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Friday 30 November, 2007  

Good morning

Another Thanksgiving has passed, and the general analysis seems to be that air travel was significantly worse than last year, with something like -depending on the parameters measured - perhaps twice as many delays.

My feature column last week was about Amazon's new Kindle eBook reader.  Since then, there have been two updates.  The first surprised me with the speed in which it occurred.  A distinctive difference between Amazon's Kindle and Sony's competing PRS-505 system was the markedly lower cost of eBooks for Amazon's reader.  In less than a week, Sony slashed its prices - in some cases halving their former selling prices.  Sony books are still more expensive than Amazon ones, but instead of being about 50% higher, they now average 'only' 12% more.

Should one be appreciative of Sony for dropping its prices so suddenly, or resentful of its earlier predatory pricing?

The other interesting thing was a study of the battery life of the Amazon reader.  I was suspicious about why Amazon refused to disclose specifics of its battery life, especially because Sony is very up-front about its claimed battery life (7500 page turns - although real life testing suggests actual battery life massively lower than that).  Amazon instead limited itself to saying that its unit would have a battery life of about a week in typical use (with the data receiver turned off).

But what is 'typical use'?  No-one at Amazon had a sensible answer to that question, and indeed the Kindle reader goes out of the way to obscure anything to do with page counting, and all other reviewers of the product have contented themselves with simply repeating Amazon's official press release statement without questioning what it means.

So I've spent way too much time manually turning and counting pages, with some surprising results.  The first test gave a very positive total number of page turns, but was not in a realistic usage scenario.  A second test, in perhaps an overly pessimistic scenario, gave a dismayingly bad total page turn capability, way below the Sony.  And the huge difference in the two tests not only points for the need for still more testing (groan!) but also exposes a potential weakness of the Kindle reader and explains why Amazon wished to obfuscate on this point.  I've updated the review accordingly.

Needless to say, neither eBook reader appears on the least of featured items in this year's Christmas Gift Giving Guide.  So what does appear on the list, I hear you ask?  I'm glad you raised that point, because here is :

This Week's Featured Column :  2007 Christmas Gift Giving Guide :  Here's a list of ten favorite new gadgets I've reviewed this year, ranging in price from as little as $20, and most being under $50.  You're sure to find something here, even for the hardest to please people on your Christmas list.

One of the things that is on the list is a GPS unit.  The Swedish Research Institute of Trade agrees, having named it their country's top Christmas gift for 2007.  Last year they choose an audio book reader, the year before a poker set (?), and in 2004 a flat screen television.

Swedes are expected to spend more than $1000 per person on their Christmas shopping.  I can see I'll have to grow my circle of Swedish friends.

It isn't just me and the Swedish Research Institute of Trade who are expounding on Christmas Gifts at present.  Everyone has a list, including this list of Top 10 Stupid Holiday Gifts.  And, yes, <sigh> the oh so politically correct news item from Reuters nowhere mentions exactly which holiday it is we're talking about.  It is Christmas.  Christmas, Christmas, Christmas.

As an interesting aside, and according to this item, courts have ruled (not sure which ones) that Christmas Trees are secular objects (as too are Menorahs), just so long as they have no religious ornaments on them.  Which delights me if it shuts up the Scrooges in the world, and the politically correct people who pander to them, allowing us to proudly adorn Christmas trees in public.

Progress is a funny thing, especially with Microsoft :  After months of frustration and tens of hours of wasted time, I uninstalled my Outlook 2007 and replaced it with the four year older program, Outlook 2003.  Wonderful - my email now works promptly and responsively once more, with none of the annoying 'helpful features' in Outlook 2007 that interfered with productivity and use.  When you get 800+ emails a day, as I now do (mainly spam, but even so....) you can't afford to waste even an unnecessary second on each email.  Well done, Microsoft, on four years of backward progress.

And backwards progress also with FrontPage 2003.  Microsoft recently released an update that now allows Frontpage to work on Vista (yes, it only took them a year between the Vista release and getting their own software to work on Vista).  But the update seems to have made the software more unstable again - I've had two Frontpage crashes this week alone, one just now, and each occasioning the loss of much work.

