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Friday 24 August, 2007  

Good morning

A very important day for me today, but perhaps not so epochal for the rest of you.  It is my daughter's third birthday.  And, no, Anna has yet to sign up to receive the newsletter.  Maybe next year....

Talking about young things reminds me of reader feedback from last week's newsletter.  I always get an interesting sprinkling of comments (and sometimes corrections!) such as to soberly remind me that invariably at least one of you knows more about each topic than I.

But last week's newsletter brought about two surprising sets of responses.  The first surprise was a gentle soul who somehow thought that my opening item in the weekly 'Dinosaur watching' section (about AA hiring back formerly furloughed flight attendants) was meant to imply the flight attendants were the dinosaurs.  This not only upset her greatly (she apparently being one such person) but she also encouraged two of her industry friends to write in even more incoherent responses about this non-existent slight.

The other surprising thing was the response to my commentary about carbon rationing.  Usually when I espouse a non-mainstream and politically incorrect view, I get a rush of reader comments protesting my views, often in fairly offensive terms, even though my sense is that the 'silent majority' of readers quietly agree with me.  And so I was steeling myself for another onslaught of ill-tempered emails, but to my astonishment, apart from one oblique reference, no-one wrote to disagree with me, and - for once - the silent majority turned around and sent in a vast number of emails expressing their support and appreciation for someone daring to speak the other side of this story.

Further apropos reader replies, thank you to everyone who sent in their opinions about the worst airport in the US.  This was far from a scientific survey, and clearly airports which more people are familiar with run the risk of receiving more negative votes than airports which fewer readers have passed through.

However, there was a clear standout winner (or should that be, 'loser'?).  And to consider the point that better known airports may attract higher votes, I've created two tables - the first showing raw scores - the actual votes received by each airport, and the second being a 'misery index' which adjusts the score to reflect the number of airplane operations in 2006 at each airport (per FAA data).

Even the misery index score is far from a scientific number (because many of the frequent flier readers will be familiar with many of the airports suggested), but it is interesting to see the range in values and which airports score consistently high or low with both raw scores and adjusted scores.

First, the raw scores without adjusting for airport size.

Special mention should be made of the score for Newark (18 votes).  Although this seems like a commendable score, I had originally omitted Newark from the list of 14 airports to choose from.  Newark received this number in the form of 'write in' special votes, however; more than Phoenix received (a named airport, which only received 7 votes, and nearly the same as Detroit (21 votes).  One suspects that if Newark had been a named airport, its score would have been much higher.

Secondly, the misery index.

JFK confirms its clear position as worst airport, but the number two airport now becomes Miami, whereas Chicago's score drops considerably.

As always, many thanks to all who voted, helping to make this another interesting survey.  We received a 5.9% response rate from readers, which is about the usual level of response.

Our new series on automotive GPS units continues to grow, and thanks to reader Fred for allowing me the generous use of his new Garmin StreetPilot 7200 to enable me to provide this week's addition to the series (now with six units reviewed and a seventh review in preparation) :

This Week's Feature Column :  Garmin StreetPilot 7200 GPS : Does size matter?  The Garmin 7200 GPS receiver has a very large screen.  But is bigger better?  To find the answer to the question that some suggest has plagued men over the ages, you'll need to go read the review.

Dinosaur watching :  The usual suspects.....  Delta announced its pick to become their CEO.  Although speculation has been, for a year or more, that either the airline's COO or CFO would be promoted, and both contenders seemed to be raising their visibility in attempts to win the prize, neither contender won.

In a disappointment to them both, the airline's board looked outside of Delta and chose instead Richard Anderson.  Delta's board chairman gushed

After a thorough search, the board concluded that Richard Anderson possesses the right blend of seasoned leadership, strategic skills, international experience and airline knowledge the company needs to navigate the industry's challenges and capitalize on its opportunities.  Well-qualified with a proven track record in this highly competitive industry, Richard has a demonstrated ability to master the competitive pressures of today's marketplace with innovation and an unwavering focus on the customer.

So who is Richard and what are his demonstrated abilities and proven track record?  He's been a board member of Delta for the last some years, and before that, for three years between 2001 and October 2004, he was CEO of Northwest Airlines.  During the first nine months of 2004 alone, NW lost almost half a billion dollars, and went into bankruptcy a year after Anderson left (as too did Delta).  In between leaving NW and his new job at DL (starting on 1 September) he was executive VP for UnitedHealth Group.

So Mr Anderson oversaw one airline as it headed towards bankruptcy and then sat on DL's board during DL's bankruptcy.

Some are wondering about the signal that choosing Anderson is sending to the industry.  There has often been intense speculation about a possible merger between NW and DL, and having a former NW CEO now at the helm of Delta would seem to facilitate that process greatly.

To be fair to Mr Anderson, people who have worked with him have told me positive things.  But there seems little reason to expect, based on his past career, much 'outside the box' thinking, with the so-called 'New Delta' being headed by an airline industry insider who seems likely to deliver more of the same rather than anything excitingly new.

