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20 January, 2006 

Good morning

My quiet Sunday evening was shattered by a sudden eruption of alarms suggesting the website was under attack.  These alarms reported more than 853 people were all actively on my site at the same time.  Typically the website, at its busiest, seldom sees more than 200 people on the site simultaneously, so to have 853 people, on a Sunday night, meant something unusual was occurring.

A hacker attack?  Happily, no.  A mention on a DC television news show, which resulted in an astonishing number of people immediately going to their computers to follow up on the item.

Last week also saw another milestone passed, with readership of this newsletter breaking through the 20,000 mark.  Today we're at just over 20,150 readers.

Could I remind/request you to please go vote on your favorite products for the 2005 Annual Travel Technology Awards.  Now there are 20,000 + of us, our opinions are even more valuable than last year and the year before.

Just give your opinions on the products you know about; it is a quick simple process and, as always, we don't ask for your name or email, so you know this won't result in a torrent of spam.  We'll be announcing winners next week.

Thanks to everyone who sent in their answers to the question about whether magnets can damage credit cards or not.

With the cold clarity of 20:20 hindsight, and looking at the occasional comment sent in with answers, I should have more clearly indicated the question narrowly applied to if credit cards have been damaged by magnets.  Many of you sent in answers saying yes to this question, but indicated you were referring to hotel key cards rather than credit cards.

It seems hotel key cards usually have a weaker magnetic pattern on their stripes than credit cards.  This allows the card to have its code easily erased and rewritten (for future guests).  And, of course, the inconvenience of needing to go down to the front desk to get your key card re-written is trivial, whereas the inconvenience of losing your data on a credit card, while traveling, can be tremendous.

As you can see from the results, almost three times as many people believe their credit (or hotel?) cards have at some time been damaged by magnetic fields as don't.

Interestingly, while the definitely yes/no split is overwhelmingly in favor of damage having been done, the possibly yes/possibly no vote is split the other way.  Of course, the 'possible' category responses are less persuasive than the 'definite' category responses.

One reader wrote in to suggest that damaging credit cards with magnets was an urban myth.  Looking at the results above, and combined with the specific details some of you wrote in with, it seems this is no urban myth.

A couple of other interesting comments were sent in.  Several of you have had your cards wiped clean when leaving them too close to an MRI machine.

And several others of you have had problems with eel-skin products and your credit cards.

Reader Matt pointed out that the fragility of the magnetic stripe is a strong point in favor of Chip cards.

So what is the reality?  This page is interesting and authoritative.  In particular, you'll see it talks about different levels of coercivity on different cards.  This is the measure of how strong a magnetic field must be to affect data encoded on a card's stripe, and, therefore, how immune the data is to damage.

Measured in Oersteds (Oe), the coercivity of a common credit card is about 300 Oe, which is considered low coercivity (nicknamed "LoCo").  Bottom line : magnetic money clips, refrigerator magnets, etc, can all damage the data on a LoCo card's stripe.

But note higher coercivity (HiCo) magnetic stripe technology does exist.  Instead of making the stripe out of iron oxide, HiCo stripes typically use barium ferrite and have coercivity values ranging from 2500 to 4000 Oe (eight to thirteen times higher).  A standard card reader can read both LoCo and HiCo cards.

HiCo cards are virtually immune to domestic-type magnets and so substantially decrease the chances of accidental data erasure.  Unfortunately there aren't many HiCo cards out there, due to the higher cost of the card and the encoder, and the established base of LoCo encoders.

One source says you can distinguish between HiCo and LoCo cards by looking at the color of the stripe.  LoCo cards are brown, HiCo are black.  I looked through my credit cards, and although most were brown, some were silvery and one was even red.

So I put my much used Visa card (with silvery colored stripe) to the ultimate test.  I sandwiched it between the two moderately strong magnet pieces of my magnetic billfold clip, and then pulled it out from the clip.  I did this a couple of times, and held it close to the clip's magnets as well.  And then innocently handed the card over next time I was buying something.  The card was read with no problems.

So I increased the level of torture and passed the card a couple of times through a bulk magnetic tape eraser I have.  This tape eraser can quickly reduce a cassette tape to random hiss.  What did it do to my card?  Apparently, nothing.  It was still read perfectly well at all the various places I've used it since.

My guess is I have a HiCo type stripe on this card, and in that case, the statement about HiCo cards being immune to most domestic strength magnets seems well founded.  Of course, now I'm worried that I've weakened the stripe sufficiently as to start having problems soon, but we'll see what happens.

Bottom line?  Unless you know for sure your card has a HiCo type stripe, be careful with it around magnets.

Finally, a suggestion :  You can usually get your credit card issuer to send you a duplicate card, before you actually need it.  That way, you can travel with a spare, and if your primary card loses its stripe data, destroy it and start using the duplicate card.  Both cards will have the exact same number on them, so there's no inconvenience to you, and you have no inconvenience while away from home and perhaps relying on being able to read the stripe.

