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Friday, 10 April, 2009  

Good morning

Easter approaches, and the last week, delightfully spent in the company of my 4.5 year old daughter, has involved a growing intensity of excited discussions about Easter Eggs, Easter bunnies, and all the related nonsense we associate with this strange festival.  I say 'strange' because, as anyone who can count up to three presumably already knows, the one proof that Jesus offered the world that he was indeed the true Messiah - that he would die, be dead for three days and three nights, and then rise again - is rather negated by the time period between Easter Friday and Easter Sunday.  No matter how hard I try and count it, this comes to only two days and two nights.

But that's even more off topic than the occasional political aside, isn't it.  In case you care, I am a Christian, although puzzled by the Friday/Sunday Easter contradiction....

Not nearly so complicated or controversial is the topic of this week's article, which is all about something very simple and elegant.  I mentioned last week that I'd uncovered a wonderful device that neatly and simply resolves a problem that besets all of us with Bluetooth headsets - how to carry the headset when not on a call.

I've never been sure if the somewhat ridiculous and definitely self-important looking people who walk around with BT headsets permanently in their ear do this because they are expecting nonstop phone calls, or just because they don't know where else to put the headset between calls.  As for me, the unresolved challenge of what to do with the headset became such a hassle that I simply gave up carrying it entirely, preferring to stuff a regular wired headset in my pocket, and rely on a Bluetooth speaker phone setup in the car.

The chances are that if you too have a BT headset, you've had a similar challenge.

At last, great news for us all.  Which leads to the two pages which comprise :

This Week's Feature Column :  Bluetooth Headset Holders :  I love my Bluetooth headset, but have never known where or how to carry it, other than stupidly (and uncomfortably!) stuck in my ear.  Until now.  This week I reveal a range of inexpensive devices ($15-30) designed to give you a simple solution to the problem of carrying your headset.

Dinosaur watching :  A Tale of Two Airlines.  Air Canada, thought by some to be a possible candidate for another bankruptcy filing, reported a 13.1% drop in passenger traffic (RPMs) in March compared to the same month last year.

Sure, last year included Easter in March, and this year didn't, and of course, the economy is down.  But don't tell that to the folks at AC's competitor, Westjet, who reported a 0.6% increase in their RPMs for March.

Could there be some other reason for this enormous disparity in performance between Canada's two leading airlines?

In other Air Canada news, their new CEO is considering possibly removing some of its fees.  Air Canada's much vaunted 'A la carte' fares, where basically you pay more for just about everything, have not proven as popular as Westjet's fares which feature fewer surcharges and extra costs.  Fancy that - what a surprise!

The DoT rolls over again.  Continental has been given permission to join the Star Alliance with antitrust immunity to apply to CO and its Star partners and for CO's proposed trans-Atlantic 'joint venture' with AC, UA and LH.  The joint venture is to be called 'Atlantic Plus-Plus' (gack!) and the four carriers applied for antitrust immunity to act as a single carrier for international flights, sharing their planes, their sales and marketing, and their revenue.

If you've any ideas at all about how allowing these four very different carriers to act as one will benefit us as travelers and encourage rather than reduce competition, then the chances are you work for the DoT.  Because, for sure, it seems glaringly obvious to me that the exact opposite will occur.

In other Continental news, CO has been voted Best Airline in North America in the Skytrax 2009 World Airline awards.  And Fortune magazine named the airline the No. 1 World's Most Admired Airline on its 2009 list of World's Most Admired Companies. Congratulations to Continental.

Talking about competition across the Atlantic, the tough economic times have prompted an extraordinarily generous offer from British Airways.  They have a short term sale on business class fares - between now and midnight Tuesday 14th - between all their US and Canadian gateways and London.  Prices - including fuel surcharges, but not government taxes - start as low as $2078 from JFK, and that is roundtrip.  Okay, it is still a lot more than a discounted coach class fare, but it is massively less than you'd normally pay for business class.

The discount fares are good for travel between 30 May and 2 September, with no blackout dates, but various limitations and fine print applies.

