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Friday 17 August, 2007  

Good morning

I've been watching a slowly developing issue for months, and feel the time has come to draw it to your attention, in the form of a special Travel Insider editorial commentary which takes the place of much of this week's newsletter.

Is this the end of the world as we know it?  Well, that's maybe slightly more doom laden than called for, but have you been watching the trends in Europe, particularly Britain?  The end of the world may not be nigh, but the concept of 'cheap air travel for all' is being increasingly put at risk and vilified.

There is growing clamor in Britain for all manner of draconian limits on people's ability to travel by air.  'Carbon rationing' is a new concept gaining support from all levels of society - the concept that people should be restricted to only being able to do a limited number of things in their lives that result in carbon emissions.  Your carbon ration would conceivably be split between that used to heat and power your house, that used to drive your car, that used to fly, and so on, almost without limit (even flushing the toilet involves the use of carbon).

There's no real end to where this self flagellation could end.  Might we start seeing, on every box in the supermarket, a carbon rating along with the other ingredients listed, with points deducted from our carbon ration at checkout in a reverse type of supermarket loyalty program?  Might carbon consumption be tracked even when we're dining or drinking out?  And so on and so on.

The cynics among us would observe that the growing desire of governments to track our every move may mean that such complete tracking of everything we do would be welcomed by governments not just in the name of carbon controls but security.  And even those politicians who aren't obsessed by monitoring everything their country's citizens do will find the tempting opportunity to respond to such new sensitivities by raising taxes on offending airlines and passengers to be almost irresistible (as has happened in Britain already).

What is the point of carbon rationing, anyway?  If we voluntarily restrict ourselves in whatever way, how does that impact on the voracious growth and increasing carbon emissions in countries that are specifically excluded from the Kyoto Treaty (with China being the most notable example)?  Where is the sense of one small group of people limiting their actions, while other massive groups of people ignore such self-restrictions and indeed use their greater freedom to further enhance their competitive situation, their economy, and their growing affluence, all at our expense.

Who would design what a fair allocation of carbon per person would be?  How many pounds or tons of carbon would we each be entitled to?  Would it be possible to 'reverse the meter' and get credits for things like growing your own vegetables, planting trees, etc (but remember to deduct for carbon used in fertilizer, irrigation, etc)?

And, if we're going to move these things all the way into la-la land, we'll need to not just restrict carbon usage per person, but also restrict population growth, because the current unrestricted decision by a couple to have a child represents a massive discretionary new carbon release during the life of the new person created, vastly greater than any other single action we can do.  Or would we give bonus credits to adults limiting the number of children they choose to have?  Or perhaps issue carbon credits now, but never again to new borns (what about new immigrants?) and require the family of a newborn to then share their allocation with each extra family member, and will their credits on when they die?  Indeed, why not adopt carbon rationing at its simplest - follow the Chinese example and restrict family size (but who will be brave enough to call for that measure, a measure that would be decried as racist and elitist?).

Just about everything in our lives would end up being impacted if we allow ourselves to be carbon rationed.

There are any number of imponderable issues underlying these schemes - I've merely scribbled out a few without much thought, but the largely well-intentioned people supporting these schemes are pushing aggressively ahead without care, concern, or consequence, and with apparently no more thought than me.

For reasons best known to themselves, carbon rationing advocates have chosen to single out air travel as carbon enemy number one (but you've got to believe that, if/when they conquer this first objective, there will be new lifestyle issues they'll then focus on next), even though air travel represents something like only 2% of all global carbon emissions, and air travel can sometimes be the most efficient way of traveling.  The concept plays well to the unthinking classes by portraying air travelers as 'fat cats' who are selfishly destroying the planet, bringing about global warming and certain destruction to us all as a result of their international indulgences.

It also touches a receptive spot even in the hearts of frequent travelers.  Who among us doesn't hate the airlines, and so any time anyone sees groups attacking the airlines, their messages receive a sympathetic hearing, even if we don't understand that the attack is not just on the airlines but on us - their passengers - too.

