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Friday, 1 May, 2009

Good morning

Many thanks to everyone who chose to read some or all of the two articles on Bigfoot/Sasquatch last week and send in their opinions.  My brother's article was the Sasquatch one and mine was Bigfoot.

Although more readers preferred my article to Christopher's, many readers agreed with me that he did a fine job of his first ever contribution to The Travel Insider.  Both my brother and I got a good laugh from people who chose the option, offered very much tongue-in-cheek and presumably answered in the same spirit 'I haven't read either article, but I'm sure Christopher's article would be better'.

Unless you've been living in a cave for the last week, you'll of course have been bombarded by a story that appeared, seemingly from nowhere late last week and now is hogging the front page of most papers most days - the growing threat of Swine Flu.

I've vacillated during the week between ignoring it and focusing on it for the newsletter this week, and as the week has developed it seems plain the danger is greater than that ascribed to it by Michael O'Leary, CEO of Ryanair, and there is a need for common sense information, not the nonsense he offers.

On Tuesday O'Leary said

It is a tragedy only for people living ... in slums in Asia or Mexico.  But will the honeymoon couple from Edinburgh die?  No.  A couple of Strepsils will do the job. [Strepsils are a brand of throat lozenge.]

The remoteness of the issue soon was replaced by a much greater degree of immediacy, at least for me.  There are now three cases in Seattle, and noting that New Zealand too had a prominent early role in spreading the infection (a student group returning from Mexico brought the disease with them back to NZ), it has a certain visceral impact, and if matters continue to escalate at the rate they are at present, before too long they'll be impacting on you too.

There was another unexpected impact on me, and potentially on you too.  I went and bought some extra quantities of long-lived and easily cooked food staples from Costco this past weekend as part of some prudent 'worst case' planning.  I didn't buy anything I wouldn't buy and eat anyway, I just bought larger quantities (eg 62lbs of rice!) than normal.  So, if (as we all hope) this pandemic scare fades away, I've not actually wasted any money.

Continuing my stocking up of essentials, on Thursday I went to buy some hand sanitizer (which was already sold out at Costco on Sunday).  I visited two different major supermarkets, and each had fully stocked shelves of all other healthcare products, but in the hand sanitizer section, their shelves were completely bare.

Plainly some people are already stocking up on relevant supplies, and if you're not careful, you might find yourself too late for increasingly essential items.  So perhaps a bit of prudent precautionary shopping now might be a good idea.

On Wednesday the World Health Organization declared a Phase 5 Pandemic Alert.  This is the fifth of six levels, with the six phases being defined as :

Interpandemic period

Phase 1 : No new influenza virus subtypes have been detected in humans. An influenza virus subtype that has caused human infection may be present in animals. If present in animals, the risk of human infection or disease is considered to be low.

Phase 2 : No new influenza virus subtypes have been detected in humans. However, a circulating animal influenza virus subtype poses a substantial risk of human disease.

Pandemic alert period

Phase 3 : Human infection(s) with a new subtype, but no human-to-human spread, or at most rare instances of spread to a close contact.

Phase 4 : Small cluster(s) with limited human-to-human transmission but spread is highly localized, suggesting that the virus is not well adapted to humans.

Phase 5 : Larger cluster(s) but human-to-human spread still localized, suggesting that the virus is becoming increasingly better adapted to humans, but may not yet be fully transmissible (substantial pandemic risk).

Pandemic period

Phase 6 : Pandemic: increased and sustained transmission in general population.

To put the Phase 5 status into context, the much talked about Bird Flu was never rated at higher than a Phase 3 alert.  So we're truly on the brink of a worldwide disaster, which is what Phase 6 of course would be.

The good news for most Travel Insider readers is that we may be 'too old' to be in the major risk group.  It seems that Swine Flu, in common with the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, primarily attacks people from their teens up to their 40s.  But that's not to say we can't or won't catch the disease, and it's also not to say that we wouldn't become very ill or even die.

At present there is insufficient data to understand the lethality of this type of Flu, which is of course a key issue.  Early reports from Mexico suggested it to be very lethal, but these early reports are now being amended and the apparent mortality rate is dropping.

