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12 February, 2010

Good morning

My comment last week, from London, that the best part of my trip was the flight over remained true on the return back to the US.

As you know, part of my 'thing' is to be somewhat cynical and critical of airlines and the service they provide, and I started out my journey anticipating that I'd have lots to dislike when flying a US carrier's international business class.

Like many other regular fliers, I've long had the perception that, for some mysterious reason, US carriers can not or will not do as good a job in their premium cabins on international flights as that offered by foreign carriers.  So I've tended to avoid them wherever possible.

So imagine my surprise at discovering my two international flights with Delta (DTW-LHR & LHR-ATL) were excellent and almost faultless in every respect.  Imagine my continued surprise to discover that Delta's business class is not only better than most other international carrier's business classes, but almost as good as international carriers' first classes.

So, in a complete reversal of my usual lead-in to an airline review, where I invite you to read a litany of disappointments and shortcomings, please now visit two pages full of positive commentary :

This Week's Feature Column :  Delta Air Lines Business Elite :  Offering better food (and served better), better in-flight entertainment, a better seat, better boarding, better lounges, and in all respects, a better experience than a certain international carrier I recently flew, Delta's Business Elite class service is very good in all respects.  Well done, Delta.

Twitter followers (my Twitter ID is davidrowell) were invited to preview a draft of this article earlier in the week.  I've been reading conflicting stories about Twitter, and wonder if it is already a fading fad, or if it is becoming a mature accepted product and as such no longer exciting quite so much press coverage.

And so, let's have a reader survey.  Do you use Twitter more or less than you did previously?  Or not at all?  Please click the response below that best describes your involvement with Twitter - this will create an email with your response preloaded into the subject line.  I'll collate and present the answers to you next week.

I've never used Twitter and have no plans to do so

I've not yet used Twitter, but might give it a try in the future

I started using Twitter in the last 3 months and am continuing to use it

I started using Twitter in the last 3 months, but am using it less now than before

I started using Twitter in the last 3-6 months and am continuing to use it

I started using Twitter in the last 3-6 months, but am using it less now than before

I started using Twitter more than 6 months ago and am continuing to use it

I started using Twitter more than 6 months ago, but am using it less now than before

In other fall out from my abortive trip to London last week, on Thursday of that week Hilton promised to respond to me within three business days about my problem with their London Kensington hotel refusing to turn on the a/c to cool down my toasty 78 room.  At the time I did tell them I didn't want a response in three days, I wanted a cool room then and there.

They didn't/wouldn't cool the room, and neither have they got back to me with who knows what sort of further excuse/apology.  I've heard nothing further from them.

And my Dell laptop, the main villain in last week's drama, had another sting in its tail for me.  I extremely foolishly used it to update the firmware on my iPhone.  Unfortunately, the laptop froze in mid iPhone update, which corrupted the iPhone's firmware, changing it from a phone to a dead weight.  Ooops.  But this was entirely my fault - I should have known better than to update my iPhone with an unreliable computer.

The laptop went back to Dell on Monday, hopefully to be repaired.  Whereas in the past they've turned the laptop around the same day and so got it back to me 48 hrs after shipping it to them, this time the laptop is expected back on Friday, four days rather than two days later.

It seems it isn't just my computer that seems to be going slower; so too is Dell's service.

Quick update on our June Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour.  We've added an optional pre-tour stay at ancient Culcreuch Castle, a small 700 yr old castle only 20 miles from Glasgow, and a place I've been enjoying since it first opened to accept guests in the mid 1980s.  It even has a ghost that puts in an occasional appearance; but if you absolutely don't want any chance of meeting the ghost (which is seen in only one room) then you can request a room in the former stables block instead of inside the castle itself.

Dinosaur watchingUnited Airlines turned in a strong profit for January, beating analysts' expectations, and causing a massive 18% daily gain in its share price on Tuesday as a result.  This increase has been sustained and even slightly augmented on Wednesday and Thursday.  The good news from United caused a major lift in AA, CO and US stock prices too; DL also enjoyed a brief lift, but whereas the other airlines managed to sustain their lift, Delta failed to do so.

