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18 August, 2006  

Good morning

The security scare in the UK has continued to play large this week, and there's plenty more about it in the Security Horror Story section below.

Closer to home (ie here) there's been a security scare of a different sort - an attack on two of my servers that has consumed several days of time with only partial success in de-infesting the two machines of the viruses they caught.  It is possible no-one got the newsletter when I sent it last night as a result of this, so I'm having a friend resend it this morning.  Apologies if you never received it, and double apologies if you received it twice!

But let's move to happy making things.

Thanks to everyone who replied to the instant survey last week about their preferred dates for a Christmas Markets cruise in 2007.  There was a clear preference for the first week in December departure rather than one immediately after Thanksgiving and so that's the date we'll proceed with.  I'll have this up and available for you to request in the next week or so.

Meantime, space remains available on the Russian River cruise for July next year.  Click here for more information on this lovely cruise.  I hope to see a few more of you when we meet in Moscow next July.

Many of us were very worried that the electronics ban by the British would extend to the rest of the world and be made permanent.  Thank goodness the British quickly reversed their ban (as discussed in the Monday special newsletter); we can all continue to travel with an MP3 player and that marvelous modern invention - noise cancelling headphones.

I've just finished a review of Bose's latest and greatest noise cancelling headphone product.  It lists for $349, and if you buy the recommended accessories, you're spending $449. But is it worth this enormous amount of money?

This Week's Feature Column :  Bose Quiet Comfort 3 Noise Cancelling Headphones :  Although massively more expensive than any other headphones on the market, I find the new design QC3 headphones have major flaws and generally prefer a new $80 set of headphones.  Who would ever spend $349 on these over priced and under performing headphones?

(To come next week - a review of the new $80 headphones that seem to be as good as the $350 headphones)

Dinosaur watching Northwest's bankruptcy judge has allowed the flight attendants to go on strike.  This is a delightful bit of 'having your cake and eat it to' - first he allows Northwest to annul its present contract with the flight attendants - an action leading to the strike, now he allows the flight attendants to go on strike.  Does that make it all his fault, I wonder?

The flight attendants are threatening some underwhelming type of limited unpredictable strike action from 25 August, and Northwest says it plans to appeal the judge's ruling.

You'd think there might be a better way to manage Northwest's restructuring, wouldn't you?  But, apparently, not.

A blast from the past - presumably statutes of limitations don't apply in this case.  Although Pan Am went bankrupt back in 1991, some of Pan Am's creditors are about to share in a $30 million payout by the Libyan government as compensation for the bombing of the Pan Am flight PA103 over Lockerbie in 1988.

This Week's Strangest Dinosaur Statement :  Talking about the application by Virgin America to begin service in the United States, Continental spokesman Dave Messing said 'We have absolutely no opposition to start-up discount airlines'.

Almost without exception, there is no company that supplies goods/services in a mature and largely uncompetitive marketplace that is ever pleased to see a competitor arrive.  But Mr Messing would have us believe Continental just loves to see new airlines start competing against them.

If he is telling the truth, it is just as well he hurries on to then explain why Continental has been so ardently opposing Virgin's attempts to start service here.  He says 'Our only concern is that, since we abide by US laws, our competitors also abide by US laws.'  Yes, sure, right.

With only slightly less hyperbole, Virgin is urging the Department of Transportation to 'act swiftly on a "historic opportunity" to certify an exciting new entrant in the domestic airline industry'.  Yes, sure, right again.  A historic opportunity.

The DoT this week adjudged that Virgin's application is 'substantially complete' and now has six months to approve (or deny) their application.  Virgin started the application process eight months ago, and at the time I expressed doubt at its claim to be flying by Christmas this year.

The new airline-in-waiting claims it can start service within weeks of receiving its license, with an initial plan to offer service between San Francisco and New York with two to four planes, and then add extra routes as it adds extra planes, at a rate of one or two planes a month, with a projected 20 routes after two years.  Virgin currently has 33 Airbus planes on order.

The new airline says it plans to be a low cost but high service/amenities airline; clearly hoping to emulate JetBlue's success, most notably by having high end in-flight entertainment options.

