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6 January, 2006 

Good morning

I'm writing to you today from Las Vegas, where I'm participating in what is probably the largest trade show in the world these days - the Consumer Electronic Show.

This show is the last of the 'super shows' - most of the other oversized shows have disappeared.  And, frankly, CES is well overdue to be replaced as well.  It has become unmanageably big.  There are too many exhibitors, spread over too much floor space, in too many different parts of the city - it is truly impossible to thoroughly cover the entire show, and due to the very diverse range of products on display, few people would even want to.

And not only are there too many exhibitors; there are also way too many attendees.  Last year there were close on 150,000 attendees; this year will probably end up almost the same.  This overloads even Las Vegas' impressive ability to handle huge numbers of people.  Trying to find a taxi can be difficult, shows, bars and restaurants are full, and the closer you get to the Convention Center, the more crowded and unpleasant everything becomes.

So many people all crowding into Vegas at the same time also puts a strain on accommodation, with hotels that normally give rooms away for as little as $32.50/night (the Sahara on Tuesday night) suddenly charging twelve times as much - $388.70 - for the same sorry rooms (on Thursday and Friday nights).  Second rate hotels (eg New Frontier) are charging $442/night, and better hotels are charging $550+/night.

These rates do not include tax, either.

One of the notable new things for this year is/will be GPS systems and services, feeding route information even now to your cell phone.  Only a couple of years ago, there was only one clear market leader (Magellan, no relation to the travel goods retailer) and one or two smaller 'also ran' companies.  Now there is an explosion of companies entering the market, and perhaps soon we'll see the ridiculously overpriced hardware drop down to more reasonable levels.  There are about 100 brands of navigation systems at the show.

Bluetooth continues to promise more than the reality provides - could this finally be the year of Bluetooth?  Probably not.  As time passes, expectations for BT are dropping, and so perhaps it will never have a 'year' to itself.  But there are some 75 different BT suppliers at CES, offering a wide range of different BT enabled devices.  And if you're not even sure what Bluetooth is, I have an introduction and explanation here.

Other things that are surprising include devices to stream television programs to your cell phone.  This obviously requires a new '3G' high speed phone; and will be enthusiastically promoted by the wireless companies who have invested huge multi-billion dollar sums in their 3G networks but who have yet to find the 'killer app' to encourage users to upgrade their phones and pay the extra cost of high speed plans (as much as $80/month).  For normal voice phone calls, text messaging, and sending photos, no-one needs high speed connectivity.  Hence the interest in delivering television or other new services to justify the 3G networks.  My fear is that a tv feed to a phone would drain its battery very quickly.

Phone service is also the focus of more and more VoIP product offerings, with developments to make VoIP service easier to use, more 'plug and play' like a regular phone.  A disadvantage of computer based services such as Skype is that they require a computer to be connected to the phone handset and to the data line; new phones are being released which have all the needed electronics in the phone handset.  Simply plug the phone handset into a dataline and you have your Skype service up and running.

MP3 music and video players are everywhere.  Will the iPod's dominance erode in the year to come?  I've yet to see a device as good as the iPod, or aggressively priced below the iPod's high price points, so perhaps Apple has another year of super-profits ahead.  And in self-fulfilling prophecy, a growing number of suppliers are offering iPod specific accessories, giving more reasons for you to choose an iPod over its competitors.

 A new(ish) field of what is called telematics is evolving.  This is the wireless delivery of data to (and, notably, from) automobiles.  GPS, phone integration, HD and satellite radio, rear seat entertainment systems, connectivity between car systems and other systems (such as cell phones and MP3 players) are all parts of telematics.

So too are emergency services so you can press a button in your car to send your location and problem description to the Highway Patrol or a Roadside Assistance service, and to automatically report accidents.

But this integrated two way communication capability, and the car's growing intelligence and evolving 'black box' data storage has what some people feel to be a dark side.  Insurance companies have already experimented with giving preferred rates to drivers who allow their driving to be monitored realtime through a GPS and satellite link, enabling the insurance company to know, for real, if you're a safe and cautious driver, or an aggressive and speeding driver.  While the insurance companies claim these programs, if ever made more widely available, will be optional, the 'choice' they'll offer will probably be to massively increase their standard rate and then offer discounts back to normal rates for drivers who participate (assuming their driving meets their standards).

