[Web version of this newsletter]  [Newsletter Archives]  [Website Home Page]  [Please Donate Here]

Friday 21 September, 2007  

Good morning

Last week's reader survey brought more responses than any other survey I can recall.  8.1% of readers sent in their opinions, compared to a typical response rate of just below 6%.

There have been other surveys by other organizations on this topic of course, asking people their opinions about what happened on 9/11, and there have been significant percentages of people in these surveys indicating they are suspicious of the official account about what happened - for example this survey (conducted in July 2006) of an apparently neutral unbiased poll.

Travel Insider readers are generally well educated, broadly experienced in life, and probably somewhat questioning of official versions of the truth in general, and so I'd expected quite different results to those received.  Most surprising was that more than one in three readers chose the option 'There is no doubt in my mind that 9/11 happened as is almost universally accepted and I find suggestions to the contrary to be offensive and ridiculous', including a large number of readers who I've personally come to know and respect enormously.

But - 'no doubt in my mind' and 'suggestions to the contrary to be offensive and ridiculous'? Those are very strong words, aren't they. And, while I know and respect many of the people who answered this way, I've similarly noticed that some of the people with the completely opposite opinion are also people who I know and respect.

So no matter what my personal opinions may be, I find myself motivated to at least hear both sides out and try to understand why it is they have such conflicting views. With the greatest of gentle respect, I wonder how much serious study had been done by some of the people who are so confident of the accuracy and completeness of their knowledge, before forming their immutable view, and I'm fearful of societies who consider suggestions contrary to their own beliefs/opinions to be offensive and ridiculous.

I truly have no hidden agenda item here, but I do urge anyone who finds themselves locking their mind tightly shut on any issue (and especially if not having first given the topic a full and fair review) to try and accept a bit of the other side's story should at least be allowed to co-exist.  When we start considering non-conforming beliefs to be offensive and ridiculous, we abandon a core component of what made America the great nation it is - an open inclusiveness, an acceptance of people with widely differing views, and allowing them the generous freedom to express such views.  We risk becoming the same as our enemies in the world today, most of whom have as their prime distinguishing feature a very negative approach to dissent.  Debate, divergence, and dissent are what help us to be as innovative, successful, and competitive as we truly are.

Enough preaching from me.  As you can see from the results below, 70% of readers are completely accepting of the official 9/11 story, and another 20% believe the official version but are open minded to at least receiving other explanations.  Of the remaining 10%, 8% say they're not sure we know the whole truth and believe there to be inconsistencies in the official version of events, leaving 2% who completely reject every part of the mainstream explanation.

One interesting thing about how I perceive the mix of people answering this survey.  My sense, based on the little I know of some of the people who responded is that both Democrats and Republicans, and both hawks and doves, seem to be similarly represented in most of the categories.  Almost uniquely, this is not an issue split along party lines or ideologies.

As always, thanks to everyone who answered.  And noting the 34.5% of readers who find the topic very sensitive, in a rare example of self restraint, I think that's all I will or should say.

I'm interrupting the 'How to Complain' series to offer you another article on GPS units.  I had to urgently write a piece for a travel magazine this week on the topic, and it seemed sense to then extend it and add it to the growing reference section about GPS units.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Using a GPS Internationally : A GPS receiver helps you never get lost on the road, and so can be even more valuable when traveling internationally.  But there's one big 'gotcha' to guard against with your GPS that you need to understand.

The discounted cabin on the Christmas Markets cruise remains available for some lucky couple (save $200 each).  I'm applying the deposit of a cancelled couple to whoever else wishes to take their booking over.  Click here for cruise details - and booking application.  This truly is a wonderful cruise that I highly recommend and heartily encourage you to join us.

Dinosaur watching :  Southwest finally responded to the growing clamor of criticism about its actions insisting two young women wear less revealing clothing on their flights.  In a leaden attempt to inject some levity into their actions, CEO Gary Kelly issued a statement that said

From a Company who really loves PR, touché to you Kyla!  Some have said we've gone from wearing our famous hot pants to having hot flashes at Southwest, but nothing could be further from the truth.  As we both know, this story has great legs, but the true issue here is that you are a valued Customer, and you did not get an adequate apology.  Kyla, we could have handled this better, and on behalf of Southwest Airlines, I am truly sorry.  We hope you continue to fly Southwest Airlines.  Our Company is based on freedom even if our actions may have not appeared that way.  It was never our intention to treat you unfairly and again, we apologize.