However, we don't need it to be very lethal for it to be a big problem.  The 1918 Flu was estimated to be fatal 'only' about 2.5% of the time in the US (compared to a normal Flu which is fatal about 0.1% of the time).  But with an estimated 25% of the US population infected, that added up to a lot of deaths.

Or, look at it another way.  The US alone has about 30,000 people a year die from 'normal' seasonal flu.  Increasing that 25-fold to reflect a possible lethality rate for Swine Flu, and then increasing it maybe another four-fold to reflect a higher infection rate, leads us to a potential death toll of 1.5 million people in the US alone, which is about the same number as if we work the other direction (assume 300 million people, 25% infected, and 2.5% die), which gives us a 1.88 million death toll.

Just as challenging will be caring for the massive numbers of sick people - perhaps 75 million based on the previous numbers.  We don't have sufficient spare 'surge' capacity in our public health system to cope with the flood of Flu victims needing treatment and hospitalization - indeed, although the population has massively increased in the last 40 years, there are fewer staffed hospital beds in the country today than there were in 1968, during the last Flu pandemic (the 'Hong Kong Flu').

Even if it were possible to double up the number of beds in every hospital ward, the biggest constraint would be the shortage of trained staff to care for the people in those extra beds.

When you also downgrade the current resources to allow for health care workers getting sick themselves, our health care system would likely be stretched beyond breaking point.  We need to consider our own personal 'worst case' scenarios for how to cope with a Flu infection in a situation where we have minimal support from other people.

Here's a thought to consider in assessing your own potential risk to infection :  You probably know how it is estimated that any person is no more than six other people away from anyone else in the world - the 'six degrees of separation' concept.  How many degrees of separation are you from someone infected with Swine Flu?  Probably already less than six.

You would be prudent to start considering your pandemic plans before the degrees of separation dwindle down to two, then one, then (gulp) zero.

411 Swine Flu Summary

What it is :  A new strain of flu, with a curious combination of other flu strains that has already caused some people to wonder if there is a darker secret behind its appearance.

When it First Appeared :  The first US case occurred in San Diego, in the last week of March, but wasn't identified as a new strain of flu until 14 April, and started making the news a little more than a week later.

How Widespread :  Unknown, due to lead times in getting test results back from labs, etc.  Estimated more than 100 cases in the US (18 official new cases added on Thursday) and more than 250 worldwide in at least 11 different countries.  Actual numbers could easily be ten times higher, and possibly already 100 times higher.

Vaccination :  This last year's flu shot doesn't protect against this different strain of flu.  There are no other vaccines available, and developing one would take 4 - 6 months.

Treatment :  Tamiflu and Relenza are moderately effective if treatment is started within 48 hours of symptoms appearing.

Risk of Infection :  Currently very low, but if the pandemic takes hold, then will be dependent on your behavior, and could average 25% of the population being infected.

Risk of Death :  Unknown.  Seems significantly high in Mexico, but data still imperfect.  Seems low in other countries, but maybe it is a slower acting flu and mortality rates are only now starting to be measurable.  Highest for people from their teens to 40s.

Impact of a Major Pandemic :  Massive economic harm.  Healthcare system unable to provide comprehensive support for many/most victims.  Possible major interruptions to essential services, ranging from food distribution to utilities.  Current estimate of 1 - 2 million deaths in the US alone.

Is Swine Flu Mere Media Hype :  It isn't media hype that caused the WHO to successively raise their alert status to level five during this week.  Public health care professionals have been leading the media, not trailing it, on this issue and at this stage it seems appropriate to take our cues from the WHO and CDC.

Possible Future Developments :  This Flu encounter is at the tail end of 'winter flu season' which might mean that we have a very mild brush with it now, and then only a very low level of infection over the summer, followed by its major outbreak in fall/winter.  In other words, don't stop worrying until the end of the year.

Prudent Response :  Start updating and expanding your own disaster preparedness.

For Further Reading :

Twitter Updates :  Follow CDC_eHealth and CDCemergency


We're seeing an interesting range of opinions expressed and responses to the threat of Swine Flu so far.  Unfortunately, the opinions are often wrong, and the responses unhelpful.

