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Friday 8 August, 2008  

Good morning

As the 737 I was flying pulled into its gate at SFO, the captain spoke over the public address system 'Ah, folks, if you look off to the left hand side, you can see the new Emirates Airbus A380.  Yes, it is the largest passenger plane in the world.'

He spoke in the envious admiring tones that I was to hear repeatedly when discussing the plane with 'outsiders' that day.  Because, on Monday, I was relishing my role as an 'insider' - I was flying down to San Francisco so as to enjoy a two hour demonstration flight on this massive new airplane.

It is a long time since a new plane evoked excitement and passion among the traveling public in general, but there can be no doubt at how the huge double decker A380 has done exactly that.

And what an experience the flight was!  It was the first time I've gone for a joyride on an airplane - a flight purely to enjoy the experience of flying - since, well, perhaps since flying on Concorde over 20 years ago.

Emirates - an airline blessed with outstanding profitability through their own high standards of service and management - chose to pull out all the stops for a lavish extravaganza, underscoring their own excitement at taking delivery of the first of some 58 A380s they have on order, and their pride in being the first airline to start A380 service to the US (flying between JFK and Dubai).

I guess if your airline makes almost US$950 million in annual profits you have a bit of extra budget to spend on such things, and - well; perhaps the most fun measure of the extravaganza they staged is my calculation that the flight, even with jet fuel at the high cost that it is, probably ended up costing them more for the countless bottles of finest Dom Perignon champagne they were opening and pouring nonstop than they spent on jetfuel (assuming the other passengers drank as much as I did!).

I've reviewed a number of airlines in the past, including a review of Emirates' impressive business class service, but it seemed to me, after this wonderful experience, the best topic for my review should not be just the Emirates A380 service, but instead the broader subject of the plane itself.  And once I got started on chronicling the fascinating history of how the A380 evolved and came to be built, what was planned to be a short article became very much longer.  I'm splitting it up into four parts, with the first two parts available this week and the second two parts (including the actual review of the Emirates flight) coming next week.

For those of you who can't wait, or who don't want to read all four parts of the article, the quick 'executive summary' is that Airbus really triumphed with this new plane, which offers tangible benefits to passengers in all classes of service, and the Emirates cabin design (complete with a couple of spacious shower cubicles in first class) is well up to their usual high standard.  Bravo to Airbus for an excellent plane, and bravo also to Emirates for a wonderful adaptation of the plane for their passengers.

And, for those of you who do want to enjoy the full story, here now is :

This Week's Feature Column :  The Development of the Airbus A380 :  Designing the biggest passenger airplane in the world is a massive task, because you have no guidelines to work from.  In these first two parts of a four part series, read how Boeing failed and Airbus succeeded at this challenge.

Dinosaur watching :  Continuing the A380 theme for a paragraph or two more, the A380 deliveries are finally starting to speed up.  Singapore Airlines now has five, Emirates of course has received its first, and on 19 September Qantas becomes the third member of this exclusive group of airlines (in stark contrast, none of the sixteen customers who between them have ordered 202 A380s are American carriers).

Qantas will receive two more A380s before the end of the year, and will start using them on commercial flights on 20 October, flying from  Melbourne to Los Angeles - a flight which also flaunts the huge range of the A380 and its ability to fly nonstop between Los Angeles and Melbourne without any weight restrictions (unlike the 747).

Or maybe not.  Qantas has threatened to move the new A380 flights to San Francisco unless Los Angeles upgrades its facilities.  San Francisco has the best A380 facilities of any US airport, with three (yes, three) jetways to connect simultaneously to an A380 at its A380 gate.  A Qantas spokesperson said the airline would not put up with passengers having to exit its planes at remote gates and then bus to the airport terminal.  The threat has LAX officials puzzled, and they claim the airport already has two jetways at an A380 compatible gate, with more to follow.  Details here.

And a news item with an unexpected tie-in to the A380, much to the chagrin of American Airlines.

An AA flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu turned round and returned to LAX after some type of smell or mist or smoke was detected on board.  The pilot declared an emergency so as to get priority access to the airport, brought the plane straight in, landed it, and brought the plane to a complete halt on the runway.  Although the mysterious whatever-it-was may have still been present, there was no fire detected, the plane was functioning normally, and passengers okay.  So far, so good.

