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

Friday 25 July, 2008  

Good morning

My computer's operating system slowly imploded while I was in China, counting down the days until it expired.  I didn't even know that Vista would expire, but apparently in some situations, it will.  Unfortunately, I didn't have either a copy of Windows with me or a DVD drive in the laptop to reload the OS, and all I could do was watch and wait helplessly.

I've now done a low level reformat of the hard drive and reloaded all my software and data.  While this was time-consuming and bothersome, it was not as challenging as it has been in the past, because I now have a new service running on all my computers that automatically backs them up continually, every time anything changes, and which also synchronizes changes so that if I change a file on one computer, it automatically gets changed on other computers, too.  For a person with a work computer, a home computer, and a laptop, this is obviously an amazingly useful (and necessary service).

There are more good things to tell you about what really is a 'must have' program for most of us, indeed, so much more, that a review and description of this program has grown to fill two pages on the website.  So :

This Week's Feature Column :  Sugarsynch your computers : The Sugarsynch software has become one of my favorite must-have applications for anyone with two or more computers.  It automatically backs up and synchronizes the data between your different computers.  More details - and a free 45 day trial offer - in the two part review.

Correction :  In my article last week about the twelve year delay between the mid-air explosion of TWA's flight TW800 (a 747) and the FAA's finally releasing a requirement for airlines to fit a device to reduce the chance of other similar mid-air explosions, I quoted the laudatory comments of the NTSB chairman, Mark Rosenker, who was proclaiming what a wonderful step forward this new rule would be.

Mr Rosenker is correct, this is a good step forward, and in my somewhat sarcastic comments about why it took twelve years to introduce this good new safety rule, and why the airlines have been given another nine more years to put the ruling in place, I may have misdirected my ire at him rather than where it more properly belongs, the FAA.  The NTSB recommended this new requirement a mere five months after the crash.  But, alas, the NTSB is not responsible for the enactment of its recommendations, that task falls to the FAA, and it was the FAA who took 11 years and 7 months subsequent to the NTSB's recommendation to do something about it.

The question about why it took so long for this rule to be put in place, and why the airlines are allowed another 9 years to implement it, remains unanswered, and because it is not an NTSB function to issue such rules, is not something Mr Rosenker could answer.  He probably wonders this himself just as much as we do.

Dinosaur watching :  Last week saw Delta announce a profit of $137 million for the second quarter, prior to special one-off charges.  This week sees Northwest announce a profit of $170 million, prior to a one-off non-cash accounting charge of $547 million.

So, think about this.  The two airlines that have been saying 'we must merge as the only way to survive these tough times' are currently - unmerged - two of the most profitable carriers in the country.  Maybe they don't need to merge at all?

Well, perhaps in response to that thought, the two carriers issued a new statement this last week that increases their estimate of savings through the merger.  Originally they said the merger would result in $1.2 billion of savings, with merger related costs of about $1 billion, making a slim $200 million net benefit.  Now, by some miracle, they are saying they'll get $2 billion in savings and incur only $600 million in merger costs - making for a seven times greater benefit of $1.4 billion.  Details here.

By contrast, United Airlines announced a second quarter loss of $2.73 billion, although it would have been 'only' a $430 million loss if it weren't for special one-off items.  US Airways lost $567 million, which would have been 'only' a $101 million loss if it weren't for their one-off items.  And JetBlue lost a small $7 million, which was actually better than the $21 million they lost in Q2 last year.

And one other airline announced a profitable result.  For the 69th quarter in a row, Southwest reported a profit, this time of $321 million, up from $155 million in Q2 last year.  The profit comprised $121 million in 'normal' profit plus $200 million in special items.

So get this - ignoring the special one-off charges, Northwest actually made a bigger profit in this quarter than the nation's most consistently profitable airline, Southwest.  Remind me again why NW and DL need to merge?

Here's an interesting statistic from Continental.  Now that they charge $25 for checking a second bag, they have seen a 60% reduction in the number of passengers checking two bags for a domestic flight.

But does that mean people are packing less, cramming more into one bigger bag, or simply taking more onto the plane as carry-on?

United is taking some steps to improve its available cash supply.  They've sold $600 million worth of frequent flier miles to Chase, its co-branded bank-card partner, who gives out miles on the basis of one per dollar spent on their credit card.

If we say that Chase is paying perhaps 1.25c/mile to United (my guess, but probably not very far wrong) then this represents 48 billion frequent flier miles.  That's a lot of extra miles, and in the situation with United reducing flights and operating planes with fewer and fewer empty seats, it makes it harder and harder for Mileage Plus members to redeem their miles.

