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23 December, 2005 

Good morning

We've turned the corner of the darkness and gloom.  The winter solstice was on Wednesday, so now  the days are imperceptibly lengthening, even as the weather continues to cool.

This event of course underlies what is becoming an annual battle between the pro and anti Christmas people. While I too decry the omission of the word Christmas, the slightly embarrassing fact, for us Christians, is that December 25 is not the date Jesus Christ was born. Instead, it is the time of the pagan winter solstice festival, apparently and bizarrely adapted for Christianity. So, in truth, perhaps the better turn of phrase is indeed to refer to it as the holiday season.  For sure, it has nothing to do with the birth of Christ.

Anyway, whatever it is, there are only two shopping days remaining until it happens.  Bravo.  And so this week I'm not going to talk about things to buy at all, but rather about high minded principles.

This Week's Feature Column :  Effective Computer Password Management : With identity theft on the rise, you need to be more on your guard than ever before. As I discover, the increasing use of access passwords has paradoxically made it easier for hackers to break your password and steal your access. Here's how to make their job harder, and your data safer.

I'm writing this to you from Leavenworth rather than Seattle, which prompts me to quickly update and close the chapter on my Landrover getting stuck in the snow when trying to drive here a month or so back (I managed it all the way to my garage door this time on only the third attempt up the hill).

There have been no further developments with Landrover, but I've done a lot of research into what is necessary to get best traction and stability when driving on difficult snowy and icy roads.  The most important feature to give maximum mobility and safety ends up as being very low tech - good tires.  No matter what the latest electronic traction devices in your vehicle, they will always come up against the major limiting constraint - the underlying grip between the tires and the surface they're resting on.

Many people maintain the best type of tire for winter/snow use is one with studs added.  This certainly was the case, some years back, but is no longer correct.  The latest specialty winter/snow tires have special compounds in their rubber that make them 'stickier' on the ice and snow, and give better results both on regular dry roads (where studs appreciably reduce your traction) and also on snow.  If you're interested in these issues, this website has an excellent library of tire test results.

Beyond your tire selection, several features of the vehicle do of course make a big difference.  But the obvious feature to choose - four or all wheel drive - also has a potential big weakness.  4WD/AWD is of most use to you if the four wheels also have some type of limited slip or locking differentials.  If they just have regular differentials, you have increased your vulnerability to the effects of wheel slip - any one of the four wheels could slip and rob the other three wheels of their traction.

This was vividly demonstrated to me with my Landrover problem.  After I got stuck, I chained up the front wheels.  If the vehicle was a simple front wheel/two wheel drive, it probably would have driven itself out of the snow.  But because it was four wheel drive, the transmission chose to direct most of the power to the rear unchained wheels, and insufficient power was sent to the front wheels with the traction.  So I had my rear wheels spinning madly and ineffectively, while the front wheels sat there lifelessly.

This is something Landrovers should not do.  But this one did, and after having the vehicle at the dealership for an entire week (!!!) they were unable to find anything wrong.  They made the admission that this model vehicle (2003 Discovery II) isn't as good as later models, and while its traction control enhancements work when the vehicle is moving, they don't work if the vehicle is stationary and trying to start moving.

I'm rather disappointed at reading through countless reviews of Landrovers by all the major automobile magazines and websites, but rather than mentioning any limitations of the vehicle's off-roading capabilities, or testing them in extreme conditions, they almost uniformly all refer to 'the Landrover's legendary off-road prowess' in terms of admiration and awe.  Unfortunately, my experience suggests the vehicle's off-road performance is indeed legendary - as in fictitious rather than factual.

Perhaps I need to start reviewing cars as well as gadgets.... but what car manufacturer would be brave enough to submit their vehicle to my detailed scrutiny and sometimes savage reporting!

Thanks to the many people who wrote in with suggestions for alternate ways to maintain my website and newsletter.  The two most common suggestions were to use Word or Dreamweaver.  Word does have an option to save as html, but the code it creates is very complicated and messy, causing potential problems with email readers and web browsers, and inflating the size of emails and web pages.  It is fine for occasional light tasking, but isn't really intended as a heavy duty tool for people to use extensively.

