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31 March, 2006  

Good morning

I am very pleased to find myself well enough to write again this week.  I've spent much of today (Thursday) happily writing away, with my brain feeling engaged for the first time in over a week.

While not wishing to dwell overly on my own frailties, there is perhaps a salient lesson for us all in my illness last week.

I returned from London on Tuesday, and woke up Wednesday feeling jetlagged but otherwise fine.  During Wednesday afternoon, I had a 'tickle' in my throat appear from nowhere, and by mid-evening, this was a terrible wracking cough, plus a fever and general feeling of unwellness.

On Thursday I felt very unwell, but my thoughts were more focused on struggling to write a newsletter than thinking what was wrong with me - I assumed, like often enough before, I was simply suffering from a cold/cough combined with jetlag.

At first on Friday I felt somewhat better (I could hardly have felt worse!) and spent much of the day replying to almost 1000 emails from readers (thank you all for your much appreciated kind wishes).  But as the day wore on, I wore down, and by the time late afternoon came around, it was plain I couldn't drive down my driveway, let alone over to Leavenworth for the weekend.  I realized for the first time I might have something more than just a cough/cold, and on Saturday morning went to see a doctor who diagnosed a case of full influenza.

I felt tremendously foolish at learning this.  You see, I have emergency doses of Tamiflu at home - if I'd realized I had the flu, I could have started a course of Tamiflu in time to head off the worst of it, but by Saturday, it was too late, and so the Tamiflu sat uselessly while I continued to suffer for the weekend and most of this week (there's still an annoying cough that slightly troubles me and I tire quickly).

I've often been bemused by people who claim to have 'a mild case of the flu' when in truth they have no more than a cough/cold, but in this case the boot was on the other foot and while I was thinking I merely had a nasty cough/cold, I actually had the flu.

Now with anti-flu drugs such as Tamiflu available, it is important to quickly know whether you have the one or the other.  One of my pages about bird flu includes links to several helpful sources that enable you to decide what you're afflicted with - in my case, the dead giveaways for flu were its sudden onset, the severe cough, and the 103 fever.

Was it just a coincidence that I came down with the flu 24 hours after a long flight?  This article finds that passengers are either 5 times, 23 times, or 113 times more likely to catch a cold after a flight than if they hadn't flown.  Many of the people writing to me last week passed on tales of other people who had recently been afflicted with something after flying - this is plainly a huge problem which is not getting the coverage it deserves.

A product that claims to reduce your chance of catching an infection, and which seems to have almost overnight become very popular is Airborne.  I don't know if it really works or not, and this article (most of the way down the page) indicates its efficacy is not proven, but amusingly I did take it on the flight over to Britain and forgot to take it on the return flight.

Whether it works or not, the most beneficial thing you can do is to act as though every surface on the plane has been infected with some type of bacteria or virus, to keep your hands clean and not transfer any germs from these potentially infected surfaces to your mouth, nose, or eyes.

More on this next week.

My time in Britain contained an interesting mix of experiences.  One highlight was meeting friends from London up in the small market town of Pickering, just north of York, and experiencing a gourmet lunch while traveling on board a lovely steam train, followed the next day, at their urging, with a visit to Lincoln and the splendid cathedral that dominates the landscape there.  The cathedral visit was all the more intense due to the organist rehearsing a series of pieces while we were inside, including Sir William Walton's Coronation March 'Orb & Sceptre'.  Very powerful stuff indeed.

Organ music is powerful because it, well, because it just is.  It is loud and fills the room, and its lower notes physically assault your stomach.  But in London, I heard music that was powerful not due to the sheer force of its playing, but instead, due to its exquisite fragility, stretched so close to breaking point as to having the entire audience of 2266 people almost literally holding its breath.

Have you ever been in a hall with over 2000 other people, but with a sustained silence so intense you truly could hear a penny drop?  Almost as astonishing as the music itself was the hold it had over every member of the audience.

This was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where  I rather begrudgingly agreed to pay 155 a seat to attend a production of Tchaikovsky's opera, Eugene Onegin.  To my surprise and delight, it was worth every penny.