I'm usually fairly comfortable being a lone dissident voice in the wilderness, but there are times when I'm plagued with self-doubt, and this week was one such occasion.  I was testing a new gadget I desperately wanted to love, and which had received very positive reviews elsewhere and appeared on several websites' Top Ten lists, even though it only started shipping a few days before Christmas.

But after repeating my testing, examining the theory behind the tests and the device, and discussions with the manufacturer, I have to accept that facts don't lie, and so am presenting to you the truth as I found it :

This Week's Feature Column :  The CoolIT USB Beverage Cooler :  The same as a coffee mug warmer, but this unit cools rather than heats, and runs off your computer's USB port.  It promises to keep your drink cold, but does it really work?  I consume far too many beverages at varying temperatures as part of my testing.

Dinosaur watching :  Congratulations to Southwest, reporting a 54% increase in their earnings for the fourth quarter, with net profit rising to $86 million, up from $56 million in 2004.  Full year results show a profit of $548 million, way up from $315 million in 2004, and making an unbroken 33 year run of profits.

Looking ahead, the airline said it plans to add another 30 planes to its fleet this year, and may choose to add another city to those already served.  Southwest says its outlook for 2006 is favorable.

Southwest is also adding another two gates to its Philadelphia operation, bringing the total up to eight.  Little by little, it is bringing increasing pressure to bear on US Airways.

Congratulations, apparently, to United also.  Not for making a profit, of course.  Although United is promising a profit for 2006, we'll hold off on those congratulations until much later in the year, if at all.

But United has won Business Traveler Magazine's award for best North American airline and best frequent flyer program (the latter for the tenth year in a row).

Other notable awards include the best low cost airline (JetBlue), the best web booking site (Orbitz) and the best carry-on luggage (Tumi).

The complete list of awards can be seen here.

And talking about United, in a pleasing switch of roles, rather than outsourcing to China, United is benefiting from China outsourcing to them.  They have been awarded a contract for training Chinese airline pilots, becoming the first facility outside China to be so designated.

While Southwest's profit is increasing, American Airlines is reporting an increase in its loss.  Their fourth quarter loss is up to $604 million, compared to 'only' $387 million last year.  For the full year, their loss looks to be $861 million, compared to a $761 million loss in 2004.

American's plans for 2006 aren't quite as growth oriented as Southwest's.  They plan to cut back on domestic service by 4%, although overall this will be almost offset by growth in their international services.

Although bankrupt United is forecasting a profitable 2006, the same can't be said for fellow bankrupt airline, Northwest.  That airline says that even if it gets the labor concessions it is seeking from its unions, it will still lose $400 million this year.  And, if it doesn't get the $1.4 billion in concessions?  You can probably do the math on that one, yourself!

Virgin America moves forward and backward this week.  In a forward moving direction, it has signed a ten year lease on a building in Burlingame, CA, to become its US headquarters location.  At the time of that announcement, last Friday, reference was still being made to 'in anticipation of beginning its first flights later this year' (in the San Francisco Chronicle) - a sentiment in line with earlier announcements by Virgin America in December 2005.

Jump ahead six days to Thursday this week, and in a USA Today article, CEO Fred Reid declined to commit to a start date, but is quoted as 'expressing hope that the proposed carrier will be in the air in 2006'.

This is about the airline originally promised to be flying in 2005.  Do you get the feeling 2006 is now only a distant possibility?

And in news that should alarm Virgin's Sir Richard Branson, (according to CEO Reid, they only talk four or five times a year), Reid says Virgin America hopes (there's that 'h' word again - I hope for many things, but if something is important to me, I plan and commit to it, not just passively hope for it) to exploit the Virgin brand's 'hip image'.

The last airline to attempt to exploit a hip image was Delta's Song.  Song has now been closed down, and Delta moved into bankruptcy.  Oh, did I mention that before moving to Virgin America, Reid was President of Delta when Song was launched?

Do you know enough to become an airline pilot?  What would you do if your 747 lost power in one of its engines and was unable to maintain height?  Do you :

(a)  Land at the nearest safe airport

(b)  Land at the airport you just happened to see out the window a short while previously, whether it is the closest and safest one or not

And, in attempting to land, do you :

(c)  Keep your plane away from built up areas in case of further problems, loss of control, and crashing into the ground

(d)  Fly your plane in a looping meandering pattern over one of the world's largest cities

If you choose options (a) and (c), you're plainly not qualified to work for Evergreen International Airlines.  But if you chose options (b) and (d), then call their recruiting office.  Because this is what the crew of one of their 747s did when the plane lost power over England, with them flying the plane over central London and past excellent Gatwick Airport while looking for Heathrow to land at instead.  Details here.

And talking about planes, all the industry commentators who had been loudly predicting a massive 'win' in the new plane order stakes by Boeing over Airbus in 2005 are now reduced to talking about Airbus 'unexpectedly' ending up ahead of Boeing.

