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10 March, 2006 

Good morning

I'm freshly back from spending the week in Las Vegas, attending the annual Travel Goods Show.  As you can imagine, I was like a kid in a candy store, ogling at so many new gadgets and travel aids.

This year the 'theme' of the show seemed to be blankets for airplane flights.  I must have seen close on a dozen different companies offering all sorts of travel blankets, and in among the different products, there were two clearly superior products.  More on this in a subsequent feature review.

I made a major mistake in my choice of hotel.  The Sahara Hotel is a dreadful place, which I initially chose for three reasons - in-room internet access, located at a monorail stop, and (ahem) low room rate.  Other than these three features, there's little else to like about this dismal hotel, and lots to dislike.

The monorail access was a definite plus (although the monorail is dismayingly expensive to ride - up to $5 per journey), the internet access problematic, and the low price merely taught me, yet again, the truth of 'you get what you pay for'.

Amongst other quirks was the hotel charging a $3/day energy charge - something I'd thought had been ended many years ago - and in return offering one of the most dimly lit rooms I've ever had to stay in.  I'd have happily paid an energy charge if it actually resulted in some extra light in the room.

One thing I've noticed in Las Vegas is the growing number of places demanding to see photo ID before accepting a credit card charge, no matter how small or ordinary the transaction.  This is something I always object to - we're not yet a police state, carrying ID is not mandatory, and, most of all, requiring ID is usually 100% unnecessary.

If the merchant gets an online approval, and if your signature matches that on the back of the credit card, they are completely protected from chargebacks due to fraud.  And if your card is stolen, your maximum liability, assuming you notify the credit card issuer promptly, is $50.

So why do companies insist on seeing photo ID, and why do they tell me it is 'for your protection'?  Arrogant ignorance and control freakery seem to be the only explanations.

I make these comments as introduction to the most ridiculous requirement to show photo ID I've yet encountered.  I went to have a buffet dinner at the Sahara, and offered my Visa card to pay the $11 cost of the meal.  Earlier that day I'd had a lunch buffet there (and was returning for a dinner buffet not because the food was good, but because the meal could be eaten quickly and simply).  But, although the cashier accepted my Visa card without complaint for lunch, the lady at dinnertime insisted on seeing photo ID.  I went into my usual refusing to show ID routine, but the conversation took an unusual turn.

The cashier, Mary, said 'If you don't have any ID, honey, you'll have to use the automatic machine next to me.'  In addition to the option of paying a human cashier, one could also use an automatic machine to buy a voucher for the buffet meal.

'So, Mary, let me get this straight :  You're saying I have to show ID to get you to accept my credit card, but if I don't want to show ID, I can use my credit card at the machine right next to you with no problems?'

'Yes, hun.'

'Doesn't that seem stupid to you?'

'No, hun.  It is for your protection.'

I bought a voucher from the friendly sensible machine.  Readers are encouraged to explain how this policy protects me, because it sure makes no sense to me to require photo ID if paying the cashier, but not if paying through the automated machine alongside her.

A similar scenario applied at check-in.  All Vegas hotels seem to require photo ID when you are checking in.  The Sahara offers automated check-in machines as well as human front desk staff.  If you register through the machine, you don't need to show ID.  Surely the Sahara isn't sacrificing 'security' and 'safety' simply for expediency and cost savings?

And yet another small erosion of privacy in Las Vegas.  All the taxis I rode in are now outfitted with video cameras to record their passengers.  Presumably this too is for my (and your) protection.

My flight down to Las Vegas saw me attracting curious glances from nearby passengers.  I had four different sets of noise cancelling headphones with me, and I was juggling between them to determine which were best (and worst).  Three of the sets were 'old favorites' and the fourth was a new model, just now received from the manufacturer.  How well did it do?  Please read :

This Week's Feature Column :  Altec Lansing AHP712i Noise Cancelling Headphones :  In this, the eleventh (!) part of my ongoing series of noise cancelling headphone reviews, I test a new product from well known audio company Altec Lansing.  They claim to have performance that would make them by far the very best of any headphones currently available.  But is this claim echoed in reality?  Read the review for full details.

