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15 September, 2006  

Good morning

I spent some time this last week with one of the people from Amadeus Waterways, talking through their various river cruise programs and which ones may be of most interest to Travel Insider readers.

I'm tentatively accepting their recommendation to offer an Egyptian Nile cruise early next year, and would appreciate your opinion as to its possible interest to you.

From the day we leave the US until the day we return, it would be a twelve day experience. We would fly in and out of Cairo; spending time ashore in Cairo and Alexandria and cruising between Luxor and Aswan on a very nice ship. An optional post-cruise extension to Jordan is also available.

The cruise price includes the shore accommodation and internal flights and transfers within Egypt, as well as the cruise itself, with all meals onboard and most meals ashore, and comprehensive touring.  It is priced at $1999 per person, including port taxes and all other charges/fees.  There is one cabin type - a huge and luxurious 190 sq ft cabin, complete with private balcony.  You can see more information about this cruise here.

I'm considering a tour that would leave the US on 6 March 2007.  Would you be interested in joining me?  Do you have other thoughts or comments about this?  Please let me know; I'll plan to advise the outcome next week, and may possibly be meeting with you in Cairo in March.

Please also don't forget our two current cruises - the Christmas Markets cruise in December this year, and our Russian River cruise next July.  Space remains on both cruises.

Our Christmas markets cruise is in the process of getting still better - I'm adding a tour out of Budapest on the day the cruise starts for the benefit of people arriving in to the city early, and there are sure to be some pleasant surprises with the Russian cruise too.

As you know, most weeks I write a feature column, which can vary widely in content and popularity.  Some of my most popular columns were things I wrote on a whim, expecting them to be trivial throwaway articles, while some of the columns I've valued the most have not had held lasting interest.

One of the two most popular series I've done - a series which continues to be read by more than a thousand people every day - is the series on noise reducing headphones.  The first article in the series was written in November 2001, and since then, what was initially a single article has grown to be a series of over a dozen articles, several of which have been rewritten repeatedly as new models come out.  But, popular as this series is, it suffered one major weakness - it has grown organically with no type of overarching structure.  So, for this week, I've attempted to address that with :

This Week's Feature Column :  Noise Reducing Headphones Buyer's Guide : Here's an introduction to what active noise cancelling technology is all about, some pointers on what to look for in noise reducing headphones, plus summaries of and links to the detailed reviews.

Dinosaur watching Lufthansa has agreed to pay $85 million in return for being given conditional immunity from lawsuits alleging it may have been involved in an anti-trust conspiracy to fix airfreight rates.  United and American are also claiming to have settled lawsuits about their approach to air freight pricing, and say they have settled without paying any amounts.

Lucky UA and AA.

The airlines continue to fuss over how to shorten the time it takes to load and unload a plane of passengers.  Different airlines have different approaches, ranging from 'everyone boards all at once' to the traditional 'row number' boarding to newer schemes like 'window seat holders board first, aisle seat holders board last'; all in the hope of shaving a few minutes off a plane's turnaround time.  Planes only make money when they're flying, and airlines can massively improve their bottom line if they get better utilization out of their planes.

So it is surprising that the obvious solution to speeding up the loading/unloading process (and, to date, nothing any airline has done speeds up the time it takes to unload a plane upon arrival at its destination) has been so widely overlooked.  Using two gates.  Back in New Zealand, twenty plus years ago, this was standard - all flights would load and unload by both the front and rear doors, and I was astonished, upon moving here, to see this wasn't normal here too.

United is the latest airline to discover the startling concept that two jetways allow a plane to load and unload more quickly than one, and has started conducting experiments with a 'Y' shaped dual jetway at Denver in August.  It plans to install five of these in Denver, and will add them to other airports in the future, too.

United estimates the dual jetway saves ten minutes on a turnaround.  This could allow for a massive improvement in airplane utilization on short length routes between non-hub cities; but much less of an improvement on longer routes and between hubs.  Obviously, ten minutes is a bigger percentage of a one hour journey than of a four hour journey.

Less obvious perhaps is that at hub airports flights 'surge' in and out of the hubs, with planes spending extra waiting time between surges to allow for more incoming flights to connect to the next outbound surge.

At present my prediction of oil breaking through $100/barrel by the end of this year looks delightfully unlikely, with prices falling wonderfully from their high of $78.40 in July and now lying in the low/mid $60s a barrel.

This article would have us believe that prices might collapse much further, and this article goes into certifiably lunatic territory when it suggests that $1.15 a gallon gas might be seen again.

So what about the fuel surcharges the airlines have added to their fares?  And what about their excuses about high oil prices making it impossible for them to operate profitably?  You don't really expect the fuel surcharges to disappear as quickly as they were put in place, do you?