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how the British police plan to track every car by using OCR enabled video cameras all around the country.  This tracking will also allow them to computer average travel speeds - for example, if you travel five miles on a freeway between two of these cameras in four minutes, they know your average speed is 75 mph, and so can happily write you a ticket for exceeding the 70 mph limit without knowing exactly what, when, where, or other specifics.

Telematics can take this one step further.  Is it too far a step to imagine a requirement for cars to be sending GPS data to central monitoring stations so the authorities not only know where the car is, but also know how fast it is driving?  The capability already exists, all that is needed is the implementation.  Rental car companies occasionally try to use this capability at present, 'fining' drivers who exceed speed limits or who drive their vehicles outside defined areas.

And the new black box devices in cars are storing increasing amounts of information in them.  Typically this only holds data for the last 30 seconds or so of travel, but it can subsequently be played back to tell the police how fast you were traveling, whether your seat belt was fastened, if your brakes were applied, if your wheels were skidding, what throttle setting you had, and all sorts of other things to do with the vehicle.

Due to the short time away, I found it cheaper to drive to the airport and park there than to take a shuttle, and used the excellent Discount Airport Parking service I wrote about some months ago.  While this service works better at some airports than others, for me in Seattle it is both convenient and gets a good value parking reservation.

After making my reservation, they sent me a discount coupon code to use any time in the next 60 days for future bookings, and suggested I pass it on to friends as well.  Some of us have more friends than others, and so I'm passing this code on to 19,966 of my friends - if you use this code number - 573595 - they will waive their $5 fee for the next 60 days.  Try it yourself next time you're traveling.

I'm currently feeling a bit gadgeted-out, and perhaps you are too.  So for a change of pace, here's another part in my series on visiting New Zealand :

This Week's Feature Column :  What to See and Do in Queenstown :  Queenstown is in the center of an area of extraordinary natural beauty and is an essential part of every NZ itinerary. I  tell you where and how long to stay, and what to see and do when you get there.

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Please add [email protected] to your contact list.

Dinosaur watching :  As you know from the special newsletter earlier this week, Independence Air is no more, with its last flight having landed late Thursday.  If you flew on routes served by Independence, you can be sure fares are already increasing, as has also been increasing the share prices of airlines no longer needing to compare with Independence's low fares.  Most notably, Merrill Lynch cited this as a reason to increase their target price for US Airways shares from $36 up to $45 a share.

If you formerly flew on Independence, then you have every right to be saddened at their demise, but if you were a freeloader - flying other airlines and enjoying the benefits of fares reduced to compete with (and to kill off) Independence, you deserve no more sympathy than any other freeloader.  While it is true that Independence's business model was Quixotic, its low loads - often below 50% on many flights - combined with its low fares guaranteed the airline's demise.

If you like paying high fares on dinosaur airlines, you need no excuse for not supporting competing carriers.  But if you seek the benefits of competition - lower fares and more frequent service - you need to support the competitors that bring these benefits to you.  Not enough people supported Independence.

The airline's assets - most notably gates at Dulles - will be sold off to whoever can be found to buy them as part of its Chapter 7 liquidation.  But there's one asset who is trying to auction himself off on eBay.  Describing himself as a defunct airline mascot, Dave George, aka 'The FLYi guy' was promoted from baggage handler to become the airline's official comedian.

Like almost all the other 2700 employees, he's now without a job, and is hoping this novel way of seeking future employment may pay off.

Independence may have closed down, but here's another airline hoping to start service.

Many people replied to my question about problems plugging headphones into the IFE (in flight entertainment) systems on planes.  The vast preponderance of readers reported regular problems on many flights.