You'd think Microsoft was managed by airline executives, which of course brings us to :

Dinosaur watching :  Talking about airline executive staffing, when people say that flying on a plane is getting more and more like riding a bus, it seems the airlines have been taking careful note.  But they may have misunderstood that when we say this, it is not meant as praise.

Delta Airlines announced on Thursday the appointment of Stephen Gorman, a former CEO of Greyhound, as their EVP of Operations position.  Gorman was appointed Greyhound CEO in 2003 and, according to Greyhound's site, in 2004 Greyhound began 'transforming its network to become a smaller simpler network of routes that will better serve customers'.  Sounds like downsizing to me, although the Delta press release described his achievements as including a 'turnaround' at Greyhound (which was recently sold again, this time to a UK company).

Prior to his position as CEO of Greyhound, Gorman was President of Krispy Kreme.  Not sure of the implications of this for the type of food we might see on future DL flights.

In other airline staffing news, US Airways announced a three year extension of their contract with CEO Doug Parker, which will now run through 2011.  The announcement proudly says there'll be no change to his salary - perhaps hoping that will quieten restless pilots and other labor groups.

But it is also relevant to note that in addition to Mr Parker's $550,000 salary last year, he also received a $880,000 cash bonus and a 'long term incentive payment' of $869,000 - also paid in cash.  In addition to this, he received equity awards (ie shares) as well.  In other words, total compensation somewhere north of $2.3 million for the year.

In what is an surely unrelated event, US Airways shares dropped 4.3% in value the same day.  Their share price has dropped more than 60% so far this year.

United's CEO, Glenn Tilton, congratulated himself for his foresight earlier this week, pointing out that 'virtually everybody' is now supporting the concept of airline mergers, a concept he said that earlier he was almost alone in supporting.

This is a nonsense statement at almost every level.  The claim that virtually everybody now supports airline mergers ignores the  many union groups which don't, and also takes no account of anxious travelers seeing their options drying up and airfares increasing if the number of carriers to choose from reduces, to say nothing of curmudgeonly writers like myself.  But I guess Mr Tilton's view of 'everybody' excludes both his workers and his customers.

And the claim that he was previously 'a voice in the wilderness' ignores the constant background chatter of rumored discussions between airlines, and the occasional public attempts at merging (like US Airways' attempt to buy Delta prior to DL's exit from bankruptcy).

Mr Tilton is trying to create the illusion of brilliant foresight on his part and massive support now for mergers, where neither claim is well deserved.

Another unpopular move on United's part was to float the idea of spending up to $500 million in unspecified 'shareholder initiatives' such as variously a buyback of shares or dividend distribution.

United's unions - the pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and flight controllers have banded together (an unusual move) under the appellation of 'Union Coalition at United Airlines' - said in a statement 'Not a penny of the billions of dollars extracted from United’s employees during the airline’s bankruptcy has been repaid.'  The statement went on to say that the coalition of unions 'is adamant that any undertaking by management earmarked toward rewarding shareholders must first recognize and compensate its employees'.

United’s labor unions have been increasingly critical of management in recent months, beginning with a protest at the company’s shareholder meeting in May over pay packages awarded to Mr Glenn Tilton and others.

No joking about airline food when you read this paragraph, please.  In a seemingly conciliatory gesture from the company to its employees, United treated its staff at ORD to a Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday.

Unfortunately several employees found the turkey inedible with questions about whether the turkey smelled right, with most finding it didn't.  Five employees became ill and were treated at a local hospital.

Back to mergers for a minute, here's another exception to Mr Tilton's claim that everyone is supporting mergers.

American Airlines, one of the least likely to merge carriers, is actually in the process of divesting itself of part of its operation, rather than merging.

In a move that boosted airline share prices, AA said on Wednesday it planned to divest its regional carrier American Eagle next year, bolstering investors' hopes that carriers would take more actions to sweeten shareholder returns.

We await Mr Tilton's commentary on this contrarian action with interest.

There's an excellent article by Jeff Bailey in the NY Times (I seem to be saying this a lot recently) about Southwest Airlines.

The commendable profits the airline has made, and looks to make in the future, are almost entirely driven by its unique-in-the-industry fuel hedging program, not by any particular prowess in actually operating an airline.  Indeed, Southwest makes more money by trading in fuel contracts than it does from its airline operations.