On the other hand, Dreamweaver absolutely is a heavy duty tool for the professional web designer, and is probably the leading product on the market today with the richest feature set.  But, much as I've tried to like it, I've found its interface too complex and the learning curve too steep to get truly comfortable with.

There's another reason for trying to stay with Frontpage if at all possible.  I've fallen victim to Microsoft's 'deadly embrace' - they lock people into their software by providing an extended feature set with capabilities not offered by other products (a bit like a premium level frequent flier membership!).  Easy form creation on web pages in particular is something FP offers which DW does not, and I need forms on all my webpages.

Happily, my dilemma may be solved by a suggestion, first offered by Randy.  There are third party add-in modules for Frontpage, and I should simply load one of these with an auto-save feature.  Great idea, but - ooops - so far, I have yet to find one for Frontpage 2003.  I continue to search.

Dinosaur watching :  For the last several weeks I've been writing about the current merger mania, with airline executives and industry observers predicting mergers between dinosaurs.  This may still happen - logic has little part to play in airline structuring - but it won't be as easy as these commentators predict.

One of the reasons why - and hardly a surprise to anyone - is the probable reluctance of the Departments of Transportation and Justice to approve mergers without a lot of justification.  An example of this occurred on Thursday when the DoT denied a request by NW and DL to waive antitrust restrictions so the two carriers could grow their marketing ties with other members of the SkyTeam alliance.  This follows on from a recommendation by the Justice Dept in August that the application be refused.

This is encouraging.  Until now, alliances have represented the logical and ultimate extension of code-sharing; both practices have created loopholes allowing airlines to collude in almost every respect without setting off the legal trip-wires that an outright merger would cause.

United has been silent about the results of its creditors vote on whether to accept its reorganization plan, although it did indicate that it has received more than 50 objections to the plan.  CFO Jake Brace confidently said none of those objections were likely to delay the airline's exit from bankruptcy.

Of the approximately 90,000 unsecured creditors, not all need to vote and not all will vote. Those who will get 100% of their claim are deemed to have voted for the plan, and on the other hand, those who will receive nothing are deemed to have voted against the plan. But those who don't vote are deemed to have voted for the plan (this is a bizarre interpretation and very strongly in United's favor).

Strangely, at almost the exact same moment Brace said the objections wouldn't delay his company's bankruptcy exit, United received yet another two month extension to the time it can exclusively file a reorganization plan, with this period now expiring on 3 March 2006 (United entered Chapter 11 in December, 2002).

United had an email embarrassment earlier this week when a supervisor sent an email to fellow supervisors but also, accidentally, to flight attendants.  In the email the supervisor congratulated his colleagues for the number of disciplinary notices issued during the year with still two weeks to go.  'This morning we issued the 400th LOC ['Letter of Charge'] and yet, we have two more weeks before the year is over.  In 2004 we only reached 251 and this latest "milestone" truly reflects everyone's focus and hard work.  Just wanted to let you know!'

Some people would consider a 60% increase in disciplinary notes reflects poorly on the supervisors.  Flight attendants are claiming this email shows the existence of a quota system, sort of like is often rumored applies to state troopers issuing traffic violations.

A United Airlines spokesman said the email was 'an isolated inappropriate incident'.

Good news for United.  They lost only $187 million during November.  Wow.

United suffered an operational meltdown at its major hub, O'Hare, on Saturday.  Lines of passengers waiting to check in overflowed Terminal 1 and passengers were forced to wait outside in the cold.  The airport arranged for four buses to be parked outside, giving the passengers somewhere heated to wait until they could move in to the terminal building, and police were needed to try and create some semblance of order.

United said the average wait to check in was 75 minutes.  Many travelers disagreed, with some claiming to have been waiting up to five hours.

The airline said the problem was caused by a backlog of travelers flowing over from Thursday and Friday, plus more Saturday travelers than normal, and more bags to be checked than normal.  While undoubtedly United is correct that there were more passengers attempting to depart from ORD on Saturday, this was not the cause of the problem.  The problem was United's complacent incompetence at not scheduling sufficient staff to meet the demand that they must have known about prior to starting operations on Saturday morning.