Just remember, next time you get on a plane, that growing numbers of people are dedicating their lives to preventing you from doing that in the future, or, at the very least, seeking to limit the flights you can take each year, and impose massive carbon penalty payments onto your airfare.

What are the airlines doing about all of this?  Nothing.  Or, to be more precise, nothing effective.  Instead of aggressively fighting back in the court of public opinion, they're hiding in the corners, or - even worse - offering conciliatory statements about how they are trying to get better and become more fuel efficient, and muttering sullenly they're not really all that bad, all of which are comments that have already conceded the underlying concept that air travel is harmful and should be controlled or restricted or in some other way limited and taxed.

Although these same airlines can stonewall and stop passenger rights legislation, stone dead, at 100 paces, they seem completely ineffectual when responding to what promises to be their biggest external threat in the last 50 years.

You read it here first, folks.  Carbon rationing is going to become one of the big issues of the next decade, and if we allow the agenda to be dictated by a group of mis-guided idealistic greenies, we'll destroy our western way of life, while doing almost nothing to control world-wide carbon emissions, which (let's not forget) may or may not have anything to do with global warming, which (let's also not forget) may or may not actually be occurring at other than historic random levels of variation.

Worldwide, tourism is becoming the number one industry and employer of people.  International travel has brought wealth to poor nations and their people, and has changed all our lives, largely for the better.  It is hard to hate another race when you've visited and seen their country and their people first hand, and when their people have similarly visited your country - international travel is a major contributor to international peace.  So how is it that this entire industry (because, just as we learned on 9/11, if there is a problem with our airlines, all other parts of the tourist industry suffer, as do all the related industries that support tourism) is passively allowing itself to be vilified and victimized?

Much of the rest of business today relies on travel and transportation, from the next state or the next country or the 'global village' - whether it is outsourcing components, or selling to international markets, or importing cheap goods from China, or anything else.  Every aspect of our lives is interwoven with long distance travel and transportation (not just international but anything more than, say, 100 miles from home), all of which is being threatened.

Today, I have no answers, only questions.  But we all need to understand these shifting social currents and come up with fair and full answers, and we need to take a pro-active role in leading and shaping the public perception and debate.  None of that seems to be happening today.

I've been testing some new Bluetooth headsets recently, and what with major improvements in usability and comfort and functionality, combined with wonderful drops in cost, I was thinking that perhaps there's no longer much need to devote detailed feature reviews to these items.  And then, all of a sudden, I discover there are still major traps lurking out there to surprise the uninformed buyer, as witness :

This Week's Feature Column :  Motorola H3 Bluetooth Headset :  There's a lot to like about this stylish and inexpensive headset from leading phone manufacturer, Motorola.  But there's just one little problem, and alas, that one little problem switches the headset from a potential good buy to a product best left on the shelves.

Dinosaur watching :  What goes down must come up again?  American Airlines announced  plans to rehire 460 of the flight attendants who were laid off during the airline's struggle to avoid bankruptcy in the early/mid 2000s.

The flight attendants worked for TWA, which American had bought out of bankruptcy in early 2001. The union representing American’s flight attendants put their TWA counterparts at the bottom of the seniority ladder, meaning the TWA workers were first to lose their jobs when AA slashed thousands of jobs.

One wonders what the laid off flight attendants were doing for the last six years.

Talking about American, the airline has had an earlier ruling against them upheld in the US Court of Appeals.  The appellate court confirmed AA's liability for causing a woman's death when she was forced to check a bag containing breathing apparatus needed for a respiratory problem when flying from Los Angeles to Guyana in 1997.

An AA ground attendant at LAX promised her the bag would be given back immediately upon arrival in Guyana.  It wasn't - the bag was lost, and the lady passenger died several days later.