Particularly worthy of note was conductor Philippe Jordan, who rendered the score into an intimate experience with at times extraordinarily slow tempi; but this quiet gentleness was accomplished with clarity and precision, and the slow tempi in no way sacrificed, but rather added to the dramatic feeling.  The singers were good, the staging was acceptably good, the orchestra excellent and the conductor a genius - watch out for this young man as I'm sure we'll be seeing much more of him in the decades to follow.

I've never been disappointed with the standard of production at Covent Garden.  If you like opera or ballet, give yourself a special treat and attend a performance next time you're in London.  You can book tickets, in advance, on their website before your visit (and most shows sell out early).

There was one other unexpected highlight to my time in London - an invitation to be interviewed on BBC TV.  As a New Zealander, the BBC has always represented the gold standard of world news organizations, and it was a tremendous thrill and honor to appear on one of their news programs.

It was very interesting to visit their studios, and surprising to see how efficient they are.  I'd been expecting to see way too many people doing way too little, protected by iron-clad union contracts, but the BBC seems to have very effectively applied all the latest technologies and now presents its world-standard material with a minimum of human intervention.

But London also contained the lowest point of my journey - a dishonest deception at the hands of lastminute.com - however, I'll save that story until next week.

There was one more notable thing about my travels.  It represented the first time I've ever stayed at a series of hotels, all of which offered broad-band.  And, with broadband in every hotel, I ended up not making a single call through the hotel switchboards.  Instead, I used a USB handset through my laptop and SkypeOut to call, whether it was to local numbers in the UK, or internationally back to the US, all at the very low (about 2c/minute) rates Skype charge.

If you're traveling with a laptop, you absolutely should pack a USB handset with you and use SkypeOut or a similar VoIP service to make long distance and international calls in cases where your cell phone doesn't allow you to make such calls for free.  USB handsets are available for as little as $15.

Which leads in to the results of the instant survey on hotel broadband.  I'd asked how commonly you had problems with the wired broadband service in your hotel rooms, and how quickly these problems were solved.

The answers didn't surprise me, but are a sad reflection on the industry.  Almost three quarters of people report having a problems sometimes, half the time, or most of the time, and only one third of the time are such problems resolved quickly.  Both issues are avoidable and unacceptable.


There's one more related question I'd like to ask.  How important is it to you that the hotels you stay at offer broadband?

Please click on the link below to send an empty email to me with your answer.  Results next week.

It is essential the hotels I stay at offer broadband

It is very important the hotels I stay at offer broadband

It is nice if the hotel offers broadband, but not a deal breaker if it doesn't

It is not very important

I don't access the internet through my hotel room while traveling

It is always interesting when approaching a new topic to write about, because what is often first seen as a simple subject ends up having a rich layer of complexity underneath.

One such example is satellite phone service - I'd thought to simply review a satellite phone and that would be all there was to write about.  Not so - because, amongst other things, there are at least four different providers of satellite service, and so before reviewing a satellite phone, I first had to understand which services were out there and what the differences between them were.  Hence :

This Week's Feature Column :  Satellite Phone Service :  Is a satellite phone something you need?  And why are they so expensive?  Learn about the pluses and minuses of satellite phone service, and the differences between the four different major providers.

Dinosaur watching :  For the last year or so, the dinosaurs have been consistently switching focus from their domestic services to international routes.  They've reasoned there are easier profit opportunities on the more regulated international routes.

But is it possible the dinosaurs could be wrong?  Their member association, the Air Transport Association, has just reported that the average revenue per domestic passenger-mile flown increased in Feb 06 by 12.2% over Feb 05.  And this article cites Goldman Sachs who sees positive future performance from airlines with a focus on domestic services.

Rather like a manic see-saw, will we see the dinosaurs now rushing back into the domestic market?  At least so far, the dinosaurs are holding strong and not admitting to any plans to aggressively add new domestic service.

Except for Delta, who last week announced new twice daily service between Atlanta and New Castle County Airport in Delaware, a tiny airport that hasn't had any commercial flights, with any airline, anywhere, for the last six years.

