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Friday, 2 October, 2009

Good morning

We managed to convincingly break through the 800 count, and now have a magnificent 810 people who have chosen to support our 2009 fundraiser.  Many thanks to all 810 of you.  A truly magnificent effort, eclipsing all previous years.

With such a huge swell of support, I've forced myself to find the time to do something I've been wanting to do for a long time, and have now created a separate supporters newsletter.  The first issue went out shortly before this main newsletter - if you are a supporter and did not receive the newsletter, please let me know so we can troubleshoot what happened to it.

You'll want to be sure to get this exclusive extra newsletter because it has a special savings opportunity on noise cancelling headphones open only to Travel Insider supporters.

Needless to say, anyone who chooses to support now will also be sent this newsletter as well as the information on how to get free frequent flier miles.

One other point.  I know many of you are involved with businesses who provide products or services of interest to all readers.  I'm keen to continue to provide special offers to all readers, and, of course, very special offers to the very special people who choose to generously support this newsletter and website.  If you've an idea for how we could provide a good deal to readers and a win-win for everyone, please do let me know.

The last week has been intensely focused on noise cancelling headphones.  These are one of my favorite travel comfort enhancers - the subtle effects of a steady barrage of surprisingly loud airplane sounds on a long flight are a major contributor to the fatigue you experience from the long flight, and noise cancelling headphones can make a remarkable difference - whether you use them to listen to better quality audio than is usual with the airplane supplied headsets, or if you just use them to cancel out and quieten the ambient noise in the cabin.

I received three new sets of headphones (yes, I am applying some of your contributions to getting good new products to review) and so have two reviews for you this week, with a third review for next week.

The first headphones are the latest version of the Plane Quiet headphones.  These have been my perennial favorites in terms of being at the best point on the value curve pretty much consistently since they first came out in in early 2003.  They've gone through some major design changes - around the ear to on the ear and back to around the ear again, and the main Plane Quiet brand has sometimes been supplemented by two other brands - Solitude for a truly up market product, and Latitude for a more, ahem, down market product.

Currently though there are just the main Plane Quiet brand headphones available.  When the previous version was released in October last year, for the first time ever, I had to give them a less than positive review, concluding with the recommendation that you not buy them.  But David Dillinger, their company owner/designer/developer took my comments on board, and has now released a new version of these headphones - the same design, just improved capabilities - and this new version addresses my concerns of a year ago.  The sound is better, the hiss noise is reduced, and the noise cancelling is improved.  I'm delighted to again now be able to recommend these as a great mid-range solution.

For sure, they're not as good as the $300+ top of the line products such as the Bose QC2 and QC3, or the Sony MDR-NC500D.  But - and here's the part I've been building up to - they're at a very different price point, and offer a great value for the price you pay.

You can see my updated review here.

The headphones are normally sold for $100.  David is holding a special short term promotion, exclusively for Travel Insider readers. You can buy his latest model Plane Quiet Platinum headphones (normally $100 a set) at a discounted rate of $84.95 for the first set, and $49.95 for each additional set you buy at the same time.

But wait, there's more. Use the special code "travelinsider" (please use lower case and don't include the quote signs) and you'll get a further 10% off these headphones. That means one set costs $76.46 and two sets can be yours for $121.41. You could get a 'his and hers' set for just over $60 each. Or buy multiple sets and use them as gifts this Christmas - each extra set is yours for $44.96.

There are both the usual gunmetal/silver finished headphones, and also what I choose to term a 'manly pink' metallic colored set of headphones - both are the same price, but if you choose to get the pink ones, David donates another 10% to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.  Here are two quick links to David's site, ProTravelGear.com, for variously the Regular and Pink styles of headphones.

The second set of headphones arrived at midday on Thursday, and so will be next week's feature article - the new Bose Quiet Comfort 15 headphones, the successor to the QC2.  First glance suggests they will be a new top of the range choice for the perfectionists among us.  They retail for $300 and you can't find them discounted anywhere.

The third set of headphones were ones I was fascinated to try.  Externally, they look in many respects not just similar but identical to the $350 Bose Quiet Comfort 3 headphones.  With a street price of $200, and with $100 of extra items that would make the Bose QC3 cost $450 for the same package of inclusions, if they were similar in performance to the excellent QC3, they'd be a wonderful bargain that I'd rush to share with you.

So, how do they compare?  To find out the answer to that, please click on to :

This Week's Feature Article :  Phiaton Noise Cancelling Headphones : These $200 headphones look closely similar to the Bose $350 headphones. But do they work as well? Read my review to decide if they are truly good value or merely lower cost.

