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25 August, 2006  

Good morning

Security continues to dominate the traveling headlines for another week, and - if possible - it seems people are getting even sillier when it comes to security.

But fortunately the impact of the new security procedures is becoming less severe on us, the traveling public.  Lots more on security issues in the Security Horror Story section below.

Exciting news for one lucky couple.  We've had a cancellation on this year's Christmas Market cruise, freeing up a C category cabin.  This is the only available C cabin on the entire ship (there are also some A and B cabins if you'd prefer to upgrade); if you'd like to join us and take advantage of this lower priced cabin, please go to our Christmas Markets Cruise page and send in a waitlist request - I'll immediately confirm the first lucky couple.

And still talking about cruising, I now have some copies of a DVD made of this year's Russian River cruise.  If you've been wondering about joining next year's Russian cruise, this might give you some more insight on the experience.  The video, which runs about an hour, contains a mix of stock footage of some of the sights we visit and 'real' footage of this year's passengers - indeed, if you look carefully, you might even see me occasionally.  It is far from a polished selling video, but you might find it helpful and of interest.

You can order a copy for $5 (including postage) by clicking on the 2006 Cruise DVD Buy Now button about a third of the way down the Russian River cruise page.

Currently we have 21 people confirmed on this cruise and would be delighted to have you add to our number.

My noise cancelling headphone series adds its 13th entry this week.  And - at least for me - it is a particularly exciting entry.  Last week we had a new Bose product and this week a competing new product from long time Travel Insider supporter, Plane Quiet.

For the three years we've been running the annual Best Travel Product awards, Plane Quiet have always had a convincing win.  This year there'll be a head on competition between a Bose and Plane Quiet product - which will come out on top?  My own feelings will be obvious once you've read :

This Week's Feature Column :  Plane Quiet NC7 Noise Cancelling Headphones :  Possibly the bargain of the year?  Although they cost less than a quarter the price of the competing Bose QC3 headphones, the new Plane Quiet NC7 headphones are almost as good, and in some respects better.  Why pay $350-450 when you can pay only $80?

Dinosaur watching :  Will they, won't they?  Strike, that is.  The Northwest flight attendants, that is.  Although NW's flight attendants have threatened to mount unscheduled wildcat strikes and interruptions (what they call their Chaos program) starting from 10.01pm Eastern time today (Friday), the probably likelihood of you being on an affected NW flight is very low.

And, to make it even easier for you, the flight attendants are offering to send you email alerts if they're about to strike at your local airport.  Simply fill out this form to be added to their list.

Just as unlikely as an across the board strike from the flight attendants are Northwest's continued doom and gloom threats that even a short strike could force them into liquidation.

Northwest is playing hardball and apparently refusing to budge from its unilateral demand that the flight attendants accept without any change the new reduced wages and benefits being offered.  But the flight attendants also seem to be standing their ground, so barring a last minute capitulation by one side or the other, we can probably expect some sort of minor industrial action starting from this evening.

Possible labor problems also at US Airways.  Their pilots picketed at PHL on Tuesday.  The pilots - who gave up about $6.8 billion in concessions during the airline's bankruptcies - feel that now the airline is profitable, they should start to recover some of the money they gave back.

Are the airlines to become victims of their own success?  Is this a cyclical thing - first the unions are asked to give back 'too much' and then they demand 'too much' back again?

The flight from hell - except it never even departed.  Instead, a Virgin flight from London to Havana trapped its passengers on board for seven hours before finally being cancelled.  During the seven hours passengers were given only two glasses of water and nothing to eat.

Score one for the little guy.  I've written before about the woman who will get you Southwest boarding passes at midnight (so to get you in the first 'A' boarding group).  Southwest took her to court to try and force her to close down.  The case has now been heard and a federal judge refused Southwest's request.  Yay.

Oil continues to go up in price, and so too do airline profits.  Is there anyone out there who still believes that increases in jet fuel costs threaten the viability of airlines?

Apparently, yes, as this article in USA Today indicates.  Although it starts off promisingly, by predicting $100/barrel oil, same as me; it then uncritically quotes the airlines' lobbying group (ATA) chief who prophesies gloom and doom and the death of airlines if oil should go that high.  Then, the article makes this ridiculous statement

Any way you look at it, U.S. airlines would be overwhelmed by fuel prices approaching $3 a gallon, the jet fuel price that $100 oil would bring.