However, there's something particularly notable about this new flight - it means Delta now operates service to all fifty states in the US, making it the only airline to be able to make such a claim.  My guess is this new service was motivated primarily by the desire to earn the bragging rights associated with now serving all fifty states, and good on DL for valuing such status.

But will Delta survive to benefit from its new 50-state coverage?  Maybe not, at least according to its CEO, Gerald Grinstein, who said if they don't get a cost saving agreement in place with their pilots, and if the pilots strike, the airline could not survive.  On Monday last week, Grinstein went as far as to say Delta 'will not survive a 24 hour pilot strike'.

At present the airline is seeking $305 million in givebacks from its pilots, and the pilots have offered $140 million.  The pilots say they'll strike if their contract is voided, and yesterday about 275 pilots marched through Atlanta airport as an apparent sign of their resolve.

In February alone Delta lost $209 million, including $71 million in restructuring charges, and ended the month with $3 billion in unrestricted cash.  These sorts of numbers make it hard to comprehend how a single day of pilots striking would cause the company to close down completely, and while the $165 million difference between what the pilots are offering and what Delta is seeking is significant, is this truly the 'make it or break it' part of Delta's reorganization?  Or is management once again using labor as a convenient scapegoat for its own failings?

Giving us the latest example of a stupid airline name with incorrect capitalization and gratuitous punctuation, Mesa Air Group's new inter-island Hawaiian carrier has been named go!.  Let's hope the airline proves to be better than its name.  We'll find out on 9 June, when it commences service, with initial one way fares as low as $39.

This promises to be an interesting battle.  Neither Aloha nor Hawaiian can afford to see their inter-island traffic taken away from them, but neither are financially strong at present.  If the 'competition' between the three airlines takes its usual 'let's see who can last the longest with fares below cost' form, it is quite likely, in this case, Mesa might triumph, even with such a silly name as go!.

Under the heading 'British Airways announces simpler and speedier airport experience' a press release from BA tells us how the airline 'is to introduce a number of changes over the next two years, designed to respond to customer trends and create the best possible airport experience for its customers.  The improvements will relate to all aspects of a customer's journey through the airport, including check-in, baggage handling, seating allocation, lounges and aircraft boarding to ensure a stress-free, speedy and seamless experience for travellers.'

So what is the cornerstone of these improvements?  Mandatory electronic checkin, with no more ordinary checking in with a check-in agent.  This will first happen from 25 April for passengers on domestic UK flights, and will extend successively to international passengers in the future.

You might think this is all about BA cutting costs, but US Exec VP Robin Hayes assures us 'This change to our check in service is about responding to customers, giving them control of their journey, and permitting them to speed through the airport. Through better integration of enabling technologies such as on-line check in, British Airways can focus on continued, meaningful investment in the elements of service that matter most to its customers.'

Maybe he means baggage handling as an element of service the airline will now be focusing on?  As this article reports, 2005 was the worst year ever for delayed and lost luggage.  The average bag takes 31 hours to reach its owner and almost 1% of delayed bags end up permanently lost.

Frustratingly, the airlines are currently ignoring a solution that would vastly reduce the number of bags going missing.  RFID luggage tags could save some $768 million a year to the airlines (the current estimated cost of lost luggage, to the airlines is $2.5 billion a year).

RFID luggage tags would cost perhaps 5c-7c each, and could be read with about a 98% - 99% accuracy, compared to the 76% accuracy with present barcodes.  Although the arguments in favor of adopting RFID tags seem compelling, airlines continue to 'study' the issue.  And meanwhile, your bags continue to travel semi-randomly around the world by themselves.

Want to buy an airline, going cheap?  Contact the Greek government.  They've been unable to find anyone to buy insolvent state-owned Olympic Airlines.  The government says it will instead form a new company to take over the airline, to be operated on commercial principles and with private management.  This new company will be called Pantheon Airways, and is expected to start operation in October.

Back in 1992 an A320 crashed on landing at Strasbourg.  An investigation suggested the crew may have confused two sets of cockpit readouts.  It was a tragic accident, of course, and exposed various weaknesses in the plane's design and safety equipment and pilot training.

