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10 February, 2006 

Good morning

The number of people choosing to join our Danube Christmas Markets Cruise continues to slowly grow.  There are now 22 of us, and chances are we can find a cabin or two remaining if you'd like to join us on this lovely tour.

Some very bad news was promulgated last weekend - a typical time to release bad news in the hope it won't be picked up for the week ahead.

Both Yahoo and AOL have announced plans to charge for emails being sent to their users.  These plans will directly affect this newsletter and you.

Of course, the charges are being described as a new user benefit and a way of controlling spam - spammers will not want to pay 1c for each spam they send, but the reality is this is nothing more than a new way for Yahoo and AOL to make more money.

There are already good solutions to spam - sensibly configured Bayesian filtering can eliminate more than 98% of all spam messages.  Indeed, AOL and Yahoo eliminate most spam already.  The only reason to charge for emails is greed, not need.

People sending emails will be charged 0.25 up to 1.0 per email they send.  Sure, that doesn't sound much, but if I had to pay one penny each to send newsletters to 20,000 readers, 52 times a year, that would cost me $10,400 a year - appreciably more than the total donations received in 2005.

What can you do?  First, if you use either (or both) services, write to or phone AOL (https://www.corp.aol.com/whoweare/whoswho/index.shtml  or phone 800-827-6364) or Yahoo (Go to Yahoo Mail, then to Mail Help, then, at the bottom, to 'Contact Yahoo Mail Customer Care') and complain.  This is important - your complaints not only might persuade these companies to change their mind, but if you don't complain, other email services will be encouraged to do the same thing.

Secondly, please consider moving your email address to a reliable alternate free service.  I have another 200 Google Gmail invitations available - this free service gives you 2.7 GB of storage and a both good and growing range of email features, including a new integrated instant messenger chat service.  Let me know if you'd like one.

There's an urban legend/hoax that surfaces every six months or so about some country's government planning to start taxing emails.  There's no truth to that, but this plan, officially confirmed by both AOL and Yahoo, is very real, and threatens to change the entire cost equation - and therefore social dynamic - of the internet as it is today.

Even if the charge for emails starts of as being apparently trivial, once the concept of charging for emails has been accepted, who knows how high the costs might not grow?  The time to complain is now, before email charging becomes 'normal' and prices start to escalate.  Free email is one of the underlying cornerstones of the internet, and these greedy moves threaten all our internet futures.

I always feel conflicted when I get a product that I review and don't like.  Should I complete a feature review or not?  My general preference is to try and predominantly feature products I like rather than dislike, but if I spend much of a week (and sometimes more) reviewing and writing up a product I don't like, what then to do with the review?  Sometimes I silently add such reviews to the website and do a second article as a feature column for the week, and this has happened several times with Bluetooth headsets.  I've silently added reviews of headsets I struggled to like, but couldn't, and there are other headsets here I could immediately tell were no good and didn't even bother reviewing at all.

This week's article was intended to be about a new top of the line and expensive digital noise cancelling Bluetooth headset, but yet again I found the reality of its performance a distant shadow of the manufacturer's claims.  They even told me I must have received a faulty unit and sent me a second unit, but both units performed identically, and disappointingly.  You can see the review here if you are interested.  Not wanting to offer yet another 'bad Bluetooth headset' review, I instead crossed my fingers and speculatively bought still another BT headset.  And - to my delight - ended up with a product I could positively write about :

This Week's Feature Column :  At last, a good Bluetooth headset :  After years of looking, and many disappointments, I finally find a Bluetooth headset I like and can recommend.

Dinosaur watching :  Newly relisted United's share price seems to be stabilizing.  It dropped steadily every day since its listing last week, through Wednesday this week, from $40.83 down to $32.  On Thursday, it opened even lower at $29.66, then after two major early trades, each of 4 million shares, at prices just under $32, the price spent the rest of the day steadily climbing on thin trading, closing at $34.50.

Perhaps everyone who wanted to sell their shares has now done so?

United closed on Thursday with a share market valuation of $4.01 billion.  This is in line with American with a $4.06 billion capitalization, Continental at $1.74 billion and loss-making JetBlue with a $1.71 billion cap; Southwest meanwhile is worth more than all four airlines combined, at $13.3 billion.

On the other hand, what if Joe Brancatelli's gloomy prognostications are correct?  How much then should the airline be worth?

A clue that Joe may be more right than wrong came in a United 8K filing with the SEC earlier this week.  The good news - in 2005, United's operating costs per available seat mile flown (CASM), excluding fuel and special items, was 7.46c.  This figure closely compared to 7.48 with AA, 7.42 for CO, and 6.37c for WN.  Other airlines have not yet filed their fourth quarter results, so comparable costs for the first three quarters of 2005 are 8.29c for NW, US (including both US and HP) 7.45c and DL 7.44c.  Sounds good, right?