Does this mean that airline stocks are due to rebound, with the worst of times are now behind them?  On the face of it, possibly yes.  But one of the problems with operating an airline is that you are very vulnerable to things over which you have no control and little ability to respond to.

Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin group of airlines, train operators, space ship operators, and who knows what else, and other industry leaders in Britain sounded an alarmed warning earlier this week about how they see the future price of oil strengthening yet again, an issue that has a double impact on airlines.

First, it pushes up their costs, which both marginalizes their profits and requires them to increase their fares.  Second, increased oil costs harm the economy as a whole, reducing discretionary income and reducing the ability of both business and leisure passengers to pay higher fares (or any fares at all) for their air tickets, which means fewer people flying, which means even more losses for the airlines.

So rather than marking a turnaround point, United's excellent January result (the key good news being that they managed to increase revenue per flown mile by about 10% - more info here) and the firming in most aviation share prices that followed may be a temporary blip only, followed by more gloom as/when oil prices inevitably resume their upward march back to $147/barrel and who knows how far beyond.

United might well need every bit of extra profitability it can secure.  Another external vulnerability that it can do little to control is the fees it has to pay to airports.

Its major hub airport, Chicago O'Hare, is attempting to increase landing fees by an impressive 38%, and increase therent it collects on the terminal facilities used by the airlines by 15% - 17%.  United and other airlines (particularly American, who also has a sizeable hub at ORD), feel that the city of Chicago is reneging on earlier undertakings made to the airlines, and IATA helpfully offers a different solution to the city's voracious desire for extra funding - increase fees to passengers.  Thanks a lot, IATA.  Details here.

It is easy to attack airlines as being near monopolies, and to criticize them for taking advantage of the power they have to act unilaterally.  But spare a thought to the other monopolies that are almost as powerful - the airport monopolies.  Few of us live in any area where we - and the airlines we prefer to fly - truly have valid choices of equal convenience in terms of the airport we fly from.  And in cases where we think we might have choices, there's a good chance that the 'competing' airports are actually owned by the same parent company/authority.

In Seattle's case, for example, we have three good airports, but two of them are subject to massive restrictions on passenger flights as to make it impossible for regular scheduled service to operate, even though proposals for this sometimes surface (and then sink again).  Chances are you're either in a similar situation, or, even worse, there's only one airport that can handle passenger planes anywhere nearby to start with.

And which is the greater evil?  Private airports operated by corporations seeking to maximize the profit they make from their investments?  Or airports owned by local government authorities, who may variously use airport revenue to fund other transportation needs, or who may spend money inefficiently, or in some other way create a scenario that ends up just as costly as private ownership?

Is there a solution?  Probably not in the US.  Airports are unavoidably costly creations, requiring large amounts of costly land, expensive land and building development, hopefully reasonably close in to a city and well served by road (and ideally rail) transportation,.  The planes that fly in and out are noisy and intrusive on residents for a broad swathe of distance around the airport and its approach/departure traffic patterns, further limiting where airports can be located and adding to the environment/cost offsets needed.

And to look at things from an airport owner's point of view, it is hard to know who has the greater dominance and bargaining power.  Airlines can - and do - come and go from airports, seemingly on a whim, and so, to an extent, can dictate to the airports the terms and fees they'll accept.  Worse still, airlines can simply go bankrupt and walk away from any sort of long term contract that the airport might have been relying on to fund capital developments.

Another piece of positive news came from an unexpected source.  BA's struggling OpenSkies subsidiary airline announced plans to start new service, this time between Dulles and Paris (Orly).  After having cut back its services last year, it is great to see the airline growing again.

I wrote about OpenSkies and reviewed their two slightly different business class type cabins in October 2008.  But I much preferred my Delta experience last week.

In other positive BA news, they are trialing a new first class cabin in a single 777, and assuming everything survives the stress of the real world, will roll it out successively over the next 18 months or so to all their 777 and 747 fleet.  Representing a 100 million investment, the new seats are a major enhancement over the earlier first class seats, which seem to me to have been largely unchanged since BA pioneered the concept of lie-flat sleeper seats way back in 1996.

