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Friday 30 May, 2008  

Good morning

No matter how enjoyable time away is, it is always a tremendous joy to return back home once more, and this comparatively long (three week) journey was no exception.  As one who lives in the US by choice rather than by fortunate accident of birth, I sincerely and demonstrably mean it when I say this is a wonderful country to live in.

But, talking about wonderful countries, there was a lot to like in Spain, France and England, too.  In particular, I finished off my time in England with a revisit to Salisbury and then several days of intensive research through the idyllic Cotswolds (800 miles of driving in four days).

One of the inevitable things I did shortly after getting back home was to fill up the car's gas tank, and - unlike most others - I rejoiced in the pleasure of paying $4/gallon for gas.  You see, the price of gas in the UK is currently US$8.60/US gallon (ie £1.15/liter) - just over twice the price it is here.

I rented a car from Hertz, and was fortunate to find myself in a lovely turbo-charged Saab 9-3, with the loveliest part of it being that it was a diesel rather than petrol powered vehicle.  Whereas diesel in the US can cost as much as 25% more than gas, in the US the extra cost of diesel is much less (£1.30/liter), making diesel an even better value fuel than it already is here.  With the Saab stubbornly giving me a wonderful 35 mpg, no matter how hard I pushed it, the actual cost per mile (28¢) ended up being not much more than my car here.  To compare apples with apples, I usually seem to get about 25 mpg from rental cars in the UK when they are petrol powered.

Diesel technology has moved amazingly forward since I last drove a diesel.  This engine was quick and easy to start, idled quietly, had a good power band, was quiet at speed, and not at all smelly.  All the gas stations have diesel pumps these days, or so it seems, so there's no hassle in refilling the vehicle (and with 500+ miles of range per tank full of diesel, you don't need to refill all that often anyway!).

But - a word of very important warning.  Here in the US, when you go to buy gas or diesel, you know that the diesel fuel comes from the green colored pump/nozzle, and gas comes from a different color (often black).  So, there I was, buying my first tank full of diesel in the UK, and at the pump, confidently took the green rather than black handled nozzle, stuck it in the tank, and squeezed the lever to get the diesel flowing.

As is often the case, nothing happened for a few seconds (I guess the people inside the store needed to authorize the not pre-payed service) and then, while idly staring around waiting for the fuel to flow, I suddenly had a terrible realization.  The green handled pump was for petrol!  I was about to fill the diesel car with petrol - a very bad thing to do.  Thank goodness no fuel had started to pump, and I desperately released the flow lever and urgently yanked the nozzle out of the tank.  That was a very close call.  So, remember - green for diesel in the US, but NOT in the UK.

Interestingly, diesel and petrol nozzles are different sizes, to make it impossible to fit a (larger sized) diesel nozzle into a petrol tank, but this does not prevent you fitting a (smaller sized) petrol nozzle into a diesel tank.

Anyway - if you get a diesel vehicle for your next UK/European rental, be pleased about this.  They are great cars these days, and you'll save appreciably in your driving costs.

One last comment, which applies to all rental cars, everywhere in the world.  Don't obsess over the cost of fuel.  Most people don't drive anywhere near as much as I did, especially in the smaller sized countries, and so your daily fuel bill dwindles down into insignificance (especially when split two ways if you're traveling as a couple) when compared to your airfare, your accommodation, your food and drink, your sightseeing, and all the other associated costs of daily traveling.

Even my 800 mile marathon ended up costing 'only' $224, which is about the same cost as a single night of hotel accommodation, or a meal with drinks for two, and when you think that typically that would represent a week or more of driving, that works out, for two people, to only $16/day for transportation.  There's no cheaper or more flexible way to travel, even when fuel costs $8.60/gallon.

I had another lovely flight with BA on my return from Heathrow to Seattle, although this time some of the 'bad old BA' was visible too.  A surly and unhelpful check-in person made a mess of my seating and refused to fix it until I became more insistent than I should have done, and even though I checked in almost three hours early for the flight (a simple nonstop flight from Terminal 4, not the troublesome Terminal 5, to Seattle, upon arrival at Seatac, I found that I was one of 20+ (!) passengers who didn't have their bags arrive.

I had to wryly laugh at the bag problem.  Clearly BA have had too much practice at this recently, because they were very efficient at processing the claims.  They already had pre-prepared claim forms and called our names out as soon as we got through Immigration, handed out the forms, which we just had to complete one or two details for, and sent us on our way; allowing us to get through the airport more quickly than if we did have our bags with us.

One can only express horror at how BA's bag problems seem to be continuing, even at the old Terminal 4.