And showing that Southwest at least appreciate that there's no such thing as bad publicity, it attempted to leverage off its media attention by trying to link it to a new fare sale (and hoping we wouldn't notice their fare increases that also occurred this week).

In other Southwest news, they continue to move closer towards 'normal' airline practices and procedures.  This week they announced some changes to their (in)famous open seating policy.  In addition to being given the traditional A/B/C zone boarding pass, each pass will now be numbered, reserving you a place within the category line you belong to, allowing you the freedom to move about the airport prior to when boarding commences.  Passengers will then board in groups of five.

Southwest also said they'll no longer offer priority boarding for families with children four and under.  These passengers will now board after the A group (unless they're already part of the A group).  And the airline is also tweaking its exit row policy.  It seems that some people were able to be pre-boarded on the basis of an illness or disability and then they were able to get the exit row seats, even though federal regulations require exit row passengers to speak English, to be healthy, and able to open the (sometimes heavy) exit door in an emergency.

The dinosaurs are looking fairly healthy at present.  U.S. airlines posted their highest operating profit margin in the second quarter since 2000, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Margins of 8.8% for the April-to-June period also marked the first time since 2000 that airlines have had five consecutive profitable quarters, the bureau said.

The statistics arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation tracks the financial statements of 21 network, low-cost and regional carriers. The agency said the industry's largest airlines, the network carriers, reported an operating profit margin of 9.2%, a seven-year high, making it the only group to report a higher profit margin in the second quarter of 2007 compared to the same period in 2006.

An 'operating profit' is a bit like a 'gross profit' - many expenses have not yet been figured in to the operating profit, so in many respects it is a misleading statistic which airlines love to quote when they're seeking to obscure a real world bad bottom line net profit.

As an unsurprising adjunct to growing numbers of passengers and greater profits, the US carriers employed 2.6% more workers in July 2007 than they did a year previously.  This overall number has some interesting information within it.

Staffing at the seven major airlines increased less than the industry as a whole - a mere 1.5%.  Most of the increase in staffing came from the low cost carriers.

Within the major dinosaurs, Delta had the largest staff increase (8%) while Northwest Airlines had the largest staff decrease (a reduction of 3.8%).

Talking about Northwest, the airline's CEO said that if his airline (and all the others) cut back on their over-scheduling at congested airports (one of the factors that currently causes the chronic delays in many flights - you'll see this when you see a cluster of flights all with the same scheduled departure time, something that is of course and obviously impossible) then that would probably cause air fares to increase.  Hmmm - you'd think he might welcome such a development.

In other words, he is saying that you and I would rather save a few dollars on our flight than to save a few hours in time we variously either waste or need in planning for delays which might or might not anticipate.  Many of us have already learned our lesson and no longer schedule vital meetings for the same day we're traveling; preferring to allow more 'fudge factor' and arriving the previous day.  Chances are we'd be delighted to pay something extra per ticket in return for a higher probability of actually getting where we wish to go and more or less when we wish to be there.

It isn't just the US showing positive results (or terrible delays!) for the airlines - IATA boosted its forecast for full-year 2007 global airline industry earnings by 9.8% to $5.6 billion earlier this week; but at the same time lowered its projection for 2008 by 18.8% to $7.8 billion.

The improved profit for 2007 was issued even though IATA increased the cost it uses for jet fuel from $63 to $67 a barrel.  Surprisingly, although an increased cost of jet fuel didn't get in the way of an improved profit this year, IATA said this was a factor in causing it to reduce the 2008 profit projection.

Isn't that an example of having their cake and eating it too?  Just like an airline!

Interestingly, IATA estimates that labor productivity is up an incredible 56% since 2001, and nonfuel unit costs are down 15% in the same period.