I still remember the sense of wonder over the concept of sleeper bed seats, and my excitement the first time I got to fly in a sleeper bed equipped cabin, followed by my sense of disappointment at the uncomfortable experience it provided.

BA's new first class sleeper seats are wider, have a much larger 15" video screen, extra seat electronics, 'fully integrated ambient and mood lighting' (whatever that is), personal electronic blinds (over the window) and an 'intelligent' mattress (the mind boggles at that one).

In addition, 'a new premium service style has been developed for cabin crew to ensure world-class service for customers who can eat, sleep and work whenever they want to.'  *Yawn*  We've all read that promise before, haven't we, and it seems to always end up meaning the same time hallowed dinner, served the same way, and at the same time as always before.

It is nice to see that BA, even as it struggles with massive losses and reduced premium cabin traffic, seems to understand that the solution to these problems is not further cutbacks in service, but rather augmentations and enhancements.

In other BA news, the report of the inquiry into their 777 crashing just short of the runway at Heathrow, two years ago, has now been released.

The report blames icing in the fuel tanks for the loss of power in both engines that occurred, without warning, less than a minute prior to touchdown.  There's an interesting article here, and the point that stood out most for me as a passenger is that this issue occurred with no warning, and the pilots had no chance to advise the passengers to brace for impact.

From a passenger perspective, they'd not have known anything was wrong at all until the sudden hard landing.  This is exactly as I state in the first part of my four part series on how  to survive a plane crash :

The transition from normal flight to disaster can sometimes be slow, but more commonly (and particularly for the passengers) will be completely sudden and utterly unexpected.  For example, one minute you are impatiently waiting for the plane to land at the end of its flight and watching the ground approaching out the window, same as always.  Then all of a sudden something goes wrong with the landing, and the plane is careering off the runway, hitting things, breaking up, and possibly bursting into flames.

Prepare for a plane crash before it happens, because you'll likely have no warning and probably no time if/when it does happen.

There's also a fascinating recording of the ATC radio traffic at the time of the 777 crash.  The pilot barely has time to utter the briefest of Mayday messages.

Talking about safety related issues, my new favorite airline, Delta is making software and avionics changes to prevent a repeat of the October 2009 incident in which one of its jets (well, at the time, a Northwest Airlines flight), 'lost contact' with air-traffic controllers for 77 minutes and flew on, past its Minneapolis destination on auto-pilot.  Although the two pilots deny it, many people suspect that the reason for the lost contact was simply due to both pilots falling asleep.  It was only when the pilots were woken up hailed over the internal intercom system by a flight attendant that 'contact was restored'.

In addition to ATC trying to raise the pilots on various different radio frequencies, the airline itself sent text messages to the cockpit.  However these messages merely illuminated a light on the dashboard, they didn't ring a loud bell that would wake the pilots up draw the pilots' attention to the arrival of a message.

So Delta is now fitting what it terms 'a unique aural alerting option'.  When the plane senses it is about to be flown into the side of a mountain, it triggers an aural alert 'Wooop!  Wooop!  Terrain! Pull Up!'.  So I guess this new one might be 'Brrrrring!  Brrrring!  Sleeping!  Wake Up!'.

In other Delta news, they - and pretty much all other airlines - come in for criticism in this excellent and interesting article by Scott McCartney.  The gist of the article is that travel times continue to lengthen with airlines adding more and more padding to their flight timetables.  He cites examples of flights that 14 years ago were scheduled for 60 minutes now being given 80 minutes, two hour flights growing to two and a half hours, and a six hour coast to coast flight now taking seven hours.

Airlines would previously adopt more optimistic schedules so as to appear closer to the top of a computer display listing of flights (which are typically sorted in terms of traveling time), but now show longer flight times so as to boost their on-time ratings.

That's an interesting trade-off - which would you prefer to take?  A flight that shows 2 hours and an ontime arrival statistic of 50%, or a flight that shows 2.5 hours and an ontime arrival statistic of 90%?