The flight itself in business class featured more good service, and more great food.  Clearly BA has someone planning their premium cabin food who understands the limitations and workarounds to how to prepare good food for serving on a plane.

I had a lovely asparagus appetizer, and then a 100% gorgeous beef and onion Guinness casserole with horseradish dumplings and mashed neeps that couldn't have been improved on in any way at all (except doubling the portions!).  And, talking about doubling the portions, the cabin crew very positively responded to my request for a second main course, giving me also a portion of a marvelous chilled poached salmon salad that was as wonderful as was the beef.  Brilliant food and good service; well done, BA.

My 800 miles of driving around Britain, most of it off-freeway, threatened to be terribly difficult and complicated.  So I paid extra to Hertz to get one of their 'NeverLost' GPS units in the car to help me, thinking that it would both help me to get around and allow me to pass my experiences on to you as another item in the growing series of GPS reviews.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Hertz NeverLost GPS :  Although in theory I was never lost, I also seldom knew exactly where I was while driving around England with the help of this unit, and much of the time I wished it would have chosen different routes.  Would one of these units help you the next time you're traveling out of town?  Read the review to find out.

Dinosaur watching :  In 2007, flight delays represented a $40.7 billion cost to the airlines and their passengers.  $12 billion is attributed to the value of time lost by passengers, $19.1 billion represents costs to the airlines such as extra staffing, fuel and maintenance costs, and $9.6 billion is in the form of 'spillover costs' incurred by businesses that rely on air traffic.  For example, when you order a limo to collect you at the airport, and the driver has to wait extra time for your flight to arrive, that is a spillover cost.

A further drill-down of these costs reveals an interesting red-flag for the eco-nutter crowd.  Needlessly idling planes wasted 740 million gallons of jet fuel while their engines were running during delays, releasing more than seven million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air.

The airlines' passivity and complicity in these delays is extraordinary to consider in light of their claims of being in desperate financial trouble at present.  The $19.1 billion, if not lost, would have seen every airline in the country making a massive profit last year.

So why aren't the airlines focusing on this enormous and largely unnecessary, avoidable, and solvable problem?  Why are they obsessing with things like upping the cost of extra bags, upping the cost of meals and drinks on board, etc - actions which upset their passengers and which each represent as only a few tens of millions of dollars in savings, when there's a massively huge $19.1 billion cost item they could be solving?

Shouldn't this be their top priority?  And, quite apart from all the other compelling reasons, if they could eliminate most of the delay factors, not only would they save themselves almost $20 billion (likely to be way more this year with higher fuel costs) but they'd be saving their passengers another $12 billion, and they'd be making air travel once more something closer to reliable and dependable.

With a total annual cost of $40 billion, you'd think this a problem that demands and is capable of immediate solution.  Yes, I know there are many dimensions to the problem, including an outdated air traffic control system that has been slow in updating and which can't cope with peak volumes at present.  But there's no problem that can't be solved by the lavish application of funds in the right places, and with an annual cost alternative of $40 billion, something could - and must - be done to improve things.

Meanwhile, one passenger is taking the matter of delays, and their costs, into his own hands.  Good luck to him and his lawsuit against Delta.

Another on-again/off-again relationship continues down its rocky road to who knows where.  On Wednesday this week the pundits were announcing the failure of merger negotiations between United Airlines and US Airways.

But then on Thursday, we were told the two CEOs were meeting again to continue their discussions.  Amongst problems to be resolved were how to integrate the labor unions from the two airlines, dropping values of both airlines' share prices, and tightening credit markets should the merger require additional capital injections.  Continued rises in fuel and a slow economy makes it hard for the airlines to paint any rosy projections to any new investors - in absolute truth, the only people foolish enough to invest in a dinosaur airline at present are other dinosaur airlines.

Underlining the truth that very few people are foolish enough to invest in airlines at present is another of the US-UK all premium class airlines.  You may remember that first Maxjet went broke, then Eos, and at the time of the Eos bankruptcy, the third of the trio, Silverjet, was confidently saying it had no problems.  Well, in what sounds very much like history potentially repeating itself, Silverjet suspended trading in its shares and said that an anticipated loan for $5 million has not yet been finalized, and that further pending loans of another $15 million are somewhat subject to the success of the first $5 million loan.

Silverjet continues to fly, but it has to be viewed as being on serious life support at present.  By all means continue to fly them, but be sure to pay by credit card.