Most interesting, however, were a couple of emails from Geoff Underwood, who talked about both the underlying problem and also the available solution, which just so happens to be offered by his own company, Inflight Peripherals Limited, based on the Isle of Wight.  Geoff tells us :

Most of the jacks you find on an aircraft are bought from a low cost supplier, and don't withstand the special punishment they get on an aircraft. Under 'normal' conditions (which an aircraft is definitely NOT), most commercially available jacks will fail after about 5,000 insertions of a headset plug.

Our company makes replacements for the jacks found on most airline seats, and we have successfully tested our "long life" jack to beyond 100,000 headset plug insertions.

Airplane use is much harsher than normal use.  The 5,000 figure is for direct insertions in a lab environment, and aren't truly representative of real life. Real life is impossible to replicate in the lab, because real life, on an airplane, includes people shoving chewing gum and other unmentionables into the jack. And then they get up from their seats with their headsets around their necks, and rip the headset plug out of the jack sideways.

Depending on the type of routes a plane flies, we estimate a typical jack can have up to 3,500 insertions in a single year, and when you factor in the harsh use factors, it is fair to say a typical jack lasts for as little as a year in airplane service.

What we've done with our jacks is to try to think about the types of problems that occur in airplane use.  For example our jacks have a hole all the way through, so that they are effectively self-cleaning. They also have a small radius on the entry, so that when people rip the plugs out sideways, there's less chance that the plug will catch as its pulled out. We use high grade materials for our terminals, so that they don't fatigue so quickly....lots of stuff like that (You never thought there was so much in it, eh??).

You will also note that we've taken an alternative approach too, with our Rapid Fit Jack. We don't claim this is much more reliable...its just easier to fix when it does break, meaning you don't have broken audio on multiple segments and improved total cost of ownership.

Our product can be found on some but not all planes from international carriers such as Virgin and Qantas, and are, to varying degrees, on some domestic planes from American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United.

So it seems both that a problem exists and so too is a solution available.  It is unfortunate that airlines increasingly promote their IFE offerings, but what use is video if you can't access the audio?  And with ever increasing flight loads, the chances of being able to move to a different seat with a working jack are reducing all the time.

So next time you're stuck with a non-functioning jack, complain vociferously and ask the airline to replace their jacks with Geoff's jacks from Inflight Peripherals.

Northwest has decided it needs another six months to file its Chapter 11 reorganization plan.  In their application for an extension, they included the delightful phrase 'this will take time and cannot be rushed'.  It also described its bankruptcy as being among the largest and most complicated ever filed.

If that is indeed the case, asking for a mere six more months seems like a miraculously brief timeframe - care to guess if they'll be back asking for more and more extensions?

Last month Delta asked for six more months on its bankruptcy.

In other Northwest rhetoric, their striking mechanics (remember them?) rejected a settlement proposal which they described as the 'worst contract in the history of airline labor'.

And flight attendants are threatening to strike if the bankruptcy court voids their contract, saying 'Northwest flight attendants understand that the carrier's proposals will destroy their profession'.

Talking about flight attendants, a new study in Occupational and Environment Medicine says that sexual harassment from passengers may help explain the poor health of some female flight attendants.

Attendants who were sexually harassed by passengers were almost three times as likely to rate their health as only fair or poor.  A study of 2,000 women shows they were almost three times  as likely to give a low rating to their health if they had recently reported sexual harassment by passengers.

Northwest must have read my comments last week about how profitable regional airlines can be.  This week, they announced plans to form their own regional carrier subsidiary, as yet unnamed, and to be operational by 2007.

Britain's Air Accident Investigation Branch investigated four mid-air incidents with an airline and said there are safety problems that may be widespread within the airline.  They warned it appears that shoddy working practices are accepted as the norm by some of the maintenance staff.  Their concerns are highlighted in a report that slams the airline in question, about a Boeing 757 which took off in September 2003 without two wing panels.  The same flight had oil fumes in the cabin which was the initial reason the crew aborted the flight.  They found the engine oil had been serviced incorrectly.

The airline in question?  British Airways.  More details here.

It isn't only planes that can suffer lengthy delays.  Here's a story of a 28 hour late Amtrak train.  When asked about a policy for compensation or refunds to the delayed passengers, an Amtrak spokesman had no comment.

Perhaps that is because Amtrak have never had a delayed train before?

