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11 August, 2006  

Good morning

STOP PRESS :  It is believed the TSA may be announcing still more new security procedures and requirements at some time on Friday morning.  I'll update you if/when such an announcement should come to hand, and you can check on their web site if you're flying on Friday.

Yesterday was a very hectic day if you were traveling, due to the new security alerts, and was even hectic for me too - a series of calls from reporters, getting a special email out to you, and a lot of responses back (thank you, as always, for your helpful comments and on-the-ground experiences).

Before we look more at the impacts and issues to do with the current security scare, let's talk about a happier thing.  Hopefully well before July next year, air travel will be back to something resembling normal, and so let's talk more about our wonderful 2007 Russian River Cruise.

We now have sixteen people in our special Travel Insider group on this cruise, and not only are we filling up this small ship (160 passenger capacity), but so too are regular bookings.  There are only a few remaining C category cabins available (my favorite category in terms of being best value) and the junior and full suites are also almost gone.  E and D category cabins plus the single cabins are already sold out.

If you're considering this wonderful experience, please hurry to confirm your interest.

Although this year's Christmas Cruise is still four months away, I'm under pressure from Amadeus to choose dates for next year's cruise, 16 months out.  Amazingly, they're already starting to fill their Christmas sailings for next year - I'm not sure if this means people are booking further in advance or if the Amadeus cruises are very popular, and perhaps the correct answer is elements of both.

If you might be interested in joining next year's Christmas cruise, can I ask you to send an instant survey response back to me to help me choose dates.  We have a choice of two dates:

The earlier dates would have us leaving the US on or before Saturday 24 November 2007 (Thanksgiving is 22 November), with the cruise going from Budapest to Nuremberg and optionally on to Prague, ending in either Nuremberg on Sunday 2 Dec or Prague on Tuesday 4 December.

The later dates would have us leaving the US on or before Thursday 6 December, and ending either in Nuremberg on Friday 14th or Prague on Sunday 16th.

Simply click on the link below that best describes your situation - this will generate an email with your answer in the reply line.  Feel free to add any other comments in the body of the email message, or send with no message, just the special subject line.

I'll choose dates based on your replies and let you know next week.

Responding to today's very changing security situation prevented me completing this week's feature column, so that is a pleasure for next week.  Instead, after a quick round-up of dinosaur news, we'll concentrate on the current situation with carry-on items.

Dinosaur watchingIf you're going to complain to us, we'll sue you.  Or so seems to be the message from American Airlines.  Passenger Wilfredo Torres was frustrated that his complaint was being ignored by AA, and so he called the CEO, Gerard Arpey.  He was instead transferred back to Customer Service; Gerard Arpey's assistants refused to allow him to speak to the CEO.

So Mr Torres called back, and was transferred again.  And so he continued calling - allegedly up to 200 times in a single 30 minute period.

AA are now suing Mr Torres, and have lodged a complaint against him in Manhattan, NY's Supreme Court.

Northwest's flight attendants continue to rattle their sabres and threaten service disruptions subsequent to 10.01pm EDT on 15 August.  Northwest says it couldn't withstand the negative effects of a strike, and would have to close down entirely if any kind of strike occurred.

This is almost surely nonsense, but NW is using this threat as motivation to encourage their bankruptcy judge to make strikes illegal.  Being as how the bankruptcy court judge has already allowed NW to arbitrarily and unilaterally rescind its formerly binding contract with the flight attendants, it seems quite likely he'll continue his support of the airline and do exactly that.

He is expected to rule, possibly on Monday, as to if a strike would be legal or not.

The incredible shrinking airline :  NW has just reported its July traffic data.  Domestic passenger miles were down 9.4% and international passenger miles were down 7.7%.  Although load factors increased (due to capacity being reduced even more than passenger numbers) these results aren't very good.

Flight attendants at US Airways are also unhappy.  They are busy renegotiating their contract, and the airline has said there can't be any cost increases in the contract.  Okay, that might be fair enough, but at the same time, management have given themselves a 3% pay rise, and last week CEO Doug Parker cashed in some of his options for a tidy $9 million profit.

There are lots of reasons why the extraordinarily high load factors that US airlines are flying with are bad news for us as passengers.  More middle seats are getting filled - sometimes even by us.  With more passengers on board, there's less space in the overheads.  With planes flying close to full, there are fewer seats for frequent flier awards.  Fuller planes have poorer air quality.  More passengers means more time to get on and off the plane.

And, perhaps more subtly, when flights are nearly full, the airlines have less 'emergency space' to accommodate overflow passengers when another flight is cancelled.  And inevitably, more passengers are being involuntarily bumped off flights due to overbooking.