Both approaches are bad.  It is as inconvenient to arrive an hour early as it is to arrive an hour late (a recent flight of mine from JFK to SEA arrived an hour early), and it means that we can't really rely on published airline schedules in terms of planning for people to meet us, or for activities subsequent to a flight arrival, other than with a window of imprecision that can span an hour either side of scheduled arrival time (and of course, sometimes much more than an hour).

More Delta news.  After swinging first one way and then the other, it seems that Japan Airlines has now firmly and finally forsaken Delta, choosing to remain allied with American and the other Oneworld carriers.  Details here.

But on the basis of you lose some and you win some, good news for Delta downunder.  They've secured approval in Australia for a joint venture with Australia's new international carrier, V Australia, allowing them to work together on flights between the US and Australia.  US approval - also needed - is still pending.

This would actually be a good thing for us as passengers.  Rather than removing competition, it creates it.  Currently flights to Australia are massively dominated by Qantas, with Air NZ and United as weak 'also ran' carriers partnered with each other, and Delta and V Australia struggling to stay in the race.

By allying together, Delta and V Australia create a stronger and hopefully viable third alternative for passengers to consider, and will do a better job of holding Qantas' feet to the flames - fares between the US and the South Pacific have been, for too long, much higher than on other routes, and have represented a disproportionate share of Qantas' annual profits.

American Airlines announced that it will now charge passengers wishing to fly, standby, on an earlier flight the same day, a $50 fee.  In a nice piece of obfuscation, a spokesman said this was mainly to improve the boarding process by eliminating the crowd of people who hang around the checkin desk at the gate, but he did concede 'there is probably some revenue involved here'.

On the other hand, some uber-airline apologists made excuses for American Airlines, most notably George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com who said of the new fee 'It's not a new fee. It's the elimination of a free loophole.'

Wow.  That's some watchdog.  For those of us who used to standby for free and now need to fork over a $50 bill, it sure feels like a new fee.

This is an interesting example of an airline charging us to do a favor for them.  You see, all airlines would dearly love to have passengers on future flights take earlier flights, on the basis that the future is uncertain.  Who knows what might happen by the time the (eg) 10pm flight is due to depart - maybe the inbound flight will be delayed, maybe there will be mechanical or weather problems, or maybe a competing carrier will cancel a flight and offer to pay good money to move 50 passengers over to it.  So any passengers that can be taken off the 10pm flight and moved onto the 8pm flight, which for sure is operating, gives the airline more flexibility for how it manages its later flights of the day.

So now we'll pay AA for making their operational life easier.

AA is also joining the blanket charging brigade.  $8 buys you a blanket and inflatable pillow on flights longer than two hours.  First and business class passengers, and all passengers to international destinations (other than Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America) will still get free pillows/blankets.

The $8 purchase comes complete with a voucher worth $10 off a future purchase of $30 or more at Bed, Bath & Beyond.  So it's not too onerous a charge, and - in theory - it is something you only need to buy once and then can reuse many times.  But if you're like me you'll end up buying lots.  I'm the guy who keeps buying reusable grocery bags, but who forgets to take them with him when going to the supermarket.

It might also make sense to consider some of the more upmarket blanket and pillow alternatives.  I'm off to the Travel Goods Show in early March and will report back on the state of the art in terms of blankets and pillows.

Meanwhile Southwest has come up with a new excuse for why it no longer provides blankets and pillows.  You may remember that its last excuse, offered at the end of any/all fears at all about swine flu, was it was removing them due to concerns about swine flu infection being passed from passenger to passenger via a blanket.

Their new excuse, offered at the end of this story, is that passengers appreciate the extra overhead space freed up by not having pillows and blankets stored up there.  That's an even more ridiculous excuse than the swine flu excuse - not only are most of the pillows and blankets taken out of the overheads by passengers wanting to use them, but the few that remain can always be squashed alongside the illegally oversided carry-on items that are over-filling the overheads already.

I wonder what their next excuse will be, and when they'll offer it to us.  Perhaps they could talk about the weigh saving presented by taking 50 featherweight blankets off the plane; I'm sure that translates to saving a pint of fuel per flight.  Or tell us they're doing it to save the environment, a bit like hotels and towels.