Here's a summary of Southwest's profits and the amount of their profit attributed to fuel hedging - in 2004 and 2005 if it wasn't for fuel hedging, they'd actually have lost money.

($ millions)

Profit from Hedging

Total Profit

Implied Profit from Airline Ops




$116 loss




$113 loss




$115 profit

Q1-3, 2007



$435 profit

It remains a mystery why other airlines haven't had the foresight that Southwest has in terms of hedging their future fuel purchases, and well done to Southwest for its sensible moves.  But Southwest's management definitely understands that these are one-off windfalls, and their attention is fixed much more in the right-most column above, which is why they are so desperate at present to try and re-invent themselves in some new way to create sustainable profits for the future.

Do we need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights?  Astonishingly, a commentator writes that this would not be a good thing, and does so by creating straw man type arguments and arguing against those, rather than confronting the reality of how such a Bill of Rights could and should operate.

For example, he posits that such a creation would require a government bureaucracy.  Nonsense.  All we need is a Bill of Rights, one of which is the right to bring actions against offending airlines in our local Small Claims Courts.  There's no need for any government bureaucracy at all, but there sure is a need for airline accountability, no matter what this writer might feel to the contrary.

Here's a more balanced view.

And, of course, there's our own dedicated website, www.airpaxrights.com, too.

Further underscoring the need for airline accountability is the evaporation of what remains of former government bureaucracy to oversee the airlines.  The Department of Transportation's Enforcement Division - the people who enforce what few regulations are currently in place to protect passengers - has paradoxically reduced their staff from 41 to 31, at the same time that complaints against the airlines are soaring.

The number of actual cases brought against airlines and tour operators by the DoT this year?  25.  I imagine the writer of the Forbes article would view this as proof positive that the airlines are perfect and so we don't need any further remedies or rights.  But you and I - we know differently, don't we.

Talking about rights and enforcement, it appears the Mayor of Los Angeles does not have the right to fly on a courtesy VIP demonstration flight of a visiting Airbus super-jumbo A380.  Mayor Villaraigosa was among a group of 150 hand-picked VIPs to go on a 90 minute 'flight to nowhere' from and back to LAX, but was advised by his Ethics team and the City Attorney that doing so could violate a law forbidding legislators from accepting free transportation and could cause him to lose his job.

And talking about airports, here's a new list of the world's worst airports, based on a survey of 500 industry analysts, executives, bankers and others by London based air transport consultancy Ascend.

Top of the list (or, should I say, bottom of the list) was Heathrow.  Second and third places went to LAX and JFK, with Gatwick getting fourth and Charles de Gaulle fifth.

Cell phones are dangerous for your health, continued :  This time, it isn't radiation that might be a possible problem.  It is cell phone battery explosions.  This article details two deaths that have occurred, apparently as a result of exploding/burning batteries.

Here's a fascinating website that quickly gives you a travel personality test and then helps you choose destinations that may be enjoyed by people of that personality type.

Try it - I'm a 'Mid Venturer', a personality type apparently shared by 17% of the population.  And thanks to ARTA - the best travel agent community in the country and an invaluable resource for my weekly newsletters - for the pointer to this site.

Sober pilots - Here's a welcome postscript to the occasional headline about a pilot being taken off a plane, allegedly drunk.  A Virgin Atlantic relief pilot, who was hauled off an aircraft and arrested on suspicion of being drunk, has been cleared of the charges and is expected to return to work.

The unidentified 42-year-old pilot, who was to fly as the third crew member on the Virgin A340 from Heathrow to Miami, was arrested Oct 28 a few minutes before the flight was to leave.  Peculiarly, Virgin's policy is to replace the whole crew when that happens (guilt by association?) and the 266 passengers were delayed almost four hours while three replacement pilots were rounded up.

The blood test showed the pilot was not drunk, with an alcohol level below the .02 level that is required of pilots under British regulations (as compared to a typical .08 level for drivers).

And earlier in the week a Midwest Airlines pilot was also cleared of alcohol charges after being taken off a flight in Minneapolis.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA wants to require all passengers to give their full name, gender and date of birth when making flight reservations.  They say this is to help them tell the difference between terrorists and regular people, and it might help reduce cases where five year old boys or 80 year old grandmothers have been refused permission to fly due to being confused with terrorists with similar names but different ages and/or genders.