Talking about JetBlue, they are having a fare sale between Houston and JFK with prices fixed to the cost of a barrel of oil.  The promotion is for travel from September 7 to November 15 and plays off Houston being the "Energy Capital of the World."  Thursday's fare was $73 based on Wednesday's closing price of oil.  The fare also applies to flights from Houston to destinations connecting through JFK.  There was no mention of the number of seats to be sold at this price and of course, taxes and fees are extra.

And talking about new airlines and adding planes, new all-business-class carrier Maxjet will be getting two new 767s in early 2007, bringing their fleet up to five.  The airline operates service between London's Stansted airport and either New York or Washington.

Its initial two planes are growing to three next month, and the two further planes early in 2007 will be added to even further later in the year.

The new planes will enable Maxjet to add more routes, and more capacity to existing routes.  They've been enjoying 70% load factors on their New York to London route in June and July, and their new Washington DC route is already at 60%.

The airline said it is considering adding service from Boston and/or Las Vegas, and possibly from Los Angeles and/or San Francisco.  How about Seattle, guys?

But is the airline making any money?  I asked their CEO this pointed question, and through his PR agency, the answer received was 'Because MAXjet is a private company, it does not report on profits. Gary Rogliano, CEO, did say the company is "on plan and meeting expectations."'

So - is Maxjet making any money?  It appears they'd rather not say - you can draw your own conclusions....  But do consider booking your next flight with Maxjet - it is great to see a low priced and high quality alternative to the dinosaurs.

Connexion gets disconnected - Boeing has apparently failed to find anyone interested in buying its Connexion service and so will simply close it down.

Connexion was a theoretically great service allowing passengers to get high speed access to the internet while flying anywhere.  But few airlines chose to add the product to their planes, and few passengers were willing to pay the high access fees and Boeing has now chosen to abandon the product rather than press on with its development.

Progress is sometimes a funny thing, isn't it.

I've written a couple of times recently about exploding laptop batteries, with graphic images of a laptop that burst into flames in a conference room and another that torched a pickup truck.  Dell is now recalling 4.1 million laptop batteries (shipped between April 2004 and July 2006); alarmingly these weren't cheap generic batteries, but official Dell ones and made for Dell by Sony Corp.

With the temporary requirement to stow laptops in checked baggage, one has to wonder what would have happened in the cargo hold of a plane if a laptop battery burst into flames.  Seems to me that computers are very much safer in the passenger compartment - at least someone can squirt a fire extinguisher at one there.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  There are so many issues coming out as a result of last week's excitement that it is hard to know where to start.  And so, for a change, I'll start defensively.  Several readers took issue with my comments in Monday's special newsletter where I described the temporary security measures in Britain as 'ill-founded and unnecessary panic'.

The usual line of reasoning, in defending these measures, seemed to be either 'the security services know what they're doing and we should trust them' and/or 'any amount of intrusive inconvenience is fine just so long as our safety is enhanced'.

Most readers know I accept neither of these statements at face value.  But I don't feel the need for a lengthy justification of my phrase - surely the fact that these measures were largely rescinded four days after their issuance speaks for itself.

In addition, here's an interesting article that suggests the terrorists weren't about to mount attacks any time soon.

I'll leave the last word on this to Martin Samuel, writer of an excellent article 'The myth of airport security', published in The Times on Tuesday.

Here's an interesting article about the hygiene on floors around the TSA screening stations at airports.  Their conclusion - carry some sort of foot protection (like these from Magellan's) rather than go barefoot through the metal detector.

So can they or can't they?  Now we're all having to submit our shoes for X-ray screening, there's some doubt if the X-ray machines can detect hidden explosives in the shoes or not.

The TSA assures us that they work well.  TSA chief Kip Hawley said 'Our highly trained transportation security officers can see if a shoe has been tampered with when they view it on the X-ray machine'.

Which would normally be the last word on the subject, but for a Homeland Security Department study (the TSA is part of the HSD).  This April 2005 study says X-ray images 'do not provide the information necessary to effect detection of explosives.'


One of the clear side-effects of the new no-liquid in your carry-on policy is that more people will be checking more bags.  Initial reports suggest increases of 25% - 30% in the amount of checked luggage, and on some flights, there is now spare space in the overhead bins that had formerly been totally unavailable.

