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Friday, 8 May, 2009
So, what's happening with Swine Flu?
After the escalating scare of last week, this week has seen a matching
reduction in interest and perceived threat from the virus. It
seems the rate of infection is reducing, and the lethality of the
virus is being downgraded to now being perceived as possibly
no more serious than regular flu.
Does that mean we've dodged
another bullet? Hopefully so, although the WHO
predicts as many as two billion people may end up catching this flu
before it finally completes its path.
Perhaps the reduction in fear will mean an end to some of
the silly responses to the threat we've seen so far. Most notable
was the case of a
United Airlines flight from Munich to Washington DC.
At almost the end of the flight, they
diverted to Boston due to a passenger on board possibly having Swine
Flu. One wouldn't think that one hour, more or less, was likely to make
any difference to the passenger.
Ah ha, you say. The diversion wasn't
to allow the passenger access to emergency medical help, but rather to
protect the other passengers on the plane from exposure. Maybe
you're right, but there are
two thoughts in response to that.
The first is that after sitting on the plane
next to this person for perhaps seven hours already, and possibly with
prior contact in the airport terminal at Munich too, one more hour of
contact probably doesn't make much difference.
The second response is
this - on the face of it amazing - claim that it is safer to be with
an infected person on a plane than in other places.
One has to note, wryly, that the person
making the claim is funded in half by 'private industry funds' - a code
phrase which almost certainly means the airlines themselves.
If you look at the article's reader
comments, you'll see an interesting line of reasoning about, ahem,
flatulence. The point convincingly made by these readers is that,
notwithstanding the claims about 'air flow moves from the top of the
plane down to the bottom, and then through filters before being
recirculated' the reality is that some things that originate lower down
in the plane (ie at one's seat level) end up being noticed through one's
nostrils higher up, and if one can smell such things that have struggled
up against the air flow, presumably any coughing - already at head level
can result in germs successfully passing to other passengers.
My own non-scientific experience is that I
regularly get colds after long international flights, indeed, about the
only time I do get a cold these days is after flying. So while the HEPA filters may be wondrous devices that truly do filter out
everything, the reality is that not everything which emerges from a
passenger's mouth or nose goes directly into a HEPA filter and nowhere
Note also the concession by the expert in
the article that even if the air is perhaps clean, other exposure risks
exist on planes - via people moving up and down the aisles, and via 'fomites'
- people transferring germs to a surface and then someone else touching
that surface and transferring the contamination to themselves.
However, the flu scare is an ill wind that
blows no good, or so it seems for Alaska Airlines, who have chosen to
remove all the pillows and blankets from their planes to help sanitize
the airplane cabins.
Their other alternative - to not reuse the
pillows and blankets multiple times between laundering them - didn't
seem to get much consideration.
There are some exciting 'behind the scenes' developments occurring here
at The Travel Insider.
As longer time readers already know, I've
been struggling with Microsoft's buggy Frontpage for way too long, and
suffering regular crashes along with loss of much data each time (Frontpage
lacks an autosave feature). Microsoft's newer and 'improved'
Expression Web software, alas, is completely dysfunctional, due to
having a performance bug which causes it to display text on the screen
appreciably slower than I can type it into the keyboard.
Although this strains belief beyond breaking point, it seems
are unable to explain or resolve this bug, which has been present from
early Beta versions of Expression Web through to the latest Expression
Web version 2, and so even if I wanted to stay with Microsoft software,
I can't, due to it not running on my (Microsoft based) computers.
So I'm now transitioning to what seems to be clearly the world leader in
website design/development tools - Adobe Dreamweaver. It is
massively complicated to learn from a standing start, and even more so
because I'm redesigning the site to use the latest 'best practices' in
webpage design, which requires familiarity with more than simple page
layout, but I'm sure this will bring about much needed improvements in
productivity and performance once I've completed the initial investment
in becoming familiar with the product. I'm on page 68 of
'Dreamweaver for Dummies' at present, so this might take some time.
Talking about investment, if anyone reading this happens to be an Adobe
employee and would care to help me with an employee rate for the purchase of the latest CS4
software, that would be massively appreciated. Adobe charge $399
for the Dreamweaver software alone, and if one chooses to buy a full
suite of related products, the price increases to $1700 - $2500.
