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4 December, 2009

Good morning

I may have been premature in offering some praise for Dell and expressing excited anticipation at my expected lovely new Dell laptop computer last week.  Alas, in something that currently contains a distinct smell of 'bait and switch' the laptop I ordered turned out not to be the laptop they shipped me.  Attempts to reach someone sensible and caring in Dell to resolve this are ongoing, but at this stage are not looking good.

So if you were about to also buy a Dell, I suggest you hold off a week.  Maybe you and I will both be better advised to join the throngs of others who have abandoned Dell in favor of other suppliers such as HP.  More next week.

In between doing battle with Dell, I've been working on an article listing good iPhone applications that you should consider adding to your own iPhone (or iPod Touch), building on the recommendations sent in by readers a few weeks earlier.

And in a manner that is quite common with my articles, as I started to write about the programs, I realized I needed to preface the actual program listing with some general comments about how to find iPhone apps - both for the benefit of people who already have an iPhone, and to explain this process to people who are considering getting an iPhone (and doesn't that cover just about everyone - who among us is not either already a delighted iPhone owner, or looking curiously/enviously at people with their iPhones and considering getting one too?).

As I wrote some introductory comments, well, they ballooned out to 3000 words, which is way too much for a single web page, and the result is now two pages of introduction to iPhone apps.  Rather than spread it out over two weeks, I'm releasing both pages today, and hope to follow up with some actual recommends apps next week, but because I'll be in Prague, that may or may not be easily achieved.

This Week's Feature Column :  How to Choose Extra Apps for Your iPhone : With some 110,000 different programs available, how do you find the really good apps to add to your iPhone or iPod Touch? In the first two parts of a new series, I attempt to spare you from needing to wade through all 110k programs, one by one.

I'm considering what to offer in the way of Travel Insider tours for next year.  A Christmas Markets cruise is almost certainly a given.  I'm also considering a Norwegian coastal cruise, and a European river cruise perhaps from Basel up to Amsterdam.

Any requests or suggestions?  It is always helpful to know what people are interested in.

As an amusing aside, one of the nice things about river cruising is that usually you're offered free wine or beer with dinner each night, unlike most regular cruises where drinks are never free and usually expensive.  Celebrity Cruises has just announced a new option on their cruises - all you can drink packages.  There are six different drink plans available for purchase along with your cruise.

The healthiest option is the unlimited bottled water package, priced at a ridiculous $13.50 per person per cruise night - much cheaper to take the free fountain drink package at a mere $5.75/night.

For those of you wanting something stronger, the challenge is to get value from a $34.50/night unlimited beer package, a liquor package ranging upwards from $51.50/night, and upscale wine packages from $114/night.

They all require some serious drinking to break even or 'win' at.

Dinosaur watching :  I'm going to start off this week by adopting a very unusual role - that of defending an airline, after a  New York Times reporter used his access to the newspaper's columns to unfairly bully Jetblue.  He stupidly (now else to describe it) arrived at Newark airport a mere 30 minutes prior to his flight's departure (and slowed down further by his two children in tow), then doubly stupidly couldn't find the Jetblue gate (even though the gate number was printed on his boarding pass), and so arrived at the gate after the flight had closed.  The gate staff refused to reopen the jetway and allow him to board due to his arriving five minutes after the flight had closed.

He blamed Jetblue (for his own arriving late, I guess), backing up this assertion of blame with a 'certified letter of complaint' to Jetblue's President and also lodged a small claims court action against the airline.

Although he settled with Jetblue prior to the small claims case being heard, he next published a column in the NYT with the misleading opening that if you're flying Jetblue, out of Newark, you should beware and be early.  A better opening is that you should be aware and on time.  He was clearly neither.

If you read his rant, you'll see at the bottom that the reader comments are almost universally unsympathetic.  So guess what happens next?  The NYT publishes a second column headed 'Readers Speak Out About a Missed Jetblue Flight' and rather than choose from the scathing criticism of the reporter and his original article, they feature five reader comments, all of which are critical of Jetblue and somewhat supportive of the reporter.  That is far from a representative selection of reader comments.

One has to guess that some senior editor at the NY Times also missed a Jetblue flight - how else to explain the original biased article from the reporter being printed, and the doubly biased analysis article as follow up?  Whatever the reason, this is very unfair reporting.