The usual suspects part 2 (or should I say 'spinning through the revolving door'?) :  Marion Blakey, the current head of the FAA, will become the new head of the Aerospace Industries Association in November.  The AIA is a trade group representing aerospace companies, and Ms Blakey completes her five year appointment as head of the FAA on 13 September.

And no word, yet, of any successor to replace her at the FAA.  I guess President Bush has other things on his mind at present.

Which is the world's largest airline, as measured by passenger traffic?  Last year the correct answer would have been American Airlines - the airline carried some 100 million passengers.

But this year the answer may prove to be Southwest Airlines, which has inched ahead of AA, carrying 40.3 million passengers through May compared to 40 million carried by AA.

Lax expectations?  Or LAX expectations?  And is there a difference?  The LA Airport Authority has come up with a webpage with the ambiguous title Laxpectations, all about development work being undertaken at LAX.

An unfortunate choice of name, perhaps.

Here's yet another interesting article about the renaissance in the travel agent industry, quoting the former CEO of Travelocity who confesses that, even while CEO of Travelocity, he would go and use a regular travel agent when booking his own travels.

Some of you may note that I used a 'tinyurl' for the link to the article above.  The reason for that is due to some of the mis-configured spam filters out there that will refuse to allow any emails through with links pointing to that totally bona fide news site.

It variously amuses and frustrates me to see travel agencies with spam filters on their email servers that reject urls that point to a travel agent focused website.

The ugly American?  Mais non, said 1,500 European hotel managers when asked to rank tourists' traits by nationality.  American visitors, they said, are the most generous, most interested in local cuisine and most willing to adopt the local language. On the downside, they said, we're the worst dressed.

The managers, polled online by the German branch of Expedia.com, ranked Americans No. 2 as 'overall best travelers', next to the Japanese.  The worst travelers are the French.  Sacré bleu!

Another survey, this one of British travelers conducted by Virgin Travel Insurance, listed the Top 10 'Most Disappointing Sites' in Britain and the entire world.  English icon, Stonehenge, came top of the British list, with almost as well known Big Ben also being included.

Internationally, the worst place was said to be the Eiffel Tower.  Sacré bleu, again.  The British also voted a French location into the number two place (The Louvre), with the rest of the top ten being Times Square, Las Ramblas, Statue of Liberty, Spanish Steps, The White House, the Pyramids, Brandenburg Gate and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

On a more positive note, leading the Must See list was The Treasury at Petra in Jordan, followed by the Grand Canal in Venice, the Masai Mara game park in Kenya and Sydney's Coathanger, perhaps better known to non-Sydneysiders as the Harbor Bridge.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Montreal's Trudeau Airport was closed for three hours on Saturday after security screeners somehow first missed then noticed what looked like a knife showing on the X-ray of a carry-on bag that went through an X-ray machine.  By the time the screeners had decided the image was of a knife, the bag had been collected by its owner, who had disappeared into the terminal.

Security officers searched about 20 planes before they found the passenger, bag, and knife.  Their search was hampered by not even knowing if they were searching for a man or woman.  The knife was part of a 'multi-tool' or 'Leatherman' type utility tool.

Was this a balanced response?  Security agents miss the knife, but somehow notice it a short while later.  They can see on the screen that it is some sort of small multi-purpose took that has a knife blade, and it is one knife in one bag belonging to one person.  But rather than say to themselves 'Big deal, we miss dozens of knives every day without even realizing it, what is one more', they panic, lock down the airport, and delay flights up to three hours.

And - just in case you're thinking otherwise - a Canadian Air Transport Security Authority spokeswoman was quick to point out who was to blame in this case.  Oh no, it wasn't the quick slow thinking security staff who let the bag through and only later noticed a knife image on their X-ray screen that were to blame for this colossal over-reaction.  It was, of course, the passenger who was to blame.  The spokeswoman said  'This is another case where passengers who are not aware can cause huge, huge disruptions.'

I'd written without commenting sufficiently, last week, about the TSA's plans to do more behavioral monitoring of passengers in an attempt to spot potential terrorists based on subtle behavioral clues.  This article speaks uncritically about the concept, and this article talks about arranging for computers to do this instead of people.

Ignoring for a moment (as does the NYT article above) the sense behind the concept of being subtly sized up to determine if you're a terrorist or not by the person who checks that your Photo ID matches your boarding pass, I'd like to point out one of the oldest tricks in the law enforcement PR book.  Note, in the second article, the sentence

Behavioral detection is already used by specially trained officers in the Transportation Security Administration - with 273 arrests made as a result since June 2004, said spokesman Christopher White.

Doesn't that sound excellent?  But - wait.....  We know the TSA arrested 273 people in slightly over 3 years, but who cares about the number of arrests.  Let's be told, instead, the number of convictions.  Let's be told the number of bombs found.  Let's be told the number of terrorist plots foiled.

This is the oldest trick in the law enforcement PR book - to talk about arrests, not convictions.  Of course the number of arrests is usually higher than the number of convictions, but this disparity in numbers should not be something to be proud about.  Most non-convicted people who have been arrested have been grossly inconvenienced for no good purpose.