Dinosaur watching :  While there were many losers as a result of United's drawn out bankruptcy - mainly small businesses in the unenviable position as unsecured creditors - there were also plenty of winners (not least of which being United's own senior management, getting bonuses as a result of United cycling through Chapter 11).

Another set of winners were all the consultants who crowded around United in a feeding frenzy.  It has now been disclosed that United's lead firm of bankruptcy attorneys earned $93.7 million in fees plus a further $6.1 million in expenses for their assistance.  Most notable was one stalwart member of the firm who worked, on average, 63 hours every week during the nearly 38 month period the airline was in bankruptcy.  If he was working six day weeks (and never taking any vacation or sick leave) he'd have been working 12.3 hours each of those days.

In return, he got to bill his 10,231 hours at a rate of $537.50 an hour.  Yes, one single hard-working attorney cost United $5.5 million.

United's stock price continues to defy its naysayers and stay firm, closing at $37.32 on Thursday this week, compared to $36.07 last Thursday, a 3.5% appreciation for the week.

I wrote a few weeks back about American Airlines testing out the concept of charging for soft drinks on its flights, using its American Eagle subsidiary for the trial.

Good news - for now.  Apparently passengers were unreceptive to the concept of paying $1 for a soda or cup of coffee, and so the airline has discontinued this 'at this time' - a barely veiled hint that they'll be trying again just as soon as they think they have a better chance of getting away with it.

The dinosaurs are back at their old tricks once more.  Sensing blood in the water around JetBlue, both Delta and United have announced ambitious expansion plans for their services out of JFK (JetBlue's home hub).

Delta - currently in Chapter 11, billions of dollars in debt, and still losing hundreds of millions more every month - has announced plans to spend $10 million upgrading its JFK terminal facilities and will be adding 46 flights a day from JFK to 17 destinations, mainly in the northeast.  Is this being done because this is uniquely the best part of Delta's route system to grow?  Or because DL hopes to starve JetBlue to death, even though suffering some severe malnutrition itself?

Several days after the DL announcement, United said it will be adding 15 new routes and an unspecified number of flights from JFK in time for summer travel.  An amazing coincidence.

And proving yet again the dinosaurs love to copy rather than innovate, United is now offering XM Satellite radio service on its flights, which by another incredible coincidence is the same as JetBlue.

They could have at least chosen to be slightly original and select Sirius rather than being identical with JetBlue and choosing XM.

But JetBlue is hunkering down for a hard-fought battle.  Although their announcement on Thursday that they might slow down the delivery of new planes, and/or seek more equity capital, was based on a valid need to keep their debt/equity ratio attractive to the rating agencies, there can be little doubt the airline is foreseeing tougher competition from dinosaurs who feel that, now JetBlue's profit has faltered, they might be able to squeeze JetBlue out of the market entirely.

It is also true that JetBlue had set itself a very ambitious expansion program for this and next year, with an extra 35 planes to be added each year - a huge number when you consider their fleet count, at the end of 2005, was only 92 planes.

Understatement of the week comes from Signor Giovanni Bisignani, CEO and Director General of IATA (the International Air Transport Association - the world airlines association).  He observed astutely

Airlines have lost $42 billion since 2001 and we expect another $4billion in losses again this year.  Something is wrong with the air transport industry.

Let's hope he and his member airlines work out what this something is before another five years pass and another $42 billion is lost.

Getting rich quickly, part 1 :  Southwest goes to great lengths to promote its image as being a fun airline to fly, and apparently a fun place to work as well.  One of their customary rituals appears to be playing a practical joke on fellow employees when they successfully complete their probationary period of employment.

And so it was that Marcie Fuerschbach found herself being mock arrested while working at Southwest's Albuquerque ticket counter by a couple of police officers who happily joined in the fun.  As she was being led away in handcuffs, a co-worker appeared and said 'Congratulations for being off probation' and other co-workers cheered and clapped and pinned Southwest wings to her lapel.  The police let her go, and everyone thought it a wonderful joke.