I hope to be able to start releasing new-look pages in the next week or
so, as well as a completely reworked navigational structure which will
make it easier to work one's way around the site and to find relevant
articles. At present the site is suffering from too much
information, too hard to find. That will soon change.
Oh - if you have any requests or
suggestions for new features you'd like to see on the site as part
of this redesign, please
Almost exactly a year ago, I reviewed one of the better Bluetooth
headsets available - the Jawbone. Very shortly after releasing the
review, the Jawbone was superseded by the Jawbone 2, which rather
obsoleted my review. So I've finally got around to buying and
reviewing the newer Jawbone 2, only to discover that it too is slated
for pending replacement by yet another newer improved model.
However, the Jawbone 2 review is of some value, because it confirms my
continued preference for a much less expensive headset from Cardo (their
S-800, available for as little as $15, see
my review for details) as being
the best headset for most people. And so :
This Week's Feature Column :
Jawbone 2 Bluetooth headset : It looks much nicer than its
predecessor, but in terms of performance, there's little difference or
improvement. You can hear the headset's performance and compare it
to other Bluetooth headsets through this link and related pages, then
decide for yourself.
Dinosaur watching : You
doubtless know that the airlines successively reduced the commissions
they pay most travel agents, down from a more or less across the board
10%, and eventually ending up paying nothing at all much of the time,
and indeed, the airlines are now talking about charging travel agents
for the privilege of selling their tickets.
The justification of all of this has always
been that the airlines couldn't afford to pay commissions. So how
to understand Delta's decision this week to start paying some travel
agents 10% commission on some flights to/from New York? Apparently
Delta can sometimes afford to pay 10%, to some travel agents, but only
some of the time - the Thanksgiving period is blacked out.
Hmmm - how strange that Delta can't afford
to pay travel agents any commission for the typically higher
Thanksgiving fares, but can afford to pay the commissions on the lower
fares the rest of the time.
Talking about travel agents, research group
Topaz International has
released their annual comparison of airfares between those sold by
travel agents and those booked via internet websites. The bad news
- 8.44% of the time, a fare purchased through a travel agent was more
expensive than if purchased directly.
But, think about what the other side of this
bad news is. The good news is that nearly 92% of the time, a
travel agent fare was the same or lower than the best fare available
on an internet site. The average fare through a travel agent was
$497, and through a website, it was $558.
That's a fairly compelling difference.
Got some spare money you'd like to invest in
the stock market? Okay, that's a bad joke for many of us at
present. But US Airways hopes some of you might want to buy some
of the 15.2 million newly issued shares of stock it is floating at
present, this being yet another issue of stock, nine months after their
last stock release.
US Airways stock is about 20% down on its
price nine months ago.
Meanwhile, intending US investors might like
to consider this report from reader Will before trusting their money to
US's management abilities. He booked a US Airways flight from
Charlotte to LaGuardia, scheduled to arrive into LGA at 11.51pm.
Even when learning the flight only has a 60%
on-time arrival record, that probably means you've got almost a 50/50
chance of having the plane arrive prior to midnight at LGA.
But the devil is in the details, as Will
found out to his cost, at the tail end of a 80+ minute delay, and
eventually landing at Newark rather than LaGuardia. Because, you
see, LGA currently has a midnight airport operational closure, to allow
runway construction to proceed. A small 9 minutes of delay to this
flight means it can't make it to LGA.
Clearly US Airways are happy betting
they'll get their flight landed prior to midnight, even if the odds are
against them, and even though when they lose their bet they have to
divert to Newark and bus their passengers the rest of the way to
LaGuardia. Presumably they fly the plane on to LGA the next
morning in time for its next flight somewhere else.
The cost of each diversion and extra
landing/take-off in dollars to the airline, and in inconvenience to
their passengers, seems very high. Is this an example of competent
airline management and sound business practice?
Talking about competent management, US
Airways' passenger numbers are down, with April domestic figures
coming in 5.8% below April last year. They are however, in good
company, with many other airlines reporting similar or worse drops.
