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Friday 6 February, 2009  

Good morning

For a while, this last week, I thought I might have to recant my global warming doubts, especially when I heard our Dearly Beloved Leader asserting in a piece of oratory that 'global warming is a fact' [His emphasis not mine] (although He was silent on the proof, but we must not question the utterances of the DBL); and due to a heat wave down in southern Australia.

But then, the heaviest snow falls in 18 years attacked London, and even heavier snow falls were recorded elsewhere in Britain, causing over 1 billion of economic damage to Britain's already fragile economy, disrupting all forms of travel, and with bad weather spreading throughout much of western Europe too.

Note to the DBL :  Now that truly is a fact, and so real You don't need to stress it.

I love my job.  I'm admittedly increasingly concerned at its diminishing income earning, but who needs money, right?  One of the great things about doing what I do is being able to justify to myself the purchase of all manner of lovely gadgets that I'd otherwise look at lustfully but never actually purchase.

I treated myself to one such thing a month or so back, and write about it this week.  It isn't for everyone, but if you're a gadget loving driving enthusiast, and/or a bit of a car do-it-yourselfer, and/or keen to maximize your fuel economy, you'll probably find it to be a must have item :

This Week's Feature Column :  ScanGauge for your Car :  This easily installed device immediately saved me $125 by displaying information about then resetting a benign Check Engine light.  Other information has helped me improve my mpg by about 20%.  But, with it displaying four different sets of real-time data from a selection of over 30 different data flows, do I now have any time left to look at the road while driving?

Dinosaur watching :  Last week we had an instant reader survey asking how much compensation you think should be paid to the passengers on the US Air flight that landed in the Hudson.  You could choose any amount from nothing all the way up to 'More than $12.5 million per person'.

Travel Insider readers showed themselves to be fairly moderate in terms of how much compensation they felt passengers should receive, and the top four categories of compensation response received no support at all, and only two readers supported paying passengers between $1 million and $2.5 million.

Here's a chart showing the responses received.

As you can see, over one quarter of all responses advocated no cash compensation at all, although some readers did write in to say they felt passengers should get some free travel or frequent flier miles or upgrades.  One might wonder if all the passengers are keen to do more flying after their near-death experience a couple of weeks ago!

One reader said he'd advocate a more generous settlement if the money to pay the passengers was coming from an insurance company rather than from the airline.

The midway point was probably about $5000, and the $4000 - $6500 band was the second most popular suggestion (as you can see above).

Strangely, this survey was not as well responded to as the previous week's survey about whether you listen to in-flight safety briefings or not.  7.6% of readers responded to the in-flight safety briefing survey, only 4.6% of readers responded to this one.

Interestingly, US Airways is currently giving the passengers $5000 each, plus a year of elite (Chairman's level) membership in their frequent flier program, which gives automatic upgrades on mainland domestic flights, two upgrades on overseas flights, access to a special reservations number and double miles on every flight.

Could it be that, even if only this once, this time around the airline got it right and provided an equitable fair response to the people who were inconvenienced by the water landing?

Meanwhile, the veneration of Captain Sullenberger, the pilot of the flight is reaching the ridiculous.  It is acceptable that a new drink has been named in his honor - the Sully drink has two shots of Grey Goose vodka and a splash of water.

But what to make of the idiocy from publicity fiend Sir Richard Branson, who has offered Sullenberger a job with Virgin Atlantic (VS), saying he'd make Sully the airline's best paid pilot, offering to pay him twice the salary of anyone else, and also offering to make him one of the astronauts in his Virgin Galactic company?

I'm sure there are a lot of excellent pilots at VS who will have less than positive thoughts about the fairness of that offer.

I don't mean to denigrate the good flying, correct decision making (enthusiasts have subsequently gamed the scenario out in Flight Simulator and have determined that of the three choices - returning to La Guardia, flying to Teterboro, or landing in the Hudson, only the river landing choice was feasible), composure, and general decency that Sullenberger exhibited, but I have to roll my eyes when people talk about his 'heroics' and/or say this proves that pilots should be paid such huge sums of money that they'd risk having our Dearly Beloved Leader feel the need to limit their income (as well as that of CEOs of companies receiving federal assistance).

One thing to keep in mind.  The captain, of any plane, is actually on the plane, too.  He doesn't have an ejection seat or a parachute; and he's in one of the most dangerous parts of the plane in the event of any sort of crash.  He's going to do the best job he can; not because he's a selfless hero, and not because he is well paid, but simply because his own life depends on it at least as much as do the lives of his passengers.