Dinosaur watching :  I need to make a correction to something I said last week.  Last week I excitedly told you that the new BA flights from lovely little London City Airport to JFK allowed for a mere 30 minute checkin prior to departure, making the total travel time from leaving the hotel in London to exiting the airport at JFK even shorter than the mere flying time alone would indicate.

I was wrong.  The minimum checkin time is not 30 minutes.  Oh no.  It is nothing like 30 minutes.  It is, instead, an astonishingly short 15 minutes.  Yes, you can arrive at the front counter with your bags a mere 15 minutes prior to the plane's departure, and in those 15 minutes, you can check yourself and your bags in for the flight, go through security, get to the gate, board the plane, get settled and comfortable, and hopefully even sip a bit of champagne or orange juice, all prior to the plane pushing back from the gate.

Incredible.  I'm going to try it myself (the 15 minute checkin part in particular!) in November and am eagerly looking forward to it.

Actually, I'm looking forward to much more than just the 15 minute checkin.  The whole experience promises to be quite extraordinary - a tiny little plane with only eight rows of seats (32 passengers total) - almost like flying in one's own corporate jet.  And, best of all, it is the first plane to offer internet service across the Atlantic.  I'll be emailing and web browsing all the way during the short flight across the Atlantic.  Yay - not a wasted minute.

Or, then again, I might be relaxing, enjoying the champagne and what is claimed to be especially good food, and doing nothing other than sleeping in BA's newly redesigned lie-flat sleeper seats.  Ah - decisions, decisions.

Talking about British Airways, they recently won the accolade of Best Airline as well as Best Short-Haul Carrier in the (UK based) 2009 Business Traveler Awards.

Full details of the awards, which extend beyond airlines to hotels, airports, rental cars, and other categories, here.

Here's an interesting story.  Police were called to Manchester Airport after complaints about an unruly passenger harassing airline staff at the check-in counters.  Apparently there was a line of passengers stretching 180 ft waiting to check in for a Jet2.com flight (a small British airline), while the airline's staff were doing little or nothing to check the passengers in, and this caused a 61 year old man to 'lose his cool'.

So what is unusual or interesting about that?  We've all been in lengthy checkin queues, and we've all perceived at times the staff behind the checkin counters to be moving at glacial speed, taking unfathomable amounts of time to do the simplest tasks, with clusters of agents huddled together and chatting or pointing at computer screens, while leaving many checkin counters unmanned.  For sure, usually no-one goes up and starts generally berating the airline staff - although apparently when this man did so, he was applauded by the people waiting.

Now for the unusual/interesting feature of this story.  The man was Phillip Meeson, the CEO of the airline.  He subsequently said, to explain his actions 'We are family-friendly, we're a leisure company taking people on holiday and I don't want my customers having to queue for check-in.  There was a great long queue, which is not what we want, and staff were sitting there doing nothing.  I just wanted everyone to get going and to check in and to get the fantastic customer service that we want them to get.'

Happily, the police didn't arrest him.  And while we have to cheer Phillip on for his actions, spare a thought also for the miserable staff who, upon being confronted with their inefficiencies, instead of apologizing and getting on with the job they're paid to do, call the police and seek to have the person validly complaining to them arrested.

Too many airline staff consider themselves 'above the law'.  Shame on them for feeling/acting that way, shame on the disgraceful lack of management and standards set by their superiors, and shame on the various law enforcement agencies for acting as the airlines' bully boys.

Mr Meeson is known for his forthright approach to issues.  When a French air traffic controllers dispute grounded flights from France, he referred to them as, ahem, 'lazy frogs'.

More details here.

As a beneficiary of your generosity, I have to be careful when I criticize campaigns seeking donations for worthy causes.  But I do believe strongly in the adage 'charity begins at home' and think it appropriate to improve the lot of people within our own part of the world before we start to look further afield and at larger problems.  These larger problems see our contributions follow an uncertain path from us to the ultimate beneficiaries, with who knows how much being drained off along the way in the form of administrative inefficiencies, bribes, and outright corruption.

If we choose to help needy people, is not the person in our own city's homeless shelter as needy as a starving person in Africa?  And is it not reasonable to consider the improvement in our own environment by helping our local poor a fair return and reason to think and act locally?

The reason for these thoughts is the pending move by the airline reservation systems to create an option that will appear when we buy airline tickets, starting from early next year, to add a $2 (or greater) contribution to the 'Millennium Foundation' on to the money we're spending on the airline ticket.