AA had a 6.1% decrease, Continental a 7.5% decrease, and United an 11.5%
On the other hand, Southwest had a 4.1%
increase in passenger numbers, and Allegiant had an extraordinary 34%
increase, while north of the border, Westjet had another good result
with a 5.5% increase in passengers.
Over in the UK, discount airline Easyjet had
a 2.9% increase in their passenger numbers for the six months through 31
March, but suffered a pre-tax loss of £130 million ($185 million)
compared to a loss of only £48.4 million ($69 million) for the same
period a year ago.
That's not a good result, but the airline
remains confident of making all that money and more besides back again
in the next six months.
Canada has now signed an Open Skies
agreement with the EU, similar to that the US signed last year.
This allows any Canadian or EU carrier to fly freely between any
European airport and any Canadian airport, and will also see some
reductions in foreign ownership restrictions.
I'm still waiting for the benefits to us
of the US/EU Open Skies agreement. Instead of being deluged in
a plethora of new airlines flying new routes, all we seem to be seeing
is the same old usual suspects doing all they can to tighten their
stranglehold on the marketplace.
Let's hope the Canadians fare better than we
Happy Birthday to the Chunnel.
The 31.34 mile tunnel under the English Channel, between Folkestone and
Coquelles, opened on 6 May, 1994 - 15 years ago.
very interesting article about the opening of a privately owned
airport in Branson, MO. It looks to me as if this airport is a
compelling profit opportunity, and it has always surprised me
there haven't been more private airports built.
There must be lots of places in the midwest
that currently are nothing other than empty fields with negligible value
land cost and minimal environmental impacts that could be developed into
major hub airports with state of the art services to compete with the
congested and expensive hubs that currently struggle to provide any sort
of reliable service to their airlines and passengers.
Some airplane manufacturing updates.
Boeing's repeatedly delayed 787 continues to make progress, but
at an uncertain rate, towards taking to the air for the first time.
recent report suggested there could be yet another six month delay,
and also predicted some significant shortfalls in the plane's
performance. Boeing denies this.
Boeing as a whole is currently showing a
net new plane order total for the year of -1. Ouch. Even
worse, the planes cancelled have been big expensive planes, the planes
ordered have been small cheap ones. It is estimated that the net
dollar value of orders has reduced by $2.5 billion.
Airbus has not been spared misfortune,
either, with an announced slowdown in its production rate for the new
A380 double decker plane.
The significant thing about this slowdown is
that it appears that none of the airlines with some 150 or so of the
planes on order are keen to get their planes sooner and to jump ahead in
the queue to take the place of airlines who are currently balking at
their pending deliveries. It makes one wonder just how firm their
entire order book for the A380 is. And at a cost of about $300
million or so per plane, every single plane not manufactured each year
has a significant impact on the company's revenue.
This time last year, Airbus anticipated
making/delivering 21 A380s in 2009. It now says it will deliver
only 14 (four each to Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Qantas, and two
to Air France).
Even Russian airplane manufacturing
(yes, there still seems to be some valiant attempts at building planes
in Russia) has been massively scaled back. For the period 2009 -
2012, the combined Russian aerospace companies are reducing their
projected deliveries down from 405 planes to 185 planes, a 54%
Although the airline and airplane industries
are undoubtedly difficult industries to do
well in, spare a thought for an even more difficult industry - the
telecommunications industry. I got a positive experience of this
just a week ago when I called Verizon to update the credit card they use
to charge my monthly home phone bill to.
The customer service representative volunteered that I could reduce my
monthly cost from $96/month down to $86/month - all I had to do was
authorize the billing change. In return, in addition to all the
services I currently had, which would all remain in place, they would
add unlimited free long distance within both the US and Canada, and
they'd double my internet download speed from 5MB/sec to a scorching
I was getting more service for less money
- a compelling deal for me.
I was delighted, but did wonder how the telco's can survive with such
massive erosion in their yields. It is a very different world for
them, particularly when it comes to charging for long distance service,
something that used to be profitable to them and expensive for us, and
which now can hardly be at all profitable for them, and is free for us.