For example, Joe Biden said he would recommend his family not travel by plane or subway, and to avoid confined spaces, right now.  His aides subsequently 'interpreted' what he said to make it more politically correct.

Also seeking to avoid air travel seems to be, hmmmm, possibly flight attendants.  Amongst other requests, they want any sick time for 'flu-like symptoms' to be given to them gratis and not to count against their annual sick leave entitlements.

Can they/can't they wear masks?  There's some uncertainty whether TSA and other Homeland Security staff have been prohibited from wearing masks while on duty or not, due to them looking too intimidating.

And airports are trotting out the temperature scanners they purchased back in the SARS scare, and using them to scan passengers moving through the terminals, looking for signs of people with fevers (a symptom of flu but not of colds).

Unfortunately, they are at best perhaps only 50% effective.  A person gets infected one to three days before they start to get a fever, and can also pass on the infection in the 24 hours or so prior to displaying any symptoms themselves.  So while these scanners will detect people with an already advanced case of flu, they won't report people who are already infected, and possibly already infectious, but still asymptomatic.

Lastly on this point, still more commentary and advice from me.

I'd written two articles about Bird Flu back in September 2005 when a Bird Flu pandemic seemed just around the corner as a possible part of that winter season.  Mercifully, Bird Flu remained - and still remains - hard to transmit directly from one human to another.  While our awareness of that issue has faded, the comments about flu in general, and steps to take to prevent your infection remain as relevant to Swine Flu today as they were to Bird Flu in 2005.

I've lightly edited the articles, and link here to the one with the most immediate practical advice.  If time allows, you might also find the other article a useful boost to your knowledge of the issue.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  How to Survive Swine Flu : My local supermarkets have already sold out of hand sanitizer. Now is the time to be planning and acting on your personal Swine Flu Avoidance Plan, and the information in this article will help you understand the issues and options.

There is a third part of this series that I haven't yet released.  This is an article on how to survive if a Flu Pandemic actually occurs.  When read in the normal light of a normal day, it seems extreme and inappropriate, and so I'm leaving it unpublished for now.  But if WHO upgrade their alert to the highest level six, I'll release that extra material.

Dinosaur watching :  A big and as-yet unanswered question is what impact the developing Swine Flu situation will have on airlines and the travel industry as a whole.  The markets have reacted carefully, with the airline index dropping about 12% between Friday's open last week and Thursday's close this week (and most of that drop being on Monday this week).  During the same week, the leading market indices were up about 3%, showing the airline index had moved 15% below the market overall.

But maybe some people won't really be caring what happens to the airlines.  People like, for example, the CEO of United Airlines.  Why would that be?  Well, look at last year.  In 2008, United ended up with an incredible $5.35 billion loss.  But CEO Glenn Tilton earned a total compensation package valued at a stunning $6.5 million.

For sure, this is less than his $10.3 million package in 2007.  That year, United earned a small profit of $403 million, with Mr Tilton's remuneration single-handedly representing 2.5% of United's total profitability.

If he shares so richly in the company's successes, why doesn't he also share in its failures?  Are we to believe that successes are due to his efforts, but failures are not?

By way of indication, if he was to get a similar 2.5% slice of net earnings in 2008, he would be required to give $134 million back to United.

A secret document?  British Airways has been ordered by the Department of Transportation to provide a top-secret document that Virgin Atlantic claims could undermine BA's attempt to create its long-desired transatlantic tie-up with American Airlines.

BA has been given two days to provide the necessary information after the DOT threw out claims by BA and AA that they should not have to hand over the data. The most interesting information is on airport contracts which could highlight BA's leading position at Heathrow where it controls more than 40% of the slots.

$150 million in federal subsidies, including an $8.6 million radar tower that has never been used since it was completed in 2004, and flights (that go only to DC) where the passengers (four) are outnumbered by the security screeners on duty (seven)?

Anything is possible when the airport is the John Murtha Airport in Johnstown, PA, and when the same John Murtha is also the immensely influential head of the House Defense Appropriations Committee.

