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9 March, 2007  

Good morning

It seems to have been wall to wall computer challenges the last few weeks.  Several readers have asked me my opinion of the new Windows Vista operating system - perhaps that's an appropriate frustration to start with.

Vista was released 30 November 2006 to corporate customers, and went generally on sale to everyone on 30 January this year.  Add to that a many year development and beta test cycle, and so there was every reason to hope that, for once, a new release of Windows would be 'safe' right out of the box on Day One, especially because the general release on 30 January was two months after the earlier commercial release.

Conventional wisdom suggests there can be problems and difficulties upgrading an existing computer to run Vista, and so, rather than risk this, I ordered a new laptop from Dell in mid February, complete with the Vista Business OS on it.  I'd been waiting a very long time to do this - my earlier laptop was seriously antiquated and in desperate need of replacement.

So, the laptop arrives; and excitedly, I turn it on.  But what is almost the first message to greet me?  A driver for one of the pre-installed devices (the internal sound card) is incompatible with Vista, and there are no updates available for it on the internet.  A very disappointing start, and incompatible hardware is not something that should happen when you buy a new computer specifically configured for Vista.

How is Vista to use?  Annoyingly frustrating.  Sure, it has some prettier graphics than Windows XP, but I don't choose a computer and operating system based on pretty graphics.  I choose it based on its underlying functionality and reliability.

So - functionality.  Vista has a redesigned interface that is just enough different as to force you to unlearn much of what you've learned to work your way around WinXP, requiring you to learn new ways of doing formerly simple straightforward things.  Are these changes obvious improvements, and more user friendly than before?  Not that I can tell.  Much of the time they seem to be changes for changes sake and for no other reason - changes so the marketing people can trumpet about a 'new look' OS without pausing to consider if there was any need for the new look and if it offers any improvements.

As for reliability, I have had Vista crash on me.  I don't yet know if it is more or less reliable than XP, but it is clearly less than perfect.

Bottom line?  If you need to buy new computers, you probably should buy them complete with Vista, because it definitely is the new operating system for the future.  But don't - repeat don't - rush out and upgrade your current computers.  Vista offers few or no compelling reasons to compensate for the time and trouble you'll suffer going through the upgrade and the relearning experience.

Among other computer woes, Verizon had promised me a lovely new fibre connection to the internet, with speeds of 2Mbps upload and 5Mbps download, all for less than my current 768kbps SDSL line.

Unfortunately, this required a complete rework of my network (due to no longer being able to have fixed IPs for computers in my office); I've done my bit on time and am now configured with the assumption of a high speed connection to my remote servers, but Verizon - without even telling me - are now delaying their part until perhaps next Thursday, essentially crippling much of what I need in the meantime.

The new fibre service is interesting because it abandons one of the lowest tech but most positive features of a regular phone line.  Regular phone lines are self powered, and don't need any electricity at your end to work (although fancy feature phones might need power).  Fibre needs power at your end to drive the unit that converts between regular analog phone signals and the light pulses that get sent and received along the fibre.  Sure, there is a four hour battery backup provided, but in any sort of disaster (like the almost two week power outage in my area in December) what happens after those first four hours?

No feature article this week, alas.  But almost as interesting are your replies to last week's instant survey on airplane toilets.  In case you missed the survey (which was at the end rather than beginning of last week's newsletter); last week American Airlines announced it will now allow all passengers to use the formerly first class only toilet(s) on its flights.  You were asked if you thought this a good idea or not.

Because 90% of passengers fly coach class, I'd have expected most readers (ie those who fly coach class) to support this move out of reasons of simple self interest.  But an overwhelming 70% of readers disagree with AA and feel that first class toilets should remain exclusively for first class passengers.  27% were pleased that AA were now opening the toilets to all passengers, and 3% of readers simply don't use toilets on planes.

With such an overwhelming percentage of readers, no matter which cabin they fly in, opposed to AA's decision, one has to wonder why AA is doing this?  Don't they care what their passengers want?  This is all the more puzzling because this move isn't really one that can be justified as saving money.  Indeed, it may cost them money - by taking away one of the few remaining benefits that their first class passengers actually want and value, they're encouraging their highest yielding/most valuable passengers to change airlines.

Many of you sent in comments as well as your vote.  One consistent theme was that first class passengers weren't only protective of their toilet, but also of their cabin and its quiet space.  For example, Walter writes

I was in UA first class and the flight attendant allowed coach pax to use the first class lavatory on a LAX-EWR flight.

A line of people waiting for the toilet formed after the dinner and movie finished.  One lady in line sat on my arm rest!  When asked to stand up she gave me a hard time.