I'm as keen as the next person to criticize airlines, but sometimes the airlines get it right, and their passengers get it wrong.  In this case, my money is 100% on Jetblue.

In other Jetblue news, and notwithstanding its beating in the NY Times, the airline has announced further growth in Boston, with new flights to the Caribbean such that Jetblue will now be Boston's largest carrier both in terms of destinations served from Boston and also passengers carried.

This partially fills the gaps caused by US Airways which is scaling back its Boston flights.

Talking about US Airways, it is deferring the delivery of 54 of the 72 Airbus aircraft it was scheduled to receive in 2010-12 (46 A320s and eight A330s), and will push back the launch of its A350 service from 2015 to 2017.  It now plans to accept a mere 2 A320s and 2 A330s in 2010 and 24 more A320 planes in 2011 and 2012.

The 54 deferred deliveries will commence in 2013.

In other vaguely Jetblue related news, their main base and largest hub is at congested JFK.  Their initial plan for locating there was based on scheduling their operations, as much as possible, outside of the peak periods of the day when JFK truly is congested.

Possibly bad news for Jetblue and other airlines flying to/from JFK - the airport will be closing its major runway - 31L(13R) - for four months next spring so as to widen and strengthen and resurface it, a process that basically involves tearing the old runway down and laying a new runway.

The runway handles half of the airport's takeoffs and in total about 30% of all takeoffs and landings.  More details here.

This does prompt an interesting thought - BA's new flights from JFK to London City Airport (reviewed last week) are being promoted as getting you closer in to the heart of London than is the case with flights to Heathrow.

Maybe they should base the other end of these flights at LaGuardia - closer in to the heart of New York?

Here's an interesting bit of research - although often considered apocryphally as the busiest travel period each year, in actual fact, Thanksgiving doesn't rate a mention on the list of busiest travel days, neither this year, last year, nor any previous year.

According to Department of Transportation figures, not one single day during November last year even came in the top half of travel days for the entire year.  Indeed, November hasn't had a day in the top 35 most-traveled days for many years, with the busiest air travel days tending to be over the summer period while school is out.

Still, there is one undisputed but little-known title that the Thanksgiving holiday can fairly claim: busiest plumbing period.  The day after Thanksgiving typically brings 6,200 jobs for Roto-Rooter plumbers.  That is about 50% higher than the typical Friday volume, and is the busiest day of the plumbing year, according to spokesman Paul Abrams.  Households crammed with guests, and sinks crammed with bones and other leftovers better suited for the garbage, help spur demand.

The more things change, the more they remain the same?  Do you remember back to the 'good old days' at London's Paddington rail station where you could check in for your flight from Heathrow, then take the express train out to the airport, with the 'check in two hours prior' timer applying to when you arrived at Paddington, rather than when you arrived at the checkin counter at Heathrow?

Sadly, the airlines discontinued that excellent service.  But now it is slightly reappearing.  You can sort of check in again at Paddington - well, to be exact, you can now print boarding passes at three check in kiosks, but only if you're flying with Delta, Finnair, Iberia and/or United.  However you'll still have to ride with your luggage to Heathrow and check that as a separate activity there, so the actual time and hassle saved is very minimal.

Any airlines that wished to compete with the possible convenience/simplicity of BA's new London City Airport flights might find it easiest simply to re-institute full checkin facilities at Paddington.  You could cut an hour off the total travel time (and thereby easily beat any advance offered by BA's LCY service) by allowing passengers to check in at Paddington rather than the airport, and with fast track lanes through security at Heathrow.

That sure seems a lot simpler than buying new planes, creating new flights, etc etc.

As a some-time professional marketeer, I will confess to occasionally having doubts as to the wisdom of many marketing campaigns.  In particular, many years ago I tutored marketing at college and marked assignments - I noticed one consistent omission from every 'marketing plan' submitted as assignments.  The students would write diligently about all the classic components of the marketing mix, but almost without exception there was no discussion about analysis of the effectiveness and the profitable outcome of the marketing program.

I'm reminded of this upon reading an interesting statistic this week.  Verizon and Motorola are expecting to sell 1 million of the wonderful new Droid cellphones by the end of this year.  That's a good number - nothing like the quantities of iPhones being sold by AT&T (they are believed to have sold about a million iPhones in a single weekend at product launch) but still an acceptable result.