CEO Glenn Tilton said they will identify and resolve the cause of the problem.  Care to guess if anyone will be found accountable and lose their job over this debacle?

At its peak in 2000, United had 102,000 employees.  Today it has about 57,000.

Part of any traditional airline Chapter 11 filing is, of course, to promise a fast reorganization and exit from Chapter 11, and then to extend, extend, and further extend the period of exclusive protection way beyond the timeframe first asked for and promised.  United is setting an example of this that all other airlines will struggle to ever match.

But maybe Delta is going to try to beat United's record.  Although it only filed for bankruptcy three months ago, DL has already decided it needs a six month extension (from 12 January 2006) through to 11 July 2006.

Delta said it needed the extra time to lower costs, rationalize route structure and fleet, and explore possible sources of exit financing.  'There are numerous matters that must be resolved before (Delta) can hope to formulate and negotiate a successful plan of reorganization,' the company said in the court filing.

Although Delta's bankruptcy judge seems more independently minded than most, there's a 99.9% certainty DL will get the extra time it seeks, proving yet again that Chapter 11 is as close to a carte blanche 'Get Out of Jail Free' card for the airlines as could ever be imagined.

While talking about staying out of jail, and bankrupt airlines, I've observed several times about how Northwest's Chairman Gary Wilson sold 3.4 million of his 4 million NW shares earlier this year, and commented on how very lucky he was to coincidentally sell the shares not long before his airline filed Chapter 11.

Amazingly, some people don't believe Wilson's claim that he was merely diversifying his portfolio.  A New York law firm announced on Tuesday it had filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of those who purchased securities of Northwest Airlines between April 21, 2005 and September 14, 2005.  The suit alleges that four Northwest directors and executives were in possession of nonpublic information regarding the airline's plans to file for bankruptcy and they made false and misleading statements throughout the period with respect to Northwest's prospects.

Specifically it is alleged the defendants maintained that Chapter 11 bankruptcy was "a possibility" and that Northwest might have "to consider" filing for bankruptcy while they failed to disclose that filing for bankruptcy was already imminently anticipated and being planned for and that bankruptcy was a strategy defendants had already adopted at least as early as April, because bankruptcy was the only way to get rid of the pension plans and dump them on  taxpayers.

The defendants in the suit are Alfred A. Checchi (Director), Bernard L. Han (CFO), Douglas M. Streenland (CEO, President and Director) and Gary Wilson (Chairman).   The suit also alleges that  during the months preceding bankruptcy these insiders sold their Northwest shares to unwitting investors for proceeds in excess of $30 million under highly suspicious circumstances that raise the inference that, at the time of the sales, defendants had material nonpublic information that the Company had already planned to file for bankruptcy and that the filing was imminently expected.

In related Northwest news, the airline says it will need a loan of about $2 billion to get through bankruptcy according to a filing with the bankruptcy court.  Their business plan doesn't see them generating significant cash until 2009 or 2010.  The filing also suggests the airline will need an additional $7 billion to update its fleet.  Both Delta and United are projecting a much rosier future, and much sooner, than Northwest is.  But my money is on NW as having the more realistic projection.  Good on them for telling it like it is.

Now that the new Virgin America airline is starting to take shape, the dinosaurs are trying to delay Virgin America's approval process.  Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group holds a 25% shareholding, and US investors have the other 75% of the new carrier's shares, and all executives are US citizens.  On the face of it, this would seem to comply with the requirement that US citizens exercise actual control over any US carrier.

However, earlier this week Continental filed with the DoT, requesting that Virgin America's application process be suspended until such time as the new airline provides additional information to adequately determine whether or not it truly will be controlled by US citizens.

Fellow dinosaurs American Airlines and Delta filed letters supporting Continental's request.

Do CO, AA and DL really think Virgin America might be trying to avoid full compliance with the requirement for US control?  Probably not.  Their real concern - and a compliment to the new carrier - is shown in the request that Virgin's application be put on hold.  Plainly they're scared of the new carrier and are seeking to delay the start of service as long as possible, any way they can.