What happened next is a bit puzzling, but apparently some of the flight attendants then decided - on their own, and without telling the captain - to open some (but not all) of the emergency exits and get passengers to evacuate down the slides.

Can you imagine the surprise in the cockpit?  There the two pilots are, doing their safety checks after an emergency landing, determining everything is perfect, and they're about to then taxi the plane in to a gate when, perhaps :

'Hey, Bill - what's that red light that just lit up on the dash over there?'

'I dunno, Bob.  Never seen it come on before.  Let me wipe the dust off its label.'

'Umm, looks like it is the emergency slide deployment indicator.'

'How did that happen?'

'Beats me.  Must be a faulty sensor.'

'Write it up in the maintenance log...  Hey - look out the window!  There are people on the runway.  Where are they all coming from?'

'Uh oh.....'

American's flight attendants have the authority to unilaterally deploy the slides if they feel there is a serious and imminent threat but normally they check with the captain first.  Apparently, in their excitement, they forgot to check with the captain.

Oh -  the Emirates A380 tie-in?  Television camera crews had gathered at the airport to film the arrival of the A380, which was due shortly after the AA 'emergency', and so were on hand to film the whole embarrassing situation, something that, for sure, American Airlines definitely had not wished to happen.

You can see one such video clip on this page (the second of the two clips on the page is the less breathlessly sensational).

Ooops.  One suspects (and hopes) the flight attendants are being given a lesson in emergency procedures.

Airline July traffic data is emerging, with some surprising winners and losers.  Biggest surprise is Southwest; with a slight drop in passenger numbers, even though they increased capacity for the month (compared to same month last year).  Southwest reported a decline in Revenue Passenger Miles from 7 billion down to 6.9 billion, even though it increased capacity by 5.2%.

The drop in Southwest numbers is even more puzzling when contrasted with an uptick for Northwest (up 3.9%).

JetBlue had a 1.7% increase - not so surprising, and good to see.  Other dinosaurs also performed closer to expectations - US Airways was down 1.7%, American was down 3.5% domestically, and United was down 4.7%.

The Delta/Northwest merger lurched a bit further forward this week, securing clearance from the European Commission for the merger.  The Commission said the merger would not hurt competition in transatlantic markets.  Still needed is US Dept of Justice approval and a shareholder vote.

Here's an unusually cynical take on Sir Richard Branson, an industry personality who usually seems to be given very positive write-ups in the press.

Occasionally a friend asks my advice about joining a program that offers them a chance to become an instant travel agent.  Typically these deals cost about $500, and promise you an official travel agent ID card that will get you huge industry discounts when you travel yourself, and further promise you the chance to make big money selling travel to all your friends.

The reality is, of course, very different.  The official travel agent ID card is not an official one.  The huge industry discounts don't exist.  And you'll probably not sell any travel to your friends, and if you do, you'll get maybe a 5% commission.

One of the bigger name enterprises offering this sort of deal is YourTravelBiz.com.  Earlier this week the California Attorney General sued them for $25 million in fines and restitution for people who'd bought into their programs, saying

YourTravelBiz.com operates a gigantic pyramid scheme that is immensely profitable to a few individuals on top and a complete rip-off for most everyone else. Today's lawsuit seeks to shut down the company's unlawful operation before more people are exploited by the scam.

Apparently in 2007 the company (known as YTB) took in over $103 million in fees, but paid out only $13 million in travel commissions, and nearly two thirds of all YTB members didn't earn a single commission during the entire year.

More details here.  Until the matter is resolved, could I suggest that you think carefully before buying in to the YTB operation....

Where do you think the most expensive street in the world is to buy property?  The answer can be found here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It is necessary to remind ourselves that our Constitution was framed by individuals who did not like and distrusted government.  The Constitution seeks to limit and control government, it does not seek to empower and expand it.

In particular, let's keep these two Amendments in mind (full text of the 'Bill of Rights' here)

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V
No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...