But - get this - the marketing budget to get these sales?  $100 million.  Yes, that is a budget of $100 per phone for marketing/promotional costs - I'll guess the $100 in marketing costs is probably almost the same as the underlying cost of the components in the phone.

When I see things like this I wonder if we haven't gone too far.

Talking about going too far, I feel compelled to mention something that the main stream media are being deafeningly silent about.

Longer term readers know I'm a global warming skeptic - I'm skeptical both as to if our planet really is warming up, and - if it is - I'm doubly skeptical as to the reasons why, and - most of all - I'm trebly skeptical as to the new mega-industry in carbon trading, carbon offsets, punitive travel taxes, and all the other big-bucks paraphernalia that somehow seems to equate spending money with 'saving the planet'.

Whenever I express my doubts, I'm soundly told off by readers claiming that it is completely accepted by the vast majority of 'real' scientists that of course the planet is warming up and of course it is all our fault.  Apparently 'real' scientists are, by definition, only those who advocate global warming.

So imagine my interest when a story started to break a week or two back about how hackers had managed to intrude into the email systems of possibly the world's foremost center and advocate for global warming - the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in England.

Guess what?  They found an amazing series of email exchanges where leading scientists appeared to be conspiring between themselves to manipulate and doctor climate record data to make it support global warming theories, and scheming as how to best present this to support their theories and how to suppress and discredit scientists who might disagree with their faked results.

When talking among themselves and in the belief that their discussions would never become public, they forthrightly admit to using a "trick" to "hide the decline" in the Earth's temperature since 1960 (as one e-mail says).  Still another describes their manipulation of the data thus: "[W]e can have a proper result, but only by including a load of garbage!"

The leaked e-mail exchanges also show the vaunted scientists engaging in a possibly criminal effort to delete their own smoking-gun e-mails in response to a Freedom of Information request.

And then last weekend, with the scandal over the emails that are now being made public growing in prominence, the CRU said that all its data on the Earth's temperature since 1960 had been irretrievably "lost".

CRU has been regularly cited as the leading authority on 'global climate analysis' - including by the very news outlets that are now burying the current scandal, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.  The CRU alone received more than $23 million in taxpayer funds for its work on global warming.

Having claimed to have collected the most complete data on the Earth's temperature for the last half century, the CRU's summary of that data was used by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for its 2007 report demanding that we adopt a few modest lifestyle changes, such as abolishing modern technology, reverting to hunter/gatherer status and taxing ourselves into servitude.

Apparently there may be something funny going on at NASA too.  NASA has another huge repository of global climate data, gathered from its various satellites over the years, and appears to be resisting sharing the data (or, to be blunt, is flagrantly avoiding its obligations to release the data in a timely manner under the Freedom of Information Act) with a climate change skeptic.  Details here.

A few brave politicians are calling for enquiries into the scandal that is revealed by the CRU emails.  Barbara Boxer, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that the recently released e-mails, showing scientists 'allegedly overstating the case for climate change' (as it is coyly referred to in this article), should be treated as a crime.

But - wait.  When she says it should be treated as a crime, she's not referring to the alleged overstating.  She's referring, instead, to the release of the emails.  The scientists should get a free ride, it is the whistle blowers who should be charged with crimes.

Don't like the message?  Shoot the messenger!

Second to lastly on this topic - and yes I am ill concealing my glee at these revelations - that renowned climate change scholar, Paul McCartney, is advocating we should all eat less meat so as to save the planet.  As quoted in this article, he is saying that if we have one meatless day a week, greenhouse gases could be reduced by up to 80%.

So, let's see.  If we eat meat one less day a week, we reduce greenhouse gases by up to 80%.  Now, what would happen if we ate meat two less days a week?  Does that mean greenhouse gases would reduce by up to 160%?  Instead of CO2 flowing into the air, it would instead reverse and somehow start magically plunging back down to earth?  All the greenhouse gases from China's incredible number of coal fired power stations, from all our gas guzzling cars, our air travel, and everything else - all will be more than compensated for simply by going without meat somewhere between one and two days a week?

Wow, with insight like that, one can expect McCartney to be awarded an honorary doctorate from the CRU, and maybe even a Nobel Prize.

And now, lastly, this is the most serious point, and I plead with you to consider this aspect of the topic, no matter what your view.  I know I may have alienated a lot of you in my preceding comments, and I expect I'll get the usual wave of unsubscribes as a result.