And talking about Virgin and its charismatic founder, Sir Richard Branson, how would you like a phone call from Sir Richard to wish you the best for the holidays?  Click this link to arrange a call for you or a friend.

Sometimes it seems that not only are the airlines dinosaurs, but so too are their pilots.  For example, in the book I reviewed last week, Ask the Pilot, commercial pilot and author Patrick Smith sneers at the thought of automated and pilotless (or remotely piloted) planes, and denigrates the importance of autopilot systems on planes at present.

His opinions may indeed be perfectly true, today.  But one thing is for sure - this is an area highly susceptible to improvements in technology, and if automation could allow the airlines to even reduce the current two man pilot crews down to one man and a machine, they'd leap at the opportunity in a heartbeat.

Planes can - and sometimes do - now fly from takeoff to landing, fully automatically, all the way.  Sure, the pilots program the autopilot, and are there in case something goes wrong, but autopilots are becoming vastly more sophisticated (and reliable) than earlier models.

Well, maybe Smith does have a point... The more reliant planes become on computers, the more reliant we become on the computers' software.  Which can add a nasty new dimension to the term 'computer crash'.  As this article attests.

The latest airplane automation advance makes use of a revolutionary new technology called GPS.  Well, okay, so it isn't revolutionary at all - handheld GPS units that can plot your position to within 50 feet or so have been available for sale to everyone for more than a decade, and at costs of only a few hundred dollars.  The technology - simple, reliable, and incredibly more accurate than any other sort of aviation navigation aid - has been slow to be adopted by aviation regulatory authorities, perhaps due to an overabundance of caution.

But in this article, there is news of the latest chink in the armor appearing - a new GPS based autopilot system can fly a plane more accurately, and on a more complicated course, than earlier systems and human pilots could achieve (in poor visibility).

Yes, it will be a long time before we have completely pilotless passenger planes.  But never say never.  Little more than 50 years ago, a plane had a crew of five, comprising a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer and radio officer.  One by one, we've seen that number reduce down and now all modern planes have only two pilots.  Is it possible that the two could reduce to one?  On shorter flights in particular, absolutely.

AirTran is running a promotion with Wendy's, offering free travel when customers purchase 64 soda drinks, in either the 20 or 32 ounce cups.

There are coupons on the sides of the cups that you collect and then cash in for free roundtrip tickets anywhere the airline flies.  Coupons have been printed on 84 million cups (if all coupons are redeemed, that would be a staggering 1.3 million free tickets).

Why we hate the airlines, continued :  Passengers on an Air India flight attempting to fly from Los Angeles ended up with a 45 hour delay and two failed attempts to depart.  A comedy of errors and consistently bad communication between the airline and its customers made this as frustrating and unpleasant as possible for the people affected.  Details here.

Haven't you often thought, while watching the shambles that invariably occurs whenever an airline tries to board an airplane 'This isn't rocket science.  There's got to be a simpler way.'?

Well, maybe it isn't rocket science, but researchers have used Einstein's theory of relativity to find the most efficient way for passengers to board a plane.  Their conclusion - boarding by row number is a waste of time.  Researchers were studying ways to make computers run faster, and realized the same principles could be used to optimize getting passengers on a plane.

The quickest way to load a plane?  Open seating, where people board any way they like and sit anywhere they like.  On second thoughts, perhaps I'll happily wait a few minutes longer so as to get the seat I want.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how a United flight to Sydney flew on and on all the way, even as its toilets sequentially stopped functioning, to the point where only two of the fifteen toilets were operating.  The pilot refused to make an unscheduled stop in Fiji to get the toilets pumped.

Reader James writes in with this interesting insight

I just flew on a United flight from San Francisco to Narita and spoke to a flight attendant about stopped up toilets, specifically after your recent comment.

This steward had a similar experience about ten years ago - interestingly, also on a Sydney/Los Angeles flight. The toilets stopped up and the flight crew basically forced/shamed the pilot, against his will, into stopping at Nadi, Fiji, to dump the sewage.

According to the stew, the pilots, as part of the pre-flight check, receive notification that the holding tanks have been dumped.  The pilot in the case ten years ago was reluctant to make an unscheduled stop because the cause of the stoppage was full sewage tanks.  He had not received notification that the sewage from the previous flight had been dumped prior to take-off, so it was his fault.