While talking about law suits, here's one I hope occurs - dozens of passengers stranded on a Continental plane for 4.5 hours (before being briefly taken off the plane then returned back to the plane for further waiting) are now threatening to sue the airline.  I'm not sure what they'll be sued for doing/not doing, but good luck to the passengers.  Details here.

And talking about delays, here's a slightly specious headline suggesting that every flight at Heathrow was delayed a couple of days ago.  In truth, transient weather issues delayed many flights, but that doesn't make for quite such a good headline, and currently Britain is in a frenzy of Heathrow bashing, in large part as an adjunct to the anti-air protesters/campaigners - see my editorial at the top of the page.

The anti-air travel campaigners are sensibly going after the low lying fruit, and Heathrow has become the airport that everyone loves to hate in Britain (and in much of the rest of the world, too), no matter what the underlying facts may be, and no matter how much of Heathrow's problems are actually caused not by the airport but by understaffed airlines.

Over the Channel, France too has an airport-it-loves-to-hate, with IATA saying the service at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris is among the worst in the world.

A statement said 'Airports range from very good — Singapore for example — to the very bad and Paris unfortunately comes in at the bottom end of the spectrum'.  A French tour company director added 'Charles de Gaulle is a disgrace. The interminable queues, the overcrowding, the complete indifference of the personnel: it's like a third-world airport.'

But the airport has a solution to its woes.  This summer the airport is offering free aromatherapy and Korean relaxation classes to help relieve the stress.

Stress?  Did someone say stress?  A study of passengers at Heathrow, conducted over 18 months and involving 2500 passengers, found that stress levels reached higher levels than those of people experiencing knife-point muggings,  free-fall parachutists, or Formula 1 racing drivers.  Heart rates peaked at four times resting levels.

This discussion of worst airport raises an interesting question :  Which do you think the worst airport in the US is?  When I say 'worst' I mean the one you dread flying in or out of the most, for whatever combination of reasons that are most important to you.

Please click on the link below to send an empty email with your answer encoded into the subject line; I'll publish the results next week.

    ATL    DEN    DFW    DTW    IAD

    JFK    LAS    LAX    LGA    MIA

    ORD    PHL    PHX    SFO    Other

Travel advisory :  Aer Lingus is cancelling all its trans-Atlantic flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, 21 & 22 August, due to a pilots strike.  Only a limited schedule of flights will operate on 23 August, and the airline is advising you not to book travel with them (if you haven't already done so) during the period 20 - 26 August.  Details on their website.

With the year half gone already, there's no clear winner yet in this year's race between Airbus and Boeing to see who collects the most new plane orders for the year.  As of the end of July, both airlines held orders for 688 new planes.

In contrast, in 2006 Boeing resoundingly beat Airbus, 1044 to 790, being Boeing's first win since 2000.  Here's an interesting table of airplane orders (and - scroll up - for deliveries, too).

Here's an interesting article on Air New Zealand looking at installing sleeping pods into the coach sections of its new 777 and 787 planes.

The problem is that, unlike business and first class convertible seat/beds, these coach class pods would only be for people sleeping, with no provision for sitting up, watching videos, or eating.  A good idea, but perhaps it needs a bit more work done on it.

Boeing has had to admit to a slight (one month) delay in the roll-out of its new 787.  This is regrettable, but a one month delay is vastly better than Airbus' multi-year delays on its new A380.

The A380 now has been officially given a date for its first ever commercial flight.  Singapore Airlines will receive its first A380 on 15 October this year, and fly it on a Singapore to Sydney flight ten days later on 25 October.

And talking about delays, the headline on this article talks about the cost of delays in getting passports issued as approaching $1 billion.

That sounds about right, or maybe a bit low.  I know lots of travelers who have had to cancel or change their travel bookings, often incurring change or cancel penalties in the process.  But read the article, and you'll discover it is not costing delays to us, but rather the cost to the government, and in a poorly written article, it isn't even clear how much of these costs simply reflect the fact that more passports are being issued.