Why not use this to springboard yourself in style to London, then take Eurostar over to Paris and join us for our Europe's Heartland Cruise this June/July?

In slightly less positive news, a potential class action against BA by US passengers complaining about the airline losing their bags has passed another hurdle as it slowly moves forward.  Some interesting facts and figures about BA's bag (mis)handling record can be seen in this article.

And in slightly sad news, it seems that the one Concorde that BA kept, ostensibly to display at Heathrow, may be instead sold and sent to Dubai.  My analysis of the untruths and real reason why BA (and Air France) stopped flying their Concordes remains a sad reminder of a once glorious mode of air travel.

It is rather surprising, however, that Dubai is currently investing in much at all.  Here's an eye-opening revelation of the tough times in Dubai that I tweeted earlier this week.

One last BA item.  Perhaps British Airways should rename itself 'Mainly British et un peu Français too Airlines'.  BA's subsidiary, Openskies, which in turn bought out a competing French airline, L'Avion, has now fully eliminated the last traces of the L'Avion brand (Openskies earlier told me it planned to keep the L'Avion brand - it seemed a stupid idea at the time and one which of course didn't last long).

But Openskies itself has now moved to be headquartered in, gasp, Paris, and its airline operating certificate is from France, not Britain.

I'd mentioned a few weeks back about a competition being operated by Ryanair, offering a €1,000 cash prize for the most innovative or amusing new fee they could charge passengers.  Their competition apparently attracted 12,000 suggestions (including more than a dozen from me!) and they've now prepared a short list of their top five contenders for the prize.

You're welcome to go vote for your favorite of the five, and the winner will get the €1,000 shortly after voting closes next Friday.  Details here.

Ryanair operates some flights from London's Luton airport, and perhaps the airport itself has become infected with 'fee-mania'.  It is now proposing to charge a £1 fee for cars that drop off passengers.  They also charge for luggage carts, for plastic bags to put your liquids in when going through security (if you forgot to bring your own), and a £3 fee to use a priority lane through security.

Easyjet also operates from Luton, and while they're not quite as renowned for their fees as Ryanair, they've come up with what must surely be a new low. They have told their crews to bring their own coffee, tea, and other beverages with them rather than to help themselves to the airline's beverage carts.  They will however be allowed to use the plane's hot water for free.

Lastly on fees, here's some good news.  The Dutch government has discontinued its 'Eco Tax' on air tickets.  The tax of between €11 and €45 per ticket on flights out of Holland was predicted to generate €300 million a year in extra revenue.  In actual fact, it caused a loss of about €1.1 billion, because potential passengers chose to either take a high speed train (with no taxes) or travel a short distance to an airport in adjacent Belgium or Germany and fly from there.

Apparently even giving this new fee the politically correct name of 'Eco Tax' wasn't enough to encourage the Dutch to feel good about paying it.

Don't you wish we had a similar option in the US to quickly hop across a border and leave our fees behind?  Well, I guess I could drive up to Vancouver, but Canada's as awash in fees as the US.

Talking about cutbacks, here's a wonderful piece of Orwellian doublespeak.  Disney has announced the loss of 1900 jobs at its domestic theme parks.

Now you might think that with 1900 fewer staff at the theme parks, lines would get longer, trash would be collected less frequently, and service standards would unavoidably drop.  Apparently, if you think that, you'd be wrong.  Disney says that the cuts are essential to maintaining leadership in family tourism.

I wonder what their view of 'leadership' actually is?

And some more good news.  With the reduced number of flights last year, airline performance generally improved.

But talking about an 'improvement' doesn't mean that things are now good.  Here's a sad story of a judge ruling that airlines are under no legal obligation to provide passengers with a stress free environment, finding American Airlines not liable for keeping passengers on a plane for 9.5 hours on the ground, with overflowing toilets and little or no food and water.

And here's a good article from the Christian Science Monitor, revealing how the airlines had uncovered and exploited a loophole allowing them to under-report the number of flights with lengthy ground delays.