Southwest doesn't seem to be doing too well in the excuse department when it comes to FAA fines for safety/maintenance oversights either, being faced with now a third investigation into new allegations of not properly following safety orders related to the maintenance of older planes.  Southwest was earlier fined $7.5 million for operating over 60,000 flights with planes that had not undergone inspections for structural cracks.

Inspectors allege the airline and a repair shop near Seattle did repairs on 44 planes without getting FAA approval first.  The planes flew more than 100,000 flights.

Talking about maintenance, on one of my flights last week I was offered a copy of USA Today, with the paper having a huge headline on the front page declaiming that something like 65,000 passenger flights have been operated over the last six years by planes that shouldn't have flown due to improper maintenance (article here).

Not the sort of headline one likes to read upon boarding a plane, but I laughed to the slightly embarrassed flight attendant and pointed out 'what the article doesn't say is that all 65,000 of these flights landed safely'.  Maybe that comment was why they gave me a bottle of sparkling wine as I left the plane?

Airline lobbying group ATA also points out that this is 0.1% of flights operated during that time. 99.9% of all flights had no maintenance issues (which by the way are often nothing more than not having the proper paperwork records), and add that there hasn't been a maintenance related accident since 2000, and neither has there been a single passenger fatality for maintenance done by third party contract maintenance companies in 30 years.

A lot of these articles have as a subtext 'our planes are being maintained by foreigners who can't be relied upon to do as good a job as American workers'.  By the ultimate measure - demonstrable actual airplane safety - there is, to date, nothing to support that claim.

And talking about airplanes, happy birthday to the 747, which turned 41 this week.  Wow - 41 years since the first 747 flight.  Airplane innovation is slowing down, isn't it.

On the other hand, this week also saw the latest model 747 take to the air on its maiden flight - here's a relevant article, which not only chronicles the airplane's history some, but also points out its latter day lack of success.  However, whereas in the past, Boeing has closed down production lines for plane models that have passed their 'use by' date, note also the comment - hopefully in jest - about wanting to continue the B747 for another 40 years into the future!

After going through previous models in the 747 series numbered 747-100, -200, -300 and -400 (with subvariants of these usually denoted by letters after the number) this latest model is called - guess what?

Well, if you had even half a brain, you'd assume that the next model 747 would be known as the 747-500.  But, alas, you'd be wrong.  The next model is, of course, the 747-8.  Both Boeing and Airbus are in a sickening frenzy to include the number 8 in their airplane models as much as possible these days, due to it being a lucky number in China.  That's the main reason we have an A380 instead of it taking the logical next number in the A series (A350), it is also why Boeing chose to continue its 7n7 numbering for the 787, and it is further the reason why the initial model variants of both planes (and the new A350 too) are the 787-8, A380-800 and A350-800.

Are the Chinese really as stupid as Airbus and Boeing?  Will they choose a plane with an '8' in its model designation in preference to a plane that doesn't have an '8' in its designation purely based on its number?  If that's really so, I've a suggestion for Airbus and Boeing.  Both manufacturers are planning on future models of their A350, A380 and 787, to be known as the the -9 or -900 models.  Why not number them the -88 model?  And if you come out with a third variation, make it the -888?  And so on and so on?

And talking about China, not only has China now been confirmed as the world's largest exporter, but Asia as a whole has now become the world's largest aviation market.  In 2009, 647 million people flew within Asia, whereas 638 million people flew within the US and Canada.

China represents the largest part of this market, of course, flying more than twice as many seats each week as formerly leading Asian market, Japan.

Didn't they have a cell phone?  A UA flight departing New Orleans was delayed two hours due to the flight's pilots not arriving at the airport in time.  And, when the pilots did arrive (all say this together) the crew's duty time had expired, forcing the flight's cancellation and requiring the passengers to stay overnight.

The really bad part of this?  The plane loaded its passengers then sat at the gate for two hours.  The pilots say they were stuck in post Superbowl celebratory crowds and unable to get to the airport in time.  Okay, that is probably true, but didn't either of them have a cell phone?  Couldn't they have called the airport and said 'hey, guys, we're not going to make the flight for some time, don't board the passengers until we get there'?  Details here.