Further indication of the changing phone service market was revealed
this week when statistics showed that there are now more homes that have
no regular wired (landline) phone service and only wireless cellphone
service than homes with no cellphone service but only landline phone
Six years ago, only 3% of homes had only cell phone service and no
regular wired phone service, while 43% had only landline service.
Now, 20% of homes have only cell phone service, while 17% of phones have
only landline service.
interesting set of tables chronicling this evolution from, of all
places, the CDC (is this a precursor to someone finally admitting that
cell phones truly are bad for one's health?).
Note the bizarre
attempts to correlate various things with cell phone use in their Table
4 presentations - for example, asthma or obesity (both of which show no
significant correlation between household phone status and individual
But what to make of the fact that people who have only cellphones are
half as likely as people with landlines and possibly cellphones to have
received a flu shot? Or that rates of diabetes are twice as high
in households with landline and possibly cellphone service compared to
households with only cell phones?
According to industry group CTIA, the average American now spends 800
minutes a month talking on a cellphone. For most of us, with a
plan that gives us more included minutes than we use, our monthly
cellphone bills are predictable and modest, but there are always
Such as, for example,
this person who found himself with a bill for one single month of
$62,000. Yes, he did dispute the bill with his phone company, and
they responded by reducing it down to a mere $17,000, which they claim
to be their underlying cost (that's interesting - it is for sure a nice
margin to be able to sell something costing $17,000 for $62,000; if only
GM could do that with their cars.....).
What did this person do to run up such an extraordinary charge in a
single month? Did he spend the entire month on (900) number calls?
No. He just downloaded one movie while in Mexico, and, as best I
can guesstimate it, was charged about $15 - $25 per megabyte for the
download. Yes, downloading a copy of Wall-E to his computer cost
this man $62,000 (subsequently reduced to only $17,000).
The moral of the story? Phone service, and the related data
service included with it, might seem 'free' in the US, and while we know
that international phone calling is expensive, don't overlook the
ridiculously expensive costs of international data service.
becoming increasingly heavy users of data services on our iPhones and
related smartphone/PDA units, and may not even realize how much data
we're consuming, especially if the phone uses 3G high speed data
service, and it might only be when we suddenly transition from an
unlimited (or nearly) data plan to one which hides its real cost behind
expressing the cost in a hard-to-understand term such as 2¢
per kB - a rate which seems moderate and affordable, but which ends up
as being a staggering $20,000 per gigabyte of data.
about expensive data, here's an
interesting article about hotel charging policies for internet
access. As many of us already know, the rule of thumb appears to
be that the more expensive the hotel, the more they charge for internet
access, while the less expensive hotels may give us internet access for
One thing is
for sure. Whether expensive or value priced, hotels are desperate
to get as much more revenue as they can at present. According to
Smith Travel Research, the US hotel industry suffered a 17.7% drop in
revenue per available hotel room in the first quarter this year compared
to last year. This calculation is affected by both the
average nightly rate for a hotel's rooms and the number of rooms sold
each night - so this 17.7% drop doesn't mean we're paying that much less
for a hotel stay, but rather it points to a possible mix of both lower
room rates and lower occupancy levels.
This is the
largest drop ever, and is only the fourth time there has been a greater
than 10% drop since this was first tracked in 1987.
Unsurprisingly, the other three times were for quarters 3 and 4 of 2001
and the first quarter of 2002, with year on year drops of 11.1%, 16.3%
This Week's Security Horror Story : We spend many billions of
dollars a year on 'protecting' our air transportation system from
threats that could cause planes to be hijacked, crashed, exploded, or in
some other harmful way interfered with. We obsess over limiting
liquids to no more than 3 oz per container, and no more than a very few
containers per person. We don't allow a person to take a miniature
Swiss Army Knife pocket knife on board the plane, but we do allow them
to take a pair of scissors. Of course guns are strictly forbidden,
but random testing of TSA screeners suggests that at least 20% of all
guns are never detected. And so on and so on. You know all
of this already.
But did you know about the massive area of vulnerability that could
cause countless planes to crash, and which could almost completely
disable the nation's entire air transportation system? In the
words of a report published this week by the Dept of Transportation's
Office of the Inspector General, there is a risk of further attacks
exploiting this vulnerability, and 'dangerous
operational problems are only a matter of time'. And guess
what is being done to close this vulnerability?
