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Friday, 16 October, 2009

Good morning

My weekly happy-making celebration first :  We now have exactly 850 supporters, including two more 'Platinum Elite' members - Gregory L and Ron B.  Continued thanks to our most recent supporters, and all the others who have already participated this year.  There's a donate link at the top of the page if you'd like to join in too.

I commented at some length in my opening last week about new FTC rules for bloggers and small online-only publishers in general, and in particular I pointed out what the traditional media have been smugly/secretly/ashamedly silent about - the FTC is now requiring people such as me to disclose when we receive free review samples or are paid to write endorsements, but the FTC is not requiring any similar degree of disclosure from traditional media.

I'm not particularly troubled by the need to disclose such things, but I am surprised the FTC is excluding the media with the largest loudest 'voices' from the same requirement.

Several related follow-ups this week.  Firstly, many thanks to Budget Travel for their prompt endorsement of my own independence (and in case either they or I must disclose this, no money changed hands in return for their kind words).

Secondly, I received quite a few emails from readers.  Some readers wrote to express doubt that 'big name' publications would ever be less than 100% honest and forthright.  But other readers, ahem, wrote in to share their own personal experiences working for some of the big name media where they had to compromise their integrity so as not to offend advertisers.

Maybe the gift of a free cell phone might influence a blogger to say nice things (I wouldn't know, no-one has ever given me one!), and maybe that same free cell phone would have no impact on a very large magazine or newspaper.  But that same very large magazine or newspaper may also have a multi-million dollar advertising contract with the cell phone supplier, and it is far from impossible that the value of that contract (combined with the willingness of the company in question to use it as a bargaining tool and lever over the publication) may impinge on the editorial independence of the publication in a way that transcends the impact of the free phone (or whatever else is being written about).

Here's a good letter to the FTC from an industry group representing some aspects of the internet publishing community (I don't belong to this group).  Skip past the opening rhetoric, but read the letter itself.

There's another twist to the independence of the media that is posing an increasingly chilling effect on the ability of 'ordinary people' to comment directly on products and services which they found to be below standard and disappointing.  Did you know that even if you live in the United States, and even if your website/blog is hosted in the United States, you can still be sued for libel by anyone living anywhere in the world if they so choose.

Okay, that's not particularly shocking.  But the next part of this is both shocking and terrifying.

These people can sue you in their own jurisdiction (or, often times, in any other country in the world where they feel the judicial odds are more in their favor).  They are not required to sue you in your own country, state, country and city.  They can 'shop' around the world to find the country with the legal system that is most biased in favor of themselves and successfully sue you there for something that is not at all illegal or actionable in your home city, country, state and country.

So when I write negative comments about something - and, as you know, I don't 'gild the lily' when it comes to exposing the flaws in a product or service - it seems I need to be sensitive to the laws of libel in all 200+ countries in the world.  Whereas in the US it is generally the case that the person bringing suit has the burden of proof to show that the comments were libelous and false, in some other legal systems, that burden of proof flips and it rests on the shoulders of the person making the statements to be able to prove their validity.

On the face of it, requiring someone who makes bad comments about something to 'put their money where their mouth is' and prove the truth and accuracy of their comments is fair enough.  But what happens when you're talking about transient things that can't be proven - 'the person on the phone was rude and unhelpful', or 'the toilet was blocked and no-one came to fix it for three days'.  Or something as subjective as 'the instructions were poorly written and I couldn't understand how to stop the 12:00 flashing on my VCR'?

Combine this with a legal system that might require not just a 51% burden of proof, but perhaps a 90%, 95%, 99% or 100% burden of proof, and things get more difficult.

Combine this further with a trial heard in a far away expensive foreign place, and perhaps in a foreign language that you don't speak, and even if you win the trial, you could be out $100,000 or more in costs to defend yourself against a possibly scurrilous legal attack.

Here are a couple of examples, then some good news that needs your help to resolve this.

Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, an academic who writes on terrorism and lectures all over the world, wrote a book in 2003, 'Funding Evil'.  This triggered a lawsuit in the UK by a wealthy Saudi businessman who claimed he was libeled in the book.

He chose the UK because UK defendants have to prove allegations are true; in contrast, in the U.S. plaintiffs must prove allegations are false.  The Saudi won a judgment of $250,000 against Ehrenfeld; sales of her book were banned in the UK, and she can no longer travel there.

Now for an example that strikes much closer to (my) home.  US journalist and business travel contributor for The New York Times Joe Sharkey covered a plane crash in Brazil, in which he was involved.  On Sept. 29, 2006 there was a midair collision at 37,000 feet over the Amazon between a Brazilian 737 and a business jet, on which Sharkey was a passenger.  All 154 on the 737 died; the seven crew and passengers on the badly damaged business jet made an emergency landing in the jungle.  Sharkey wrote about it once he returned home in the Times and on his blog and conducted interviews in which he was critical of Brazil’s air traffic control system.  He vigorously defended the American business-jet pilots who Brazil had been quick to charge with criminal negligence.

On September 16, 2009 Sharkey was served with a complaint seeking US$279,850 in damages.  The plaintiff in the lawsuit is identified as Brazilian Rosane Gutjhar who asserts, in a novel claim, that Sharkey offended her country’s dignity in his writings and interviews.  Although Gutjhar’s husband died in the crash, Sharkey did not know her, or mention her name at any time.

In other words, the plaintiff doesn't have to claim she was personally libeled, only that her country was insulted.  The suit is based on a Brazilian law that any citizen can claim damages for any alleged insult to the dignity or honor of Brazil in any case involving a crime - the pilots, Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino remain on criminal trial in Brazil, in absentia.

The basis of Gutjhar’s suit is that as a Brazilian citizen she “feels discriminated against" by Sharkey’s forceful reporting and commentary in the U.S. about Brazil's alleged cover-up of the causes of the crash, even though the accuracy of Sharkey’s writings and comments has never been challenged.  Sharkey claims that nothing he said or was alleged to have said would constitute libel in the US, or even come close.  With Sharkey’s case, it's clear the scope of what constitutes libel has been broadened to include insulting the dignity of a foreign country.

If Brazil, future host of the 2016 Olympics that will no doubt be attended by many U.S. corporate executives for the purpose of entertaining clients, can claim a ruinous judgment in the US against an American citizen who has 'offended' that nation, what is to stop any other country - Iran, Libya, North Korea - from pursuing the same course of action.

Not only are journalists or bloggers at risk.  So too are corporate and university travelers, travel departments, travel managers issuing country-specific travel warnings, business travelers posting unfavorable trip reviews on social media sites, flight crews posting comments on industry bulletin boards, university researchers publishing negative reports, and yes, you too, if you post a review on (for example) TripAdvisor, and pretty much anyone anywhere with money to make it worth suing.

One more example - this time from small hotels and B&B owners in Australia who feel wronged by negative reviews, and who are going after the authors of negative reviews.

There is a solution - the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009 (S.449), which was introduced in the Senate in February 2009 as a response to cases like these.  The simple and very fair objective of S.449 is to ensure that libel judgments issued by foreign courts cannot be enforced in the US unless our legal standards for libel are met.

Please phone your two senators and ask them to support the passage of this Act.  (Phoning is the best way to express your opinion, writing an old fashioned mailed letter the next best, faxing the third best, and emailing the worst method.)

The vibrancy of the new media on the internet needs this protection and your support.

Now, with all that as preamble, I've some good news on the topic of unbiased reporting, special deals, and all that good stuff.  If you're a golfer, or if you know a golfer and are already wondering what to get him/her as a gift this year, read on.  Otherwise, skip to the next color change.  :)

Golfers know that some courses and some resorts are better than others.  They - you, if you're reading this - may also know that not all the traditional golf magazines and websites 'tell it like it is'.  A golfing holiday can be an expensive undertaking, and quite apart from the monetary cost, the time involved and the disappointment if you make bad choices are big issues too.

However, there is one bright light of shining hope on the golfing horizon.  A colleague, David Baum, publishes the Golf Odyssey newsletter (now in its 18th year), and during the course of some email and phone discussions recently, we've come up with a special offer for Travel Insider readers that is a win/win/win for everyone.  But first, let me tell you about his Golf Odyssey newsletter.

In a manner reminiscent to my own writing, he truly does tell it like it is.  For example, this month he delivered a stinging criticism of a Ritz-Carlton resort - a property that is - hmmm - recommended by many of the main-stream publications.

Indeed, when you think about it - how many highly critical golf course or resort reviews have you ever seen in traditional magazines and websites?  Probably zero, right?  Because Golf Odyssey does not accept advertising from the properties it reviews, David and his editors are free to 'tell it like it is', good or bad.

There's more to David's publication than just negative reviews, however.  Yes, he also introduces you to the courses and resorts he likes, and helps you accurately understand why he likes (or dislikes) each place he writes about, helping you to decide for yourself if you're likely to feel the same way.

In addition, David does the same sort of thing I'm trying to more actively do - he uncovers all sorts of special/unique benefits for subscribers, one of which is access to private golf courses.

In the last few months alone, Golf Odyssey subscribers have been invited to play at two exclusive private clubs.  One (with an initiation fee in excess of $100,000) is home to a new design by Tom Doak, golf’s hottest course architect.  The other private club has a Tom Fazio-design that has been regularly ranked as one of the top-50 places to play in the country.  David tells me that he is going to announce two more private course opportunities in next month’s issue.

In addition to steering you to the best places and away from the worst, and getting you access to places you'd otherwise not even be able to drive by and look enviously at, subscribers can easily pay for their subscription many times over by taking advantage of the travel deals and unpublished offers that David and his staff uncover.

Now for the good news.  Between now and the end of month, David is offering to let you sample all of this completely for free.

You can take a free, 10-day trial to Golf Odyssey, including the current monthly intelligence report, plus instant access to Golf Odyssey’s password-protected website with the largest collection of unbiased and trustworthy resort and golf course reviews in the world.  Everything that normal subscribers are given is yours to use as much as you like during your trial, and if there's something extra you want, David invites you to email him directly for a personal response.  Oh, he has three 'bonus gifts' as well.  All the details of this special Travel Insider offer are on his website for you to peruse and consider.

Naturally, there's a gentle sting in the tail of all of this.  David is a nice guy, but we all have to pay the bills.  Seven days into your free 10-day trial, David will send you an e-mail asking you if you want to become a Golf Odyssey subscriber (there is absolutely no obligation to do so).  Now for the best part of all.

After having this complete chance to see everything Golf Odyssey has to offer, you'll probably be happy to pay full list price for an ongoing annual subscription.  But I've beaten up on David some, and he has agreed to give you a $50 Travel Insider discount off the first year subscription rate.  Plus he will also show his support of The Travel Insider by sending me a small 'thank you' for each person who becomes a 'Golf Travel Insider'.  Which is why this is a win-win-win deal - you get an excellent resource, first for free and then at a massive discount, David gets a new subscriber, and I get a little something too.

Click here for full details and to get your ten day free unlimited access to everything started.

One more thing about honesty and disclosure - this time to do with airlines (ah ha - are we finally getting on topic?!).  It seems that, ooops, the airlines haven't been completely open and honest about their obligations and liabilities to you when they delay getting your luggage to you.

You probably know that the airlines are obligated to compensate you for some of the stuff if your luggage is lost, but do you know what their obligations are if your luggage is simply delayed?  Some airlines will tell you 'we won't pay for anything until your bags are more than 24 hours overdue'.  Others will tell you 'we don't compensate you for the cost of any delays when you're flying back home, only when you're flying outbound'.

In both cases, they are not telling you the truth of what the Department of Transportation obliges them to do.

The DoT says such policies violate federal rules requiring airlines to cover all expenses caused by lost or delayed baggage, up to $3,300 per passenger on domestic flights.  They said they would monitor the situation for 90 days and then take enforcement action against airlines that don't comply. The agency also said it fined an airline last month for providing compensation only on outbound trips and only for items bought more than 24 hours after arrival.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stated, 'Travelers should not have to pay for toiletries or other necessities while they wait for baggage misplaced by airlines.  We expect airlines to comply with all of our regulations and will take enforcement action if they do not.'  The DoT sent a guidance letter to the airlines last Friday asking that they review their policies related to the reimbursement of passengers’ expenses related to lost, damaged, or delayed baggage.

But - just in case somehow the airlines still don't accurately explain their obligations and your rights to you, here's :

This Week's Feature Column :  Your Rights if Your Bags are Delayed : The DOT stirred this week and chastised airlines for not complying with their obligations to inform and compensate passengers with delayed bags.  So what are your rights?  Read my column to understand what to expect and what to do if (when) your bags are delayed.

Dinosaur Watching :  Naughty US Airways.  The FAA is proposing a $5.4 million fine against the airline due to it operating eight aircraft on 1647 flights over a three month period that were not in compliance with required safety inspections.

And also naughty United Airlines, who are being offered a $3.8 million fine.  United operated a single 737 on more than 200 flights after violating their own maintenance procedures - most notably using two towels instead of protective caps to cover an oil sump compartment inside one of the plane's two engines.

One wonders how the FAA calculates these things.  $5.4 million for 8 planes and 1647 flights, compared to $3.8 million for one plane and 200 flights?  The US Airways transgression may be just faulty record keeping, and the United transgression - an isolated single incident - just a colossal mistake.

In any case, the multi-million dollar fines may never be levied or paid.  Airlines routinely negotiate them massively downwards, but it makes for good scare headlines when the FAA first announces them, doesn't it.

Such errors may dissuade the more anxious of us from taking any more flights than we absolutely need to, but it surely didn't have any effect on these two gentlemen who visited 30 cities in 31 days, taking 58 and 62 flights respectively, making more use of an unlimited flying for a month pass that was being sold by JetBlue a few months back for $599.

It sure was a life altering experience for the two men, and in unexpected ways.  One is now engaged to be married, and the other lost his job.

Happy birthday to KLM.  The airline turned 90 last week, and claims the title of being the oldest airline in the world operating under its original name.

The topic of which airline is the oldest in the world is actually more complicated than it might seem.  Some airlines have a long history, but have had gaps in their service (eg during World War 2), so other airlines claim the 'oldest airline' title by virtue of operating continually without any break.

Other airlines have changed their names from time to time, so other airlines claim the title by virtue of not having changed their name (as is the case with KLM here).

And still other airlines point out that some of these very old airlines are a bit like your grandfather's axe.  Sure, he's changed the handle a dozen times and the head half a dozen times, but it is still his 'old axe' - in corporate terms, this means that the companies have been bought and sold and changed ownership many times and are perhaps not the same airline with the same ownership form as when it was first founded.

That is indeed a potential disqualifier for KLM, because now the airline is not even Dutch - it is owned by Air France.  And the 90 year claim?  Well, KLM was founded on 7 October 1919, but didn't actually fly its first flight until 17 May 1920, so even that doesn't withstand close scrutiny.

Oh - a request.  If anyone speaks Dutch, can you translate this 1919 poster from KLM for me, please?  Hopefully there might be something on it to be considered a slogan, which would then give it pride of place as being the oldest slogan in my airline slogan collection - an honor currently held by an antecedent of British Airways and evidenced by a copy of an advertisement in a London newspaper in 1926.

In the course of researching the extensive collection of airline slogans that I currently have listed, I came across a whole field of aviation collecting - people who collect all sorts of bits and pieces from airlines, ranging from old timetables to just about anything and everything on planes that isn't welded to the hull, including cutlery, crockery, glassware, flight safety instruction cards, engineering manuals, and so on.

Out of curiosity I recently attended a show for such collectors at Seattle's excellent Museum of Flight, and was left with the strong regret that I've never before thought to, ahem, keep as souvenirs the various things that one gets on flights, whether it be amenity kits or food service items or even sick bags and in-flight magazines.  All of such things were selling for surprising prices.

A highlight was a chance to go for a joyride over Seattle's downtown and Puget Sound in a 70+ year old biplane.  Tremendous fun.

Here's an interesting item reporting on how business class fares have dropped by about 30% year on year, and for one particular route, they have dropped 66%.  But even though the fares have dropped by much more than coach class fares, the number of business class travelers are down by about 20%.  What gives - is this an exception to the concept of 'price elasticity' (ie, if you reduce the price of something, more people will buy it)?

My interpretation is simple.  Even with a greater reduction in fare cost than coach class fares, business class fares are still 4 - 8 times the cost of coach class fares.  And that's just too much of a differential for too little improvement in travel experience.

Now for the really sad part of this.  Airlines are reducing their business class fares by $1000, $2000, even $3000, and still suffering reducing numbers of business class passengers.  But if, instead of discounting their fares by thousands of dollars per passenger, if they instead increased their spend per business class passenger by a mere tens of dollars - if they added back the extra piece of lettuce to salads, if they improved the drink selection and service, if they started serving good hot food rather than occasional cold snacks, if they added an extra flight attendant, if they carried more magazines and newspapers, if they offered extra perks and services every which way on the ground and in the air to these top fare paying passengers - they'd probably get more people returning back to the business class cabins.

This is the flip side of cost cutting, and one I always point out.  The cost savings effected by trimming the frills and fun that make premium cabin travel so special are minimal, and even the slightest loss of passengers caused by the reduction in quality of the product more than offsets the savings theoretically achieved.

The really silly part is that the airlines are simultaneously saving mere pennies by cutting back on the premium services in their premium cabins, but then are discounting the fares by thousands of dollars, and still not succeeding in winning back the business.

The airlines have shot themselves in the foot.  They've created business and first class cabins that are almost indistinguishable from coach class - indeed a frequent flying friend of mine who always gets upgraded to first class told me that sometimes he prefers to get an exit row seat in coach class and turns down the free first class upgrades.  And, now that they've cheapened their premium cabins, they are discovering that they can no longer charge ridiculous price premiums for a largely no longer present quality premium.

The solution is obvious.  Add some true value back to the premium cabin travel experience.

Here's a well written article on the emotional topic of pilots sleeping on the job - while at the controls of a plane flying through the air.  Should we be concerned about this?  Should it be officially allowed?

Before answering those questions, one can only guess at how much unofficial sleep time is already being spent in the cockpit of a modern jet plane.  A pilot friend was recently telling me about how he flies red-eye flights from one coast to the other.  He said that because these dead-of-night flights occur at a time with little traffic congestion in the air, they get immediate air traffic control clearance the entire way to the 'outer marker' at their destination airport, almost six hours flying time away (unlike the busier times of day when they get multiple clearances during the route, each for the next part).  In the fully automatic computer operated Airbus plane cockpit that he flies, he can literally push a button prior to taking off on one coast, and then have nothing to do until shortly before landing on the other coast, some six hours later.

So, imagine yourself - awake at a time when you're normally asleep, sitting in a cockpit that no longer has any fascination or novelty value, with the soporific drone of the engines behind you, dark sky out the windows, and absolutely nothing to do for the night ahead of you.  Could you stay awake?  And, ahem, would you stay awake?

My best guess is that there's a lot more sleeping in the cockpit already than we realize.  Hopefully most of the time one of the pilots might be struggling to stay semi-awake rather than both asleep simultaneously, but if they are both asleep, let's hope one of them remembered to set an alarm clock.

There's no reason at all to be concerned with one pilot being officially allowed to sleep at times when there are not other duties to be attended to; indeed, by officially permitting the two pilots to rotate through some sleep time, there's a better chance of one of them truly being awake and alert at all times than if everyone has to play the game of 'let's pretend' as is the case currently.

Pilots accordingly should be allowed to sleep on the job (albeit in alternate turns).

Here's an amazing story about allegations that Delta Airlines may have hacked into the emails and computers of Kate Hanni, the vocal and effective director of FlyersRights.org.

In a federal lawsuit, Hanni alleges that Delta’s intent was to spy on and intimidate Hanni and her organization, and that their actions came close to sabotaging FlyersRights.org’s support for pro-consumer legislation.  Hanni said she learned from America Online that her personal e-mail files were redirected to an unknown location, along with donor lists, spreadsheets and other data.

She alleges that the e-mail hacking began in 2008 and continued through this year while she was communicating with an airline industry consultant who analyzed airline delays for the federal government.  In addition, the lawsuit claims that Hanni’s personal laptop was corrupted and rendered useless by the hacking.

Wow.  On the other hand, perhaps she is simply massively mistaken.  Delta spokesman Trebor Bansetter said the company can't say much because the lawsuit is pending but 'obviously the idea that Delta would hack into someone's e-mail is clearly without merit.'


More delightful details here.

Tick..... tick..... tick..... - the sound you hear is time running out for the 737 and A320.  The latest move forward by future competitor, China's 190 seater C919 plane, is detailed here.

Talking about planes, here's an interesting concept of a futuristic airship.  Some aspects of this concept make no sense (like recycling the jet engines' thrust to generate electricity - shades of a perpetual motion machine) and the reality is that aviation is moving more in the direction of smaller rather than bigger planes.

However, I do like the idea of airships in general.  With modern day materials, it should now be possible to create safe hydrogen based airships.

The current preference for helium has two problems - helium isn't as light as hydrogen, and helium is a scarce and becoming ever scarcer gas that is also therefore becoming increasingly expensive.  Any economically effective airship in the future has to use hydrogen for lift, not helium.

And a good airship truly could be very economically effective, promising much lower fuel costs per passenger mile and freight/ton mile than current airplane technology.  Maybe the slower speed of an airship would make them less desirable for passenger traffic, but how about all the hundreds of planes being sold to and operated by freight companies?

Of course, developing a viable commercial airship would be time consuming and expensive.  But so what?  With regular passenger planes costing $10 billion or more to develop, and taking up to ten years from concept to commercial flight, the costs of developing a truly revolutionary approach to air travel don't seem too unreasonable.

If you want to talk about unreasonable costs and lead times, look no further than this depressing story about plans to build new Presidential helicopters.  A $22 billion price tag and delivery as late as 2024 is alleged in this article, which the Pentagon disputes.

One last thing about aviation.  It normally takes anywhere from a year to more than two years for a book to be published.  But there are exceptions, which always makes me wonder how if a book such as, eg, the late Ted Kennedy's biography can be rushed into print within weeks of his death, why does it take regular titles two years to appear on the shelves?

A moderately fast turnaround has been achieved on an autobiography by Captain Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who sprung to sudden prominence in January when he safely landed the engineless US Airways plane in the Hudson river.  In the nine months since then he has managed to participate in the writing of his autobiography and get it to market.  Details of the book here.

Although listing at $26, I see it for sale on Amazon for $14.29.  Outrageously, Amazon is also selling the eBook Kindle version for the same price as the hardback.  I'd been about to buy an e-copy, but it offends my sense of fair play to pay the same price for something with no printing or shipping costs, and something that I can't subsequently give away (or sell) to anyone else.

Even more outrageously, you can also buy the book, still brand new, for as little as $13.02 by clicking on Amazon's third party seller link on their page.

eBooks are great, and are unstoppably the wave of the future.  But let's get the pricing adjusted to something a lot fairer - we the consumers should benefit in terms of some savings if we're to waive the right to reselling the 'book' and if we're not to receive a traditional hardcover book.

Amtrak reports that its annual ridership is slightly down.  In the year ended 30 September, it carried 27.2 million passengers, which makes it the second best year ever for the rail operator.  The previous year - its best ever - saw 28.7 million passengers.

How do these numbers compare with the airlines?  About 25 times more people fly by air than take a train.

Here's some information about a 'high speed rail' concept in Florida that on the face of it, has some practicality and appeal.  It would create a line between Tampa and Orlando.  But, in sad reality, this is not a suitable route for high speed rail, because the distance is too short - the opposite of the typical problem in the US with distances too long.

The route from Tampa to Buena Vista (Disney area) is only 65 miles, and there'd almost certainly be a stop mid-way in Lakeland, making for short stretches of only about 35 miles.  With the time and distance required to get a train up to speed, and then to decelerate down to a stop again, even the fastest train will spend only a few minutes at full speed and much of the time traveling much slower on such a short route.

And with only a short route, even if the train is traveling twice as fast as other forms of transport, the overall time savings is minimal (and reduced still further by the time taken for the Lakeland stop) and not sufficient to cause people to switch to the train from other forms of transport.

Well done, Florida, for your interest in promoting rail.  But save yourself a lot of money and build it as a regular rail line, with perhaps 100 mph or so as a maximum speed, and use the savings to extend the route further at each end.

On the other hand, here is information about an excellent candidate for a high speed rail link - a route between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, with not one but two different proposals currently under consideration.

This route has the potential to support a large number of passengers, and is a much better distance where the time saving factor is much more appreciable (especially compared to the often awful drive on I-15, particularly for the first/last 50 - 75 miles in/out of Los Angeles).  And with Vegas a destination in which few people need cars, there is everything to be said in favor of this route concept, and little to be said against it.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  One of the easiest ways to become an illegal alien in this country, or so it seems, is simply to lawfully enter the country on a regular visitor visa, and then not leave it again.  As this article explains, we have two problems.  The first is that there's no way the government and our various 'security services' can reliably track if and when and how visitors leave the country.  In theory, visitors are supposed to return a paper slip they got when entering the country when they subsequently depart again, but that is an imperfect system at best, and if they're simply driving out of the country to Mexico or Canada, there's no way for that visa slip to be collected.

The second problem is more fundamental.  Although, as the article points out, a man recently arrested on charges of terrorism was one of these overstaying visitors, suggesting that at least some of the overstayers are far from benign and harmless, the government has no wish to actually keep track of who is in the country legally and/or illegally, as this article points out.

Our government is terminally sick if it creates laws on immigration, then spends countless billions of dollars on making it semi/somewhat difficult for people to enter the country unlawfully, and if it sees vulnerabilities to our nation's security by the breaching of these laws and acknowledges that somewhere between many hundreds of thousands and countless millions of people are indeed in the country unlawfully, but then chooses to not do anything to try and police our community and apprehend/deport the offenders.

Maybe they should just give every visitor a free cell phone upon entering the country.  Because, as this article shows, the amount of information that increasingly intelligent cell phones can disclose about you to both the official authorities and to unofficial investigators is truly staggering.

Every minute that your cell phone is switched on, your wireless company (and therefore potentially just about anyone else too) knows where you are to within about 50 - 500 ft, whether your phone has GPS or not.

Our government can (and often does) track us all through our cell phone usage.  But it can't - or won't - make any attempt to detect, apprehend and deport the millions of illegal aliens in this country.

Here's a somewhat interesting article on a visit to the Transportation Security Laboratory and some of the things that they do/test there.

And here's a rather anti-climactic look at the information that the Homeland Security Department keeps on file about your travels.  Nothing too surprising is revealed there - basically they just have copies of the airline computer 'pnr' (passenger name records) information about your flights and related travel bookings.

I was interested to see that it also has information on border crossings in foreign countries as well as the US, but there's so much potential information that - at least in this particular sample of the information held - is not apparently stored.  And apart from perhaps revealing travel to 'interesting' destinations, there's not a lot of information that is held which is of much value.

One also wonders how the information is stored, and how readily it can be cross-referenced.  Can the Homeland Security computers flag people just because they flew on the same flight somewhere as a suspected terrorist did, and then stayed at the same hotel?

Lastly this week, although the airlines can sometimes charge quite a lot for a beer on a flight, it is best to pay for your drinks rather than steal them.  A man on an Air Canada Jazz flight from Vancouver to Fort McMurray stole a beer off an inflight cart, then subsequently tried to hide the evidence by flushing the empty can down the toilet (why is it I suspect it wasn't his first beer of the day?).  Not a smart move.

The pilot then decided to divert the flight to Kelowna after the man 'caused a disturbance' onboard.  When the plane landed the RCMP took him away in handcuffs, while questioning two others before releasing them.  I wonder if he'll have to pay the costs of the emergency landing?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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