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Friday, 8 May, 2009

Good morning

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 else.

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 Microsoft 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.  Gulp!

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 let me know.

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% decrease.

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 have.

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.

Here's a 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 updatesBoeing's repeatedly delayed 787 continues to make progress, but at an uncertain rate, towards taking to the air for the first time.  One 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% reduction.  Details here.

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 10Mb/sec.

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 service.

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.

Here's an 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 health condition).

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 exceptions.

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.

We're 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.

Talking 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 free.

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% and 10.5%.

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 repugnant.

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 week, 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 prison, too?

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 failures.

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 airplane toilet?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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