, our 9/11 terrorists all had valid ID), surely it isn't too much to ask that the law requiring this should be a public law, enacting in the usual manner, and challengeable by the citizenry in the usual manner.

I wonder what John Gilmore would think of the move by some hotels to change their current room door locks to operate by reading the guest's fingerprint?  How would you like allowing the hotel to keep a permanent record of everyone you allow to enter your room,  and the exact times they entered your room?

At least it is easy to ask for a duplicate keycard and lend it to anyone you may choose, but having to ask people to register their fingerprints at reception?

A word of warning to Mrs Davis, and to the rest of us.  You mightn't have to show your ID, but apparently you will have to consent to having your bags searched if you want to ride on the New York subway system.  A judge decided that having your bag searched is only a minimal intrusion of privacy.

Talking about bags being searched, a common complaint is from people who maintain the TSA stole something from their luggage.  Reader Richard writes in with a different story :

I just returned today after a great trip to Chicago & Miami.  There was one strange thing though.  Our daughter's case was searched by the TSA, and when we opened it at our destination, she found a rogue shoe from some other person in her case

Glad it was only a shoe and not some drug related product returning to London.

Somewhere there's probably a puzzled person wondering 'why would the TSA steal one of my two shoes'?

How'd you like to stay on the grounds of the Queen's private estate in Scotland?  The Queen is set to open the grounds of her Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands to jogging holidaymakers.

The offer, which will include two nights on the estate, is designed to help attract tourists to eastern Scotland and generate cash for the castle's running costs.  For £186, visitors can stay in an annexe of the castle and enjoy guided jogs, individual coaching sessions and talks by guest speakers.

Balmoral Castle was built by Queen Victoria in the 19th century and is Queen Elizabeth's summer residence.  She usually spends 12 weeks there from August and invites her prime minister for a short stay.

Here's a new airline you might want to fly.  Their special Mile High Club seems particularly inviting.

Lastly this week, thanks to reader Tom for passing on these examples of life in Britain.

1) Commenting on a complaint from a Mr. Arthur Purdey about a large gas bill, a spokesman for North West Gas said, "We agree it was rather high for the time of year. It's possible Mr. Purdey has been charged for the gas used up during the explosion that destroyed his house." (The Daily Telegraph)

2) Police reveal that a woman arrested for shoplifting had a whole salami in her underwear. When asked why, she said it was because she was missing her Italian boyfriend. (The Manchester Evening News)

3) Irish police are being handicapped in a search for a stolen van, because they cannot issue a description. It's a Special Branch vehicle and they don't want the public to know what it looks like. (The Guardian)

4) A young girl who was blown out to sea on a set of inflatable teeth was rescued by a man on an inflatable lobster. A coast guard spokesman commented, "This sort of thing is all too common". (The Times)

5) At the height of the gale, the harbourmaster radioed a coastguard and asked him to estimate the wind speed. He replied he was sorry, but he didn't have a gauge. However, if it was any help, the wind had just blown his Land Rover off the cliff. (Aberdeen Evening Express)

6) Mrs. Irene Graham of Thorpe Avenue, Boscombe, delighted the audience with her reminiscence of the German prisoner of war who was sent each week to do her garden. He was repatriated at the end of 1945, she recalled. "He'd always seemed a nice friendly chap, but when the crocuses came up in the middle of our lawn in February 1946, they spelt out 'Heil Hitler.'"  (Bournemouth Evening Echo)

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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