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Friday, 22 May, 2009

Good morning

With the Memorial Day weekend - the traditional start of the summer period - starting variously today or tomorrow (depending on your plans and how liberal your employer is) our thoughts are naturally turning to summer and vacation.

Including the thoughts of our elected representatives, with legislation about to be introduced mandating annual holidays of at least one week for most American workers.  Currently the US scores last among 21 leading industrialized countries in terms of the amount of vacation employees are given each year, with about 25% of employees not being given any vacation time at all.  Contrast this with France where employees get 30 days paid leave each year, and the other European countries where employees are paid more during their vacation time than during their time at work (to make it easier for them to afford a vacation).

There are good reasons to take an annual vacation.  A study cited by the US Travel Association shows that an annual vacation can cut a person's risk of heart attack by 50%.  Many other benefits are also claimed, including a reduction in general stress, better sleep, and an improvement in the general feeling of well being.

So, whether it be a brief break not far from home, or a more exciting lengthier break further away, you really do deserve - for all reasons - a vacation this and every other year.  Happily, with wall to wall airfare sales and other travel bargains, there are more temptations and at better values than for many years.

Apropos of which, here's one final mention of our upcoming Travel Insider river cruise along the Mosel and Rhine rivers in Germany.

There are presently 24 Travel Insiders traveling on this cruise, and we'd all love to welcome one or two more of you to join our number.  There's still time to sign up, and being as I have yet to book my own air travel, there's time to make the air and any other arrangements too.

Only six cabins remain, and it is likely one more reader will be joining us, taking one of them, leaving five.  So if you'd like to come too on this wonderful cruise through beautiful parts of Germany at a lovely time of year, please do let me know as soon as convenient.

If your vacation plans are closer to home, here's a useful website all about travel in the US.

Assuming that your thoughts are primarily on the long weekend ahead, there'll be no feature article this week, although the newsletter is fairly lengthy.

Dinosaur watching :  Some people have complained about the growing 'large people must buy two seats' policy on airlines.  But some people understand the obscured benefit of such policies - it means that if you need two seats, you can buy them and be assured of having two seats together.

At the other extreme is Delta.  The good news is that they'll certainly sell you two seats.  The bad news - not only do they refuse to assign two seats together, but they also say they'll take one away from you if they need to give it to someone else.

That's a totally stupid policy - unfair both to the person who wants to buy two seats, and unfair for other people who might have to end up sitting next to that person in what was formerly his second seat.  Details here.

But Delta is not without saving graces, or so it thinks.  Look at the screen shot in this article and see where they proudly tell you that there is no charge for not checking any bags.

Does this imply Delta thinks there could and should be a fee charged for passengers traveling with no checked bags?

American Airlines CEO Gerard Arpey casts some doubt on his competence when he is quoted in this article as saying 'I don't understand why oil went to $150/barrel last year'.

With fuel costs making all the difference between a big profit and a huge loss for his airline, wouldn't you hope he would either personally understand the price/demand equation that governs the cost of oil as well as just about every other product bought and sold, or, if it was too much for him, he'd at least have a team of staff advisors that would regularly give him an 'elevator briefing' summary appreciation of the issue?

Instead, CEO Arpey proudly admits to having been blindsided and even now still not understanding the issues to do with the cost of one of his most ultimately important product components.

Note also his prediction that oil won't return to such levels again, at least in a global recession.  With oil having almost doubled in price since February ($33/barrel) and now ($62/barrel), let's hope he is not taken by surprise a second time.

As for me, I fear oil will be back at $100/barrel by the end of the year.  I hope I'm wrong.

A possible hint of a strengthening in air travel comes from British Airways (which is also introducing today a two-for-one sale in the Business Class).  They are starting new service from Heathrow, this time to Las Vegas, which becomes the nineteenth city in the US they provide daily service to the UK from.