The pilots may or may not be at fault for getting to the airport 2 hrs late.  But they are 100% at fault for treating their passengers with utter contempt and disdain.

Here's a rather funny piece of news about the antics of airlines in Britain - Easyjet and Ryanair get into a name calling contest - a contest from which there can only be one winner, and that has to be the name caller par excellence, Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary.

I owe a vote of thanks to the excellent and freeTripit software this week, for causing me to spot an awful error I'd made, and a backup vote of thanks to Priceline.

Late at night earlier in the week I booked two hotel rooms for myself and a colleague to attend a trade show in Vegas in March, booking it through Priceline and scoring a great price - $78 plus taxes/fees per night at the Trump hotel on the strip.  I thought no more of it, sent a copy of the booking to Tripit to start building an itinerary, and a copy to the guy I'm meeting there.

The next morning I booked flights to match the dates I was attending the show, sent that itinerary to Tripit too, and later in the day, went to look at something else in Tripit.  I saw, to my puzzlement, that somehow Tripit hadn't merged my air and hotel bookings into a single combined Vegas itinerary, the way it is supposed to do.

And then, to my horror, I saw the reason why.  My flights were correctly booked for 22-25 March.  But the hotel booking was for, ooops, 22-25 February.  Ouch.  Not just my hotel room but my friend's as well, booked through no-changes no-refunds no-nothing Priceline.  $540 wasted by my stupid error.

Happily, a humble request for help from Priceline saw them refund the hotel charge in full, while holding back their fee, and they said if I made a new hotel booking, they'd also waive the fees, other than a nominal $25 charge.  That was very kind of them, and I'm very appreciative of Tripit for helping me spot my silly error.

Oh - talking about spotting silly errors, my friend still hasn't noticed I booked us for the wrong month.  So, if you're reading this, Ken, don't worry, it's all taken care of.  :)

Do you use www.tripit.com?  It is a great way of combining together different parts of your itinerary - for example, air bookings, hotels, rental cars, and so on.  You just register your email address with them, then forward your various confirmations and they automatically put it together for you.  The software is free.  A great deal.

Talking about great deals, we're still six weeks away from the iPad going on sale, but already people are starting to speculate not only on the next release of second generation model iPads (which will have cameras in them, apparently) but also on price reductions for the first generation of iPads.  A company that specializes in costing out hardware has estimated that an entry level iPad which sells for $499 costs Apple only $230 to make.  Costs of course rise for the more advanced units, but so too do the profit margins.

Their inference is that these are generous profit margins and would allow Apple to slice the pricing if they felt the need to - either to boost the sales of iPads or in competitive response to other products out there.  The most expensive part of the unit is, unsurprisingly, the screen.  That costs $80.

Interestingly, commentators are becoming increasingly - well, not negative, but definitely much less positive - in their appraisals of the iPad.  Mind you, like a movie that is panned by critics but which proves very popular at the box office, critical reviews prior to product launch don't count for much at all compared to how the unit sells and what new software will be developed to make it into a 'must have' product for us all.

As for me, I've decided not to get a wireless equipped unit - I'll be happy with the basic Wi-Fi capabilities without needing 'go anywhere' 3G data too, and with either 32GB or 64GB of memory.  If I decide to load lots of videos onto it, then it would have to be 64GB, otherwise, 32GB might be enough (although I nowadays only have 5GB free on my 32GB iPhone.

Talking about 3G wireless and Apple unavoidably makes one thing of AT&T, Apple's exclusive wireless partner in the US, and the wireless company that people love to hate.  Many people complain about the lack of speed or coverage offered by their AT&T 3G service.

It was interesting to spend a couple of days in London last week, and to have a chance of testing several other companies and the 3G service offered in London.  They were all as bad (or, if you prefer, as good) as AT&T - they too suffered from areas of no coverage, and very slow bandwidth on occasion.  My feeling is that AT&T is no worse than any other wireless companies; the problem is that AT&T is saddled with all the iPhone users, many of whom have unrealistic expectations of what wireless 3G service is capable of.

Cell phones are bad for your health, continued :  Here's an interesting article on that topic.  Bit by bit, the evidence is becoming harder and harder to ignore.