If your supermarkets are like mine, you're already being regularly asked when buying groceries if you'd like to add another dollar or two for some charity, so this is an extension of the same thing.  Heck, in Washington, we even have a 'negative option' (ie you have to actively decline rather than actively agree) to donate $5 to our state parks every time we renew our car tabs.

This ticket purchase donation, being optimistically called 'MassiveGood', will be used by the United Nations to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Africa.  Great - but don't we have plenty of similar problems in our own countries too?  Shouldn't the airlines and ourselves be preferentially supporting our local communities, local issues, and local needy?

Some airlines already invite you to pay money to offset the carbon emissions caused by your flight.  Don't the airlines realize we want to buy an airline trip, not a guilt trip?

It seems that not only are the mandatory taxes skyrocketing on tickets (the latest being a 10% increase in the US Agricultural Fee for every passenger on international flights into the US), and of course we all know about the fees for everything from food to luggage to seat assignments, but now we're seeing growth in 'optional fees' as well.

Personally I preferred the good old days when to buy a $100 airline ticket you simply wrote out a check or in some other way paid the $100.  The only fees were already included (indeed, hidden and obscured) in the quoted fare, and you knew that the $100 ticket price included all items reasonably related to your travels.

Talking about skyrocketing fees, how about skyrocketing fares?  This article includes the prediction that airfares in 2010 could be 'as much as 50% more' than the lowest fares earlier this year.

Now, of course, 'as much as 50% more' is a meaningless statement, because even 1% qualifies within its definition.  Defining the cost of travel is always a nebulous thing to do, because there's a total disconnect between published fares (which might range five fold from lowest to highest for a given flight) and actual fares paid.

Add to that a varying mix of cheap and full fare tickets released and sold for each flight, and also the always ambiguous situation of which happens first - fares move up/down, or passenger numbers move down/up, and it is never clear what is happening to actual pricing or which factors are leading which other factors.  Sure, we can look at average fares, and average revenue per person mile flown to get some general feelings about what is happening, and we can also look at 'official' airfare increases as they are announced, but the underlying truth of what you or I might pay to fly next month from somewhere to somewhere else is a very nuanced type of concept.

Will the amount of money we must pay for a flight from somewhere to somewhere else increase by 50% in the next twelve months?  Absolutely not!  There are lots of reasons why this suggestion is nonsensical, most of which lead back to basic laws of economics and supply/demand theory.

Most airlines have the ability to add substantial extra capacity back into their route systems at fairly short notice, and if airlines find their yields are increasing, even by say 25%, they'll start adding extra flights, and the extra capacity will then stabilize the fare increases (in the same but opposite way that airlines are taking off capacity at present to stabilize fare decreases).

Plus if fares go up by these sorts of amounts (without matching increases in costs, and at this stage, apart from who knows what will happen to jet fuel costs, all the other cost components of airline operations look to be stable), the competitive opportunities for low cost carriers to move into suddenly lucrative markets will also act as a brake on fare rises.

By some measures, airfares are currently about 15% down from the same time last year.  Assuming our recession continues to trend more to a perceptible recovery, it is reasonable to expect that this 15% drop will be snatched back by the airlines.  We might even see another 5% or so added on top of that, to make for a 20% increase.  But 50%?  No way.

Authorities are very reluctant to outright place the blame for any airline crash on simple pilot error, even in sometimes eregious situations.  And, for sure, pilot error is usually only one part of a complex situation - something occurs that is unusual or unexpected or undetected, and then the pilot either doesn't notice or responds incorrectly, and so on until tragedy ensues.  One can argue the point about whether it was the pilot's not noticing or incorrect response that that caused the accident, or whether it was the initial event itself, that was then poorly handled, that caused the accident - issues such as these can go back and forth without respite, with different advocacy groups having unalterably opposing views on the ultimate causes of accidents.

But there's no doubt that more reliable airplanes and their systems are better than unreliable ones.  And, similarly, better trained and better performing pilots are preferable to not so well trained and not so competent/skilled pilots.  Further more, when pilots are in the rare situations where seconds count and the slightest delay may cause disaster, we want the pilots to be single-mindedly focused on doing their job to the very best of their abilities, and not be distracted by other things.

It is this last perspective that has caused what is referred to as the 'sterile cockpit' rule.   Since 1981, federal law has barred any non-essential conversation in the cockpit below 10,000 ft and while the plane is taxiing on the ground, in the hope that this helps pilots to concentrate on their job at hand, and not distract themselves with idle chatter.