While Delta and Northwest wait for their merger to be approved, they've found a back-door to approval for the next best thing to merging for their international flights.  The Dept of Transportation has given anti-trust immunity to Delta, Northwest, and four other Skyteam carriers (Air France, KLM, Alitalia and Czech Airlines), allowing them to coordinate their trans-Atlantic fares and flights as if they were a single airline.

The DoT concluded that the proposed alliance is in the public interest because it 'will likely produce efficiencies and provide consumers with additional price and service options'.  The DoT added that the U.S.-European Union open-skies agreement will promote competition in the transatlantic market.

As for me, I conclude exactly the opposite, and challenge the DoT to give exact specifics of these efficiencies and additional price and service options.  Or, to go easy on the DoT, perhaps they could simply point to the public benefits enjoyed by any other codeshare/alliance partnership to date.

One of us - either the DoT or me - is a blithering idiot and completely blind to real world realities.  You choose which.

While the dinosaurs are cutting back their operations by 10% or more in some cases (ie AA), even the new alternative airlines are finding growth more difficult to sustain.  Most notable is JetBlue, an airline which had locked itself into a blistering growth rate forced on it by the relentless logic of its schedule of new plane deliveries from both Airbus and Embraer.

Back when jet fuel was comparatively cheap, JetBlue seemed willing to embrace new routes with little apparent thought, happy in the knowledge that its new planes were being put to use and secure in the hope that any extra business was probably good business.  But that thinking was a major factor in its financial difficulties that started over a year ago, and now with much higher load factors needed on all flights to cover the increased cost of jet fuel, JetBlue has come to realize that it can't afford poorly planned growth.

JetBlue had already slowed down its new plane delivery schedule, and this week announced a further major slowdown, with it deferring another 21 planes that were due to be delivered between 2009-2011 for four to five years - they won't arrive until 2014 and 2015 now.

Will this be enough to stabilize JetBlue and guarantee its future?  Perhaps not, but giving itself some breathing room and allowing it to fix up its current route system has to be a very good thing to strengthen its operational base.

In more positive news about JetBlue, they've just eliminated their $40 re-booking fee. This customer-friendly policy change means that if the price of your ticket drops after you buy, JetBlue will issue you a travel credit for the full difference with no fees.  Kudos to JetBlue for doing what’s best for their travelers.

Which reminds me of the helpful free service offered by Yapta.com.  They'll monitor the flights you book to check for lower fares, and help you through the process of claiming a refund if the fare drops for your flights.  So be sure to have Yapta monitor your JetBlue (and other) flights.

Something that was glaringly obvious to me in all three countries I visited - Spain, France and Britain - was how obsessively green and carbon conscious many other countries are becoming; indeed earlier this week a British government minister was suggesting all British citizens should carry carbon rationing cards, limiting their total carbon usage each year.

(As a side bar issue, climate change continues to be a big problem - on Jupiter!  Try blaming that on mankind, if you can, and perhaps instead consider the role of the sun, not only on Jupiter, but on our own planet too...).

One manifestation of this is the rush to alternative fuels - bio diesel - and as we know, the unthought of consequences of this in terms of world food prices are giving the greenies only some pause for thought.  They now find themselves forced to choose which is better - reducing global carbon emissions by a few pounds, or saving a few people in Asia/Africa from starvation (and thereby enabling the people to - gasp - cause further carbon emissions!)?

But companies continue to proudly switch to bio fuels, and one such example is KLM, who proudly announced their plans to test some of their turbo-prop planes on kerosene that is to be made from algae rather than oil later this year.  A benefit of bio-fuel from algae would seem to be that it doesn't require the re-purposing of agriculture to fuel rather than to food.

Except for - hmmmm - what do the algae eat?  And what about the creatures that formerly would have, in turn, eaten the algae?

Totally and unashamedly off-topic :  As we get older, our dealings with our doctors become more intense and more complex, and we gradually come to the unsettling realization that doctors do not know it all, and many times may be mistaken to a greater or lesser extent.  The most successful patient outcomes these days involve the patient sharing the ownership of his own medical care.

On my BA flight back from London this week, I was reading a handed out copy of The Times, and came across an excellent article about 'How to get the most out of your doctor'.  It included a sidebar panel of questions to ask your doctor, with the questions being recommended by doctors themselves.  Six different doctors provided questions to ask, and my favorite were these three offered by Dr Jerome Groopman, a Haematologist-Oncologist at Harvard Medical School.  I'll copy them and the explanations word for word; their good sense is immediately obvious.

Asking these three questions will not upset your doctor, but rather will encourage him to examine his assumptions and do the best he is capable of.  Asking these three questions might save your life, or at the very least, accelerate a long period of medical care and avoid mistakes along the path to recovery.