This last point is confirmed by the latest Dept of Transportation statistics, showing a third more passengers were bumped in the second quarter of 2006 than in the same time last year.  16,300 passengers were involuntarily bumped, and about ten times this number more were bumped voluntarily.

This is the highest level of bumping since the same quarter in 2000.

A budget airline currently operating flights between the UK and Canada - Zoom - is now planning to add service to the US as well.

It has just sold a 7.5% equity stake to the deep-pocketed (and generally prudent) Bank of Scotland, and plans to use the cash injection to add more planes and start new routes to the US - probably Gatwick to New York or San Francisco.

The airline currently flies from five UK cities to eight Canadian cities, and has a fleet of five 767s.  Roundtrip fares are as low as US$185.

Here's a welcome twist on the outsourcing theme.  Cathay Pacific has announced plans to recruit cabin crew from the US, to be based in San Francisco, and working the route between there and Hong Kong.  The airline plans to hire 180 US staff.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Now that 24 hours have passed since the first announcements starting coming in about the arrest of (currently) 24 suspected terrorists in Britain, we can all now reflect on the implications of what we know and what has happened.

First, let's quickly update the facts as they are imperfectly known.  24 people have been arrested in Britain, apparently of Muslim/Pakistani origins.  Additional people may have been arrested in Pakistan.  The 24 people arrested are believed to have been plotting to blow up perhaps nine different planes, probably operated by AA, CO, and UA, flying between Britain and variously New York, DC, and somewhere in California, in three waves of three attacks, all closely timed.

It is thought these people were planning to use liquid explosives of a type that aren't readily detected by current X-ray and explosives screening technologies.  The explosives were going to be 'hidden in plain sight' inside bottles of Gatorade type drink.  The bottles would be given an invisible seal part way up; in the top part of the bottle would be the regular sports drink liquid, colored orange/red; in the bottom part would be the explosive, tinted to the same color.  The bottles would be altered from the bottom, so the seal on the top would still be in place, and in the very unlikely event a security screener inspected the bottle, the terrorist would point out it was sealed closed, and offer to open it and drink some on the spot to prove it was only a simple safe sport water drink.

The bottles of liquid explosive would be taken by the terrorists in their carry-on, and would be electrically detonated on board using the flash circuits of a small camera.

Okay - an ingenious and highly original cunning plan, right?  No wonder we're all scrambling now to react to this new terror vector, and the chaos that ensued on Thursday was unavoidable as the authorities responded as best possible to this new threat.

Please don't agree with the two sentences in the preceding paragraph, because - while this is what you're expected to think, it is totally wrong.

As I mentioned in my special newsletter this morning, this is nothing more than a close derivative of the plot in January 1995 to explode eleven airplanes.  The basic concepts - hard to detect liquid explosive 'hidden in plain sight' with electronic timer/detonator are the same; the key difference is that 11 1/2 years ago the terrorists planned to put the explosives in checked luggage and have them explode while the terrorists themselves were somewhere safe, and this time around, the terrorists apparently planned to blow themselves up as part of the process (who said terrorists are getting smarter....).

I wrote about the threat posed by hard to detect liquid explosives in mid-March; an issue that has been written about by other people regularly before then and subsequently, and an issue which was highlighted in March when federal investigators successfully smuggled home made explosives through all 21 US airports tested.

So, with a known vulnerability that was only stopped from destroying 11 passenger planes in January 1995 due to good police work well prior to the terrorists getting to the airport, and with this vulnerability being further exposed five months ago, why has nothing been done prior to Thursday 10 August 2006?

Worse still, research and development funds given to the TSA to develop solutions to such problems have been reallocated to spend on staff manning what are now known to be ineffective current screening stations.

Why do we move heaven and earth to respond to a low tech threat like boxcutters, and require everyone to start taking off their shoes after the slightly farcical shoe-bomber episode, but do nothing until Thursday morning about this other serious and known vulnerability?

The police were apparently tracking this gang for about three weeks, in an operation that had been going on for a year.  Why was it not possible to give the airlines and airports some sort of advance warning so that everyone wouldn't have been caught so wrong-footed and unawares on Thursday?  This article refers to 'surprised airport staff' being advised only on Thursday morning.

And why, when something was done, has it been on such an irrational and poorly thought out basis?  Are we really to believe that the arrest of a gang of possible terrorists-to-be in the UK makes our air services in the US more at risk today than they were yesterday?  Surely, if anything, they're safer?