Let's end this topic with two vastly different stories.  Firstly this nightmarish tale of the horrors suffered by a United Airlines passenger.

And, to close on a high note, this came in from reader Steve

I was flying from Johannesburg to Sydney on Qantas QF64 last month. The flight pushed back on time at 18:10 from JNB.  As soon as the safety briefing was done, the pilot announced there was a problem with one of the engines and we would have to return to the gate.

We got to the gate, and were kept informed as to what was going on every 10 mins by both the pilot, and the highly entertaining cabin director.  After an hour, they deplaned us, advising that the fuel pump to engine 3 had failed, and they were sourcing one within South Africa.  Food and drinks were provided by showing our boarding pass at a restaurant in the airport.  The cabin director continued to keep us informed, across the entire airport.  We finally departed five and a half hours late, with a new fuel pump installed.

I knew I'd missed my connection from Sydney to Melbourne, but had no concerns as the flights are at least hourly between the two cities.  Upon landing in Sydney, we picked up envelopes at the gate prior to immigration advising what had happened, complete with a big apology, and instructions on what to do next.  Inside the envelope was a confirmed reservation at the nearby Novotel in Brighton Beach, a confirmed reservation for my flight in the morning, two cab-charge vouchers to get a taxi to/from the airport/hotel, and instructions that we were allowed to eat for free in the hotel restaurant OR free room service, plus breakfast the next morning and $30 worth of phone calls from the hotel room!!

Needless to say, I was very impressed.  I fly to and in the US a lot, and although have been delayed there many times, have never received such generous inconvenience packages.  I ended up getting home to Melbourne just 13 hours late, and more refreshed because of my night in Sydney than I normally do when I get home direct.

Not bad huh?  But wait, there's more.  A week later, I get a letter in the mail from Qantas.  There is another apology about the QF64 delay, PLUS (by way of apology) a $400 MCO for use on future QF flights/holidays!  I was astounded by this voluntary generosity, and have happily just booked a flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles on Qantas.

Qantas is very profitable, even though it is also very generous.  United, on the other hand, is neither profitable nor generous.  I wonder which airline has the better policy - both from a customer facing perspective and a financial return?

If you're read my last two newsletters, you'll have noticed that I have dared to take issue with the suggestion that pilots should be paid way more than they are currently earning, in the interests of greater flight safety (and greater pilot pay packets), thereby arousing the ire of many of the pilot readers of this newsletter.  And, arousing the ire of many non-pilot readers as well who now venerate him as a saintly ultra-hero, I've dared to question whether the fact that Captain 'Sully' Sullenberger's feat in safely landing his A320 in the Hudson River back on 15 January now qualifies him to lecture his airline employer as to its management practices.

Although in the first rush of reporting, minutes and hours after the crash landing, I too subscribed to the 'Sully is a hero' line, you'll note I preceded that comment with an ambivalence as to whether his water landing was actually hard or easy to do.  For me, the most difficult part of the entire process was not the landing, but rather the nearly instant command decision/judgment call that Sully made to head for the Hudson, rather than follow the gentle suggestions of Air Traffic Control to try for Teterboro or Newark airports.  That was a very difficult decision to make, with almost no time to make the decision, and little margin for error if he got it wrong.

He made the right decision for two reasons.  The first reason was that there was no doubt he could glide the plane to the Hudson, the only doubt was how easy/difficult/survivable it would be to land the plane on the river.  On the other hand, there was grave doubt about his ability to glide the plane as far as any of the various airport alternatives, and if he got it wrong, he risked not only a certain crash of the plane, but also potentially substantial casualties to people on the ground as well.

The second reason was that the decision truly was right.  Enthusiasts subsequently recreated the exact scenario - airplane type, height, location, and speed - and tested the feasibility of all the different courses of action after the engines failed.  None of the other airports proved to be reachable.

This, to my mind - the decision to land in the Hudson - was the real magic of Sully's flying.