Prior to this incident, few fliers realized just how dangerous - and how common - bird strikes could be, with the frequency of bird strikes being shockingly high - over 38,000 strikes in the US were reported in an 11 year period 1990 - 2001, and it is thought this is perhaps only one fifth the total number of strikes that occurred.  If so, that is almost 50 bird strikes a day, and the number of bird strikes is apparently increasing rather than diminishing - in part because bird populations are massively increasing now that the negative effects of DDT are finally fading out of the ecosystem, and in part due to 90% of the birds that hit planes being members of federally protected species (which are usually increasing in number).

Here's an official US Government sponsored website on the subject.  Amongst other gems, it also records over 650 collisions between aircraft and deer in the US between 1990 and 2004 - but that's a new subject probably best left for another time.

Back to birds.  The NTSB recommended that the FAA develop a radar system to detect and advise of birds in a plane's flight path - ten years ago.  Radar technology can readily detect birds, but somehow, nothing has been implemented yet.  FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown told the AP, 3 days ago, 'The challenge with the bird radar like many of the technology solutions we develop and field is when you operate in a commercial environment you have to have a very high level of reliability.  In many cases these systems take time to tune to the reliability we need.'

Someone should mention to Ms Brown the essential aphorism 'The excellent is the enemy of the good'.  While everyone would love a system that 100% is guaranteed to keep planes and birds apart, doesn't she think that a system that works half the time would be a great first step?  That would cut down on bird strikes from 50 to 25 a day, and while 25 is still too many, it surely is better than 50.

While we're all feeling collectively relieved at the survival of everyone on the US Airways flight, if it had been later in the day, when it was dark and fewer passenger ferries were at hand, and if the plane had landed a bit further away from the rescue facilities, results could have been very different.  You should not think this event shows the certain survivability of a water landing; it merely shows that in the best possible scenario (which this most certainly was) it can be survivable.

While US airlines continue to reveal shocking losses for their fourth quarter last year, and the year as a whole, the international airline organization IATA has released its full year traffic figures.  Guess what - according to IATA, North American airline traffic showed an annual growth of 2.9% for the year.  Latin America show an extraordinary 10.2% growth in passenger numbers, Europe saw a 1.8% increase, and Asia/Pacific saw a 1.5% contraction.  In total, world passenger traffic grew 1.6% in 2008.

Most companies would consider any sort of growth in 2008 to be a splendid result, but the airlines continue to invent excuses why they're doing so poorly, even when their business grew rather than shrunk overall for the year, both domestically and internationally.

With so many North American carriers doing so poorly, you know that there have to be some airlines doing very well.  One such airline is Lufthansa, which just revised upwards its 2008 profit projection, now saying it expects about a 1.3 billion profit (about $1.7 billion), due to a stronger than expected fourth quarter (yes, the same quarter that was so 'difficult' for many US carriers).

Interestingly, the US carriers don't seem to have attracted much attention or a disproportionate share of the 'bailout package' being put together by our political Lords and Masters (all of which is of course based on the sadly all too true belief that when it comes to spending money, no-one can do it better than a Federal government.  Personally I'd rather the approximately $3000 that will be spent on behalf of every man, woman and child in this latest round of repeated bailout spendings was simply handed to each of us to do with as we wish.  I can't see any downside - if we just simply save the money, we're helping a bank.  And if we spend it, we're helping private industry, manufacturing, retail, etc etc.

But, I digress (yet again).  It is interesting to see what China is considering as a way to stimulate its economy.  After its growth dropped to a seven year low (but - note - we're talking about reduced growth not economic contraction) the China International Capital Corp suggested that the government should give away free airline tickets.  This would boost consumption, and in particular tourist spending, the company said.

I've often held that national tourist offices could be more effective if they simply gave away free tickets to their country or region.  In some cases I've looked at, when one compares the total annual budget in the US for some countries' national tourist offices and contrasts it with the actual impact on traveler numbers, one can see that the amount of money spent per tourist gained is way more than the cost of an airline ticket.  Who among us wouldn't be readily persuaded to go to a country we'd often been interested in if we were offered free roundtrip tickets for two, and a moderately priced ground package?

This proposal, as splendidly sensible as it might seem to me, will never of course transpire, because it would mean the loss of jobs for the people who'd have to agree to it.

Closer to home, there's an interesting new variation in airline promotions, and it is actually a very clever idea.  One thing airlines hate is selling tickets to people for any less than they can possibly sell them for.  A problem, currently, is that if an airline offers a sale price fare, it is available for anyone to take advantage of, even if they'd been going to buy a ticket anyway, at a much higher price.

So the airlines are starting to use a new approach to discounting their airfares.  To get the special fares they sometimes promote, you have to quote a coupon or discount code on their website.