Which is sort of like the evidence for global warming, - but in reverse - isn't it.  Here's a fun site that lists 690 different things that have been attributed to global warming.  Here's an article lifting the lid on some of the recent global warming claims that have been exposed as unscientific fictions, and here's an excellent piece of balanced coverage that starts from the acceptance that maybe there is global warming and then attempts to wonder what might be causing it.

I read an interesting statistic - almost half of US consumers (ie 48%) now use some sort of GPS device, up from 22% four years ago.  You may recall my comments two weeks ago about the 'backup' system for GPS - Loran-C - being discontinued.  My concern then revolved around other countries using high tech space weaponry to disable some of the GPS satellites, causing much of our modern lives to grind to a halt due to the lack of GPS signal.  Did you know that even bank ATM machines rely on GPS signals (they use the time signal to key/code the transaction time)?  Rather like the Y2K bug (the thing that never was) our reliance on GPS these days is not always intuitive and obvious.

Reader David writes in to point out that a large part of the vulnerability of GPS is much more simple and basic than that which requires high tech complex and costly antisatellite weaponry.  If you google 'GPS Jammer' you'll see that you can buy or build a GPS jammer for under $100; David (a pilot) wonders what would happen in bad weather like we've had this week on the east coast if a few terrorists placed GPS jammers in the approach paths to several major airports.  Loran-C, by comparison, is regularly proven in DoD tests to be virtually unjammable.

But even that isn't the only other risk factor associated with a reliance on GPS.  This article suggests that increased solar activity on the sun could disrupt GPS signals too.  So don't go throwing away your Rand McNally or OS map just yet.

This Week's Security Horror Story : Nick George is a fresh faced clean cut all-American college student in the Los Angeles area studying physics.  But that didn't stop him from being handcuffed, arrested, then interrogated by the FBI and jailed for four hours as a result of being 'caught' by the TSA when attempting to fly from Philadelphia back to Los Angeles.

His crime?  He was traveling with a set of flash cards - smallish sized pieces of paper that had English words on one side and Arabic words on the other.  As part of his studies, he is learning Arabic.

No plane has ever been destroyed with flash cards, and there's no law against learning Arabic - in fact, our country is desperate for more Arabic speakers at present.  There is no law against traveling through airports and on planes with any materials in Arabic.  Nick is not on any type of watch list.

But that didn't stop the TSA, local police and FBI for detaining him and interrogating him for four hours.  Four hours???  Doesn't that make you embarrassed to be an American?  More details here.

Here's a story of a guy arrested for being in possession of, well, 'inappropriate pictures' (trying not to get this newsletter censored by your hyperactive filtering.....).  Okay, he's a creep and probably deserves what will be coming to him.

But, if you read the article, notice how this prosecution came to be.  He was subjected to a traffic stop.  Somehow the officer who stopped him then inspected the guy's cell phone and found the images, and it all evolved subsequent to the search of the motorist's cell phone picture library.

Am I the only person to feel uncomfortable about the clash between our Fourth Amendment rights on the one hand, and having our cell phone subject to an intrusive search if we're pulled over for a traffic stop?

We're sliding down a slippery slope here, with liberty, freedom, rights and due process at the top, and totalitarianism and thought crimes at the bottom.

On the other hand, however, and as yucky as it may seem, what is the alternative to screening procedures such as described here?  If we're to truly protect against and detect terrorists and cleverly hidden away bombs, there is not really any alternative to this.

Most of all, let's count our blessings that the procedures spoofed in this short video clip currently remain a joke rather than a reality.  But only just.

Here's a different sort of transportation video - a lovely wonderful feel good bit of silliness.  You'll notice in the related links a somewhat similar undertaking filmed in NZ too.

Lastly this week, if you've read through to here, I've some great news for you.  Congratulations.  You're clearly at a much lower risk of heart disease than the average person.

I'm taking my daughter to Disneyland for a few days, but will be back with the usual newsletter in time for Friday, assuming I can drag us both away from Anaheim!  I may or may not post some twitter comments while stuck in interminable lines for rides, if I can think of anything to say other than 'waiting in line sucks'.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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