Or, almost everyone thought so.  Apparently Ms Fuerschbach's sense of humor isn't that of your typical Southwest employee, and she sued everyone she could find, claiming emotional distress, false imprisonment, assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The case has been working its way through the legal system since the August 02 event, and a judge this week found that Southwest was not liable, but the police officers might be, and said the woman could also claim workers' compensation.

Amazingly, the woman is still working for Southwest Airlines.  Details here.

Getting rich quickly, part 2 :  A woman and her husband went for a stay at the Nevele Hotel in the Catskills last July.  On the third night of her stay, she realized she was being bitten by bed bugs each night, and says she was bitten 500 times.  So she did the only sensible thing - she is now suing the hotel for $20 million, saying both her body and mind were scarred by the experience.

One might feel a bit more sympathetic to her claim were it not for the fact that she apparently returned back to the hotel and happily stayed a second time two weeks after the incident she is now suing about.

If you travel by taxi, you're typically paying a couple of dollars per mile, and proceeding at a fairly slow speed.  Here's an exciting glimpse of a now functioning air taxi service, offering costs as low as 80c a mile, and traveling up to about 500 miles per journey.

Well, you and I might find this inexpensive air taxi service exciting, but not everyone else feels the same way.  This week's 'Do As I Say, Not As I Do' award goes jointly to sometime competitors Mark Ellingham and Tony Wheeler, a couple of Australian based gentlemen who founded, respectively, the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet series of travel guide books.  Their very successful travel guides have opened up much of the world to travelers and encouraged many people to travel.

But, now, they're having second thoughts, and say they are troubled that their books have helped increase international air travel, thereby leading to global warming and and devastating climate change (they say).  So future editions will contain warning statements about the environmental dangers of flying, which will doubtless be as effective as printing warning phrases on cigarette packets.

Mark Ellingham says he is cutting down some of his travel - for example, if someone invited him to a stag party in Prague, he is now less likely to attend.  That should make an impact.

But Tony Wheeler says he has no plans to stop flying.  However, he does feel guilty about it.

Mark and Tony will probably be pleased to learn that San Francisco's Board of Supervisors has voted, 8-3, to refuse to allow the retired battleship USS Iowa to be permanently moored on the San Francisco waterfront, thereby avoiding creating a major new reason to fly to San Francisco.

This glorious ship's three sisters have now all been placed around the country as floating museums, as have a precious few earlier battleships, all of which have acted as major tourist draws.  And an aircraft carrier - USS Midway - now a museum in San Diego had 879,281 paid visitors in its first year, twice what was projected.

San Francisco already has the kernel of what could become an excellent floating naval museum and this battleship - a vessel which can only be described in superlatives - would be a splendid addition, bringing considerable tourism and wealth to the city.

She and her sister ships were the biggest, fastest, strongest, and most overwhelming battleships built by the US, capable of sending 2700lb projectiles 23 miles with devastating accuracy and awesome effect, punching through 30 ft of concrete if need be.  They would be (and have been) a great way of creating a 'terrorist free zone' stretching inland 20+ miles from any coast, anywhere.

They were also the most beautiful battleships, with classic flowing lines.  The modern day phrase 'shock and awe' seems custom written for these four ships - seeing them sprinting at close on 40mph, then firing their main guns, is an experience those who have been privileged to see will never forget.

Modern day warships are built in the hope they'll never be hit; Iowa and her three sisters were built in the expectation they'd take a pounding and survive, and so have up to 18" of a special composite type of armor plate covering their vitals.

But because the Board of Supervisors disapproves of the US military's policy on gay people and the war in Iraq, they have decided to cut off their nose to spite their face and don't want a symbol of the US military on their waterfront.  Details here.  Apparently the enlightened supervisors are unaware they already have a symbol.

Is it too much to hope the Iowa - hotly sought after by many locations - may be berthed in Seattle instead?

The issue of DVT arising from air travel has bounced through the court systems several times in several countries, with the airlines so far managing to keep away from any liability, even though it seems generally accepted that traveling by air does increase your risk of DVT.  Initially it was thought this was due to just simply sitting in an uncomfortable seat and not moving for too many hours; hence its unofficial name, 'Economy Class Syndrome'.

However, that has never been an accurate nickname, because business and first class passengers get DVT, too.  And now here's new research that points to other factors to do with air travel that may be causing DVT.