And on the same flight when I took my son to the lavatory his Gameboy was stolen.  I am sure it was someone from coach not first class.

Readers wrote in about how some coach passengers mistakenly believe the first class toilets are better and/or bigger than the coach class ones, which is perhaps why they are eager to use the one up front.  This is usually not the case - they are typically all the same size.  But they used to be definitely nicer in one respect - because the first class toilets got much less use than the coach ones, they'd tend to stay cleaner and fresher smelling.  This small benefit is obviously going to be lost, at least on AA flights.

Dinosaur watching :  Spirit Airlines is copying the strategy of some of Europe's most successful discount airlines by offering tickets for as little as one cent.  But, unlike the sales in Europe, this was a very short term special, expiring at midnight Thursday, and was for only an extremely limited number of seats on a very few flights.

Why did they do this?  Presumably it was their way of trying to obscure some of the other things they're doing - from 20 June Spirit will charge for every checked bag, and will also charge for soft drinks, juices, coffee and tea served on their flights.  Shame on them for this nickel and diming move.

They are also discontinuing the sale of first class tickets.  But instead, they are now going to start selling 'Big Front Seats'.  Does Spirit Airlines think we're idiots?  Do they think people would rather pay a premium fare for a 'Big Front Seat' than for a 'First Class Seat'?

Hopefully you didn't fly on US Airways on Sunday or Monday.  Their switch over of computer systems on Sunday morning all but paralyzed several of their airports, with checkin delays extending over three hours in some cases and many passengers missing flights, which continued to operate more or less on schedule, but with or without their passengers.

Note the term 'more or less on schedule'.  In actual fact, US Airways' system-wide ontime performance dropped down to a dismal 39% on Sunday and only slightly better at 43% on Monday (most other airlines were showing ontime performance in the mid 80s).

The key problem was with their automatic self-checkin kiosks.  One has to ask the question - didn't anyone test any of this before switching over?

I wrote last week about a proposal in Indonesia to ban jets that are older than ten years as a safety measure in response to a string of aircraft accidents.

I said then and repeat now that such a move would be stupid - there's at best a very weak correlation between aircraft age and flight safety.  Maintenance, pilot training, and navigation/air traffic control issues are much more relevant than the age of the plane's airframe.

And so should I even mention that the Garuda 737-400 that crashed while landing in Yogyakarta earlier this week (killing an unknown number of people variously reported as between 21 and 49, out of a total of 133 passengers and 7 crew) was 15 years old?

The cause of the crash is still unclear, but it seems the plane landed too fast and encountered severe downdraft as it was coming in to land.  Whatever the cause, airplane age does not seem to have been a factor.

Talking about safety, here's a nasty problem that we haven't heard the end of.  Most of us travel with a cell phone, probably a laptop, and perhaps an MP3 player as well.  Some of us have other electronic devices, too.

What do these all have in common?  Chances are they all have rechargeable lithium ion batteries - batteries that have, on rare occasion, burst into flames.

There's no denying that an unexpected fire in an airplane's overhead bins would be a very nasty thing, but is the solution to ban all such devices from airplanes entirely?  Because it is really an all or nothing issue - putting such equipment into checked baggage is actually more dangerous than carrying them on - at least if something bursts into flames in the passenger cabin, someone can attack the fire with an extinguisher and probably contain it before too much damage is done.  But what if the fire occurs in the cargo hold?  That could be much more dangerous and harder to detect and contain.

Here's a 'trial balloon' type statement from the Department of Transportation that doesn't really say much about what they're considering doing.  And what could they actually do, short of banning the batteries outright?

Traveling on a budget?  The Economist Group conducted a survey recently on the most expensive cities in the world.  Oslo topped the list, followed by Paris, Copenhagen, London, Tokyo, Osaka, Reykjavik, Zurich, Frankfurt and Helsinki.  New York came in at 28, Chicago at 36 and Los Angeles at 41.  Vancouver was number 36 and Montreal 39.

If you want to stay in the cheapest city, bad news.  You'll find yourself in Tehran.

Another survey, this one from ASTA (the American Society of Travel Agents).  According to a survey of ASTA members, the best airports to be 'stuck in' (within the US) are Atlanta and Orlando.  MSP was third and LAS fourth.

Internationally, Amsterdam came top and Heathrow came second.  Singapore and Frankfurt tied for third place.

And talking about surveys, could I ask you to help me with a small instant survey.  I've often wondered how many people actually read the newsletter each week, and so would like to find out.  If you are reading this, please would you click here to send an instant empty email to me to let me know you are indeed reading the newsletter.