This is nonsense.  Jet fuel prices have increased from 90c a gallon in 2000 to $2.20 at present - a 244% increase, and yet for the first time since 2000, most airlines are reporting profits.  If oil went up to $100/barrel, jet fuel would likely increase up to $3/gallon, a mere 36% further increase in cost.  Is there anyone out there who doesn't think the airlines wouldn't simply raise their fares and add to their fuel surcharges if such cost increases occured?

BA 'erring on the side of caution' inconsistency :  I wrote last week about the BA pilot who decided to return his plane back to the airport 90 minutes after a cell phone was discovered in a seat back pocket, even though he had been assured by BA's security experts there was no risk to the plane.  This was explained by BA as demonstrating an admirable preference for erring on the side of caution.

Several readers wondered how to match the ridiculous degree of caution in this circumstance with the BA pilots who several times last year continued flying planes on to London, even after an engine failed (in one case, causing the flight to have to make an emergency landing after running low on fuel en route).

A harmless cell phone is a danger, but losing an entire engine and flying on for ten hours is safe?

The cost of delays to the Airbus A380 delivery schedule is starting to be revealed.  Qantas disclosed that it has negotiated about US$6.4 million in compensation for each of the 11 A380 planes it has on order.

If all other airlines with A380 planes on order get similar settlements, Airbus will be $1 billion out of pocket, to say nothing of the cash flow issue of getting delivery revenue later than expected.

In early June I wrote about a new web service - farecast.com - that claims to predict whether air fares will increase or decrease for a given itinerary.  Back then it only had data for two cities - Seattle and Boston.  It now has data on 57 different cities, making it a much more useful tool, and worth a visit.

Long lines at airport security lines, and stupid security procedures kill people?  We all know people (maybe even ourselves) who have chosen to drive rather than fly due to the increasing inconvenience - especially that related to security - associated with air travel.  One has to wonder how many of those people have ended up as part of the increased number of road deaths last year - 43,433 people died in road deaths in 2005, up 610 from 2004, and the highest count since 1990.

610 extra deaths is the same as perhaps five 737s crashing with 100% fatalities.

Can we say that air security hassles have caused 610 deaths in 2005?  The exact number is hard to pin down, of course, but whatever it might be (and remember the 610 is merely the increase in deaths, not the total number) there can be no doubt that while our increased aviation security might be saving some lives, it is costing others elsewhere in the overall transportation arena.  The TSA needs to realize their bad service forces some people onto the roads, some of whom die.

In related road safety news, passenger vehicle 'black boxes' are in the news again.  Most newish cars have these recording devices that keep track of things like the vehicle's speed, rate of cornering and braking, as well as other information about the engine settings.

If you have an accident, you might find that your car's black box tells a very different story about what happened to that you're offering up yourself.  Although the NHTSA says you must agree to have your black box data downloaded, in reality you have little choice, especially if you want to keep your insurance coverage.

Do you know if your vehicle has a black box?  Probably, you don't know one way or the other, and as this article reports, there's a growing awareness about the need to tell owners about how their cars might be snooping on them.

Many people are unhappy about plans to enable cell phone reception on planes.  But how about hotel chains who have decided they want to make their Muzak more 'in your face' and obtrusive.  What was formerly inoffensive background music and barely noticeable is increasingly foreground rather than background music.  An Omni spokesman is quoted in a USA Today article as proudly saying about their new music programming 'It's really foreground music. It's meant to be heard'.

I don't know about you, but in-your-face music based on someone else's musical taste (or lack thereof), while making a hotel stay memorable, would not necessarily make it a pleasant memory.

Alaskan voters passed a measure to levy a $50 per passenger tax on cruise ship passengers visiting Alaska.  In addition, cruise lines will have to pay a 33% tax on gambling revenues while in state waters, will have to pay a state corporate income tax, and will be required to disclose their markup on shore excursions.

With a million passengers taking Alaskan cruises each year, this promises a large return to Alaska.  It is extremely inappropriate that people who enrichen Alaska with their spending money, buying junk souvenirs, overpriced shore meals and drinks, tours, pre/post cruise accommodation, flights, and all manner of other expenditures, should now have to pay a further $50 for the privilege.

And what about a passenger who stays on board the ship and never goes ashore?  Why should they pay $50?

It would be only fair if other states started charging Alaskans $50 every time they ventured south into the lower 48 states....

Do you fancy a new cell phone?  Do you fancy a fancy new cell phone?  How about one costing $1.26 million?

If this is too much for your pocket, this other interesting article discusses how cell phones are increasingly becoming fashion statements, even for those of us with more realistic budgets.