Makes you wonder if the same situation applied in this recent flight.  The pilot would be embarrassed and possibly receive some form of punishment/blemish on his record?  It must be a huge cost to make an unscheduled landing and have to use just that much more fuel to get to your final destination.  Just guessing, but interesting to hear a possible reason for the problem.

Unlike the dinosaurs, the major cruise lines seem unaffected by increases in fuel costs.  Carnival has reported a net profit of $2.3 billion for their year ended November 30, 2005.  Passenger numbers and revenues were both up, and despite a 50% increase in fuel costs and the worst hurricane season in the company's history, it still managed to grow earnings by 20%.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Imagine a country where the police are watching every motor vehicle, logging its movements all day every day, and storing it all in a huge database.  Imagine a country in which police and private video cameras are all fitted with OCR so as to automatically read car license plate details and feed them into this database.  Imagine parking lot cameras at the local supermarket, cameras at toll plazas, on freeways, gas stations, and everywhere, all connected into this database, enabling the police to track your movements and match them to other vehicles any which way they choose to extract the data back from the computer, with information held for 'at least' two years.

Imagine this country?  Imagine no longer.  As of March next year, Big Brother truly will be watching you if you're in Britain.

Thursday was the day the new TSA rules take effect.  You can now take your tweezers and nail clippers on board with you but you have an increased chance of being chosen for additional screening as it is no longer randomly selected by a computer.  Amongst other things, the TSA warns that passengers should now expect 'explosive screening of shoes'.  Ummm - perhaps they mean 'screening of shoes for explosives'?

The law is a complex subject, which is - I guess - why attorneys earn so much money.  A recent case had an interesting outcome.  A two seat Cessna, while making a landing approach to a small grass airfield, collided with a truck driving by the perimeter of the field.  The truck was driving in a normal legal manner on a normal legal road.

However, two courts have now held that the truck is liable for the damages to the plane.  The attorney for the pilot argued that the plane was not a highway vehicle, and since it never touched the road, the accident didn't occur upon a road (.... and so therefore the truck was at fault?).

The dust is settling on the issues and facts surrounding the air marshals killing an innocent passenger.  Remember that?  Probably you don't, because it received only the briefest of mentions and little subsequent commentary.  Here's a well reasoned piece on the topic.  Recommended reading from a quality source.

More bomb hysteria :  A Southwest jet had to abort a takeoff from Burbank Airport last Friday.  The plane was in position for take-off when the crew stopped the departure and called police because one of them had overheard a remark by a passenger 'referencing a bomb in some fashion'.  The plane was evacuated and there were no reports of injury.  No bomb was found.  It is probably just as well, for the passenger who was alleged to have made the reference to a bomb in some fashion, that there were no air marshals on board....

A rose by any other name :  Australia's kangaroo farmers have a problem.  Too few people want to eat kangaroo meat - the farmers think this is due to a reluctance by people to eat the meat of such an iconic animal.

And so they held a competition to rename kangaroo meat.  2700 different suggestions were received from 41 different countries, with names including kangarty, maroo, krou, ozru, rooviande and marsupan.

The winner?  Australus.

Kangaroo meat has been sold in Japan for many years, where it can be found under the delightful name of 'jumping steak'.

I started off this newsletter by expressing my dislike at the - not so much commercialization as neutralization of Christmas.  But I'm not sure I'd protest in the same manner as my fellow-countrymen did in Auckland.

Lastly this week, one of the dangers of having a cell phone manifests itself, at least in Australia, every Christmas season.  Apparently Australians, after having one or two too many drinks, like to make drunken phone calls that they absolutely regret the next morning.

Fortunately, commerce has sprung to Australia's rescue, and Virgin Mobile now offers a 'Dialing under the Influence' service.  You can block your phone from calling certain numbers between late evening and early morning.

The service, which costs 25 cents per attempted call, was launched after an online survey found 95 per cent of respondents were guilty of 'dialing while drunk'.  It has proven very popular, and one person was saved from himself 250 times in a single month.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and have a wonderful Christmas

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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