To make this an accurate measurement, please do respond.  All you need do is click, nothing more, and of course you won't get any type of unwanted email back from me in return.  Thank you.

If you're in Mazatlan and looking for a different type of tourist experience, ask your taxi driver for a 'Narco' tour.

Taxi drivers, cashing in on the violent drug wars that have hit the area recently, take tourists around the town, showing off seized narco properties and famous murder scenes.  The tour costs about $18 a trip and there are plenty of sites to visit.

And in the unlikely event you've nothing to do in Las Vegas - and haven't gambled away all your money, here's the experience for you.  Zero Gravity Corp plans to begin offering flights from Las Vegas for those who want to experience zero gravity.  The company has already been offering such flights from Kennedy Space Center and occasionally from other cities.

Participants pay a cost of $3,500 for a package that includes a short training session and a 90-minute flight aboard a specially configured Boeing 727-200 that performs parabolic maneuvers to create a reduced gravity environment on the plane during phases of rapid descent.  Flights will be offered only a few times each month.

Do you hate traveling with checked luggage?  One solution, available for some years now, has been to use one of the luggage services that take your bags from your home and send them to your hotel destination for you.

A new company is offering perhaps the ultimate in convenient luggage service, albeit at close to the ultimate in cost, too (but if the airlines keep increasing their baggage fees, this will become more and more affordable).  Flylite will store a set of clothing for you in cities of your choice, and deliver the items you want to your hotel to be there upon your arrival, and take them back at the end of your trip, washing and dry cleaning them, ready for your next call upon them.

Expect to pay $500 to get the service set up and a minimum of $100 per delivery (plus cleaning charges) and of course, you'll need to send off complete sets of clothing to be held for when you need it.  But some people will find this a valuable service.

While we've been tending to view the competition for new passenger jet orders as very much a two horse race, that is not quite so.  A new entrant that may completely change the current duopoly enjoyed by Airbus and Boeing is emerging in China.

Although the first model Chinese passenger jet is too small to compete against Airbus and Boeing, it is expected there will be a 200 seater jet also in production within three years, placing it squarely alongside the current two manufacturers.  Details here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Two passengers repeatedly smuggled guns from Florida to Puerto Rico on board commercial airline flights.  One was caught last week carrying a duffle bag that contained 13 handguns, one rifle, and eight pounds of marijuana.

How did they manage to sneak their way through airport security so successfully and for so long?  With the greatest of ease.  You see, the two men worked as airport baggage handlers and so were able to use their access to bypass usual screening and security checks.

The TSA tells us that passengers were in no danger.  So if thirteen handguns and a rifle don't constitute a danger, can I please start traveling with my Swiss Army Knife again?

Details here.

Here's a story that ostensibly looks like another 'joke' type incident, vaguely reminiscent of the Shoe Bomber.  In reality, it may be very much more serious.  It seems very likely this was a test run to see if the items in question could be detected when being carried internally; if the harmless items made it through screening, quite likely the next time would have been with plastic explosive rather than chewing gum, and batteries and detonators rather than wires and magnets.

And perhaps the most serious of all is that if, after the shoe bomber incident, we all have to remove our shoes, what counter-measures will now be instituted after the hiding place used by the man in this case?

Political correctness comes to pedestrian crossing signs.

Global warming is a convenient scape-goat for all manner of unusual and seemingly unrelated things.  Here's one of the more bizarre things to be blamed on global warming.

A rose by any other name, part one :  Complaining that the word “Turkey” has a negative connotation, a Turkish businessman has suggested the country’s name be revised.  Ankara Chamber of Trade president Sinan Aygün said 'This is the name of a bird in English and is used in a derogatory way to reflect the low intelligence of the bird'.

His solution?  The country should be renamed and called Türkiye instead.  Which would, of course, never be confused with the bird.

A rose by any other name, part two :  I'm not even going to attempt telling this story about a town in Sweden wishing to change its name in the newsletter for fear of upsetting overly sensitive spam filters.  But if interested, you can click here.

Lastly, may I join the chorus of people reminding you that Sunday morning at 2am seems the start of daylight saving this year (remember the saying 'Spring forward, Fall back' so move your clocks forward an hour).

This year may be a bit of a problem because of the new earlier time for the switch.  Some computers and other electronic devices have been programmed for the previous 'standard' with the switch formerly occurring on the first Sunday in April (and ending on the last Sunday in October).  From now forward, daylight saving starts on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November.  This is projected to save a little bit of energy.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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