United has also negotiated down the amount of cash its credit card processing company, Paymentech, has been withholding.  Paymentech now is only holding $25 million in 'escrow' rather than $350 million.

These two deals give UA close on a billion dollars in extra cash, enough to fund a few more unprofitable quarters.

United has also quietly done one more thing to give it even more cash on hand.  Typically, in the past, when booking higher cost tickets, you didn't need to actually pay for the ticket until close to the date of travel, and generally they were fully refundable if you didn't use them.

United sent out to its travel agents a note that was received, at least by one larger agency group, on 16 July, that advised of a change to its prepayment policy, which would take effect on 14 July - yes, two days earlier.

Now United is requiring full payment the later of 24 hours after booking or three days prior to departure for full fare first, business, and economy fares, and within 24 hours for all other types of economy ticket.

The requirement for some of these expensive fares to be paid sooner than previously will give United an unknown number of extra tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is puzzling that United increased the amount of prepayments it would be receiving and its credit card processor, although now having a much greater exposure in the event of a UA bankruptcy, at the same time reduced its hold-back amount.

Much is often made of the airlines' very effective lobbying activities and how they manage to keep Congress largely on-side.  But sometimes one wonders.  In particular, how positive an impression did Continental make on seven members of Congress who were on a CO flight back to DC so they could vote on an aviation safety bill?

The flight was first delayed about an hour due to engine problems, and then, en route from Houston to DC, suffered a sudden loss of cabin pressure, causing an emergency descent, the oxygen masks to drop (and requiring them to be worn) and an emergency landing in New Orleans.

Actually, maybe it was an ill wind that blows no good.  The seven members of Congress were sufficiently delayed as to be unable to vote on the bill.  Details here.

A Delta passenger said he had a stressful experience with the airline.  He was ensnared in the middle of an airport worker's strike in Paris, and for some strange reason, Delta wouldn't allow him to rebook his flights over the phone, requiring instead he go to the airport (which was a chaotic mess, of course) and rebook in person at a ticket counter.

Unfortunately for Delta, the stressed out passenger is also an attorney, and so, once he'd calmed down enough, he did the obvious thing.  He filed a $5 million lawsuit against DL, and - get this - is now trying to make it a class action suit so other passengers, similarly inconvenienced, can also sue DL for ridiculous sums of money fair compensation.

I'm a bit conflicted by this item.  How stupid of Delta not to allow passengers to rebook over the phone.  But is that really fair grounds for a $5 million lawsuit?  I suspect not.  Details here.

Well done, Amtrak.  Amtrak's service from Portland ME to Boston increased ridership by 28% during the last year. An additional 947 passengers rode the Downeaster every day compared with the same period last year and revenue was up 33%.

Amtrak credits the increases to high gas prices, increased frequency of trains, and better schedules.  Unfortunately, Amtrak's ability to add extra frequency to other trains, elsewhere in the country, is very limited, because either it doesn't have available extra carriages, and/or it doesn't have access to extra use of the rail track, which is owned by the freight railroads in most of the country, and is increasingly congested with slow moving freight trains, that don't conveniently share a route with faster moving passenger trains.

Given a chance, Amtrak can succeed.  But, in most of the country, Amtrak does not have the resources it needs to be able to succeed.  And the vicious circle is that Amtrak's problems cause short-sighted naysayers to refuse Amtrak the tools it needs to succeed, thereby ensuring Amtrak's ongoing problems and confirming, to the naysayers, their 'wisdom' in not more adequately funding passenger rail traffic in this country.

With the 2008 Olympics due to start on 8/8/2008 at 8pm in Beijing (guess which number is considered a lucky number by the Chinese), ie, very soon, it is interesting to try and understand how it is that countries and cities, when winning the dubious honor of becoming host for the Olympic games, go into raptures about how it will transform their international reputation as a tourist destination.  It never does.

Tourism often drops for the year that the Olympics actually take place, due to normal tourists wanting to stay well clear of the price gouging and madness that goes on before, during and after the Olympics, and then recovers only back to normal levels subsequently.  Most of the other promises, made largely to the country/city's own citizens in an effort to make them feel good about the huge expenses and disruptions they'll experience, are seldom followed through on either.

Here, for example, is a telling indictment of the outcomes of the $15 billion spent by Greece on hosting the 2004 Olympics.