But back to the actual landing. Easy or difficult? Simple or complex? I wanted to know the answer to that, and so I decided to do some computer modeling myself – which is a fancy way of saying that I blew the dust off a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator and loaded it onto a computer. Don’t laugh – MS Flight Simulator is actually a very sophisticated and accurate simulation of what real planes do, and is the program used by the other researchers in testing out the alternate airport scenarios.

My version didn’t have an A320 plane profile, but it did have a 737, which is reasonably similar, and so I tried landing with that.

To my surprise, the first time I tried, I safely landed the engines-out 737 in the water. But then I noticed the simulation had a ‘no crash landing’ option selected! Trying several more times, with the most ultra-realistic and demanding settings all maxed out gave me a not quite 50% safe water landing rate, which I actually thought to be very good, considering that it is probably harder to fly a simulator (less sensory inputs and feedback than in a real plane) and that I didn’t have any of the ‘facts and figures’ about what to do to optimize a no power water landing.

But this still didn’t really answer my question – was Sully’s landing a magnificent feat of extraordinary skill, or was it ‘all in a day’s work’ and something any typically skilled average pilot could similarly do?

So imagine my delight at encountering a column on Thursday from 767 co-pilot Patrick Smith in which he talks about Sully’s feat. He says :

Actually, gliding into the river was probably a lot easier than gliding to an airport. Sully had the benefit of a 12-mile long runway of water and didn't have to worry about crashing short or running out of room.

His discussion starts about a third of the way down this page and continues on to the first part of the second page of his article.

I understand also Patrick’s envy at learning about Sully now having signed a two book contract with a major book publisher. (I’ve reviewed Patrick’s own book, ‘Ask the Pilot’ and will look forward to reading and possibly reviewing Sully's book/s too when they appear) but I don’t think his comments now are motivated by sour grapes.

My feeling is and remains that it has generally suited the pilots’ unions purposes to make out that Sully is a pilot extraordinaire and that if we don’t (continue to?) pay over the odds for pilots, we’ll be confronted with inadequate pilots who can’t fly so well in the future, putting us all, as passengers, at greater risk of experiencing a crash. (On the other hand, the risk of being in a fatal air crash is so low - about one in 40 million per flight - that one could perhaps argue that a moderate elevation in this risk would still see us safely live our full lives, no matter how frequent a flier we may each be, with no danger of being an airplane crash fatality!).

Bottom line – it is refreshing to see a pilot publicly break ranks with his colleagues and offer a different version of reality for our consideration.  Thank you, Patrick.

Do you still think or hope the US leads the world in terms of technological innovation and acceptance?

That's not really been the consistent case for quite some time, with the US only now starting to catch up with the rest of the world in cell phone technologies.

And when it comes to internet connectivity - surely something the US would be on the forefront of, this article paints a distressing picture about how we are paying too much and getting too little in return, compared to other countries.

Talking about cell phones, if you're considering treating yourself to an iPhone 3G, you might want to wait.  It seems almost certain that there'll be a new version of Apple's iconic phone released this June - indeed, there may possibly even be two new versions added.  Look for the new phone to have a 3.2 megapixel camera instead of the current 2 megapixel camera, plus the ability for video conferencing (which may require two cameras - the main high quality one on the camera's back plus a lower quality one on the front for videoconferencing.  Video editing is also hoped for, and there are reliable industry leaks suggesting an even higher resolution 5 megapixel camera is due soon too.

In addition, it is thought the higher end of the two models will have longer battery life and more powerful computing abilities.

Happy belated birthday to Gmail.  This paradigm changing free email service launched on 1 April 2004, and it was so extravagantly better/more generous than the two market leaders (Yahoo and Microsoft) that some people thought it to be an April Fool's Day joke.  The other two services limited their free mail services to no more than 10MB of storage, and Yahoo would allow an upgrade to 100MB for a $50/year charge.  Google launched with 1GB of free storage, and these days offers more than 7GB.  Both Yahoo and Microsoft have massively upgraded their free products in response.