The increase in checked bags is making for longer lines at check-in counters, and longer delays for bags to get to the carousels at the other end.

And will the increase in checked bags over-stress bag handling systems already at close to capacity?  Will the number of lost and delayed bags increase proportionately, or will the number massively increase?

The answers to these issues remain uncertain, but one thing is for sure.  A combination of more bags, systems at their limits, and flight delays/cancellations can cause everything to crash and fail, as has been seen in the UK, where it is estimated over 20,000 bags have yet to be matched to their owners (who are variously all around the world at present).

And during the 'no carry-on baggage' period in Britain, police reported a 200% increase in thefts from luggage at Gatwick.  Could it be that baggage thieves were encouraged by the expectation that there'd be more high value goodies in luggage?

Talking about checked bags, we know that all checked bags now go through special security screening before allowed on the plane.  But do you know most flights carry commercial air freight in their holds as well?  Care to guess what percentage of the air freight on passenger planes has undergone any sort of inspection before being loaded on the plane?

Approximately 6 billion pounds of cargo fly on passenger planes each year.  Only 10% - 15% of this cargo has any degree of inspection - the remaining 5+ billion pounds of cargo is entirely uninspected.

What would you do if you were a terrorist?  Try and smuggle a bomb onto a plane in your carry-on baggage?  Take it on the same plane as yourself, as checked baggage?  Or send it on a plane you're safely many miles from as air freight?

In the midst of the tightest airport security ever, a twelve year old boy was able to board a flight at Gatwick without a passport, airline ticket or boarding pass.  He was seated on the flight and given a drink and a snack.

He had run away from a care home and was able to get on board a flight to Lisbon on Monday morning before the other passengers were boarded.  Apparently he arrived at the airport on a train, by himself and without a ticket.  He passed through the full security process with no identification.

Makes you feel really secure, doesn't it?

The airlines' loss is Eurostar's gain.  The train operator said it has seen a 27% increase in passengers since last Thursday, carrying an extra 28,000 travelers over the past four days.  7,000 extra passengers a day?  That's a lot of trains!

The company said the surge in demand for routes between London, Paris and Brussels has helped thousands of travelers avoid long lines at airports, with many people traveling on to the Netherlands, Germany and the South of France.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the new carry-on rules for flights out of the UK is the reduction to allowing passengers only one bag, and of a smaller than previously allowed size.  The maximum size, which apparently may be fairly strictly enforced, is 17.7" x 13.7" x 6.2" (ie 45 x 35 x 16 cm).  My carry on bag is 16.5" x 12" x something under 7" (depending on how full it is).  You better check your bag too.

I can fit quite a lot of stuff in this bag - my full size laptop, some paperback books, MP3 player, noise cancelling headphones, travel document pouch, and assorted sundry other items, so the limit is workable, but it doesn't leave any space for clothing.  I guess it is time for me to complete my reviews on hand carry-on bags (as opposed to the full size wheeled carry-ons).

Winning this week's prize for 'Discretion is the Better Part of Valor' (aka the Unthinking Cowardice Award) is this BA pilot.

Close runner up were the people who chose to assign a fighter escort (and, let's face it, fighters can only shoot the plane down; don't think fighters aren't there to protect the plane or its passengers) to this flight due to nothing more than an upset woman on board, and, with an abundance of caution, then had all the passenger's luggage spread out on the tarmac for close inspection.

And to show that hysteria isn't limited only to flights, what about the American's who have been arrested for terrorism related offences, when apparently all they were doing was following the American tradition of buying goods cheap and selling for a profit?

This is a very worrying example of how small town police departments are riding rough-shod over our rights without any justification at all.

Giving away an old PC - perhaps to some type of worthy cause as a charitable donation?  Be careful, you might be giving away something much more valuable than you thought you were.

Proving that stupidity isn't just to do with security issues, thanks to reader Michael for passing this article in.

Lastly this week, how long before air travel comes to this?  As one person says, thank goodness that Richard Reid was known as the 'Shoe Bomber', not the 'Underwear Bomber'.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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