Fortunately, most of the time, no matter who the coupon code was originally mailed to, it can be used by anyone to get the discount off qualifying flights and fares.

A couple of things you can do to make sure you're not missing out on any semi-secret discounts that might be floating around out there next time you travel somewhere.  First, plug yourself into sites like www.retailmenot.com and www.airfarewatchdog.com to keep up with airfare discounts.  Second, try searching Google for something like   airlinename coupon code   and see what comes up in the returned links.

Congress stirs.  Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., introduced legislation on Tuesday to make it harder to grant antitrust immunity to airlines.  Apparently his proposal would not only impact on current pending requests, but may also re-open earlier approvals for review and possible revision.

Oberstar said competition among carriers is declining, resulting in higher fares, especially on routes between the United States and Europe.  Quite sensibly, he said that granting immunity from antitrust legislation amounts to a de facto merger of the airlines so granted, and wants the GAO  to study whether benefits to consumers are outweighed by a loss of competition and whether existing grants of antitrust immunity should expire in three years unless again approved by the DOT.

The first thing I'd like the GAO to do is to come up with tangible examples of any of these vapid imaginary benefits to consumers that the airlines proudly tout.  If working together benefitted us as consumers, surely the airlines wouldn't need any immunity from antitrust oversight - doesn't an airline's request to be exempted from anti-trust regulation contain within it a clear admission that their actions will be harmful and will be contrary to the anti-trust legislation?

Is it cheaper to prepurchase tours and other travel arrangements before traveling somewhere?  Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't.  But sometimes, the added convenience and time saving of prepurchasing things more than makes up for the small or zero cost saving.

But now here's a product with prepurchase discounts that is indeed literally all about convenience.  It is a prepurchased toilet card for admission to the public toilets in Venice.  What costs 1 per visit in person can be prepurchased in a block of ten visits for 7 high season or 5 low season.

Venice city officials hope that this new service (and discount) will discourage tourists from using city streets as urinals.

Unfortunately, despite a promise to be online and operational by 1 February, their new website is still in a rudimentary beta form.  And that's bad news for both money conscious tourists and the Venice public streets (by which I presume they mean canals?).

Another un-airline opposite strategy to tough times is being shown by many restaurants, according to this article, which reports on how restaurants are bending over backwards to encourage diners in to their dining rooms.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Perhaps the most ridiculous bit of security nonsense ever forced upon us is the ban on carrying more than 3 oz of liquid per container, and no more containers in total than can fit in a small plastic bag.  No-one has ever been able to answer the question 'So why don't two terrorists each carry 3 oz of liquid and then mix them together, after getting through security, in the privacy of a public restroom in the concourse before boarding the plane'?

Now, at last, it seems the EU may be willing to drop this restriction, so as to reduce the amount of time wasted by airport screeners; allowing the screeners to concentrate on detecting more valid risks.  Unfortunately, this limitation on liquids, which was enacted almost literally overnight, may take a very long time to be removed, because all 27 member states need to approve it.

There's a certain lack of balance in that, isn't there.  Idiotic requirements can be instantly enacted, but take years to remove.

If you'd like some searingly distressing reading, check out this blog by an anonymous UK Police Inspector.  I stumbled across it a couple of nights ago, and was so captivated by it that I ended up spending several hours reading right through it.

What on earth are the Brits doing to themselves?

So Australian discount airline Jetstar forced a 350lb passenger to buy two seats on their flight, saying that she needed to do this for other people's comfort (to say nothing of her own!).

Okay, some of you agree with this policy and some of you disagree with it, and the policy is hardly unique or innovative.

But what is truly surprising is how Jetstar managed the double seat purchase.  Yes, it gave the lady two seats, but - ooops - they weren't adjacent to each other!

If, after reading my four part series on how to survive an airplane crash, you've become a little more attentive to the flight attendants' safety briefings, you may have noticed part of their spiel is the exhortation not to smoke on board.  It is a federal offense, we are told, but the penalties are not spelled out in the briefing.

If you're flying within Saudi Arabia, it is also an offense.  Apparently, quite a serious one.  A Sudanese man who refused to put out his cigarette on a domestic Saudi flight has been sentenced to 30 lashes by a local court.

Lastly this week, you couldn't make up a funnier story than this one.  Each extra detail just makes it funnier than the last.  Only in Russia..... (one hopes).

Could I suggest 30 lashes for the pilot?  Although, Russia being Russia, one fears the lashing may be handed out to the passengers instead (as already seems to be the case with Aeroflat making a vague threat to sue passenger and celebrity Ksenia Sobchak for the costs of the flight delay).

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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