But apparently there is a better way to boost your country's popularity and tourism profile.  Have it featured in a popular movie.  Hotels.com reports that searches for Greece and the Greek Islands are already up after the release of the new movie, 'Mamma Mia'.  Searches for the destination have risen more than 70%.  The film, based on the musical of the same name, which in turn is a loose mix of Abba songs wrapped around a lightweight plot (but enjoyable and well worth seeing), was shot in various locations in Greece.

No $15 billion expenditure required.

Talking about hotels, each year there are usually ice hotels somewhere 'up north' that open for guests until such time as they melt.  Now, this summer, there's an analogous but opposite hotel being offered in Dorset, England - a sand castle hotel.  Although claiming to be the largest sandcastle-like structure ever built in the UK, it is not very grand, even though it involved over 1000 tons of sand in its construction.

Fortunately, at as little as £10/night to stay there, it isn't very expensive, although intending guests should note that the hotel doesn't include any toilet facilities.  More details and a video of the hotel here.

Global warming 1 :  If one accepts that temperatures are rising in Europe, then the most likely culprit for this is - guess?  No, not 'carbon emissions'.  Actually, it is the lack of pollution that is believed to be causing European temperatures to drift upwards.  The cleaner air allows more of the sun's energy to reach the ground and heat things up.  Details here.

Global warming 2 :  There are plenty of problematic things about alleged global warming, and proponents of the concept tend to try and steamroller over them all by presenting the concept of global warming (and our culpability for it) as an accepted fact that only idiots would dispute (or ask for specific details about).

But, increasingly, people who are not idiots are disputing the underlying assumptions of global warming, and as this article points out, the most recent group of dissidents is none other than one part of the American Physical Society, an organization representing nearly 50,000 physicists.  Many of the APS members are now expressing concern at the lack of scientific method that has been applied to the global warming debate.

Let's also add another item to that other massively under-reported topic - the danger of cell phones to your health.  This time it is the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and UPMC Cancer Centers, who issued an advisory to about 3,000 faculty and staff today about the possible health risks associated with cellular phone use.  He says, in the note, 'Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use.'

The most sensible thing you can do (other than not using your phone) is to use a headset with your cell phone.  Here's an interesting list of ten tips issued with this note that give you easy simple steps to reduce your own risk.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Delays at one single border crossing between Mexico and the US are estimated to be costing $7.2 billion a year in lost revenue.  More than half the cars wait over 90 minutes in line, and a quarter are stuck for two or more hours.  What sort of a way is this to run a country and its border service?  Details here.

'I have power, I have power, I have power'.  So yelled a TSA agent to a passenger who, in attempting to comply with her directives, was standing in public in his underwear, with his trousers around his ankles.

Note also in the same article the proud claim by the TSA that 'out of 2 billion passengers screened nationwide since 9-11, there have been only 110,000 abuse complaints'.  But this is not a fair statement.

The TSA have not screened 2 billion different individuals.  They have screened some Americans very many times, some only once or twice, and many Americans have not flown at all since 9/11.  The 2 billion screenings have to be considered instead in terms of how many different people have been screened - perhaps 150 million people, maximum.

Is 110,000 complaints a proud record, whether it be out of 150 million or 2 billion people?  That's almost 50 complaints every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.  And we all know (even if the TSA doesn't) that the people who complain represent only the very slightest tip of the huge iceberg of unhappy people who don't complain (including many people who don't complain out of fear of future victimization).

There was a bad link to the article about the 'amazing coincidence' I wrote about last week.  Here's the corrected link.

Steve writes

Your security horror story of the week reminds me of one of the funnier security stories I have heard.

It was in the months after 9-11 and I was on a flight sitting next to a sheriff from a county in Colorado.  He was traveling on business, so he was allowed to carry his firearm with him on the plane.

He told me that as he went through security and they verified that he could, indeed, carry his gun on the plane, the private security officials (pre-TSA days) discovered a set of nail clippers with the attached file as he went through the screening process. They informed him that they would have to confiscate the clippers since they weren’t allowed through security. The sheriff pointed out that the nail clippers were infinitely less dangerous than the gun he was carrying, but the security guards insisted that rules were rules and he was not going to be allowed into the terminal with his nail clippers, but he could go right ahead with his gun!

The other humorous part of this story is that to carry a weapon on an airplane, a law enforcement official needs to have a letter from the head of his/her agency stating that the officer is traveling on official business. Since he was the sheriff, he was the one that signed the letter giving himself permission to fly with the gun.

But if you think that TSA policies can be stupid, and airline policies equally stupid, you obviously haven't ordered a cup of coffee at this DC coffee store recently.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and good coffee

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'.