Not necessarily.  Each airline is measuring their costs based on different average flight lengths.  If costs are converted to an industry average and equal flight length (1000 miles), so as to (arguably) more accurately compare apples with apples, United's costs become higher than every other airline except CO, and are almost twice those of Southwest (WN) - 8.9c vs 4.8c.

Although UA does show slightly higher revenue per ASM on the same 1000 mile stage length basis, one has to wonder how long it will be able to sustain higher fares compared to its competitors.  As all airlines have found (or are finding), the key approach to successful competition and sustainable profitability is cost control, and it seems United, with its 3+ years in Chapter 11, still did not successfully cut its costs back down to industry averages.

Maybe United has other ways of making money, in addition to simply selling air travel.  Reader Chris writes

With regards to your bit on How many miles do you lose each year?, I too had a similar problem with Air New Zealand on my flights from Auckland to Sydney and return.  I twice checked that my United number was entered and they said it was.  Upon my return I frequently checked my balance and it wasn't posted.  I called United and they said to fax them my boarding passes (which I always keep until the flights are posted) and the Air New Zealand itinerary.  I was 1000 miles away from keeping my Premiere Executive status so I needed those miles.

After 3 calls to United in December, United assured me Air New Zealand would be contacting them.  Needless to say January rolled around and then I heard from United.  Air New Zealand had told them I hadn't flown in the right class so the flights weren't eligible for mileage credit.  Had United let me know prior to Dec. 31, I would have flown again so as to keep my elite status. They did however let me purchase 1000 miles for $100 - I could have bought a ticket for 1000 miles of travel for less than the cost of the miles by themselves!. There is a method to their madness...

American will replace galleys on some aircraft with more seats.  Now that AA no longer serves hot meals in coach on domestic flights, it will replace two galleys on about half its planes with seats.  American estimates this will increase revenue by as much as $34 million per year, and improbably equates this to adding ten more planes into service.

Soon to be US startup carrier Virgin America announced the appointment of Don Carty as chairman of their board of directors.  Carty was most recently chairman and CEO of American Airlines, and is also currently chairman of Canadian carrier, Porter Air, and on the board of directors of Hawaiian Airlines.

Virgin America has been facing probably unfair accusations of being controlled by their founder and minority shareholder, Sir Richard Branson.  So it was amusing to note, in the press release about Don Carty, not a single mention of Sir Richard anywhere - this must be their first press release that doesn't quote Sir Richard prominently.

And in the standard part of their press release giving background about the airline, they start off defensively noting 'Owned and controlled by U.S. citizens'.

A passenger won a ruling with a federal tribunal against Air Canada for refusing to allow his two sons to board a flight because they had not checked in one hour prior to departure and he was forced to purchase tickets on another airline.

The carrier recommends passengers check-in 60 minutes prior to takeoff on domestic flights.  The Canadian Transportation Agency said the airline's 'recommended' check-in time is unenforceable and it ordered the airline to reimburse the cost of the new tickets.  Air Canada said the information about check-in time is printed on all tickets and is a condition of travel.  Passengers are also required to be at the boarding gate 25 minutes ahead of departure time.

The passenger purchased the tickets online and there was no notice of check-in time.  The tribunal said a recommendation is not a requirement and Air Canada has modified its website to clarify check-in times.

In terms of passenger numbers, if not profit, 2005 was a good year for US airlines.  The Department of Transportation reports that US airlines flew 642 million passengers last year, a 3.7% increase on 2004.

It was a good year in Europe, too, with the Association of European Airlines reporting that its 30 member carriers will make an operating profit of $800 million in 2005.  This is double their members' profit in 2004, and for the five years prior, their members reported losses.

Lastly in the aviation part of the newsletter, I must sadly report the passing of Sir Freddie Laker, who died on Thursday in Miami, aged 83.  Laker, who started his career sweeping the floor at Short Brothers' airplane factory in England in 1938, pioneered the concept of low cost international charter airlines, and is perhaps best known to US readers for his Skytrain airline, operating flights across the Atlantic.

His flights had to compete against 29 other carriers, and he was one of the early victims of anti-competitive pricing tactics by major airlines, who squeezed his company out of business in 1982 by dropping their prices so low it became impossible for Skytrain to survive.  A court subsequently found that other airlines had been using illegal price pressure to force his company out of business.