Now, fourteen years later, the French authorities have laid criminal charges of involuntarily causing death and injury against six different people, including Airbus designers and even members of the country's equivalent of the FAA.  Details here.

I'm as keen as anyone else to see that guilty people aren't given a free ride, but prosecuting six people with extraordinarily thin amounts of culpability, for an accident fourteen years ago, does little to enhance the safety of French aviation.  In the case of aviation safety, it is generally vastly preferable to allow for people to honestly and openly admit to mistakes in the hope everyone can learn from them for the future.  This prosecutorial approach is a non-productive witch-hunt that benefits no-one and discourages people from fully participating in future accident investigations.

At least the airline - Air Inter - didn't make it to the list of 92 banned airlines that has been promulgated in Europe.  The list includes all but one of the 51 (fifty one!) carriers operating from the Democratic Republic of Congo and all airlines from Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Swaziland.  No European airlines - not even ones with recent fatal accidents - were added to the banned list.

Congratulations to that loveliest of planes, the Concorde, for winning a design award as being the best British design of the 20th century.  Well deserved.  This week has also seen exciting developments of a potential successor to Concorde.

Congratulations also to an aircraft that, in its very different way, promises to become an icon of the 21st century.  The A380 super jumbo passed its emergency exit test earlier this week.  Here's an interesting 'before the test' story, and this article details the successful outcome, with 853 passengers and 20 crew exiting the plane, using only half the plane's exits, in just over 80 seconds.

Airbus was hoping to get more than 750 people out in under 90 seconds, so having 873 exit in just over 80 seconds is an excellent result.  Most of the A380s currently being built will have fewer than 550 seats.

But while Airbus may be pleased at passing this latest milestone on the road to the A380's first commercial flight, scheduled for late this year by Singapore Airlines; increasing doubts are being raised about its strategy for a 787 competitor.  The proposed A350 had a dismal year last year compared to Boeing's popular new 787, and rather than offer a plane that is simply a slightly tweaked A330, the company is under pressure to design a complete new plane, offering more appealing benefits to potential purchasers.

I sure hope Airbus comes up with a better A350 variant, because now that airlines have 'discovered' they could squeeze one extra seat into every row, all the promises of increased comfort on the 787 seem to be evaporating and the plane now offers us, as passengers, nothing more than another variation on the theme of cramped crowded travel.

Fancy yourself as a travel writer?  Here's a website holding a travel writing contest with generous prizes, although note that in entering the contest, you're gifting the site with your entry, to be used as they may wish, for ever into the future.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Undercover investigators were able to successfully smuggle bomb components past TSA screeners at all the 21 airports they tested.  The components, if combined together, would create an explosive of sufficient power to damage/destroy an airplane.

The TSA's response?  They said it was 'highly implausible' that terrorists would try to smuggle such chemicals through their security lines.  I'd rate that as about as implausible as using box cutters to hijack planes and fly them into buildings....  Let's put together - for the first time - a security program that assumes terrorists are clever, rather than one which hopes they're stupidDetails here.

Subsequently, the TSA screener's union said they advised the TSA administration in May last year about such vulnerabilities, and said it is plain TSA management doesn't take this problem seriously.

Although a disposable RFID tag is undoubtedly a great thing to stop your bag getting lost, I've written before about the ill advisedness of adding RFID chips to passports.

And now there's another reason to dislike RFID chips.  Like any other data store, they can apparently be misused and can store a virus in them.  The implication - a virus could potentially close down an airport's immigration system, causing chaos at best and maybe allowing terrorists to slip through.  Details here.