And the TSA generoulys notes that providing this information would be optional.

So, what's not to like about this?  Surely anything that reduces the ridiculous hassle that tens of thousands of passengers suffer at present, being confused with terrorists who have similar but not identical names, is a good thing?

Oh, there's lots to dislike about this.  First, the TSA doesn't need information on our gender and date of birth to distinguish us from terrorists.  It can simply provide the matching information about the terrorists to the airlines so that when a person checks in, the airline checkin agent can verify if the person is of the same gender and approximate age as the terrorist, and - if they are - a quick look at the passenger's photo ID will establish if they have an identical birthdate or not.  There's no excuse for suggesting a 5 year old might be a 30 year old terrorist, and the TSA just needs some common sense to prevent that.

This is all about the TSA building up a database of every flight that we take, ever, anywhere.  That's why they need the unique identifying information in every passenger record.

And as for the optional provision of this information?  Oh yes, sure it will be 'optional'.  Just like removing shoes is optional - if you don't remove your shoes, you'll be selected for secondary screening.  And, as part of the secondary screening, guess what - your shoes are usually removed and run through a special X-ray or Explosive detection machine.  In the case of optional data provision, in addition to all the rest of their third degree, they'll simply take your ID from you and manually key its information into their database.

Optional?  I doubt it.  Necessary?  Absolutely not.

The President of Ecuador is somewhat unhappy with the TSA and security at Miami.  He says he received discourteous treatment while changing planes at MIA on the way to an OPEC summit.

He has accepted an apology from the US ambassador but says he will not transit through the US again until they 'learn what civilization is'.  He also said the US had been gripped by psychosis since September 11 and security agents treat people very poorly as a result.

Mind the gap?  The lady who has recorded, amongst other things, the immortal phrase 'Mind the Gap' as heard on the London Underground was fired from her job with Transport for London after adding some humorous spoof announcements to her personal website.  Details here.

Her website not only features the spoof announcements, but has a really fun 'create your own announcement' section that ended up taking way too much of my time.  Her website and the links on it are dangerously distracting.

Do as we say, not as we show?  A member of the Dominican Republic's legislature wants to ban the bikini, at least on television, saying skimpy swimsuits are contrary to the tropical Caribbean country's traditions and harm impressionable children.  He has proposed a bill that would set fines of up to $15,000 in penalties for broadcasters who violate the ban.

This may impede his own tourism advertising.  Dominican resorts commonly lure visitors to the island with advertisements portraying bikini-clad women on white-sand beaches as do most of the islands.

Here's a slightly uncomfortable video of a reporter taking a demonstration flight in an F-18 fighter jet.  It is interesting to the medical students among us as it shows three episodes of gravity induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC).  Note the reporter’s recovery after the G is removed.  Consciousness is technically regained in that his eyes open and he will be able to see and hear, but there is a typical 30 second “latent” phase after the G-LOC when he is still unable to function correctly.

This can be a killer for the pilot.  After the G forces are removed there is still a period when he will be unable to adequately control his aircraft.  After recovery there is often little recollection of how long you have been unconscious or, sometimes, any recollection of being unconscious at all.

However, this is all happily abstract, as passenger jets never perform the types of high-G maneuvers that the F-18 was doing.  If they did, the wings would almost certainly fall off.

Touching on a topic of perennial interest, here's a report from the inaugural meeting of the World Toilet Association, held in Seoul last week.

Lastly this week, Zagat, the company best known for its restaurant guides built up with reviews and ratings from 'real people' asked for feedback on airlines from frequent fliers.  Among other comments were the following :

  • I'd rather be a package on FedEx

  • If they could have pay toilets, they would

  • Their planes make Larry King look young

  • There's a better chance of talking to George W. Bush than customer relations

  • Only good thing about first class these days is that you get to leave the plane first

  • When asked what kind of chicken they had, she (the flight attendant) replied, 'The dead kind.'

  • Sitting any closer might constitute marriage in some states

  • Makes standing in the DMV seem fun

  • They fired the last employee found smiling

  • I thought the Geneva Convention prevented this kind of thing

Next week I'll be in Munich for the start of this year's Christmas Markets cruise.  I'll endeavor to get a newsletter to you, but it may be a bit earlier or later than usual.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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