Reader Fred writes

I owe a lot to Laker, as do many from the post-emigration generation of the UK.  While living in Canada, I got to know my UK grandmother and aunt because of him.  He brought the motherland closer to all us ex-pats and helped keep separated families together.

And as I am sure Sir Richard Branson would acknowledge (he named one of his planes 'The Spirit of Sir Freddie'), Laker invented the notion that flag carriers were just businesses deserving of commercial competition, as a consequence of which ordinary people would be able to travel.

A fascinating obituary for those of us who have forgotten, or never really knew, the man and his impact on modern day aviation, is here.

I've occasionally visited websites like TripAdvisor.com when researching hotels to stay at.  These websites are full of ratings from previous guests, and give you a chance to see how other people describe and rate the hotel.  In theory, this is an excellent way of getting real opinions from real people.

But.  The reality is often different.  Firstly, we all have different standards, and there is no consistent grading system applied by the amateur reviewers.

Secondly, hotels change over time.  The hotel with worn out dirty carpets last year might have brand new carpeting this year.  The hotel with noisy renovations or roadworks outside today may be the hotel with beautifully landscaped gardens tomorrow.  Reviews can quickly become obsolete.

Thirdly, 'average' people seldom rate hotels they stay at and have average ordinary experiences at (how many reviews have you contributed of ordinary acceptable hotels you've stayed at?).  Instead, you get people motivated by a desire to complain about a hotel they stayed at, and a few people motivated by a desire to praise, which is one explanation for the extraordinary swings from highest praise to harshest criticism in reviews.

These various factors massively reduce the value of such user rating systems.  This is unfortunate because, in theory, they represent what the internet is all about and - again in theory - could be massively helpful.

And now, Chris Elliott writes in the NY Times and on his website about a fourth factor that takes away from the value of such reviews, and offers a different explanation for the widely varying reviews on each property.  Apparently some hotels are bribing shills to write falsely glowing reports.  Read his fascinating story for an insight into what can be behind the reviews you see.

A PriceWaterhouseCoopers report issued on Monday predicts the biggest annual dollar increase ever in average daily US hotel rates this year.  Average rates during 2005 were $90.84 and the consulting firm predicts the average will climb to $95.92 in 2006.  The report says the projected increase this year of nearly 6% reflects a continuing imbalance between the limited supply of available hotel rooms and high traveler demand.

If you're going to Australia, you might want to sleep on a park bench rather than in a hotel.  And that's not because of hotel room rates - Sydney's Westmead Hospital Department of Medical Entomology says pest control operators are reporting rises of more than 1,000% in the number of bed bug treatments they are conducting.

The department says an influx of travelers from 'exotic destinations' means the accommodation industry is among the hardest hit and is losing money because of the infestations.  They say the figure could be as high as $100 million a year with some hotels having to close their doors for months while eradication measures are undertaken.

The troubled but big (151,400 grt, 2,620 passenger capacity)  Queen Mary 2 will not long retain the title of world's largest cruise ship.  Royal Caribbean International takes delivery of a larger ship in April, the Freedom of the Seas, capable of carrying 3,600 passengers on a double occupancy basis and 4,370 with maximum occupancy (lots of triple shares).  It measures 161,000 gross registered tons.

But even this monster will soon be humbled.  This week Royal Caribbean announced its order for an even larger ship, as yet unnamed but referred to as Project Genesis.  This vessel will have a capacity of 5,400 passengers (double occupancy) and a maximum capacity of 6,400 passengers.  It will be 220,000 grt in size and will displace about 100,000 tons - slightly more than a Nimitz class carrier.

It will be 1,180 feet long, 154 feet wide at water level and 240 feet high.

Imagine waiting your turn to board or disembark the vessel, with as many as 6,000 passengers all ahead of you.  And imagine the impact of 6,000+ tourists all descending upon a small town at the same time.

Are cruise ships becoming too big?  Definitely.

An interesting comparison - the Amadagio, the vessel our Christmas Markets Cruise is traveling on, is 3.3 times shorter, 4.1 times narrower, and I'll estimate 8.9 times less tall.  And it carries 42.7 times fewer passengers.  Our group already represents 15% of the total passenger capacity of the ship.

Get rich quick part 1 :  Six passengers who were aboard the Alaskan Airlines jet that lost cabin pressure due to a hole in the fuselage are suing the airline.  The defendants claim they continue to suffer physical pain, emotional stress, loss of enjoyable life and other permanent  compensable injuries all with resulting damages.

They say they were sure they were going to die - usually people who think they are about to die, and who don't, suddenly appreciate their life more, not less.  The law firm representing the passengers won a similar case against American a few years ago over severe turbulence.