There are more questions :  Why has the TSA tried to tell us they are protecting our security, primarily by subjecting us to inconvenience and indignity while making us partially disrobe to go through security screening, banning all sorts of harmless things, making us take our shoes off and remove laptops out of our briefcases, etc, if now today it seems, at least in Britain, that none of this actually works and the only safe approach is to ban all carry-on entirely!

And, if this truly is the only safe approach, why don't El Al require it on their flights?  Why is the US still allowing everything other than liquids onto planes?

Here's another question :  If these explosive devices are hard to detect, and if 11 1/2 years ago terrorists were planning to blow planes out of the air by putting disguised explosive devices in checked luggage, how are we made more safe, today, by putting all the potentially dangerous liquids from carry-on luggage into the plane's cargo hold?

Do we not think the terrorists can build a timer device out of a Casio watch as readily today as they could nearly twelve years ago?

Now let's think about the massive - albeit bloodless - success these 24 terrorists have scored.

  • Many - perhaps even most flights in and out of Britain were cancelled on Thursday.

  • Some passengers, booked to fly out of Britain today, have now been told that Sunday is the earliest they might be able to depart, with no guarantees about being able to travel then.

  • Heathrow Airport looks like an upmarket refugee camp, housing thousands of people with nowhere else to go.

  • Tens of thousands - probably hundreds of thousands - of passengers have been grossly inconvenienced, missing honeymoons, funerals, job interviews, special events and all the other things that people fly for.

  • The ripple effect is upsetting services all through the rest of the world.

  • Those passengers who do get to travel, after hours of uncertainty and misery waiting in lines and never knowing if their flight will leave without them, or be cancelled, find themselves being bored stupid on flights with nothing to do except, if they're lucky, watch a movie or two or three, for 10 - 15 hours at a time.  Oh - wait, there is one thing they can do.  They can worry about all their valuables, now checked as regular baggage rather than personally carried on board.

  • Airlines, airports, hotels, tourism operators, and everyone else connected with the tourism industry stands to lose vast sums of money if this leads to a downtown in travel.

  • The terrorists' not even attempted deeds have gained them instant fame and front page headlines around the world, making them heroes in some places, and surely massively encouraging others to copy them.

  • The general level of discomfort and anxiety when it comes to flying has, for many people, greatly increased.

  • Appeasers now have another reason to cite when advocating we should give in to terrorists rather than fight them.

  • Add to this list as you see fit....

Some people might feel it is unfortunate these individuals weren't simply 'shot while trying to escape', with the secret of their plot dying with them - a standard of 'justice' common in the social systems the terrorists are now trying to inflict on our current free society.

For sure, it is hard to see how we have all benefited by shining a public spotlight on their attempted activities, whereas the benefit to them, and encouragement to other people of like mind, is enormous.

Now, what for the future?

Firstly, let's all hope the asinine over-reaction by the British will quickly be replaced by a more sober response.  If the threat is in the form of liquid explosives and electronic detonators, why are we not allowed to take a book on the plane with us to read?  Or a BLT sandwich purchased from a shop on the secure side of the airport?

Secondly, if the British over-reacted, how about American Airlines?  Although no-one is suggesting there are terrorists in the US planning to do the same thing to flights from here to Britain, AA immediately slapped the same total prohibition on carry-on items onto all flights from the US to the UK.  Mercifully no other airline seems to have copied them, and hopefully AA will soon come to their senses.

Thirdly, we can expect two things to continue into the future - restrictions on carrying liquids onto planes, and an increased level of body pat-down searches (because the metal detectors won't alarm if you carry a plastic bottle of explosives under your clothes through them - such a container and its contents have no metal to trip the alarm).

Fourthly, this will act as a tipping point, requiring many people who, prior to now, can travel with only carry-on luggage, to now check their luggage.  Which would you rather do - travel without any shampoos, lotions, perfumes, toothpaste, shaving creme, etc, or check a bag?  This will hopefully result in much less congestion in the overheads onboard planes, and speed up the boarding and deplaning processes.

Fifthly, the airlines are going to have to rethink their policies on baggage allowances.  After having reduced the weight limits and tightened up the enforcement of checked luggage sizes and weights and number of pieces, if we're all now having to check more and carry-on less, there needs to be some recognition of this in terms of baggage allowances.

Sixthly, the airlines and airports need to urgently add more baggage handlers so as to be able to cope with probable increase in checked luggage going through their systems.