But there is one thing I plead - I beg - you to do.  Buy a copy of the newly published book SuperFreakonomics - you can click the link to get it from Amazon, or go to any bookstore.  Please read the section in that book on global warming.

Although the book is written in a very popularist and approachable fashion, it makes some irrefutable claims not just about whether the planet is truly warming or not, but also then details some incredibly low cost solutions to the 'problem' (if indeed such a problem should exist).

The authors have no axe to grind, one way or the other; they are merely seeking to sell books, and simply delight in poking fun at 'conventional wisdom' in all its many forms, in this book and its best selling prequel, Freakonomics.  Both books are excellent reads, and in light of the worldwide attention being given to the topic and some of the scary lifestyle changes being proposed, the section on global warming/cooling in SuperFreakonomics should be mandatory reading for us all.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Remember the 'Shoe Bomber' - the guy who tried to set fire to some sort of explosive device in his shoes on a flight, but failed because he couldn't even light a match?  His legacy is with us every time we take our shoes off.

Remember the people arrested for planning to smuggle liquid explosives onto planes flying from Heathrow?  Their legacy is with us every time we have a bottle of water confiscated at security.

And of course, remember the 9/11 terrorists with their boxcutters - their legacy is with us every time we have a miniature pocketknife confiscated at security.

Now, please think back over the last half dozen years or more.  The total number of passenger fatalities and airline crashes caused by terrorists - zero.  In the last week alone there have been two fatal plane crashes - one killing six of eight people on a seaplane in BC, Canada; the other killing three of the seven crew on a MD-11F freighter in China.  There was another one the week before, and so on and so on.

My point - and here it comes - is simple.  Terrorist acts, or the mere threat of terrorist acts, result in instant massive overreaction by 'the authorities' at enormous ongoing cost to us as passengers and to the airlines (both directly in terms of compliance costs and indirectly as the inconvenience and hassle of flying forces more of us away from their flights).  But terrorist acts are exceedingly rare.

On the other hand, when we're talking about air safety issues that don't involve terrorists with bombs and/or boxcutters, 'the authorities' go back to sleep and largely do nothing.  These less headline grabbing issues are killing more people each year, and causing more plane crashes, than all the terrorist attacks combined.  Why are the authorities so hyper-responsive to terrorist threats, but so complacent to other air safety issues.  If one's plane crashes, does one really care if it was a terrorist bomb or faulty maintenance that caused it - doesn't one want the level of safety assurance and protection to be equally high for all types of threats?

Case in point - do you remember the 777 crash just short of Heathrow last year.  That was one of three recent incidents where the 777 engines have failed.  The National Transportation Safety Board came up with recommendations about replacing some suspect parts on the 777 engines to reduce the likelihood of engine failure reoccurring.  The FAA has chosen to delay the implementation of the NTSB recommendation until 2011.  Shoe bombers - instant response.  Engine failure - let's wait a few years.

Case in point - remember the possibly sleeping pilots who were out of radio contact for 75 minutes on a flight from San Diego to Minneapolis?  If they'd slept a bit longer, the plane could have run out of fuel and crashed.  The FAA has now announced it has no plans to change its work rules to allow pilots to officially sleep in the cockpit (but not both at the same time); instead it simply expects pilots to turn up for work wide awake.

Case in point - runway incursions and mistakes and 'near misses' are alarmingly commonplace, and indeed the world's worst ever airplane disaster was when a 747 hit another 747 - one was taking off, the other taxiiing.  583 people were killed.  So you'd think that the regulatory authorities would be very sensitive to anything to do with managing the ground movements of planes.  Not so, according to the NTSB Chairwoman, who this week criticized the FAA for failing to act on runway safety recommendations the board repeatedly has made, including multiple recommendations first issued in July 2000.

So, I again ask my question.  Why do we immediately respond in a fully urgent and perhaps over-reactive manner to terrorist threats, but in a more leisurely manner allow proven threats that actually are causing accidents, crashes and fatalities right now to continue for years without response, even when a solution is apparent?

And on that note, it is time for me and doubtless many of you to plan for my/your next flight!  Please note I'll be freshly arrived in Prague next week, so the timing and nature of next week's newsletter is a little uncertain.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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