Alaska Airlines has now started charging $25 for a first checked bag each way on its flights.

At first, this seems like another airline playing 'follow the leader' with this disappointing policy.  But Alaska Airlines is doing things differently.  It is adding a 'guarantee' - if your bag isn't at baggage claim 25 minutes after the flight parks at the gate, they'll give you either 2500 frequent flier miles or a voucher for $25 off a future flight (most people should take the miles).

And at the same time they're adding this new first bag fee, they're reducing their third bag fee from $100 down to $50.

Few of us check three bags, so for most of us, we'll be paying more not less for our luggage, but for those of us who fly into Seatac, there's a great chance that we'll be regularly claiming on the 25 minute guarantee.

I hope they make the guarantee claim process easier and quicker than the baggage claim.

Here's an unsurprising story, but with a slightly surprising twist.  The lady who severely injured herself in a toilet when her flight encountered turbulence is now suing the airline.  But note in this article reference to her 'disobeying warnings to remain in her seat' - which, if true, could massively reduce her entitlement to damages.

Actually, I'd like to see a judicial review of the status of 'warnings to remain in your seat' (which in this lady's case might actually mean nothing other than the seat belt light illuminating and a general announcement over the pa).  It annoys me to see some airlines so incredibly sensitive to the slightest bit of turbulence, or even the remote possibility of some future turbulence, such that they leave the seat belt sign on for most of a flight, even though the air is perfectly smooth most of the time.

If you're bursting to go to the toilet, and if the seat belt sign has been on for fifteen minutes of calm flying, what are you to do?

Here's an article in Boeing's home town newspaper, loyally celebrating Boeing's announcement of enhancements to their long-in-the-tooth 737 series of planes.

But what are these enhancements?  Two things for passengers - overhead bins that are higher up and blue LED cabin lighting.  And two things for airlines - a 1% fuel saving due to some aerodynamic tweaks on the plane's airframe, and a further 1% fuel saving due to some engine tweaks by engine manufacturer CFM.

That is the best Boeing can offer?  For sure, the 737 is the best selling plane model ever, but it is also the longest in production model, and for much of its model life, it had no competitors.  Nowadays it is very vulnerable to competition from Airbus and its modern A320 series of planes, and the 737 is way past overdue for a complete model replacement rather than trivial tweaks such as blue cabin lighting.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  An Air France flight, traveling nonstop from France to Mexico, was forced to divert to Martinique after being denied clearance to enter US airspace.  There was a journalist on board who is on an American 'no fly' list, and when the US authorities discovered this, they refused to allow the plane entry into US airspace (which it needed to do as part of a normal routing from Paris to Mexico).

There is nothing to suggest that the journalist is a terrorist, and that his presence on the plane was indicative of his intention to hijack it and crash it into something somewhere in the US.  Rather, it seems the journalist found his way onto the list for being critical of the US and currently researching a future book on the CIA.

If this is correct - and it sadly seems all too likely that it is - it marks a terrible abuse of anti-terrorist powers as a petty form of punishment of US critics, and is contrary to international conventions on airline overflight rights.

The journalist later caught a flight to Managua, after questioning by immigration officials in Mexico City.  Asked about experience with weapons, he indicated his 'only weapon was writing, especially in denouncing the U.S. government which I regarded as terrorist.' His interrogator reportedly commented, 'That weapon is often worse than rifles and bombs' - and certainly it seems to have the US cowed.

Talking about abuse of anti-terrorist powers, did you know that all around the perimeter of the United States there is a 100 mile zone in which one's normal constitutional rights have been suspended; where Border Patrol agents can essentially stop you for any reason, and search you for any reason?  The Fourth Amendment :

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.

does not apply in this zone.  Or, if it maybe still does, there is a delightful Catch-22, recorded on videotape when a motorist attempted to get through a checkpoint, at about the 8 minute mark and following on this video clip.  The Catch-22 is that the Border Patrol will ask for your permission to search your vehicle, and if you decline to give that permission, you've then acted suspiciously, giving them the grounds they need to cite 'reasonable suspicion' as a cause to search your car lawfully.