Seventhly, the complete prohibition on carry-on in Britain adds even further to luggage liability issues.  Currently airlines refuse to accept liability for valuable items, fragile items, and many other categories of highly tempting goods, and they limit their total liability to only $2800 (within the US) or $1500 (internationally).  Not only is there the risk of having things stolen or broken, but there is also the security risk, especially for business travelers, of having laptops, folders of documents, and other such sensitive material pilfered.  Or for all of us, what happens if the bag containing our car and house keys gets lost and we can neither drive our car home from the airport or get into our house once we get home?

Here's the list of what is currently allowed on board flights leaving the UK.  Only these items may be taken on board, in a clear plastic bag:

  • Pocket size wallets and pocket size purses plus contents (for example money, credit cards, identity cards etc (not handbags)

  • Travel documents essential for the journey (for example passports and travel tickets)

  • Prescription medicines and medical items sufficient and essential for the flight (eg, diabetic kit), except in liquid form unless verified as authentic

  • Spectacles and sunglasses, without cases

  • Contact lens holders, without bottles of solution

  • For those traveling with an infant: baby food, milk (the contents of each bottle must be tasted by the accompanying passenger) and sanitary items sufficient and essential for the flight (nappies, wipes, creams and nappy disposal bags)

  • Female sanitary items sufficient and essential for the flight, if unboxed (eg tampons, pads, towels and wipes)

  • Tissues (unboxed) and/or handkerchiefs

  • Keys (but no electrical key fobs)

Meanwhile, back in the US, the TSA is at least being consistent in its inconsistency.  Although all liquids are now forbidden in carry-on, Matthew writes 'I was flying through Logan back to Seattle on Thursday and was able to bring my non-prescription, decongestant nose spray with me. I just put it through the x-ray with my computer and nothing was said.'

At Dulles International Airport near Washington, one traveler reported that screeners were also making passengers remove all food items from their carry-ons for inspection, and one passenger was told to peel her banana.  In most US airports food is not being allowed on planes, in others it is.  This is an issue that urgently needs clarification, and if passengers can no longer bring their own food and water onto flights that increasingly offer neither, the airlines must come up with acceptable alternates on board.

The TSA also made their shoe removal policy mandatory once more (not that it ever truly was very optional, no matter what they might have said to the contrary).

Some people have switched to flying into Paris rather than London, and then taking Eurostar the rest of the way.  Eurostar reported 5000 additional bookings on Thursday alone.

Winning the 'looking for love in all the wrong places' prize for the stupidest response to this issue is the US Customs & Border Patrol.  Their press release reads, in part :

As part of the response to this heightened threat condition, .... passengers on these flights [inbound from the UK] and all other international flights will be subjected to heightened inspections upon arrival in the United States.

Specifically, CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] will increase enforcement efforts in international arrival areas, using risk-based targeting and deploying special response teams including baggage and aircraft search teams, baggage x-ray equipment, specially trained canine units, and explosive detection technology.

Yes, just in case any suicide bombers successfully get on a plane in Britain, they'll be terrified to know that if their suicide attempt fails, US Customs officers will be looking for them upon arrival in the US.

Searching people for explosives after the flight seems a case of 'too little, too late', don't you think?

Internet resources

Here's a helpful website to keep on top of what to expect at your airport.

And here's another.

This page on the main TSA site might take you straight to latest releases from them.

Amazingly, after a day that revealed a near-disaster in the making that would have eclipsed 9/11, the stock market actually rose slightly, and airline stocks, after initially dropping, ended the day almost completely unchanged.

Oil prices dropped $2/barrel, perhaps in the belief that there would be fewer planes flying, causing a tangible reduction in demand.

Lastly on this nasty subject, here's a quote from the Cato Institute that helps put everything into perspective.

Did you drive to the airport?  If so, you already took bigger risks than worrying about terrorists...

"Accordingly, it would seem to be reasonable for those in charge of our safety to inform the public about how many airliners would have to crash before flying becomes as dangerous as driving the same distance in an automobile.  It turns out that someone has made that calculation: University of Michigan transportation researchers Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan, in an article last year in American Scientist, wrote that they determined there would have to be one set of September 11 crashes a month for the risks to balance out.  More generally, they calculate that an American's chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in

13 million (even taking the September 11 crashes into account).  To reach that same level of risk when driving on America's safest roads -- rural interstate highways -- one would have to travel a mere 11.2 miles."

Their complete piece, from which this was taken, is interesting reading.

Looking at the lighter side of travel, one of the reasons we endure the crowds in the airports, on the planes, etc, is so we can get away from it all on a lovely deserted beach somewhere.

Lastly this week, Airbus proudly announced that their repeatedly delayed new super jumbo A380 is back on target for deliveries starting later this year, as a result of making some minor modifications to the plane's design.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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