version of this newsletter] [Newsletter
Archives] [Website Home Page]
[Please Donate Here]
Friday 30 May, 2008
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
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
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
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.
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 :
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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?
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
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.
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).
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
More than 38 tons of diplomatic mail? That's a lot of letters.
Until next week,
please enjoy safe travels