Why we hate the airlines, part number next :  Because they hide behind fictitious 'security rules' which they use as an excuse to bully passengers.  Reader HC sends in this story :

I am writing from Northwest Airline's (NWA) flight 552 (DEN to MSP), where I have just witnessed continued evidence of the deterioration of both service and civility in our nation's airways.   Here is what I saw :

We boarded the flight on schedule to find that there was an apparent equipment change.  Normally I wouldn't notice this, but I was booked into an exit row initially, and boarded to find that 23C wasn't anywhere near an exit.  (Apparently, NWA has multiple configurations for its 757-200's).  This was no big deal, or at least it wouldn't have been a few weeks ago:  Unfortunately, though, this is the era of NWA's charging for "premium" seats, and here is where the fun started!  The young lady seated in (the previously exit row) 24D had paid for that privilege, and headed up front to speak to the flight attendant about a refund.  She came back to her seat visibly upset, saying the attendant had been very rude, telling her that she didn't have time to deal with this, it wasn't her job, and that the passenger would just have to deplane and discuss it with the gate agent.  The passenger declined and returned to her seat, planning, I suspect, to deal with it at MSP.  But she made the "mistake" of stopping another flight attendant passing in the aisle to ask the name of the first attendant.  She refused, and subsequently sent the purser back to deal with this.

This terse employee informed the passenger that the flight was "light staffed", that this wasn't their job, and that the passenger would have to leave the plane to get this done.  The passenger declined, saying she would resolve it on the other end.  Then she politely asked for both the first attendant's name and the name of the person she was talking to.  The purser ignored the question, said she would get a comment card, and walked away.

As the plane was still boarding, a gate agent arrived, and politely discussed the $15 and equipment change, but with no resolution.  Once again the passenger asked for the names of the two attendants she had deal with, and explained she had already asked for them several times, and that the last attendant had said she would come back but hadn't.  The gate agent answered that if she said she'd be back, she'll be back.

She was right -- The purser came back once the plane began to taxi, but was now both rude AND confrontational.  So much so that the male passenger in 23D started to intervene, saying "that's not right", and was told if he wasn't directly involved to "stay out it".  The purser then went so far as to suggest that the passenger in 24D was being disruptive, that TSA rules precluded giving out the flight attendants' names, and that if it was a problem, they could turn the plane around and go back to the gate and "deal" with this.  The pursers tone left little doubt that this was meant as a threat.  The passenger in 24D paused, thought for a second, then said "no, that won't be necessary".  (I later spoke with 24D, and she thought the attendant was bluffing, and had been tempted to call her bluff.  Thankfully she did not.)

Later in the flight, the purser brought the comment/incident form, had 24D complete it, and then collected it, finally giving out her name, but refusing to disclose the first attendant's name.  Subsequently, the first attendant came to 24D and gave her own name.  I should point out that 24D never raised her voice, got agitated, or otherwise acted out during the flight.  She simply stood her ground and maintained her assertiveness.

So, what to make of all this?  First I doubt any of this would have occurred if the first attendant had been more polite and more understanding, or the purser more professional.  Second, this would not have occurred it if NWA had thought out their new, pay more for a better seat, program, and implemented it better.  And finally, it appears NWA is willing to delay their flights and threaten their passengers for $15 and/or the inability to be polite and apologize.

Flying in the third world has never looked better.

Get rich quick, part number next :  Hilton is facing a class action suit over a terrorist attack at the Hilton hotel in Taba Heights in June of 2004.  Hilton has been accused of being negligent in properly securing the well-being of its guests and that the lack of security enabled a suicide bomber to drive into the hotel and detonate a bomb.

A Swedish hospital was worried that if its patients overhead someone saying 'Jesus is coming' they might think they were already dead.  And so, they did the only sensible thing in this situation.

Lastly this week, I do advocate distinctively marking your suitcases to avoid confusion at the carousel, but apparently not even this strategy always works, as this story recounts :

Mr. Smith was a traveling salesman and frequent flyer, so he was always very careful to mark his luggage so that no one would mistakenly take his bags. He always did this with bright ribbons and tape, and he was surprised to see his bags grabbed by a well dressed man when he got to the luggage carousel.

Mr. Smith walked over to the fellow and pointed out the colored ribbons tied to the handle, and the fluorescent tape on the sides.

'I believe that luggage is mine. Were your bags marked like this?' he asked.

'Actually,' the man replied, 'I was just wondering who did this to my luggage.'

I'm traveling to Vegas Tuesday - Thursday next week (yet another trade show of interest to me and you), but expect to be back in plenty of time for the newsletter next Thursday night/Friday morning.

Until then, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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