It is an extremely simple rule that surely any pilot can understand and follow.  Talk only about immediate airplane management tasks while the plane is under 10,000 ft.

With that as background, please now read this article that, as deferentially as possible, cites six airplane crashes in the last five years where pilots have been in violation of the sterile cockpit requirement, with possible impacts on their concentration and the time it took them to notice (if indeed they ever did notice) the sudden development of an emergency situation.

Moving beyond the last five years, 11 of the 20 cockpit recording transcripts released that related to serious accidents in the last ten years show violations of the sterile cockpit law.

Most notable are the pilots on a Great Lakes Airlines flight into St. Louis, who were making chicken noises and talking as chicken characters while they taxied their plane right into a building.  And then there are the Comair pilots who were chatting between themselves about other people applying for piloting jobs for 30 seconds while they were taxiing. Their plane crashed while trying to take off on the wrong runway.

Ooops.  Are there any pilots who wish to rush in and say that if pilots were paid twice as much as they now are, they'd be less inclined to chatter in the cockpit?

The subject of distractions is being increasing considered in the context of us as ordinary motorists, too.  Increasingly broad bans on the use of cellphones will driving are either being threatened or are being enacted.  My daughter's school has now banned parents from talking on cell phones, even when using hands-free speakers, anywhere in the school grounds unless the car is stopped and the engine turned off.  You can't even do it while waiting in the line of cars to drop off or pick up one's child, even if the car is stopped but the engine idling.

And my home country of New Zealand taking a regrettable position in the vanguard of this movement, making it illegal to use a cell phone for any purpose inside a car.

This would seem to mean that your fancy cell phone which does double duty as an MP3 player and a FM receiver and a GPS navigation unit can not be used for any of these purposes, while you can still use a standalone GPS receiver or MP3 player (or of course old fashioned car radio/stereo/cassette player/whatever) as much as you like.  Oh - and if you want to eat, drink, or smoke in the car, that's still fine, too.  Just don't reach for your cell phone, no matter what or why.

Details here.  The logic of this escapes me, but the logic of moving from NZ to the US is again confirmed.

And then there's the nonsense about cell phone use on planes, with this time it being the US going its own way, opposite to the rest of the world.  Here's a very level headed article on the topic which makes a point I've made as well - the high level of ambient/background noise on a plane acts to shield the sound of people talking on their phones.

In any case, unless there's an in-plane cell repeater, cell phones simply don't work on airplanes above about 10,000 ft, whether you are allowed to use them or not (the ground based cell phone towers send their signals out in directional beams that are mainly horizontal along the ground, not rising up into the air, plus the plane's metal body shields a lot of the cell phone signal from entering/leaving the plane).

Ahem - don't ask me how I know this.....

So here's an interesting article full of helpful information on how to make phone calls from a plane through its on-board Wi-Fi signal.

I just downloaded another application onto my iPhone yesterday, marveling at the extraordinary capabilities and uses to which this most amazing of devices can now be employed.  This latest application (I have over 50 third party programs on the phone already) uses the phone's camera to scan a product bar code, and then searches the internet to give you comparative pricing information.

The software cost $2, and was downloaded and installed on my phone in perhaps 30 seconds - that's about as different as possible from buying software and loading it onto Windows.  $2 software?  Amazing - and with it so easy to load (and, yes, equally easy to uninstall if you change your mind subsequently) it makes software an easy impulse purchase.

I used the program shortly thereafter to discover, for your benefit, a source of the headphones I review today that sells them for $100 below list price simply by scanning the bar code on the box and waiting five seconds.  How easy is that?

I'd linked to an article on how to negotiate the best price for home electronics a week or two ago - imagine using this program in such a case.  You're talking to the salesman, you scan the product's bar code, and show him, realtime on the phone screen, the prices his competitors are selling the product for.  Wow.

I'm talking about this for several reasons, quite apart from the childish sense of wonder I have at such new clever things.

First, to make the point that if you just use your cell phone for making and receiving phone calls, much of the world is passing you by.  Please do consider enjoying some of the massive kaleidoscopic range of new things you can use your phone for.