As proof, there are already articles coming out pointing out that some airlines are now being disadvantaged by falling oil prices.  Strangely, it is often the same airlines that worried about the impacts of high fuel costs that are now worrying about the impacts of falling fuel costs.

Some people are just never happy.

The recently announced delays to its new A380 super-jumbo cost Airbus dearly.  Senior executives lost their jobs, and the stock price tumbled.  And now there are suggestions that perhaps not all the delays have yet been revealed, with 20% shareholder BAE's CEO speculating on the possibility of further delays still to be announced.  When asked if he expected still more delays, he replied 'I'd be surprised if there weren't'.

No wonder his company is desperate to sell their 20% shareholding, although his own frankness can't help these shares fetch top dollar.

With the rapidly changing dynamics of the travel industry these days, and the evolving opportunities for travel agencies to continue to find a profitable niche in the middle, here is an interesting report on what it takes to be a successful travel agency.

I received a nice note from Richard :

Two weeks ago you posted in your weekly newsletter about the FCC charge that was no longer being required but Verizon announced it was going to add a fee that was almost equal to the amount of the FCC charge.

I forwarded this on to people I know and just the other day I received an email from Verizon that said “due to customer input we have decided to not charge this fee at this time”.  I guess my complaints to Verizon, along with others, helped to stop that charge from happening.  Just wanted to let you know (in case you’re not a Verizon customer) and wanted to thank you for bringing this fact to light.

We were able to “stick it to the man” as it were and stand up to this corporation and say “NO, you are not going to take advantage of this situation, not at your customer’s expense.”

Well done Richard and everyone else who pressured Verizon into doing the right thing.

Good news for people flying through Philadelphia's airport.  There's now free Wi-Fi access in the B/C Food Court, and the possibility it may be extended throughout more of the airport in the future.

Winning this week's 'Trying to Get Rich Quick' award is attorney Peter Sullivan and his unnamed client, suing Starbucks after the company refused to honor a free drink coupon.  So how much would you sue if you had a $5 free drink coupon which Starbucks wouldn't honor?

The correct answer, apparently, is $114 million, making Mr Sullivan and his client richly deserving of, if nothing else, the 'Trying to Get Rich Quick' award.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The last week has seen a succession of people writing about the fifth anniversary of 9/11, and I've tried to resist the temptation to join the chorus, although what follows is plainly some sort of response.

My wish not to join in with another predictable article is because I'm not the sort to write predictable articles, and because the real lessons of 9/11 are not ones our society is willing to learn, while the appropriate responses are not ones we're willing to accept or commit to.  Suffice it to say I see terrible parallels between what happened in Western Europe/UK/US in the 1930s, with the near disaster that such complacency/appeasement encouraged; and the actions of the same countries (but this time including Germany) at present with respect to Muslim extremists.

The most worrying part of this analogy?  I'm not sure whether it is the wild card of 'weapons of mass destruction' that was not in play seventy years ago, or the move from low tech to high tech weaponry such as to make the lead times to ramp up production in case of a major high intensity conflict too long to save us this time around.  The west would literally run out of smart bombs, fancy planes, and awesomely massive but terribly vulnerable aircraft carriers, and not be able to replace them fast enough, long before our enemy's low tech materiel was similarly expended.

Happily (?) it is unlikely our conflict with Muslim extremists would ever evolve to such an open high intensity traditional conflict.  Instead, the other side is waging and winning a battle for our hearts and minds.  Many Europeans now look with greater distaste and suspicion at the US than at the various extremist groups, and even our staunchest allies, the British, seem to have lost their resolve.

When we lose our champion, current Prime Minister Tony Blair ( due to retire in less than a year), we may find ourselves friendless there, too.  Indeed, a recent poll in the UK showed that a third of British people believe that western governments should negotiate with Al Qaeda - an issue which begs the question, 'negotiate about what'?  Negotiate that we should require our women to wear head to toe burkhas?  Negotiate that sharia religious law should replace western laws?  Negotiate that Al Qaeda should get representation in our governments?

What has this to do with four planes and a few buildings, five years ago, and airplane security today?  Everything.  The events of 9/11/01 were more than a standalone outcome from a bunch of individuals seeking to cause harm to a couple of US airlines.  They were another blow in an ongoing struggle between two incompatible values systems; with the other value system aggressively seeking to stamp out ourselves and our values.

Requiring us to now take off our shoes and not carry water onto planes sure seems like the other side scored a huge win, changing our lives and lifestyles dramatically.