Talking about phones, here's an amazing coincidence.  DSL lines are about to be exempted from a government fee of $1.25 or $2.83 (depending on line speed) for the Universal Service Fund (USF).  And at the same time this fee is removed, Verizon has announced that it will be adding a surcharge of $1.20 or $2.70 to the rates it charges for its DSL service.

A Verizon spokeswoman said the decision to impose the new surcharge ' is not related at all to USF.'  She said she 'would strongly disagree' with criticisms that Verizon was in effect diverting to its own coffers money that had previously supported the Universal Service Fund.

So apparently, yes, it is no more than an amazing coincidence.  Fancy that.

A new website is about to launch under the name of MyWetStuff.com - a name which sounds more salacious than it actually is.  Responding quickly to a perceived new service need for travelers, the website will deliver small trial sized toiletries to hotels for you to solve the problem of not being able to take such items in carry-on any more.

A good idea or something reminiscent of the worst of the dot com boom?  If nothing else, you might want to take advantage of their launch offer - $15 off your first order for the first 70,000 people to order from their site after it goes live on 5 September.

More laptop batteries are being recalled.  Last week it was Dell, this week it is Apple - in both cases the suspect batteries were made by Sony.

Qantas has become the first airline to restrict passenger use of laptops on board their flights.  If you have a potentially at risk laptop/battery, they will allow you either to use the laptop on battery power, or on mains power from their powered seats, but if using mains power you must first remove the batteries from the laptop.

In view of the spectacular fires caused by some batteries, this seems prudent and not at all inconvenient.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A pilot wasn't allowed to take a metal fork onto the plane he was scheduled to fly.  In his cockpit is a huge fire axe, and his on-board meal was served with a metal knife and fork.

This is only one of many idiocies cited in this excellent article, which makes for compelling albeit depressing reading.

One of the good things to come out of the latest security scare is a re-examination of passenger profiling.  Does it really make sense to insist that 8 year old boys and 80 year old women be given the same amount of attention as Arab Muslim men in their 20s?  Here's a sensible analysis of the pros and cons.

A major component of the liquid panic a couple of weeks ago was the belief that there is no existing way to conveniently determine what type of liquids are inside containers.  But, as this article details, new technology is already available that is so sensitive it can even determine if a soda is regular cola or diet cola.

The TSA has been non-supportive of the technology, deeming it unproven and prone to false alarms, but at the same time it has been deploying equally unproven and unreliable technologies such as attempting to recognize potential terrorists by way of their visibly nervous behavior in the airport.  As the article gently suggests, perhaps the TSA would be well advised to invest further in this new liquid testing technology.

On the other hand, a focus on passengers rather than on things - when done skillfully - can be very successful.  Just look at El Al.  This article is interesting.

One of the interesting things about the problems at Heathrow and Gatwick is that it has exposed again the inadequacies of these two airports, both of which are struggling to keep up with the massive volumes of passengers they handle.

Smart travelers are already making the switch to other London airports, and in particular the two new all premium class airlines - MaxJet and Eos - are picking up large amounts of extra business to/from the US due to flying from Stansted Airport.  Both Eos and MaxJet are reporting a 30% lift in bookings, and although both airlines are very small with only a few flights a day, this has to hurt British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, and will help Eos and Maxjet accelerate their growth and more quickly become self-sustainable.

It is, apparently, an ill wind that blows no good.

A San Antonio man was questioned by federal authorities after he was overheard 'being disruptive' (no, I don't know what that means!) in a Delta plane's lavatory last Saturday.  Flight attendants determined he had been in the lavatory for an extended period of time and had tampered with a smoke detector and moved ceiling panels.  Upon landing a bomb-sniffing dog inspected the lavatory  and 'showed some interest.'   A bomb squad was called and swept the plane but nothing suspicious was found.

High on the list of things not to take in your carry on baggage is the personal male item this gentleman was carrying.  But interestingly, the first stories that he bizarrely described it as a bomb are now being rebutted by the suggestion that he tried to whisper the word 'pump' instead - something that on the face of it sounds credible, even if a judge is choosing to prefer to believe he claimed it to be a bomb.

Which means either that the gentleman is terribly stupid, or perhaps the judge is.

If you're still seeking more distraction before returning to work related tasks, here are some amazing pictures (thanks, Geoff).

And here's another amazing picture (caution - adult subject matter), in both a before and after air brushing version (thank you, Michael).

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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