In 2005, Airbus secured 1055 new orders against Boeing's 1002 new orders. A win to Airbus?  Perhaps.  Some of the final rush of orders were a bit dubious.  And although Airbus said its 2005 orders were worth $95.9 billion at list prices, the price book value for Boeing's orders came to $117 billion.  Airbus sold mainly smaller planes, Boeing sold larger planes.

Because order numbers are very subjective, I try and avoid them, but all of Boeing's cheerleaders were so desperate to welcome Boeing back to market dominance they switched from counting plane deliveries (the only certain measure of production) to counting new plane orders.  In terms of airplane deliveries, Airbus delivered 378 to Boeing's 290.

I've a couple of tables that track orders and deliveries for both airlines, towards the bottom of this article.

Reader Beth writes in with a helpful tip

This point is tangential to your discussion of chip credit cards in Europe, however I want to point out another insidious thing which has happened to me personally on a few occasions (as recently as 2005), as well as to some of my friends :

When I’ve traveled to Western Europe, specifically Italy and France, my ATM card does not work when one pushes the English language action buttons ie ‘deposit’, ‘withdrawal’ and so on.  Very annoying and scary to realize that one might not be able to secure cash.

I then use the buttons in French or Italian and have zero problems; luckily I speak both languages so am able to follow the instructions in the language of the land, and get my cash.  I have had to help a number of other English speaking tourists who appear close to despair by suggesting they do the same, with consistently successful results.

My friends have encountered the same thing so I know I just don’t unerringly go for the broken ATM machines.  The machines all work, they just don’t work in the English language.

Wondering where to go in Europe this year?  The US Tour Operators Association says Croatia is the hottest destination for 2006, and National Geographic Adventure agrees with them, naming Croatia for their Best Destination Award this year.  In 2005, the country was proclaimed No. 1 destination by Lonely Planet.

More information here and here.

Ever noticed all the fees and taxes stuck on top of your phone bill, and wondered what they are?  Among other surcharges, both landline phone and cell phone service, and even VoIP phone service, is subject to a 3% Federal Excise Tax.  Big deal, you might say - what's 3% more, on top of so much else?

Well, maybe you're right, but did you know that your VoIP or cell phone service is being taxed as the result of a 'luxury tax' on landline phones, introduced at the end of the nineteenth century, to pay for the Spanish-American War?

The war has long since finished, and at least three federal courts have ruled the tax as illegal.  Here's an organization trying to get it repealed.

Better still, call your local elected representatives and have them support the repeal of this taxing bill, passed way back in 1898.

And talking about cell phones, here's a terrible idea who's time seems to be coming - video ads on your cell phone.  I wonder who would pay for the air time and data traffic they require?

Here's a wonderful service - if there's a catch, I've yet to see what it is.

If you want to send a text message to any cell phone user in North America, you can send the message as an email to <their phone number>@teleflip.com.  For example, if you're sending to a friend at 206 555-1212, you'd send the email to 2065551212@teleflip.com.

The email will be converted to a text message and sent to your friend's phone.  You friend can reply to the message and it will be sent back to your email, too.  More details on the teleflip websiteRecommended.

A grand old lady meets a grand new lady - hopefully.  The Queen Mary 2 will sail close to her predecessor, the Queen Mary, for the first time on 22 February when she stops in Long Beach, now permanent home for the Queen Mary.

The QM2 will sound its whistle as a special greeting - special because its whistle is one of the QM's original whistles.  It can be heard for almost ten miles at sea.  The QM2 is scheduled to enter the harbor at 7am and depart at 5pm.

But that is assuming all goes well between now and then.  The QM2 had to return to port on Tuesday night this week after one of its propulsion pods came in contact with the side of the channel when leaving Fort Lauderdale.

'Came in contact' - that sounds a lot nicer than 'collided with', doesn't it.

After inspection, Cunard decided that the vessel was sufficiently safe with only the three remaining undamaged pods, although the vessel won't now cruise quite so fast.

Apparently pod maintenance and having all four pods working is optional rather than essential.  I'm sure that wasn't the way it was with the original Queen Mary and her four propellers.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  You might want to hope your cell phone is more closely scrutinized next time you go through airport security.  A new weapon in Europe is actually a miniature pistol with four .22 rounds inside, disguised as an ordinary cell phone.  Here's a 528kB  mpg video clip showing one in action.

Britain leads the world in terms of the pervasive presence of video cameras, surveilling its citizens wherever they go.  These cameras can be found up high, on the sides of buildings, all around the cities and even small towns in the country.

And while the cameras are usually pointed down to street level, many of them can be steered and zoomed in any direction by an operator.

And so this news item is perhaps not really all that surprising.

Talking about television and bedrooms, you have my sympathy if you have a television in your bedroom.  Here's why.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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