Of course, the overall industry averages don't reflect each individual airline's trend.  Silverjet - the startup UK based all business class airline offering service between London's Luton airport and Newark, has said it lost £18.2 million in its first year (including a one-off goodwill write-down of £6.3 million), and expects to lose a further £16 million in its current financial year through March 2008.

However, the good news is that Silverjet expects to soon have its first profitable month, and says it is filling 80% of seats.  It will start a new route from London to Dubai in November, with rates significantly below the business class fares charged by Emirates and British Airways.

Talking about British Airways, BA announced this week it was ending its nonstop service between Detroit and Heathrow (NW will continue to operate nonstop service to Gatwick).  Apparently the route - operated by BA for 51 years - had been losing money for some time, and continued company closures in the Detroit region have made an already bad route no longer sustainable any further.

BA will use the freed up flights to add to current services to/from Seattle (yay!), and probably also JFK, Orlando and perhaps Dulles.

BA will also be cancelling service to Zimbabwe, meaning that no non-African airlines will now provide service to the country.

And in some good BA news, it was named the best airline in the annual UK based Business Traveler Awards.  Best First Class went to Singapore Airlines, best Business Class and best Premium Economy to Virgin Atlantic, and best Economy Class to British Airways, which was also named best shorthaul airline and airline with the best frequent flier program.  Among miscellaneous other awards was one for favorite luggage brand, which went to Samsonite.  It seems too few people in the UK know of my own favorite luggage brand - Briggs & Reilly.

Chances are the results would be very different if the voters were more based in the US than UK.

You may increasingly see the low cost airline Air Berlin on your European travels.  The airline recently bought out European airline LTU, and has now bought another airline - Condor.  Condor's 35 aircraft will bring Air Berlin's total up to 167 planes, with a growth from 11 to 20 planes capable of longer haul services.

And you may increasingly see new US discount carrier and startup, SkyBus, within the US too.  The Columbus, OH based airline announced it will fly to four new destinations :  Chattanooga, Milwaukee, Gulfport-Biloxi, and Punta Gorda, from 5 December.

Air Canada has found another way to nickel and dime its passengers.  It is changing how it counts the number of allowable carry-on items per passenger.  Baby strollers and car seats, formerly allowed on in addition to other pieces, will now be counted towards your two item per person limit.

We're seeing a rush of announcements about on-board internet service, with American, Alaska, and Virgin America all planning to release limited or full internet service on their planes in the next year or so.  Alaska is initially to trial a service on one plane, American will be testing on 'some' of its 767s, and Virgin plans to have service on all its planes 'sometime in 2008'.

Airbus continues its terribly drawn out revisions to its A350 concept.  After first announcing that its A330 was sufficiently superior to compete with the new Boeing 787, Airbus subsequently came out with a very disappointing initial A350 specification that resulted in very few orders, while the 787 was cleaning up orders left, right and center.

Responding much too belatedly to the clear marketplace imperative, Airbus then redesigned the A350, making it a better plane but delaying its launch, and in response to continued criticism, this week said it will now build the main A350 frame from composite materials rather than from aluminium alloy as earlier planned.  This addresses what some people had felt to be a considerable area of inferiority compared to the 787.  The switch to an all-composite airframe will lighten the plane, reduce fuel consumption, increase the plane's range and reduce wear on landing gear.

The A350 is hoped to have its first delivery in 2013, a long five years after the 787's release next year.

There have been two very negative articles about the 787 this week.  The first points out that the composite materials being used in the new 787 will burn much more readily than aluminium does, and when the composites do burn, they release hydrogen cyanide (the gas used in gas chambers).  That's a massive negative impact for survivability in plane crashes.

And, talking about massive impacts, a former Boeing engineer has made public his concerns about the overall safety of the new plane's design.  He points to several concerns about the design and the adequacy of testing.

Are his concerns valid, or are they sour grapes after being fired?  I have no idea.  But, as I said as recently as last week, the potential problem of building a plane in this new way is that none of us yet accurately know what we don't know, and the computer modeling is only as good as the assumptions programmed into it.