Every patient should ask his or her doctor three 'cardinal questions'.

1.  What else could it be?  A safeguard against errors in thinking and forces the doctor to examine his initial diagnosis.

2.  Is there anything that doesn't fit?  There is a cognitive error called confirmation bias, when a doctor draws on the data that confirm a preconceived idea.  Asking this causes him to pause and let his mind roam more broadly.

3.  Do I have more than one problem?  If someone has heart disease, diabetes and kidney failure and is on medication, there might be more than one thing going on.  This will prompt your doctor to consider this.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago at the pressure I was placed under when buying a bottle of whisky at Heathrow to have the credit card charge made in US dollars 'for my benefit' (in actual fact, a 3.25% extra cost).  I was in a different store in a different terminal at Heathrow on the return journey, and was listening to the sales lady doing her bit to a hapless couple from Canada, telling a finely woven tapestry of almost-lies to make them pay their credit card charge for whatever they were buying in Canadian currently rather than UK sterling, deliberately confusing the exchange rate they'd pay if they stupidly offered her Canadian cash with the exchange rate they'd pay if they charged the purchase in pounds and had their credit card company convert it.

What really struck me was that the sales lady wasn't at all focused on selling the item to the couple; her entire pitch was all about which currency to make the charge in.  I again have to wonder, when I see such attention and such distorted untruths, are the store sales people getting a personal bonus when they trick people into having their purchases charged in other than pounds?

I mentioned last week the massive discrepancy between the description and the reality of the hotel I booked through Travelocity's Lastminute.com subsidiary.

I filled out their survey form, advising them of these issues, and asking for a response.  Nothing heard from them yet, which begs the question - if you don't care what your customers tell you, why do you ask them for feedback in the first place?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A passenger was caught trying to take a gun through security at Kelowna Airport in Canada.  Well done to the Canadian equivalent of the TSA?

No, quite the opposite.  The 'gun' was a miniature 'charm' that hangs on a charm bracelet (or, in this case, a pendant on a necklace), and looks about as realistic as any other solid cast metal 1" version of a full size Colt revolver ever would.  In other words, fully 100% totally unrealistic, and so small as to be laughable.

A member of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority attempted to defend his agency's idiocy.  'How do you know it wasn't a real gun?' he asked.  Look at the picture of it in this article and then answer that question for yourself.  He added 'Who knows if there is a gun that small that can shoot bullets? You don't know that. They followed the rules.

Hmmm - 'We were just following the rules'.  Seems I've heard that excuse somewhere before.  Seems also it didn't exonerate the people offering it as an excuse, either.  But these days, when the people making the excuse and the people who'd prosecute them are all 'on the same side' it seems a gold plated excuse good for all situations.

Like this situation, for example - a 10 year old boy manages to outsmart the TSA at Seatac Airport, going through the screening without a ticket/boarding pass (and probably with no ID either), and is only caught by an airline gate agent as he tries to sneak on a flight.

The TSA 'declined to speculate about what could happen to the TSA employees who failed to stop' the boy.  Let me speculate instead - nothing at all will happen to them, apart from some good natured ribbing by their colleagues.

Details here.  Warning - don't let your 10 year olds read it.

I wrote last week about some amusing metaphors offered by high school students in their essay writing.  Well, the examples are definitely amusing, but as I'd suspected, just a bit too sophisticatedly simple for high school students.  Reader Perri writes

Like so many similar lists floating around the Internet, this is actually a list of the winning entries in one of the Washington Post's weekly Style Invitational contests (it's been a regular part of the Post's Sunday paper since 1993).

This particular contest was from March 1999.  Here is the Post's archive page for this edition of the SI, and includes writing credits for all the entries, including more than you featured (many of the writers are frequent winners in the SI - I recognized about half the names immediately).

Lastly, this week's best understatement relates to the crash of a 747 freighter taking off from Brussels airport.  The crew reported hearing a loud bang, so aborted the take-off, but were unable to stop the plane before it ran off the end of the runway and skidded into the field beyond, eventually stopping just stopped just five and a half yards from a high speed rail line and 550 yards from houses on the edge of the town of Zaventem.  This is a picture of the plane.

An airport spokesman said 'The plane is very seriously damaged', earning the week's prize for understatement in the process.  The plane looks to be a total write-off.

The plane, owned by US freight company Kalitta Air in MI, had been scheduled to fly to Bahrain.  Airport officials said the plane was carrying cargo weighing 76 tons, over half of which was diplomatic mail. Other cargo included a car and batteries.

More than 38 tons of diplomatic mail?  That's a lot of letters.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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