I remember that in the early days, Google was limiting its email service to only small blocks of people at a time, and getting an invitation for a Gmail account was a highly prized treasure - so much so that I successfully raised quite a lot of funding for the website by selling some bulk blocks of invitations I'd been given.

These days anyone can sign up for Gmail, and selling invitations is not only pointless but also banned by Google.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  I really can't decide which of these two to make the featured story for the week, so we have two 'first equal' horrors.

Firstly, an Ohio man returning from Mexico found himself suffering from an attack of, ahem, 'Montezuma's Revenge' on his Delta flight.  As you know, if so afflicted, you have very little ability to patiently wait your turn to get to a restroom.  He got up, only to find the aisle blocked by a beverage cart.  The flight attendants refused to help him squeeze past, and also refused to allow him to go forwards to the business class restroom instead, lying to him that it was an FAA policy that passengers only use the restrooms for their class of service.

He returned to his seat, but after waiting a few minutes absolutely could not wait any longer.  The aisle to the back of the plane was still blocked, so he had no choice (well, he did have a choice, but we don't want to think what the alternative would be) but to rush into the business class restroom.  In doing so he had some type of altercation with a business class flight attendant - the stories differ on that.

After doing what he had to do, he returned to his seat and thought no more about things, only to find himself arrested upon landing.  He spent two nights in jail (so far) and has been charged with assault.

Well done, Delta.  You refuse your passengers the smallest bit of courtesy in a 'medical emergency' and then bring assault charges after your stupid passenger-hating flight attendants get in an unnecessary altercation with a passenger.  What did you expect or want the man to do?  Shit explosively all over the airplane's seats and carpet?

Tying for first place with this is the St Louis TSA officers who harassed a passenger trying to go through airport security while carrying $4700 in cash.  Let's understand two important things up front - there's no law against carrying $4700 in cash with you when flying anywhere - indeed, if you're flying internationally, you don't need to disclose any sums of less than $10,000.  And, secondly, money is not a dangerous weapon.  You can't assault a passenger or take over a plane with cash.  Money is not on the TSA's banned list.

But some over-jealous TSA officers decided to press the passenger about the money he was carrying - where did he get it from and why was he carrying it.  The young man (who looks like an All-American Honor Student) politely asked if he was required by law to answer that question.  By this time he was already being detailed in a windowless office, and the TSA agents proceeded to swear at and roundly abuse him, and trotted out the old homily about 'If you've nothing to hide, you'll answer the question' while never answering his question about if he was required by law to answer their questioning or not.

Instead, they played the usual tricks of threatening him with missing his flight, and arresting him and, in this case, taking him to the DEA for further questioning.  They even apparently did arrest him, and were in the process of taking him to the DEA airport office when it seems someone - possibly an FBI agent - came up to them and quietly told them to release the man immediately, because they were way out of line with what they were doing.  Extraordinarily, one of the TSA agents refused, but eventually relented.

Okay, so this is just another inconclusive case of the passenger's word against several TSA officers, right?  And we know who wins and loses in such cases, don't we.

No.  The passenger activated an audio recording function on his cell phone, and recorded 25 minutes of his encounter.  So we have an impossible to deny recording of what it is like to be captive at the hands of out of control TSA agents running amok and roundly abusing passengers and their inalienable (?) rights.

The TSA - unable to deny the audio recording - is investigating.  Whatever that means.  Care to guess if anyone will lose their job?

More details here, and some of the recording is played here.

Lastly this week, we all know what a 'clothing optional' beach or resort is.  But the Hotel Rosengarten, in Germany's Black Forest, now has a strict 'clothing not optional' policy in all its public areas (what you do in the privacy of your own hotel room is apparently okay).

Oh - don't misunderstand me.  'Clothing not optional' means you must not wear any clothing at all.

Something special in the air?  At an airport near you?  An artificial scent, that is.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and have a great Easter.  And if you're flying anywhere with Delta, better pack some Imodium - for you and your nearby passengers, just in case....

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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