Get rich quick part 2 :  A Louisiana man is suing Apple because, he claims, their iPods can be turned up to too high a volume and could cause hearing damage.  It is unclear if the man has himself suffered any hearing damage.

There are good reasons why any type of music amplifier can be turned up 'too loud' - ie to compensate for when the music was recorded too quietly.  A bit like a car that can exceed the speed limit - it needs the extra power to tow a trailer, to quickly get up to speed when overtaking, and to go uphill.

So maybe I should be suing Bentley, after having had the wonderful opportunity to test drive their new 552hp 195+mph Continental Flying Spur for four days last week.  Although happily, even at colossal speeds and full power, there was no risk of hearing damage - the twin turbo-charged W12 engine makes a very distinctive and 'hard' sound, but was in no way too loud.  But the speed, acceleration and comfort has to be worth a law suit, surely.  More details in an upcoming review of this $170,000 super-car.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  In November, 2002, the NY Times broke a story on a Department of Defense data monitoring project called Total Information Awareness.  This prompted a Congressional review, and caused the termination of the project on privacy grounds.  The DoD created a second project called Terrorism Information Awareness that apparently was as almost unchanged in detail as it was in name; this was also closed by Congressional mandate in September 03.

Similarly, Department of Homeland Security plans to replace the air passenger screening program CAPPS (the one that deems you suspicious if you buy a one way ticket, or a last minute ticket with cash, etc) with a new program, CAPPS II, which would draw data about you from many different sources was cancelled in July 04 due to privacy concerns.  Its replacement, Secure Flight, is under attack for violating privacy laws by holding information on 43,000 people not suspected of terrorism.

With that as background, news is now breaking of a new DHS initiative, the name of which is not even yet publicly known, but which is built on a shadowy program called ADVISE - Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement.  This system would integrate just about anything and everything it can find about us all - even emails and public blog postings, and would hold as many as 1,000,000,000,000,000 entries.  If we say it holds data on 300,000,000 Americans plus an equal number of foreigners, that is 1.67 million pieces of data on each and every one of us.

The information will be combined with social behavior analysis and other shadowy semi-sciences to predict people's intentions, plans, and motivations.  Some scientists seek to reassure us that giving up privacy is a good thing and unimportant - 'This sort of technology does protect against a real threat,' says Jeffrey Ullman, professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford University. 'If a computer suspects me of being a terrorist, but just says maybe an analyst should look at it ... well, that's no big deal. This is the type of thing we need to be willing to do, to give up a certain amount of privacy.'

While DHS assures us the project will get a 'privacy review' (whatever that is) it appears ADVISE has no funding for privacy protection.  And, private or not, how comfortable are you with the concept of computers predicting your behavior, and possibly requiring you to defend yourself against accusations of crimes you have yet to commit?  The movie 'Minority Report' seems scarily prescient.

More details of ADVISE here.

A group of protesters, assembled in New York, arrived for their demonstration angry, and departed furious.  The police had herded them into pens, stopped them from handing out fliers, threatened them with arrest for standing on public sidewalks, and made notes on which politicians they cheered and which ones they razzed.  Meanwhile, officers from a special unit videotaped their faces.  The protesters complained about this treatment, which they felt violated their rights.

Which is all a bit paradoxical.  Because the protesters were off-duty policemen.  What goes around apparently should not come around.

You may have already heard about the apparently foiled plot to fly a plane into the tallest building west of the Mississippi, the Library Tower in Los Angeles, in 2002.  But did you note the interesting part - the organizers chose to recruit young men from southeast Asia rather than Arabs, so as to avoid as much scrutiny and suspicion.

Bad news.  Muslim extremists aren't only Arabs.  They're still unlikely to be WASP grandmothers, and they still seem to be young men (although in some other countries, they have been women, too).  But they're not just Arabs.

Best selling author Mary Donia Russell (who says 'Oh, hell.  Identify me!  I don't go on book tours to keep my identity a secret.') writes

On a book tour last week, I was told to remove my noise-cancelling earbuds for takeoff, because 'Someone got tangled in them, and it's the rule now that you have to have them off so you won't trip if we have to evacuate.'

This smacks of urban legend at best and my response was, 'Hey, I fell on my ass once, and from now on everybody has to sit down.'  Attendant was not amused, and I was threatened with removal from the airplane if I didn't comply. Petty Tyrannies R Us.

If I'd bucked that airline fascist, it would have made for some interesting publicity, but I had to make a flight to the next book signing...

At least she managed to smile about it, and didn't feel a sudden need to rush off to an airplane restroom and commit suicide.

Which just possibly might have been the motivation of this unfortunate bus passenger.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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