The train passengers should have adopted the tactics of passengers on a recent BA flight from Berlin to Heathrow.  The flight pushed back from the gate then sat on the runway for more than four hours due to snow delays.  One of the passengers eventually pulled out his cell phone and dialed the German equivalent of 911, and demanded the police come rescue him as the captain would not let him off the flight after the plane became stranded on the runway after de-icing.  Detectives called the control tower and ordered the pilot to turn back.

Seven passengers got off including the one who made the call.  The seven were questioned to make sure they had not been kidnapped (translation - were hassled by the police on the thinnest of pretenses for an unnecessarily long time).  The plane eventually took off - seven hours late.   Six of the passengers elected to sue and have filed "false imprisonment" charges against the pilot.  Good luck to them.

Reader Howard writes :

I traveled to France and Eastern Europe in September, and several of us experienced problems using our Visa, ATM, Mastercard and American Express credit cards at ATMs.

For example, my ATM card even would not work at CDG's Terminal 2, at a machine owned by the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank.  None of our cards would work in French or German telephones although they were clearly marked with Visa and MC logos.  Ditto for French train ticket machines.

In the end about half of the ATM machines worked and we had no problem in restaurants and hotels.  The explanation seems to be that we didn't have smart cards which are unavailable in the US and everywhere in the rest of the world.

Is there a solution?  If this trend continues, US travelers will have a tough time in Europe/Asia.

Does anyone have any suggestions?  These days most of us rely on getting foreign cash through ATM machines with our bank cards (but not credit cards) - if they are no longer being accepted due to being older technology, this is indeed a growing problem.

I wrote last week about the burgeoning interest in near-space flight.  Good news - the government is pro-actively moving to regulate such activities, and has now issued more than 120 pages of proposed rules covering commercial space travel.

The list includes everything from passenger medical standards to pre-flight training for crew.   Space companies would have to inform potential passengers of the risks involved in space travel and they would have to provide written consent before boarding such a vehicle.   Passengers would have to be trained on how to respond during emergencies, including loss of cabin pressure, fire and smoke, as well as how to leave the vehicle safely.  The proposal was published in the Federal Register and will be subject to comment for 60 days.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A TSA spokeswoman said the agency tells airlines not to deny boarding to children under 12 or select them for extra security checks even if their names match ones on the Do Not Fly list.  'We do not require ID for children because there are no children on the list,' said Carrie Harmon, a regional TSA spokeswoman. 'If it's a child, ticket agents have the authority to immediately deselect them.'

This is very reassuring.  But how to understand then the problems encountered by a four year old when trying to fly with Continental out of Houston to LaGuardia, and again on their return home again last week.  The boy and his mother were delayed by the airline and managers demanded to see the boy's identification (as if a four year old has photo ID).  Apparently the boy (a born in the US citizen) shares the name with a much older individual who is on the list.

A spokesman for Continental wasn't as forthcoming as the TSA.  He refused to discuss his airline's security policies.

Reader Carolyn writes

Your news about the TSA agents now being trained to engage passengers in conversation to weed out terrorists made me recall an incident at O'Hare about a year ago. I was in the security line and the woman in front of me had been using American Sign Language to talk to her companion. They got split up going through the line, and I ended up behind her.

The TSA agent at the security check told her to wait a minute and let a pilot who was behind us come through, but I noticed that he lowered his head when he said it. When she continued to walk forward, he glared at her and yelled, "I said STOP. Can't you hear me?"

I almost laughed out loud when she shook her head "no", but I didn't feel like having any extra body searches that day so I stayed silent. I touched her arm and said as clearly as I could that they were letting a pilot go through first. Luckily she was a good lip reader.

Thinking about that incident, I can only imagine how much fun it's going to be to watch the TSA agents use their superior social skills to spot the terrorists in line.

Lastly this week, it seems plain that Boeing had a brilliant year in 2005.  Could it be Boeing is returning to its earlier golden age of fearless innovation?

Possibly so, and here's a sneak picture of what could possibly be a revolutionary new form of plane which may be on Boeing's drawing boards at present....

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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