Read on and - shock, horror - you'll see that the State Department might now need to keep $20 of the $100 passport application fee for itself to cover costs, instead of its earlier allocation of $6.

So what happens to the other $80 - $94 of the passport application fee?  Has the government been marking up its passport issuing cost 1600%?

Here's a story so unlikely I had to trace it back as far as I could to sources.  It seems to be legitimate, and can best be read here.  Apparently The Vatican is about to start operating charter flights for pilgrims, and - well, read the article....

And here's an object lesson for the airlines - Netflix is attempting to compete against Blockbuster by offering - gasp - better customer service, with US based call center employees.

Apparently Netflix believes that good customer service may help it to keep existing customers and gain new ones.  Revolutionary thinking!

Naughty Travelocity - In a first for an online travel company, Travelocity has been fined by federal regulators for booking trips between the U.S. and Cuba in violation of the 45-year-old embargo on US citizens traveling to Cuba.

Travelocity earlier this month paid $182,750 to settle a complaint brought by the U.S. Treasury, which said the company violated the prohibition nearly 1,500 times between January 1998 and April 2004.

But did Travelocity 'fess up, apologize, and take its lumps fairly and squarely?  Oh no.  Instead, a Travelocity spokesman said 'The trips to Cuba were unintentionally permitted to be booked by consumers online because of some technical failures several years ago and it's just now being finally settled', adding 'In no way did the company intend to allow bookings for trips to Cuba and the company has fully cooperated with OFAC and implemented corrective measures.'

How did travel to Cuba accidentally appear on Travelocity's website in the first place?  Let's not blame a disembodied 'technical failure', how about the name of the person who willfully loaded Cuban travel products into the computer that is now being blamed for a 'technical failure'?

And what a pathetic wrist slap by the Treasury Department.  The fine works out to about $122 per person booked to Cuba.  I wonder how much profit Travelocity made on each of those bookings?

Happy birthday, today, to the compact disc, which turns 25.  The first CDs came off an assembly line in Hanover, Germany on 17 August, 1982 (featuring Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony - a curious choice of first pressing).  Details here.

And here's a product that hopefully won't live to its first birthday, let alone a 25th.  It is a cosmetic spray that claims to protect your skin against cell phone radiation.  As if....

This Week's Security Horror Story :  I mentioned last week how airline staff complain about security threats inappropriately as a way of quelling any customer complaint.  Here's a recent example.

An Australian woman has reportedly sparked a security scare aboard a US flight after her use of a common Australian phrase was apparently misinterpreted as an act of aggression.

Sophie Reynolds, 41, from Queanbeyan, was flying aboard SkyWest Airlines from Atlanta to Pittsburgh this week when she asked a flight attendant if she could have a pack of pretzels instead of crackers.

"[The flight attendant] said they didn't have any [pretzels], and I said, 'Fair dinkum,' out of frustration," Reynolds was quoted as saying in the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Before she knew it a second flight attendant asked her for her passport and copied down her name.  Then, when the flight landed, three uniformed officers greeted her.

"They said, 'You swore at the hostess and there are federal rules against that,"' Reynolds said. "And I said, 'I did not swear at the hostess, I just said 'fair dinkum."'

Details here.

Talking about inappropriate behavior by flight attendants, there is now some video circulating of the drunk flight attendant.

Sometimes the technological capabilities of security equipment exceeds the ability of the people using it.  For example, this fearsomely futuristic plan for machines to scan crowds and detect potential terrorists from facial tics and other terrorist-indicating mannerisms.

A great idea, perhaps, but what happens when ignorant fools like these TSA staffers end up being tasked with managing such equipment?

My comment at how beggars often make surprisingly good livings brought in this article from reader Bob about affluent beggars in Ashland, OR.  Apparently the featured beggars disappeared shortly after their 5 minutes of fame in the local paper.

And lastly, what to make of this picture?  Was the plane's pilot on his way for a lesson, perhaps?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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