One has to suppose, based on the TSA's silence on these points (and for sure if they actually did achieve something more notable than arresting people then subsequent embarrassedly releasing them with an apology, they'd be the first to sing their own praises to the media) that while they've arrested 273 people, none of these arrests have resulted in a conviction worthy of comment, and most of them have ended up with no prosecution, just a massively inconvenienced lawful citizen.

Is this really a program we want to feel good about and see grow - one that arrests innocent people to no good purpose, while, in over three years, has apparently not caught a single terrorist?

Which brings me back to the concept of having the ID checker at the start of the security line empowered to make important decisions about who might be terrorists.  Is this really a good idea?

One other related thought.  The TSA is quoted, at the end of the NYT article, as saying they'd like to do a 50 second interview with each passenger.  That sounds like a minimal increase in hassle, doesn't it.  What is 50 more seconds while going through the airport?

Well, it mightn't be much extra time, but for sure, the line to wait for the interview will be longer than the lines currently are.  And think about how many extra staff the TSA will need for this.  I'm guessing that there are about one billion security clearances for airline passengers a year.  If each interview takes 50 seconds, the TSA can probably manage one interview a minute (allow a few seconds for one passenger to leave the interview station and the next passenger to arrive), which works out to be 8,500 man years of work a year, just for 50 second interviews.

Now adjust for staffing levels, shifts, and that sort of thing, and to provide those 8,500 man years, you'll probably need to employ 12,000 extra staff, plus supervisors, and so on.  At a total cost per employee of, say, $75,000 per employee, that quickly adds up to a lot of people and a lot of money.  In return for which, we hope the staff will be able to accurately detect terrorists while not making ordinary citizens' lives much more complicated, with the ever present threat of being arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist, and being guilty until proven innocent of the charge.

And how likely is that?  Not very.  My guess is there will be a lot of 'false positive' incidents where ordinary innocent people are accused of being terrorists, while at the same time, real terrorists will have perhaps a 50/50 chance (or better) of slipping through unnoticed.

Which also leads to the concept of being liable to be arrested on nothing more than a TSA staffer's hunch that you might be a terrorist because, in their opinion, you are acting suspiciously, then missing your flight, being treated like a criminal, being interrogated (almost certainly without an attorney present) by hostile TSA staffers, threatened with all manner of federal offenses, possibly being strip searched, and all without any wrong having been committed by you, or any law being broken.

Is it just me, or does that conflict with your view as well about our much boasted about freedom in this country?  And all the while, terrorists may choose to stay away from the airports and attack shopping malls, sports grounds, schools, or who knows what else where else, while laughing at the loss of rights we've inflicted on ourselves at the airports for no good purpose.

Ageism part one :  Two Alaska parents are asking Alaska Airlines to reconsider its policy after their 15-year-old daughter bought a ticket and boarded a plane without ever being asked to show her ID, either by airline staff or the TSA.

The girl hadn't asked her parents' permission to fly from their hometown of Juneau to North Carolina to see a boy she met online.  She stole money from her parents over a long period, and at the airport purchased her (almost $600) ticket in denominations of ones and fives at the actual ticket counter. But no one stopped the teen at the ticket counter or asked for ID when she boarded, because the TSA only requires passengers older than 18 years old to show a photo ID.

In a statement the TSA said: 'The passenger in question was appropriately screened and posed no security threat.'

Ageism part two :  Apparently a different policy applied to a seven year old Muslim boy, however.  The UK resident flew to Florida with his family on vacation, and was stopped three times on suspicion of being a terrorist.  His name was (can you guess what is following) the same as an adult Pakistani who was deported from the US.

As part of this farce, the family missed flying home because, as this article reports, 'officials cancelled their tickets in the confusion'.

Fortunately, the family has a solution in mind, should they ever wish to travel to the US again.  They are considering changing their son's name.  I hope that terrorists aren't that clever and also think to change their names....

Political correctness tries to infect the FBI.  After repeated sightings of two men acting suspiciously on Washington state's ferries, and with the captain of one ferry taking pictures of the men and passing them on to the authorities, the FBI tried to find out who the two Middle Eastern seeming men were.  After not being able to identify them, they published a picture to help them in their enquiries.

This outraged the local Seattle Arab-American and Muslim communities, who claim (demand) that the FBI should have consulted them first before doing such a racist and prejudicial harmful thing.  There are two stories in the Seattle Times - this one and an earlier one - that struggle to portray these events through the paper's own very PC slant, which just makes their own tone of sympathetic outrage all the more ridiculous.  Indeed, the Seattle Times at first refused to publish the picture, apparently believing it was in a better position than the FBI to make a decision as to the motives of the two suspects.

Last I heard, no groups complain when the FBI publish pictures of middle aged white men as suspects in investigations.  Of course, on the other hand, very few middle aged white men have featured prominently in terrorist attacks.

Many of us have the belief that all senators and congressmen get special treatment when flying, so as to keep them onside with the airlines.  That may or may not be true, in some or all cases, but apparently their bags don't get special treatment, even if they do (and I know the same to be true for airline CEOs, who have also had to suffer lost baggage).  Here's one particular congressman who seemed very upset when his bag was late.

So upset, in fact, that he's now being charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor Assault and Battery offense.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and keep calm if your bags are delayed

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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