The new flights will start on 25 October, and will be operated by a three class 777 (economy, premium economy, and business class - no first class for what is primarily a leisure dominated rather than business dominated route).  One can only guess at how delighted Las Vegas must be at the thought of up to 274 more foreign visitors coming to Vegas each day - the city has been desperately hurting over the last half year or more, and because nearly everyone flies rather than drives to Vegas, new air service is an essential part of boosting their visitor numbers.

The BA flight will compete with a Virgin flight between Gatwick and Las Vegas.  Both are primarily aimed at British tourists traveling to Vegas, rather than to Nevadans traveling to Britain and beyond, but I'm sure they'd delightedly welcome you onto their flights, no matter where you're coming from or going to.

Talking about the V airline, their US related company, Virgin America, has now completed installing Wi-Fi on all its planes, making it the first US airline to offer Wi-Fi on all flights.  The service costs $9.95 for flights less than three hours and $12.95 for flights longer than three hours.  If you're on a red-eye, it is only $5.95, and if you've a handheld device, you pay $7.95.

Virgin planes already have AC power at all seats, making it practical to use your computer as much as you choose, even on a long flight.  Well - it would be practical if there were enough room between one's chest and the seatback in front, especially if the person in the seat ahead chooses to recline.  Until then, onboard computing is a workable concept mainly for passengers in first class or passengers with Netbook type very small computers.

More airline expansion - this time Southwest, who have announced they will start flying to/from Milwaukee later this year.  This could make for interesting times - Northwest took over Midwest's flights in Milwaukee, and AirTran is adding extra flights, making the airport increasingly competitive.

Well, let me choose my words more carefully.  Flights to/from Milwaukee may be becoming more competitive, but the airport itself certainly is not.  The government is proposing to allow airports to increase still further the Passenger Facility Charges they levy on everyone flying in and out of airports.

When first introduced in the mid 1990s, these were set at a maximum of $3 per flight and a maximum of $12 per itinerary.  Some years later, they increased to $4.50/$18, and now the government is proposing to increase this again to $7/$28.

There's no apparent reason why this increase is needed.  Airport PFC income is currently at an all-time record high, and airports have multiple revenue streams plus generally excellent credit ratings allowing them to raise capital at good rates if needed.

In the last four years, airports have averaged about $13 billion a year from PFCs, federal grants and bonds, in addition to all their other income sources.  On top of that, they're sitting on $27 billion in unrestricted financial assets.  Since PFCs were introduced, airports have received $70 billion in PFC income.

Think of an airport like a shopping mall.  It charges rent to the store owners, and also collects a percentage of the sales through the tenant stores.  That's all a regular mall does and all it needs to do to make good money for its owners.

But an airport/mall analogy also gets government grants, and it charges customers a fee of up to $4.50 just to walk through the entrance.  If you forget something, and go back to your car to get it, you'll pay another $4.50 to re-enter the mall.  Only after you've been in and out of the mall four times in one day will the mall let you then in without additional fees.  Plus, the mall has a virtual monopoly, probably being the only shopping mall for tens if not hundreds of miles around.  And, of course, whereas your local suburban mall gives you ready access to plentiful free parking, if you need to leave a car at an airport, you're up for $25 or more a day in parking fees.

What shopping mall wouldn't love such a business scenario?

Just remember, next time you buy a ticket to fly from home to somewhere else, and with a change of plane en route, you're paying up to $9 to the connecting airport, in addition to all the other fees the airline pays the airport for flying its plane in and out.  In return for the $9 in PFC costs, what do you get?  The pleasure of a sprint from one end of the terminal to another to make your connection?  The exercise inherent in having to stand rather than have somewhere to sit in the gate lounge?  The frustration of not being able to find a power point anywhere to quickly charge up your laptop between flights?  Or perhaps the privilege of paying twice the normal 'street price' for a cup of coffee at a Starbucks franchisee?

I spoke positively about the establishment of a private enterprise airport in Branson a couple of weeks ago.  All airports should be privatized, then cut free from the public purse, and left unassisted to create a commercial added-value service for airlines and passengers to choose to accept or not as it suits them.  At present, they're unaccountable to their major constituent groups - their airline and passenger customers.

Many airports are owned by vague statutory bodies or local government structures such as 'port authorities' that try and balance the dissimilar requirements of operating a harbor and an airport, and who ever knows how the money ebbs and flows between the various parts of such organizations.   In addition, you'll often also find the competition-killing situation where one body owns/operates all the airports for miles around (eg in New York).

The Brits wised up to this, and are forcing BAA (no relation to BA) to split up their former monopolistic control of London's airports.  Shouldn't the US - in theory the world's leading example of free market forces and private enterprise - do the same?

Talking about airports, here's proof that good fast train service will replace flights.  Airline VLM has just ended its flights between London City Airport and Manchester - a route it formerly served with up to eight return flights a day.  The reason - new improved train service has taken away their passengers.  Bravo.

The official vetting of the again requested AA/BA alliance took an interesting twist.  Secretary of Transportation Ray Hood inadvertently disclosed too much when he told an audience

These alliances are life-savers for airlines.  That is the premise from which we start.  We believe it.  The airlines believe it.  And so we are going to continue to pursue those kinds of opportunities where we have them.

This unusual frankness merely confirms what I've been saying for a long time.  Sure, such alliances are great for airlines.  But that does not mean they are good for passengers - in fact, it probably means the opposite.  The Department of Transportation should surely give at least equal consideration to what is good for passengers when reviewing such monopolistic requests?

So Secretary Hood has now recused himself for participating in the decision making for this application.  But - consider his words carefully.  He didn't say that it was his own personal view that alliances are good.  He said 'we' and in saying so presumably meant his entire department.  Perhaps the entire DoT should recuse themselves from ruling on this application - but who would that leave to make the decision then?

If anyone doubts that this new alliance would indeed be wonderful for BA and AA, but probably very bad for other airlines, and for all passengers, they should consider the market dominance that would flow from linking the two airlines.  This article provides some statistics.

Even the pilots are against these alliances.  The American pilots are against the American, British Air and Iberia proposal, and United pilots are against the Continental, United, Lufthansa and Air Canada proposal.

The pilots fear that such linkups would make it easier for the airlines to source their labor from the cheapest countries, rather than from their home countries.

Talking about pilots, there have been some concerning revelations about the Continental Airlines crash in February this year, when their flight CO 3407 crashed shortly before landing in Buffalo, New York, killing everyone on board plus one person on the ground.  A NTSB public hearing into the crash was held last week.

Note my referring to this as a Continental Airlines crash.  CO has, most of the time, been adroitly avoiding being linked too closely with the crash, pointing out that the flight was operated on its behalf by Colgan Air.  But this flight had a CO designation and number, and probably few if any of the passengers knew or cared about Colgan Air - they believed they were buying a Continental flight, operated by or for CO, complying with CO's standards, earning frequent flier miles into CO's mileage program, etc.

CO needs to step up to the plate and accept its fair share of the blame.  Responsibility flows up the management path, and Continental is at the top.

As for the crash itself, currently it seems the crash was caused by poor pilot training/competence.  This reflects poorly on the pilots, on the airline that hired/trained/managed them, and on the airline that contracted with the operating airline for the provision of flights to be flown under its main brand.

The two key findings are - firstly, the pilots were violating FAA requirements to concentrate exclusively on flying the plane when below 10,000 ft and were unaware of things going wrong with the plane.  Instead they were apparently chatting between themselves and not paying attention to the instrument readouts in front of them.  It is for this very reason that the FAA mandates that pilots focus exclusively and entirely on flying the plane when it is closer to the ground - there's less time and less height (and usually less airspeed too) in such cases, such that minor matters that would be recoverable from at higher altitude, with more airspeed and energy, and more time to resolve the problem, quickly become fatal below 10,000 ft.  The margin for error - never very generous - becomes much slimmer lower down.

This lack of focus apparently meant the pilots forgot to return power to the two engines after descending, meaning that the plane's forward velocity rapidly dropped.  Think of driving a car - you take your foot off the gas when going down a hill, but when you're back on level ground, you reapply the throttle to keep your speed constant.

Secondly, when the plane's speed quickly dropped to or below stall speed (the speed at which the lift generated by the plane's forward motion through the air becomes insufficient to keep the plane airborne) the pilot did exactly the opposite of what he should have done.  For reasons that can only be guessed at, instead of doing the very simple stall recovery procedure - pushing the control column forward - he pulled the control column sharply back, causing the plane to lose more speed, stall more severely, and almost literally fall out of the sky.

The standard stall recovery response is incredibly basic.  It is one of the first things trainee pilots are taught, and it should be a reflex for all pilots.  If you hear or feel a stall warning, you push the stick forward and increase power.  Nothing could be simpler.

Here is an excellent animation (and some sensible commentary) that shows the last two and a half minutes of the flight.  Everything happens in the last 35 seconds of the animation.

There is a third finding that has been given perhaps more prominence than it is due by some interested parties - particularly pilots who are trying to avoid the smear of pilot error as the major or sole cause of the crash.  The co-pilot had apparently not had a great deal of sleep in the day or so prior to the flight that crashed, due in part to having a lengthy commute between home and work.  Whereas you or I might feel hard done by if we live 25 miles from work and spend an hour commuting, this young woman lived in the Seattle area but was based in New York, making for a very long commute between home and work.  The pilot apologists say she had this arrangement because she and her husband couldn't afford the costs of living in New York.  She was apparently earning about $24,000 a year as a co-pilot.  I'll certainly agree that's a very low sum.

She may have also been unwell and even said herself that she had thought about not flying.  Additionally, the pilot in charge may have spent the night before flying not in a normal bed in a hotel or at home but in a crew rest area, where apparently the airline prohibited pilots from sleeping (even though it seems many would do exactly that).

And, quick to beat the 'pay pilots more money and they'll fly better' drum, some pilots suggest that if these two pilots were paid more, they'd have flown better and more safely.  Or, if pilots could earn more, better people would be motivated to become pilots.  That may be so, but on the other hand, you might also think that if pilot salaries were higher, more 'bad' people would be motivated to become pilots, too!

Pilot fatigue may have been a factor in this crash, and certainly the FAA formula for how long a pilot can be on duty and how much off duty time he must have between duty periods makes some ridiculous assumptions in equating off duty time with rest or sleeping time.

It is entirely appropriate that this accident should serve as a - dare I say - wake up call to the industry, requiring a more realistic assessment of pilot rest and duty definitions, and a work schedule that is more in keeping with our enhanced understanding of the negative impacts of disruptions caused by time zone changes and irregular hours of duty.

However, the proximate cause of this accident was a pilot choosing to pull back rather than push forward the control column when the plane signaled it was entering a stall condition.  And there are only two words that can describe that.

Pilot Error.

About the only kind thing that can be said about these two pilots is that at least they were sober.  Unlike this AA pilot, intercepted at Heathrow shortly before he was to fly a 777 to Chicago.

Still talking about pilots, here's a very interesting article about flying cars.

And here's an article that gives an interesting perspective on air travel - showing us how flight attendants think about us, their passengers, and our annoying habits.  I found myself agreeing with almost all seven points, and - to my surprise - disagreeing with most of the reader comments critical of the article.  When complaining about the hassle factors involved with flying these days, we need to keep in mind that many of those avoidable hassles are caused by poorly behaved fellow passengers.

A one-room suite?  Isn't that an oxymoron?  Embassy Suites hopes you don't think so, and are introducing a new room type, a 'one room suite' at new hotels.  The room measures a compact 14' x 18' (252 sq ft), so they sure can't claim that the 'suite' appellation refers to the room being generously sized.

Shame on Embassy Suites for pretending that a moderate sized ordinary room is actually a suite.  They should create a new spin-off brand for hotels with these small single rooms 'Embassy Rooms'.

The sky is falling?  Or, if not the sky, perhaps some of the satellites in the sky?  This article suggests that due to delays in replacing GPS satellites that are now some years past the planned end of their life, we might start to see satellite failures such as to impair the reliability of the GPS service, causing occasional losses of GPS data and accuracy.

This claim, while frightening, is fortunately also very far fetched.  At any given time at present, there are typically as many as 12 visible satellites in the sky for a GPS receiver to lock onto.  A receiver needs to be locked onto only three satellites to calculate its location; more satellites give more precision, but there's a lot of built in redundancy to the network at present such that the loss of even five or six satellites would result in minimal service degradation.

A reminder that 1 June is the date when you'll need to have a passport, passport card, or other Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative compliant document for travel to/from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean.

And you're now required to use your full name, same as it appears on the official ID you travel with, when booking air travel.  As of 15 August, you'll also have to specify your gender and date of birth when making flight bookings too.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The biggest vulnerability with present airport screening is the inability to detect plastic type explosives hidden on/around a person's body.  Such explosives don't trigger the metal detector, and, squeezed into a thin body hugging form, are not noticeable to the eye.

The TSA spent $36 million on 'puffer' machines that were designed to detect these explosives by blowing air at a person and seeing if any explosive molecules were blown off the person and into sensors.  More than half the machines purchased were never even deployed, but spent their lives in storage.  The others never worked well, and the entire program is now being scrapped, leaving us almost defenseless against terrorists smuggling plastic explosives into an airport and onto a plane.

Well - almost defenseless.  The TSA has been trialing - apparently successfully - new machines that create X-ray type pictures of people, seeing through their clothes and highlighting anything that might be underneath the clothing.  These machines are an excellent way of detecting anything being smuggled underneath a person's clothes.  They also, ahem, reveal the outline of one's body parts.

Unfortunately, some groups of overly modest individuals are concerned about these images and the shadowy body shapes so revealed, and they are seeking to prevent the use of the machines.  It is rare for me to find myself supporting the TSA, but on this occasion it is clear to me that the machines provide an effective and essential layer of defense against a current threat.  The machines should be allowed.  More details here.

Of course, all of this costs a lot of money, a fact acknowledged by my fellow countrymen in New Zealand, who decided that airport security was just too expensive for smaller airports and airplanes, so they won't bother.  Good for them.

I wrote three weeks ago about how the rights conferred on us by the Fourth Amendment (protecting us against warrantless searches, quoted in link immediately prior) have been eroded - well, not eroded, but completely abandoned - in a 100 mile 'border zone' around the periphery of the country.  But even if you think you're living far from this right-less border zone, there are still many excuses that various different authorities assert to search your house and business without any warrant or due process.

For example, who here does not have a  wireless router, or a cordless phone, or a remote car-door opener, or a baby monitor, or (and if you think you've avoided inclusion under the preceding four categories) a cellphone in our house?  The mere presence of any such device, and many other related devices, is claimed by the FCC to give them the power to enter your home at any hour of the day or night to inspect the device, with no need for warrants or judicial authorization.

Has the FBI become a debt collecting agency for Verizon and AT&T?  This story reports on the blurring of the lines between what constitutes a federal crime and what is merely a company failing to pay its debts to another company.

Whether you think the FBI should or should not be involved in this proceeding, spare a thought for the innocent other people caught up in the FBI's 'bull in a china shop' approach to seizing evidence.  I can certainly relate to that, having the server for this newsletter and website at a colocation facility in Seattle.  What would we all do if the FBI seized it as part of an investigation into another company that just happened to have computer equipment at the same facility?

'Please hold on to a handrail' - because, if you don't, you're liable to be handcuffed, arrested and given two tickets - one for $100 and a second for $320, at least if you're riding an escalator in the Montreal Metro.  The police insist this was a sensible and appropriate action.  Details here.

Lastly this week, I'd mentioned the Air New Zealand 'matchmaking flight' to New Zealand last week.  More details are emerging, and even a related website where people can get to know each other and make new NZ friends prior to the flight.  Could this be a whole new brand extension for Air NZ and airlines in general - international matchmaking?  As one with, ahem, some experience of international relationships, I can certainly confirm it does involve way too many flights, so it could be a great idea for the airlines.

Until next week, please have a great Memorial Day weekend and enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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