I use my phone for almost everything.  Shopping lists.  Appointments and calendaring.  Weather forecasts and current weather conditions.  Real time traffic updates, including local surface streets as well as major freeways, all shown on a map matched to where I am.  News.  Video.  Taking and viewing pictures (and video).  As a high end HP12C calculator.  A sound pressure level meter.  Reading books.  Paying bills.  A travel guide.  Music playing.  Finding where the closest Starbucks is and whether it is open or not.  A voice recorder.  An audio frequency generator.  To show my airline boarding pass.  To predict if my flight will be early, late, or on time.  A trivial pursuit game source.  Web browsing.  And, of course, the 'usual' things - GPS receiver, email, texting, and even as a phone.  And so on and so on.

The phone is automatically synchronized with other computers I have elsewhere, and also stores files both on itself, on my other computers, and online for access from any computer anywhere.

The second point, a flip-side of the first, is that the internet and all its resources is now reaching to us wherever we are, via our phone, and will impact on our lives and our society enormously in ways we haven't yet thought about.

I already find that something has changed in my life - I no longer need to live with uncertainty about anything.  No matter what the topic or where I am, I can find the answer to any question within a minute or less just by searching through Google on my phone.  That has completely changed the dynamic of so many discussions that in the past would sort of degenerate into increasing levels of uncertainty and rhetoric.  Instead, any discussion (or, ahem, argument) can be immediately substantiated (or rebutted) by asking one's phone to supply the answer.

We are already in a science fiction world where not only do we have close on the entire sum of mankind's knowledge omnipresent at our fingertips, but thanks to the genius of Google, combined with other resources such as Wikipedia, it is increasingly codified and indexed and available, on tap, for us to find and use when we need it.

And so after these two lofty points, my third point seems exceedingly trivial - but threatens the evolving trends in the first two points.  The ever increasing intelligence and demands being made of our phones is outstripping the rate at which battery technology can provide the power store to manage.  Here is an interesting article and chart, and here is a similar second article and chart, both of which graphically show that the next few years is expected to see cell phone battery life diminishing due to the increasing power consumption caused by faster processors, more memory, more data transfer, and larger screens.

Fortunately, for me, I currently have a great workaround.  My iPhone is wrapped in a Mophie Juice Pack Air that, in real world terms, doubles the phone's battery life and means I never have a battery crisis between charging opportunities.

My iPhone would be vastly less useful without its Juice Pack -  it is an essential accessory for anyone who uses their iPhone for more than occasional simple phone calls.  Highly recommended.

With some trepidation, I mention this interesting article that lists the findings of a financial research company and the list of 20 companies it has identified as most likely to declare bankruptcy within the next twelve months.

Two airlines make the list, as does a rental car company that I better not name, for fear of being added to the law suit they have now brought against the publishers of the list.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Are our poorest taste jokes about airport security measures about to become true?  Or, more to the point, are our most graphic nightmares going to become reality?  When we think about the extraordinary response to the 'shoe bomber' and the failed 'liquid bombers', what should we do in response to this (not sure how to refer to him) bomber.

In particular, please understand that the comment in the second to last paragraph by the 'aviation security consultant' is nonsense.  Requiring us to take all our clothes off to go through security would in no way aid in the detection of devices held internally within our bodies.  There's only one way to test for those....

Well, of course, there are other methods too such as giving us a full power X-ray each time we go through security, but that would soon have frequent fliers close to glowing in the dark from all the radiation being tossed at them.

The new body scanners being introduced at more and more airports will see through clothes to show the outline of our flesh underneath, but I don't believe they'll see further in to our bodies.

Here's an example of a massive over-reaction by airline idiots.  A guy is desperate to go to the bathroom on a plane and does so prior to take-off, even though the flight attendants tell him to sit down.  I've seen such things happen plenty of times before.

There are times when, if you've gotta go, you've gotta go, and it isn't a case of if and when, but rather simply a case of where.  The uncertainties of how long will elapse between a plane's first push back from the gate and its eventual settling into cruise and turning off the seat belt sign means you just can't wait what could be 15 - 30 minutes.  So if you're close to a rest-room, you just make a mad dash in, figuring it is better to ask for forgiveness when you sheepishly emerge than to ask for the permission that has already been refused in advance.

But in this case, what do the flight attendants and pilots do?  They 'punish' everyone on the plane, by making the plane abort its take-off and return to the gate, then requiring all passengers to leave the plane while it is searched.  Needless to say, nothing was found, and - thank you, thank you - the FBI declined to press charges against the passenger.

Details here.

Lastly this week, a rose by any other name :  The Wisconsin Tourism Federation has now become the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin.  Why?

Because, well, someone finally pointed out to the 30 year old organizationthat its prominent three letter acronym and logo was open to misinterpretation.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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