Congratulations to Canada.  The Canadian dollar is now worth more than a US dollar.  Just 3 - 4 years ago, a US dollar bought about C$1.55; now it doesn't quite bring C$1.00.  The US dollar has also dropped so that it now costs over $1.40 to buy a single Euro, and over $2 to buy a single pound.  International travel is getting more and more expensive.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A British citizen who has been living in the US for some time, with a US fiancé, and who works as a music professor at Mills College in Oakland, CA, and who is building growing renown internationally for her scholarship on English composer Sir Edward Elgar was intercepted when returning back to the US from an international visit and told she was no longer allowed to enter the US.

Her reasonable question was 'Why?'.  One year later, and she still doesn't know why she can no longer live and work in the US.  The State Department is refusing to discuss the case with the press, and apparently with her, too.

How can one prove one's innocence when one isn't even provided details of the crime one is alleged to have committed?  Oh - and wait..... why does anyone need to prove their innocence?  What happened to 'innocent until proven guilty'?  More details here.

You'll note at the end of the article that the lady hopes to accept an invitation to address the American Musicological Society at its annual meeting, which is fortunately being held in Canada.  A similar concept applies, perhaps, to people who wished to study aviation in the US.  As a result of 9/11, the US government has made it very difficult for potential aviation/pilot students to come and study these topics in the US.  So - guess what?

Responding to a growing international need for formal aviation education, Abu Dhabi has hired the former President and Chancellor of the highly respected Embry Riddle Aeronautical University to build a world class aeronautical university in the Middle East.  So, instead of being able to track who is being trained at flight schools in the US, the US government is causing many students to go study at a university entirely outside of their control.

This makes us more secure?

And talking about being more secure, the UK is generally considered to be one of the most surveilled societies in the world, with the UK government adding more and more security cameras around their towns and cities.  But do these cameras actually do any good?  Conventional wisdom says yes.  The statistics quoted in this article tend to suggest no.

One thing security cameras can do, however, was shown in a case being brought against a security guard in Spokane, WA.  Apparently he redirected cameras to look inside condo and hotel bedroom windows....

Here's another article excitedly and positively reporting on the TSA using behavior analysis to identify people who may be security threats to the flights they're about to take.

It is interesting to note the quote from the TSA's head, Kip Hawley, in the article :

In this kind of environment, you can't be sure they [ie terrorists] are going to come to the checkpoint with a prohibited item, per se.  Unless you do something more than that [ie screen for prohibited items], you are going to miss the next attack.  A behavior-detection officer will detect somebody no matter what the weapon is.

My question to Mr Hawley :  What will you do when one of your staff perceives a passenger as being a threat based solely on behavioral analysis?  If the passenger has nothing illegal with him, and a clean record, on what basis can you stop the passenger from boarding the plane?  And how much hassling interviewing will you subject the passenger to before releasing him?   Will he miss his flight due to the delays?

And my question to you, dear reader :  How would you like a TSA staffer to detain you and cause you to miss your flight, while giving you the third degree and internal cavity search, just because they somehow decided you were exhibiting threatening behavior?  How would you prove your innocence (and, there we go again, with a need for us to prove our innocence rather than requiring our accusers to prove our guilt)?

Of related concern to this is the quality of other information the TSA might be keeping about you, as this article reveals.

To close on a more positive note, might we be moving beyond the era of occasionally suffering 'Delhi Belly' or 'Montezuma's Revenge'?   Scientists at a major disease conference this week announced a skin-patch vaccine that can save the wearer from the problem of diarrhea when traveling to places where stomach bugs are endemic.

A test of 59 people by vaccine maker Iomai Corporation in Maryland found only three who didn't get relief from the patch.  Another group were given a placebo and the test showed that three-quarters of the participants did not get diarrhea.  The results showed that those who had the patch were much less likely to get sick and those who did had far milder illness than those who received a placebo.   A phase two trial was headed by Dupont and carried out on 170 volunteers who wore the patches before traveling to Mexico and Guatemala.

One further phase of clinical trials is required before the patch can be marketed and Iomai plans to start these trials in 2008.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

If this was forwarded to you by a friend, please click here and subscribe to the newsletter yourself
If you ever wish to unsubscribe, simply reply to this email and set the subject line to say 'unsubscribe'.