The problem was uncovered during a review of computer security at the
FAA's air traffic control computer systems. The security audit
identified 763 high-risk, 504 medium-risk, and
2,590 low-risk vulnerabilities. It further found that only 11% of
such computer facilities have any sort of electronic intrusion
detection, and that none of these pitifully few detection systems
monitored critical air traffic control operational systems.
There's more information about these vulnerabilities, and their
exploitation to date,
here. And as for what is being done to close this
vulnerability? Apparently almost nothing at present.
Okay, so it is a really silly thing, in any circumstances, to make a
bomb threat. Maybe the person mentioned
here truly did so (not at an airport, but from home, while calling VoIP over
his computer); or maybe his explanation (someone else hijacked his
computer IP address - a believable excuse) is true and he didn't.
But, either which way, after having been arrested, having his house
searched, with no evidence of any illegal materials or bomb making
equipment/explosives of any sort, why is he - a 16 yr old schoolboy -
still in a juvenile facility in a far-away state, two months later?
Apparently the Orwellian-named 'Patriot Act' has empowered our law
enforcement agencies to deem this American boy with a bedroom festooned
with American flags to be a potential terrorist, and therefore to be
free to act in a way that American patriots over the ages would find
Two months, locked up without bail, and apparently no charge filed, for
a teenage boy, in a case where there's not even any prima facie evidence
of him having committed the 'crime' alleged against him? What sort
of 'justice' is that?
One more question. Who will be held accountable for this?
Who will lose their job? Who will in turn be sent to prison for
two months (so far)? What will be done to ensure this never
happens again? Okay, so that is four questions, rather than one,
but don't you agree these questions need to be asked and answered?
I'd mentioned last week that it appeared there may have been a ruling
forbidding airport security screeners from wearing protective masks,
even though the authorities all denied having issued such a ruling.
this article reveals that the ruling has now been reversed.
So, what happens to the people who lied about there never having been
such a ruling? Shouldn't they spend at least two months in
We need to restore the concept of
accountability into our public servants, whether they be law
enforcement officers or 'ordinary' officials, and demand they treat us
honestly and fairly.
The following isn't a security horror story.
It is just a plain horror story of bureacratic stupidity.
A flight from Seattle to Seoul had an engine
problem/failure at take-off. The plane was a twin-engine 777, and
so the captain, rather than risking a flight all the way to Seoul, over
the Pacific, on only one engine, did the only sensible thing and
returned back to Seattle.
As is common for planes planning for a long
distance journey, it had a fairly full load of passengers, freight and
fuel, and planes are always rated to allow them to take off heavier than
the weight they can safely land at. So, the pilot found himself
with two options - either to circle the airport for an hour or two or
three while burning off fuel in the one remaining engine, hoping and
worrying all the time that whatever it was that caused the first engine
to fail wouldn't then strike at the second engine, or alternatively to
dump fuel then land as urgently quickly as possible.
The pilot again made the right decision, and
dumped fuel prior to safely landing back at Seattle.
End of story, right? Indeed, no story
at all, right? Just another one of the many near-accidents that go
on all the time, but with no bad news outcome?
Actually, no. The Washington
Department of Ecology is now threatening to fine the airline for dumping
fuel, a standard, almost unavoidable, and widespread practice in such
emergencies. It is unclear whether they would have preferred the
fuel to just be burned up (and harm the environment in that way) or if
they'd have preferred risking a crash, either by landing an overweight
plane or by having the plane delay its landing and suffer further
On the other hand, jet fuel that is dumped
at altitude atomizes into very fine particles that quickly evaporate if
they make it down to the water, leaving no appreciable trace behind.
We're not talking hundreds of thousands of tons of crude oil (which
doesn't evaporate) and which is all released in one spot when a tanker
runs aground. We're talking a few thousand gallons of jet fuel
that has already vanished without trace.
Lastly this week, perhaps
this passenger was merely concerned about minimizing her risk of
contracting Swine Flu when she chose to drink the liquid soap in the
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels