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Friday, 30 October, 2009

Good morning

My weekly happy-making celebration first :  another ten of you became Travel Insider supporters last week, including two more 'Platinum Elite' members - Don D, and Skip L.

We now have 868 current supporters for 2009, which is an extraordinarily high level of voluntary participation.  Thank you all for making this possible.

I had an email from Pro Travel Gear's David Dillinger yesterday advising of an across-the-board 44% discount on everything in his main website range of travel related products.

This special only runs through Monday evening, and last time he had a deal like this, he sold out of just about everything in his warehouse long before the sale expired (no rainchecks - sale limited to stock on hand), so go check out what he has if you're starting to think about Christmas shopping.

I've been spending some of the money you have so generously volunteered to respond positively to the several people who asked me to review a new set of noise cancelling headphones that have been well reported on elsewhere.  We're all always hopeful of finding headphones that are better than the $300 Bose QC15 'best of breed' noise cancelling headphones, and there was a hope expressed that these headphones (costing barely half the price of the QC15s) might be comparable in performance to the Bose.

So I willingly obliged and now report back to you :

This Week's Feature Column :  Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b Noise Cancelling Headphones :   My findings after testing these mid-priced headphones?  They're not as good as the more expensive Bose headphones, but better than other, less expensive, headphones.  My conclusion?  You get what you pay for.

Dinosaur watching Incredible shrinking airlines - Perhaps the only surprising thing about American Airlines' decision to close down its Kansas City overhaul base is that it took so long to do so.

The base was a relic from TWA, and in its heyday (in the 1960s and 1970s), it employed over 10,000 people.  AA bought out TWA in 2001.

Puzzlingly, AA signed a new 25 year lease on the site in 2005, at which time 2,000 people were employed there.  Currently, employment is only about 500 people.

US Airways is shrinking its route system and increasing its focus on hub and spoke flights.  It already has about 93% of all flights departing from or arriving at one of its main three hubs (PHL, PHX and CLT) and aims to increase this to 99% by early next year.

This is an interesting snub on the 'best practices' of the industry's most profitable airline (Southwest).  Southwest is not so much a hub focused airline, but US Airways has clearly decided it knows better than Southwest how to run a profitable operation.

This focus on hub and spoke routes rather than point to point flights also shows that US Airways could care less about the extraordinary profit and growth exhibited by Allegiant Air (discussed last week).

All joking aside (and who is joking) why doesn't US Airways choose to copy what is working for other airlines rather than increase their reliance on a failed business strategy?

It is interesting in this list of hubs to see US Airways' total abandonment of any pretense of maintaining Pittsburgh as a hub, and the 'legacy' hub of Las Vegas, formerly a key part of the America West operation (America West bought out US Airways and then took the US Airways name for the merged expanded operation) has also been further de-emphasized, shrinking from the already massively reduced 64 flights a day at present down to a mere 36 flights a day.

Talking about last week, I should clarify what I said regarding the 'Brancatelli Effect' about airline fees.  I had said Joe Brancatelli correlated dropping profits with increasing bag fees.  That is not actually correct.

Joe correlated dropping revenues with increasing bag fees - sure, dropping profits sometimes track dropping revenues, but the purest statement of the 'Brancatelli Effect' is that as bag fees rise, total revenues drop.  Joe says that since he first published this, a number of airlines have now reported third quarter revenues, and the Brancatelli Effect continues to hold good for Q3 just as it has for Q1 and Q2 this year.

Of course, one of the reasons for dropping revenues is that airlines are selling tickets for less money than they were a year ago.

This article suggests that average ticket prices in the second quarter were at about the same levels as they were in 1998.  But since then, the airlines are trying to claw back as much revenue as they can - there have been three fare rises in the last three weeks (and six in total for the year), the most recent of which rolled out on Thursday.

And talking about luggage (and the need for airline innovation), here's an interesting new concept being tested by Virgin America.  Passengers with no carry-on luggage can board the plane first.

However, there is a bit of a grey area about what constitutes a carry-on for the purpose of this policy, and it seems the airline is allowing people even with a laptop bag to board as if they have no carry-on.  As we all know, a laptop bag can vary in size tremendously while still being called a laptop bag, and it will be interesting to see how the airline makes consistent decisions on when a laptop bag is too big.

In theory, allowing people without carry-ons to board first means that they can all quickly move to their seats and sit down, without blocking the aisles while stowing bags in the overhead bins, with the net result being an overall faster boarding time for everyone.

Whether it proves to be worth the extra complication or not, kudos to the airline for at least trying something new.

Here's an interesting report on a recent survey of airline passengers, asking them which is their favorite airline and what factors influence their choice of favorite.

There is however an interesting disconnect in the survey results.  55% of people people responding said that service is important to them in deciding which is their favorite carrier, and 47% said price.

Now, this may or may not be true for what people consider in designating their 'favorite' airline, but it certainly is not true of what people consider when choosing the airline they travel on.  Price overshadows almost all other considerations (when people are traveling on their own dime) and frequent flier issues take priority when traveling on someone else's dime.

Believe it or not, airlines would dearly love to compete on service (while keeping fares high!), but as has been incontrovertibly proven time after time, it is the price rather than the service which determines which flight leaves full and which flight leaves empty.

Here's an interesting article speculating that the current tough economic climate and difficult trading times for airlines might make it the ideal time for new low cost carriers to start up service across the Atlantic.

For sure, there's been almost no perceptible change in flights and airlines since the much heralded 'open skies' agreement was signed between the US and EU, making it easier for airlines to operate flights between any cities on both sides of the Atlantic.  Why hasn't there been an explosion of low cost startup carriers?  Perhaps due to the tough economic times, and in particular, until late last year, the run-up in fuel costs making it difficult to sell low cost fares.

With low fuel costs at present (but for how long?) and a glut of planes about making lease costs lower than normal, and with cutbacks in service by the major carriers, the factors are currently looking positive for possible new startups to appear.  Let's hope so.

Talking about new airlines, here's an interesting very small airline in Oregon - one with its main claim to fame being offering its passengers a way to avoid the hassles of airport security.

Poor old Heathrow.  Even though it now has its lovely new terminal 5 open and working - or perhaps because of the teething problems it suffered in the first part of 2008 - the airport has been voted the worst airport in the world for the second year running in a poll of 14,500 frequent fliers while Singapore's Changi was again ranked as the best (followed by Hong Kong).

The survey participants, all member of airport lounge program Priority Pass, rated Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport as the world's second worst with LAX coming third worst.  Also in the bottom five were Frankfurt and Miami.

Here's an interesting article about airbags in airplanes, and the introduction of a new requirement that airplane seats be able to withstand a 16G crash.

16G - sixteen times the force of gravity - is the force you'd feel when changing speed by 350 mph in a single second.  By comparison, a car going from 0-60 in a very speedy six seconds is creating 0.5G of force.

Of course, a crash impact seldom takes that long - when you crash your car into a concrete wall, for example, you're looking at a tenth of a second or less (the time it takes for the car to crumple and stop).  And if you're in a plane that 'falls out of the sky', you're going to suffer a great deal more than 16G when the plane impacts on the ground.

But if you're in a plane that has just made a very hard bad landing, and then goes skidding off the runway, flips over a couple of times, hits a few trees and ends up colliding with a building, you're probably going to stay well under 16G.  So being kept securely in your seat is a good and meaningful safety enhancement.

Talking about plane crashes, we're lucky that the plane flown by the Northwest pilots who were, ahem, 'inattentive' for almost an hour and a quarter last week didn't run out of fuel and crash during their period of inattention.

The pilots have changed their story.  After first claiming they were in a heated discussion about airline policy, they now are saying they were both working on their laptops.

Unfortunately, we'll probably never know the truth, because the cockpit voice recorder was an older model one which only stores the last 30 minutes of voice recording (newer ones that are being phased in will store 2.5 hours).  And, as chance would have it (hmmm), there were more than 30 minutes between when the pilots became responsive again and when they landed the plane.

Many of us continue to think the pilots were asleep.  We find it impossible to credit that the pilots wouldn't have heard their flight number being called over the radios, let alone not noticing they'd overflown their destination and were continuing on past it.  However, the actual reason is almost irrelevant - the one fact the pilots can't deny is that they were 'inattentive' for whatever reason for an hour and a quarter.

Acting with alacrity, the FAA has already cancelled (not suspended, but cancelled) both pilots' flying licenses, calling the pilots actions 'a total dereliction and disregard for your duties'.  Well done, the FAA.

But, oh dear, the pilots union felt compelled to support the unsupportable, and said 'We do not condone the abandonment of due process that will result from a rush to judgment; instead we implore all interested parties to move with deliberate and unemotional professionalism as the events surrounding this incident are investigated'.

Just exactly how long does it take to investigate this?  What part of 'didn't answer the radio for 75 minutes and apparently didn't touch the controls of the plane either' needs to be further researched?

There are several interesting derivative points.

The first is that the procedures put in place after 9/11 for what to do when planes become unresponsive were inexplicably not followed.  The FAA is supposed to notify defense authorities within ten minutes of such a situation, but instead it took an undisclosed amount of time (but known to be greater than 40 minutes) for that message to be initiated (and, of course, no fighters were ever launched to go have a look-see at the plane through the cockpit windows).  It is a good job that the plane had not been hijacked.

I'm sure many potential terrorists are as surprised as I am that apparently we haven't learned the lessons so vividly illustrated back on 9/11.

The second is that in a manner so typical of much of modern society where criminals are never held responsible for their actions, and instead people blame society; many commentators have hopped on the 'the poor pilots need more sleep' bandwagon.  But a look at the facts does not support this.

Both pilots were freshly onto their first flight of the day (probably their only flight of the day) and had just had a 19 hour layover in San Diego.  It is hard to support a claim of the pilots being excessively fatigued by the grueling schedule foisted on them by a dangerously uncaring airline in that situation, isn't it.

The third point is to put this one event in context.  Over 100,000 commercial flights operate safely every day in the US.

The fourth point is to wonder why - if pilot fatigue is such an issue - cockpits aren't fitted with 'dead man's throttles' and/or sleep alarms.

The dead man's throttle concept is something that the pilots must be gripping at all times - if their hand relaxes (and muscles relax at your extremities first when you start nodding off) then the throttle closes (in the case of a train).  You wouldn't want to stop the engines in a plane, but a sudden jolt of electricity from the pilot's seat cushion into that part of him on the seat cushion might return him to wakefulness.

A sleep alarm (also fitted in trains) is a buzzer or bell that sounds intermittently and regularly, and the driver must press an appropriate button to respond to the alarm each time it sounds.  If he doesn't do so quickly, then the engine again stops (or, in the case of the plane, the electric shock is triggered).

Maybe we would be better off with pilotless planes.  There is a probably fictitious account of certain airplane engineers who claim that all the cockpit crew needs to consist of is one pilot and a dog.

The dog is to bite the pilot if he touches anything and the pilot is there to feed the dog.

Lastly, Delta/Northwest has rushed to send letters of apology to the passengers on the plane, complete with $500 travel vouchers.

I'm strangely disquietened by that gesture, because it smacks of 'one law for the rich, one law for the poor' - or, more particularly, one pr motivated response for high visibility flight problems, but a totally different and totally unsatisfactory non-response for most problems and most passengers.

If DL is espousing a new policy that any time something goes wrong on a flight, they'll give passengers $500 vouchers, then that would be wonderful.  But I don't believe that to be the case.

Talking about high visibility problems, remember David Carroll - the guy who had his guitar broken by United Airlines, and the (so far) two viral video songs that he released on Youtube about the event?

Guess what - he was flying on United last week and this time they lost his bag for three days.  Ooops.  Amazingly, Carroll says he has no plans to make a new video on this latest misfortune.

The end of an era occurred earlier this week when United retired its last 737 (the airline has replaced them all with Airbus A320 series planes).

Meanwhile, Boeing continues to stumble along in unusual ways.  They decided to open a second production line so as to increase the rate at which they can produce their long delayed but popular 787.

Let's see if you are smart enough to be a Boeing executive.  So you're going to open a second production line to increase the rate at which you build 787 planes.  You have two choices of location :

The first location is right next to your present production line, which is also right next to all your other production lines too.  You've a massive resource of skilled labor and all the support infrastructure in place.

The second location is way over on the other coast, and is at a facility that you recently purchased and which has given you probably more problems to date in terms of what it has been doing to build sub-assemblies for the new 787 planes than any other facility in the world.  It is almost as far away from the rest of your manufacturing operation as is possible while still remaining in the US.

Which would you choose?

Well, all of you who chose the first option - bad news.  You don't have what it takes to run Boeing.  Here's the news of Boeing's decision to open a second line, not in the Seattle area, but instead in SC, and here's some analysis.

This is of course only a few years after Boeing made the extraordinarily strange decision to split off its headquarters and move that away from Seattle and instead locate in Chicago.

Some people wonder if the physical removal of management from the plants, people and processes they manage has not been a contributor to the problems with the 787 and 747-8 new plane programs.  Certainly, whether that is a factor or not, it was hard at the time and remains equally hard now, some years later, to see any good thing that has come from this decision to remove management from proximity to the things they manage.  (Remember 'In Search of Excellence' and one of the ten principles - 'Management By Walking Around'?)

Oh - talking about the 787, Boeing continues to insist that the plane will somehow struggle into the air prior to the end of this year.  I'd be surprised if that happens, but not astonished.  When one thinks back to how ludicrous and meaningless their staged 'roll out' of the 787 was way back when, it is entirely conceivable that they may manage to somehow get a plane into the air, even if it does not actually signify much at all.

The milestone I'm fixing most closely on is the 'first commercial flight' of the 787 - currently set for the end of next year.

Bad news if you're flying to or from Britain.  From 1 November, the UK Air Passenger Duty is being increased by about 25%, and will be increasing again by another up to 50% on 1 November 2010.

Now for the hypocrisy of this.  These increases are being instituted under the justification of combating global warming and negating the alleged harmful effects on the environment of passenger planes.

Fair enough?  Well, and yet again, to answer that question, we don't need to even agree or disagree on if global warming is real or not, and neither do we have to try and puzzle out how charging a fee to air passengers saves the planet.

Instead, just consider this :  Using official calculations, the total cost to 'offset' the carbon emissions from all UK aviation is about £572 million.  The amount of Air Passenger Duty being collected?  About £2,500 million.

Did you know there's a low cost cure for global warming (assuming global warming exists)?  But - and possibly because it is such a low cost thing, all the eco-freaks refuse to consider it, preferring instead to attempt to destroy the comfortable lifestyles we enjoy and consider to be civilization as we know it.

What is this low cost cure, and how come it isn't front and center in the global warming debate?  Well, I can't answer the second question, but if you click here you'll find the answer to the first question.

A national network comprising 17,000 miles of high speed rail service in the US, with trains traveling at speed up to 220 mph?  Wow - who wouldn't love that.

But, alas, who could afford it?  According to this article, such a project would cost about $600 billion, on the basis of $30 billion/year between now and 2030.

On the other hand, how much have we given to companies 'too big to fail' so far this year alone - money that has vanished without trace?  How much more than this has been thrown at every sort of ill-considered but 'shovel ready' project as part of the government's stimulus spending?  And what trivial percentage of the total annual government budget is $30 billion?

Why couldn't we spend that sort of money?  And - an apparently unanswered question - what would be the flow through benefits, not just in immediate jobs created, but in terms of longer term improvements to the nation's transportation system.  There'd be less stress on our air routes and airports, there'd be less stress on our interstates, and we'd be able to travel in more fuel efficient trains, reducing carbon emissions (assuming you care about that).

So let's not look at this, laugh, and look away again.  Let's embrace this as a challenge.  As a nation, we embarked on the largest civil engineering project in the history of the world when we built the national interstate highway system subsequent to WW2.  Why can't we now countenance a second major building program, and put in place a national high speed rail system that would end up being comparable to that which will be completed in China long before 2030?

Thanks to everyone who sent in information on their favorite iPhone apps last week.  If you haven't yet done so, and you have a favorite iPhone app you've added to your phone, please do let me know so I can include it in the article I'm writing about iPhone apps.

I used one of my favorite iPhone apps earlier this week - RedLaser.  I was in Best Buy, purchasing a webcam for a friend.  I found one that seemed good, and BestBuy were asking $79.99 for it.  Using the RedLaser app, I scanned the webcam's bar code, and within a couple of seconds, RedLaser presented me a list of other stores and the prices they were selling it for.  The cheapest online merchant was selling it for only about $55, and I noticed Wal-mart selling it through their stores for $66.82.

So I asked an associate 'do you price match?'; he said 'yes'; I showed him my iPhone screen and the $66.82 Wal-mart price, and he instantly reduced the webcam price down to that.  The RedLaser app costs a mere $1.99, so it more than paid for itself in a single transaction.

Better still, RedLaser also calls up reviews on the product you've scanned.  So I subsequently discovered that the otherwise very nice looking Microsoft webcam only has a 15 fps video rate, whereas other webcams do 30 fps.

What a wonderful program - RedLaser helps you make informed buying choices, and then helps you buy at the best price possible, without having to drive all around town and argue with shop assistants.  Who'd have thought that such a thing would be possible at all, let alone on a cell phone.

But as much as I love my iPhone, Apple will have to do some serious upgrading in the next models, probably to be released in the middle of 2010, if it is to retain its current pre-eminence among smart phones.  A new phone based on Google's Android OS, and made by Motorola - the 'Droid' - is being released by Verizon next week, and much as I dislike anything tainted with CDMA (the type of phone service used by Verizon and Sprint) this new phone is stunningly better than current iPhones.

Two quick examples.  The new phone has a 3.7" screen with an amazing 480x854 pixel resolution.  The smaller iPhone 3.5" screen has only 320x480 resolution; giving the new Droid 2.67 times as many pixels and clarity of image.  That, together with the slightly larger screen, makes the Droid even better suited for eBook reading than the iPhone (and the iPhone is already excellent).  (Need I remind you - do not buy an eBook reader - buy an iPhone or now a Droid instead).

Second example - the Droid has a new version of Google Maps, complete with turn by turn voice directions - it is now a fully featured GPS.  Underscoring the significance of that announcement, Garmin's stock price tumbled 16% and rival GPS maker TomTom suffered a 20% drop.

While Apple's iPhone currently has a much larger share of the smartphone market than do phones using Google's Android OS, there is such a flurry of Android development activity at present with it seems just about every handset manufacturer developing Android based phones, all the US carriers about to release various different Android based phones, and Google continuing to make huge leaps forward in terms of Android capabilities; the net result is that Android is coming up from behind at a million miles an hour and looks likely to overtake the iPhone in the near future.

All this assumes, of course, that the iPhone does not similarly evolve.  Bottom line - while there's never been a boring time in cell phone evolution and development, now is a particularly exciting time for sure.

One of the probable casualties of this evolution may be Microsoft and its Windows Mobile operating system - an OS that never had much to recommend itself, and which is looking increasingly irrelevant compared to all the excitement and action generated by Android and Apple.  The Palm Pre also does not seem to have met with the success that Palm was hoping for, and Nokia's Symbian OS is also more moribund than alive.

The only other smartphone manufacturer showing any signs of a future is RIM/Blackberry, although I find this totally inexplicable.  I've been forced to re-activate my very disappointing Blackberry 8900 this week, and I'd forgotten how awful it was (and still is).  Sure, the new Blackberry phones look nice, but actually using them is cumbersome and unwieldy (I spent about an hour on the phone with T-Mobile on Thursday unsuccessfully struggling to get email working on the 8900 again).

Blackberry is doing a great job of marketing, and are flooding the market with lots of new models of phones and they have good distribution through the wireless companies, but sooner or later their historical reputation for excellent email service has to collide with the current shortcomings of their phones and the user interfaces on them.

One more tech thought :  Here's a reason to rush to Windows 7 - apparently it has better power management in it for laptops, giving about 20% longer battery life to your current laptop.  That's an extra hour for many of us, and it sure would make a welcome difference on occasion to me.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  One of the worst jobs for a journalist is to be a writer for an industry trade journal.  You have to adopt a tone of enthusiasm for some incredibly boring topic and industry and write happy articles full of positivism about things that in truth you care nothing about and which in reality are unimportant and not worth the paper you're printing the stories on.  But, hey - you've got a magazine to publish each month and you need at least some content to separate the advertising which is really what the magazine is all about.

Now I'm not saying that is the case with this article, but you have to wonder exactly what will follow when the article opens with the massively weak claim 'Statistics show SPOT program works, regardless of whether it has yet to disrupt a terrorist plot'.

SPOT is the TSA's acronym for its passenger behavior monitoring program - 'Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques', and as the article concedes in its opening statement, it seems that it has never yet caught a terrorist, even though 1575 passengers have been arrested during the 3.5 years the program has been active.  (I never did understand how statistics can show that SPOT works.)

Vague references to Israeli security don't really make the article a convincing cheerleader/advocate for SPOT, and its disparaging reference to 'civil rights proponents would like to weaken, if not outright cripple, TSA’s SPOT and other behavior detection-based initiatives' doesn't actually reassure me that there aren't civil rights violations aplenty in what appears to be a 100% ineffective program.

Since when has it become appropriate to sneer at civil rights proponents?  Aren't civil rights one of the bedrock principles of our society?

Here's a helpful article on what to do if your ID is stolen and you need to fly somewhere without ID.

Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?  In the case of a 22 year old man stopped by Customs when entering Norway, it was neither.  He was discovered to have 14 royal pythons and 10 albino leopard geckos taped to his body, plus a tarantula in his bag.

The law of unintended consequences is always interesting to see in action.  For example, home furniture sales are surging, apparently due to people who can no longer afford to vacation deciding to at least spend a few dollars to get a comfy chair to stay in at home.

Lastly this week, as you probably already know, I'm originally from New Zealand, and so I'm delighted to occasionally spot something interesting, clever, or bizarre done by my fellow Kiwis.  I think this particular achievement may qualify under all three headings.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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