The point I'm making is that we have constitutional rights not to be searched without the issuance of a specific search warrant detailing the things to be searched/seized and the probable cause for so doing, and that we are protected against the government taking anything of ours without due process of law.

Now it is true these rights were enshrined well before iPods and computers were imagined, but not before international travel existed, and there's no reason to believe that these rights only relate to such property as was in existence 200+ years ago.

So how then to justify the latest announcement (uncritically accepted and reported as fact here) that US federal agents (ie Customs officers, but presumably any other US federal agent as well) have been 'given new powers' to seize our laptops and other electronic devices, without any suspicion of wrongdoing on our part, and to hold them for unspecified periods.

What are these new powers?  Where did they come from?  Who bestowed them upon the federal agents?  And what was their authority to do so?  Most of all, how do these new powers co-exist with our rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution?

It goes without saying that this latest assault on our liberties and our rights is being justified as 'needed to prevent terrorism'.  But I don't see that blanket waiver of our rights being mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.

Okay, so maybe you and hopefully I don't have anything to fear from these so-called anti-terror policies.  Except that - we do.  Even if we have nothing to hide on our laptops, in our iPods and cameras, and so on, who among us wants Customs agents to be able to take all our electronic gadgets on a whim, and keep them for maybe a month (maybe longer) and to run the risk that when they are eventually returned to us, the data on them has been damaged or lost.

What's more, this is inefficient and bad operationally for the Customs people.  They should be required to focus their attentions on cases where they have specific suspicions that they can formally state (even if only internally to a supervisor) before devoting the massive resource it takes to impound a computer and forensically scan it for hidden and encrypted files, and to read through potentially gigabytes of data, looking for evidence of terrorist activities.

Someone needs to control and focus the energies of the people who are supposedly fighting terrorism on our behalf such that they are validly directed at potential terrorists, not at you and me.

We're not the enemy - a fact too often overlooked.

Do you remember the disappearance of adventurer Steve Fossett last year?  His plane disappeared without trace in September - I lightheartedly joked that maybe his disappearance was to do with him stumbling too close to Area 51.

Here's an even more bizarre possible explanation for his mysterious disappearance.

Talking about mysterious disappearances, as the proud and doting father of a four year old daughter myself, I find this following item hard to comprehend.  An Israeli couple with five children inadvertently left the youngest, a four year old girl, at the airport, boarding their plane and flying away without her.

A policeman found the girl wandering around Ben Gurion airport earlier this week looking for her mother.  The family had been running late for their Paris flight, and having 18 suitcases and duty free shopping and the five children to worry about, somehow they missed the youngest daughter in the confusion.  It was only when airport police contacted their flight, and they were informed that their child had been left behind, did they realize she was missing.

The child was placed on the next flight to Paris, along with an airline staff member.

It seems that once every year or two plans are announced for a new type of 'everyman' plane - a plane that we are all expected to rush out, buy, and put in our garage next to our SUV.  Usually such concepts are laughable and self-evidently (to all except the optimistic developer and his backers) doomed to failure.

But here's the latest example of such a plane, and I find myself quite attracted to it (a shame about its sticker price, but to some Travel Insider readers, it is far from prohibitively priced).

Lastly, today marks the start of the 2008 Olympics, being held in Beijing and elsewhere in China.

The Chinese have apparently solved the chronic pollution problems in Beijing that have worried the world.  Apparently the thick smog like looking stuff that currently envelopes Beijing is not pollution at all, we are told.  Oh no, it is merely nice clean benevolent mist.  Not everyone is quite so sure about the harmless nature of this 'mist' however (oh dear, this is going to be another issue of the newsletter that is blocked in China, I fear).

Many of us believe the Olympics today are an over-developed, bureaucratic, political and commercial monstrosity that has mutated terribly and lost sight of its original praiseworthy roots as being a forum where amateur athletics could meet and compete and celebrate the best elements of sportsmanship in a spirit of uncomplicated international camaraderie.

What were the Olympics like, way back then?  Thanks to reader Fred for finding this charming and delightful account of the Olympics 100 years ago, held in 1908 in London.

Progress is a funny thing, isn't it.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider


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