While DVT isn't a worry on a cruise ship, there are other problems, not just things as simple as the Norwalk virus (upset tummy bug).  A report shows that during the last three years, 28 people disappeared from cruise ships, with only five being found.  In addition, there were 177 sexual misconduct incidents and assorted other crimes.

But, to put this into context, 25 million people traveled as passengers on cruises departing from US waters during the same period.  While this is cold comfort for the 28 people who disappeared, your chances of returning from your next cruise remain overwhelmingly positive.  Details here.

Wanted - ten brave women (but not to go cruising).  A Finnish researcher plans to expose a small section of skin on the arms of ten women to an hour of cell phone radiation, and then will take a skin sample and test for any abnormalities, as part of ongoing research into the potential dangers of cell phone radiation.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The man waiting in line behind me to check in for the flight from Las Vegas to Seattle seemed nervous and indecisive.  He then said 'Excuse me, I'm going to push past you and go use the electronic check-in machine' and hurried over to one of the automatic machines.

Several minutes later, he shuffled back.  'Do you mind if I get back in line behind you again?'

'No, of course not.'  I'd noticed a problem at the electronic machines, which was why I was standing in line to be checked in by a human - people were able to get boarding passes, but for some reason, they couldn't then get tags for their checked luggage.  With nothing else to do, I continued to chat to the guy,  'Was there a problem?' and waited to hear about the luggage issue.

'I'm on the security watch list and can't check in automatically' was his unexpected reply.  'Apparently someone has a name similar to mine.'

We continued to talk.  His name was Charles Miller, so his misery is shared by all the other hundreds or thousands of Charles Millers in the country.  And what makes this - alas commonplace - tale of woe the week's security horror story?  He's been on the watch list for some time, but sometimes can check in automatically with no problems and sometimes can't.  As he said, it appears that even the watch and no-fly lists don't work consistently.  So if you truly are a terrorist and you name is on the watch list, there's a chance the computer will be down or in some other way you won't be detected when attempting to take a flight.

While joking about the unlikeliness of a terrorist being called Charles Miller, Mr Miller said he was told by someone, on one of his attempts to fly, that the watch list also contains wanted people as well as terrorists.  This is something the TSA had initially said it would not do, and represents the inevitable 'mission creep' that follows each well intentioned additional act of government surveillance.

How soon before we can't fly if we have an overdue library book?

Three masked men in a jeep crashed through an airport gate at Sweden's Gothenburg airport and drove up to an SAS plane, freshly arrived from London.  While passengers were still on board, the robbers stole an unknown number of bags and crates of foreign currency that were being unloaded from the cargo hold into a Securitas armored van.  The robbers left a bag with an antenna sticking out of it at one of the gates, leading authorities to suspect it was a bomb, and causing them to evacuate parts of the airport and cancel some flights.

As the robbers drove off, they spread nails on the road to prevent police officers from pursuing them. The getaway car was found on fire a few kilometers from the airport, where the robbers were believed to have switched to another vehicle.

Now what say this was a gang of terrorists rather than common thieves, and a secondary airport in the US rather than Gothenburg in Sweden?  What defense do any of our airports have against a determined attack such as this?

Indeed, our airports are so defenseless that you don't need to crash through the fence in a 4WD.  An apparently intoxicated man was able to walk into Chicago Midway's secured area, passing unnoticed through a security gate.  He is believed to have been on the airport property for six minutes before being spotted by a pilot, who alerted the authorities.

And what happened to the security guard manning the checkpoint?  He has been rewarded by being placed on paid leave pending the outcome of an investigation into the matter.  Lucky guy (or gal).

Lastly this week, in among all the depressing news about 'zero tolerance' schools expelling students for drawing pictures of weapons, and other schools forbidding students from wearing Christian crosses for fear of offending students from other religions, we find this fascinating story.

I'm flying to England next Tuesday.  I don't expect to be sending out a newsletter next week, or - depending on jetlag and hotel internet access (I've yet to decide where I'm traveling subsequent to landing at Heathrow, let alone find hotels offering broadband) - at best it will be a very short one.

Until either next week or the following week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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