A common theme of mine is how the US today is becoming like the Soviet Union used to be (while Russia today is becoming more like how the US was in the 'good old days').  The latest example of this requires us to remember how the Soviet Union used to be a nation of faceless informers.  There were informers in your apartment block, in your office, in your social clubs, even in your church.  This is happily no longer the case, all the more so because the 'crimes' which existed back in the communist totalitarian times no longer exist.

But in the US, news this week tells us that Miami Airport plans to train all 35,000 of their employees to be on the lookout for suspicious people.  Yes, the janitor in the toilet will indeed be watching you do your business; and so too will the clerk in the duty free store, the table busser at the restaurant, and the server behind the bar.  Better not stiff them when it comes time to tip, because they'll now be able to get their own back at you.  We're making ourselves into a nation of informers.

Think this is a good thing?  Coincidentally I was speaking with a former Alaska Airlines airport customer service representative a week back.  She was telling me horror stories about how some of her colleagues were reporting people (who she felt to be innocent, ordinary, and often distressed travelers) to security as potential risks, for no definable real reasons, with the result that people were being hassled to the point of being refused to fly due to an accusation that had no more merit than a paranoid person's claim that they 'looked suspicious'.

A right to privacy?  Due process?  Presumption of innocence?  A fair trial and confronting one's accuser?  Ummm, what happened to these former cornerstones of US justice?  And does anyone care?

Or how about the growth of the 'thought police'?  This takes the form of security officers allegedly trained to spot people who are acting nervously (and if you want to find people acting nervously for bona fide reasons, there's probably no better place to look than an airport), and also takes the form of people seeking to impose their own views on what we should and should not say or do.  If you behave unusually or dress strangely, expect to be thrown off the plane you thought you were about to fly.

A week ago we read of the orthodox Jew who was taken off a flight because some passengers were nervous at him praying; even though it should go without saying that no matter who our enemies may be in this world, they absolutely are not orthodox Jews.  This week we learn of a tourist who had to turn his t-shirt inside out due to having a 'Guns n Rollers' motif on it, including a profile line drawing of two pistols.  A stylized picture of two guns is a security risk?

Saddest of all, although most of us willingly embrace the cascading series of indignities we foist upon ourselves in the name of 'security'; the reality is they contribute little if anything to security, while detracting massively from the freedom that once distinguished us from our enemy.  Not being able to take water on a plane does not make us safer (and by all accounts is being very poorly enforced), and neither does having the toilet attendant spy on how we perform our ablutions.

What would it take for real security?  Perhaps this slightly tongue in cheek article gets it more right than the author may have originally intended.

And the nonsense in Britain in response to the security scare last month?  The reality of the blind panic that occurred is about to be further revealed with an anticipated further relaxation in the current security rules.

Question to the British security people :  Are you relaxing these rules because they were stupid and pointless, or because you no longer believe terrorists will try to smuggle liquid explosives on planes?  If the latter, what has happened in the last month to cause terrorists to give up, particularly when articles such as this reveal the enforcement of the liquid ban was very poor?

Question to the British traveling public :  How can you make your security people accountable for their idiocies?  It isn't fair that these faceless people can destroy the traveling experience for hundreds of thousands of people, and cost the airlines hundreds of millions of dollars, all based on a lunatic bit of Keystone Kops panic, which they're now backing away from with no suggestion of accountability for their actions or regret for the cost and inconvenience caused.

As passengers on an Egypt Air flight found to their peril, the pilots of a plane can do anything they wish to the plane, including crashing it and killing everyone on board.  And so it seems ridiculous, when the pilots are about to be entrusted with the lives of everyone on board, and when the pilots are in a cockpit with a great big fire-axe alongside them, to subject them to the same security restrictions as the passengers.

Why not allow a pilot to take a pocket knife on board when he has access to the fire axe?  And why make the pilot take his shoes off to test for explosives when he simply needs to push the stick forward and use the entire plane as a flying bomb, crashing it into a building or whatever?

These thoughts obviously went through the minds of the Qantas pilots who balked at removing their shoes when going through security at Manila.  However, reasoned logic is a very weak response to security procedures, and eventually, after causing the flight to be delayed 70 minutes, the pilots gave in and took their shoes off.

Better safe than sorry, after all....

I always enjoy hearing from readers, but wonder what reader Lexi could possibly be talking about when she writes, in apparent response to last week's final item

David, your passion for things Russian is commonly known.  In order to fully embrace the culture, I think it is important to immerse oneself in local life and try to emulate local customs.  For the sake of enhanced understanding and strictly for experimental purposes, I would offer myself willing to partner with you in this exercise.  In so doing, we would both be able to have a taste (!) of this habit commonly practiced in Russia.  Think of the positive consequences.

I think I'll ponder this over a drink or two, an act which this article suggests now has an unexpected additional positive outcome.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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