As you can see in the video - skip through the first part of it which is unrelated - the Border Patrol agents struggle unsuccessfully to control their smirks as they cite this Catch-22 to the stopped motorist, and after first admitting they had no reason at all to stop/search this person, to justify their wish to search his car, they say they believe he is a terrorist (the motorist is a Baptist minister) based on his attempt to assert his Fourth Amendment rights.

How often are you in this 100 mile zone - what the ACLU calls the Constitution Free Zone?  Estimates suggest that 67% of the US population lives in it.  Do you feel safer by its presence?  And is it even effective?  If we look at this no-rights zone, where the Border Patrol is supposedly attempting to protect us from illegal immigrants, is it not also the part of the country that most illegal immigrants are to be found?

The same person who filmed his confrontation with Border Patrol agents in the link above had another run-in at another roadside stop some time later.  Note that this is a roadside stop on a public highway, not part of a border crossing.  This was also filmed, but only by the Border Patrol, and they are refusing to release their film at this stage.  But the person - a local Pastor - talks about his experience here.

In quick summary, Border Patrol and Department of Public Safety officers first invented a 'probable cause' reason for searching his car, smashed windows on both sides of his car, tasered him repeatedly, ground his face first into the broken glass then onto the road surface (he ended up needing 11 stitches), and then, after finding nothing illegal in his car, created a couple of misdemeanor charges out of nothing and drove him 70 miles to Yuma to appear before a Judge.  His trial is continuing.

Most people react one of two ways when learning of such events.  Some react with horror, others say 'The guy was asking for it.  He should have cooperated; he deserves what he got.'

I can understand the latter point of view.  It would have taken this person less than a minute to pop his trunk, for the Border Patrol people to look inside, then wave him on his way.

But the problem is that in doing so, we're traveling down a slippery slope.  We've already reached the point where two thirds of the country now lives in an area where their Fourth Amendment right has essentially been suspended - where the 'authorities' (a term which encompasses a vast array of different groups of people) can act pretty much as they wish, and with almost no recourse open to us when we get caught up in such abusive situations.  As unpalatable as this may seem, one of the biggest unwritten rights we have is the right to be stupid and still to be treated with respect rather than beaten up by the public servants who collectively work for us.

That is the key difference between what our country should be and what dictatorships are.  We have 'the rule of law' that defines and constrains how our law enforcement agencies can behave in the discharge of their duties, and it is founded on the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty, and that people - both innocent and guilty - have rights of due process.

Here's a similar incident - a police sergeant (not an inexperienced low level officer, but an experienced sergeant) arrested a news crew.  Their 'crime' - filming a traffic accident scene.

But in the reader comments, along with many expressions of outrage at this terrible abuse of police power, is this comment 'As citizens, we must just obey the authorities no matter what, news teams and all.'  Other comments urged the newsman to cooperate and be respectful.

These concepts are so very wrong - it may be a great mindset to adopt in Stalin's Russia (although if everyone universally accepted that view, we'd still have a communist Soviet Union angrily lined up against us on the other side of the Iron Curtain today) but it is utterly wrong in a free society.  What value are our 'rights' if we are expected to voluntarily relinquish them in the name of courtesy, and in the face of inappropriate abuse of those same rights by discourteous law enforcement officers who should know better?

A lot of people suffered and died to earn us these rights.  Many more, in many places over many years, have died to preserve them for us, and to attempt to spread these rights to other people in other countries.  The least we can do in return is to value and respect them.

Neither the pastor, nor the French writer, posed any threat to anyone.  It was wrong to smash into the pastor's car, then bash his head first into the broken glass and then into the road surface, and to Taser him repeatedly.  It was wrong to refuse the Air France plane entry into US airspace.  And it was wrong to arrest the NM television news team.

This is not the country that truly millions of Americans have willingly given their lives to create and protect.  We must demand better of those we appoint in positions of power over us.

Lastly this week, here's a rather bizarre site, currently with very little content on it, but the content it does have are pictures of the contents of lost suitcases that the airlines subsequently 'find' and then sell at auction to highest bidder.  If you recognize one of yours, the site owner would be pleased to sell it back to you.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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