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26 February, 2010
As chance would have it, within an hour of
sending out the special newsletter on Monday about European strikes, the
Lufthansa pilots agreed to suspend their strike, while leaving the possibility
of its resumption hanging like the Sword of Damocles over management's
heads. The suspension expires on 8 March and depending on what
concessions the pilots may win from management prior to then will
depend on what happens next.
Clearly LH was ill prepared for a strike
that was supported by almost all its pilots, and not only did it have to
cancel most of its Monday flights, but it took considerable time to
restore full services subsequently and it is only today (Friday)
that LH projects being back to operating a full schedule.
On the other hand, the
impact of the pilots' strike was a double edged sword for the
- it was so powerful that there was massive public and political
pressure on them to return to work.
Not quite so damaging is the French air
traffic controllers strike, which has seen 25% of flights at Charles de
Gaulle Airport cancelled and 50% of flights at Orly also cancelled.
AF/KL report they are operating all their long haul flights, having
sacrificed some of their shorter flights within Europe - that's good news if all
you wanted to do is fly to Paris, but if you were connecting in Paris on
to a final destination elsewhere in Europe, well, that's not quite so
Let's not forget about Greece, where
much of the entire country went on strike earlier this week. We'd
know more about it, but for the fact that, ooops, the Greek journalists
were on strike.
The Greeks are worried that their
government might stop its profligate overspending and are worried that
the government might actually try to reduce the nation's ballooning
deficit. Because such measures would unavoidably involve cutting
back on government expenditures, much of the population, which currently
perceives itself to be net beneficiaries of the government's out-of-control spending, doesn't want it to end.
To be economically correct, their perception
is correct - a deficit is of course spending more than you
earn, so at present (ignoring broader issues) the Greek population is
benefitting from their government's over-spending. So who would
want the government to become more fiscally responsible?
Well, nobody in Greece, that is. The
rest of the EU and in particular the Euro zone countries, is getting very worried,
because someone, somewhere, has to honor the checks that the Greek
government is writing in Euro currency. This problem - the word
crisis has been used - applies also to the economies of the other three
of what are being termed the PIGS of Europe - Portugal, Ireland, Greece
and Spain (and sometimes Italy is included as well as or even instead of
Ireland), and threatens the fundamental concept of the combined Euro
currency spanning many different nations and their varying
Other countries who have been comparatively
financially prudent - notably Germany - are unwilling to take on the
debt caused by profligate expenditures in the PIGS countries, and still
more countries - notably the UK - are saying with ill concealed smirks 'Hey, the Euro is nothing
to do with us, you all sort it out yourselves'.
On the other hand, the Euro is another
example of a financial edifice that is 'too big to fail' and it is also
dearly beloved by wealthy countries that seek to harm the US and our
economy, so almost certainly, some sort of fiscal rescue program will be
mounted for Greece and its PIGS partners.
But, for now, the Euro is falling in value
and the dollar strengthening again - here's a chart showing the Euro's
changing value in dollars since its introduction.
It is an ill wind that blows no good.
As for BA and its flight attendants,
at their Thursday meeting, with about 1000 flight attendants present,
they decided to - well, actually, they decided to do nothing for now,
choosing instead to continue negotiations in the hope of reaching a
settlement that doesn't require a strike.
If negotiations do break down, the union
still must give seven days notice of a strike, and its current strike
mandate expires 22 March.
very critically last week about the Department of Transportation
giving preliminary approval to AA & BA's request to create a joint
operating agreement and for anti-trust immunity. (The AA/BA
application was made together with three other Oneworld carriers -
Iberia, Finnair and Royal Jordanian.)
I've done quite a bit of research on the
subject this week, including a careful read of the DoT's complete 44
page 'Show Cause' tentative approval order. You can too if you
here it is. The first two or three pages have most of the main
I started to write an
article critiquing their order and setting out some alternate
perspectives, but realized it was neither fair nor fully helpful to do
so without giving the DoT a chance to respond and to explain the
things that their 44 page order is silent on.
So I sent their official spokesman four
pages of questions, and am holding off the article until I've had a
chance to receive a full set of responses, allowing them a full and
fair chance to give us their perspective and viewpoint on why reducing
competition will, as they claim (on page 2) :
With its own immunized alliance and
joint venture, oneworld could provide the traveling and shipping
public with a wide range of valuable benefits, including:
• Lower fares on more itineraries between city-pairs,
• Accelerated introduction of new routes,
• Additional flights on existing routes,
• Improved schedules,
• Reduced travel and connection times, and
• Product and service enhancements that can provide full reciprocal
access to their networks
I'm asking them to give specific details on
these promised 'valuable benefits' such as how much lower they believe fares will become on
routes that are to be less competitive (how counter-intuitive is
that?); how many extra flights will be created on existing routes (a
strange statement, particularly because elsewhere they refer to the
merged operations of AA/BA as improving efficiencies, which as we all
know is a code-phrase that means 'squeezing more people on fewer flights
because now we're not scheduling competing flights fighting against each
other'); and how/why it is that anti-trust immunity will allow for
reduced connecting times and improved schedules (do their employees work
more efficiently or perhaps the planes park closer together under
There are plenty of other
important questions in my four pages to them as well, such as
for example marveling at the DOT's claim
We tentatively find that one immediate
and tangible consumer benefit will be transatlantic code-sharing and
fully reciprocal frequent-flyer programs for oneworld customers.
Transatlantic code-sharing and full frequent-flyer cooperation allow
customers of one airline to earn and redeem miles on the flights of
another airline. Due to unique commercial issues affecting oneworld
airlines, the oneworld alliance has been unable to provide consumers
with these benefits absent an integrated joint venture that operates
with a grant of immunity.
As even the least frequent flier knows,
earning and redeeming miles on other airlines is a long established and
current/common practice, including among Oneworld carriers currently -
indeed, these very features have been long claimed as one of the
benefits offered by the alliances.
Code-sharing is also nothing new, it has been going on since well before
any airline alliance was first created. So I asked the DoT what
extra enhancement to AA and BA's frequent flier programs will now occur,
and why it could not be done by the airlines without anti-trust
I also asked them what sort of
accountability they'd introduce, and what sort of consequences would
follow if all the wondrous things they were projecting/promising did not come to
Their initial response was to refuse to
respond at all, offering only the terse statement
Thanks for your questions. Unfortunately
these relate to issues that are under review with the final decision
pending. We will address comments in the final order.
Quite apart from the concept that answers to
these questions should have been included in their initial finding, the
process implicit in this response is that they first issue a partial
statement of their decision but choose to keep some of it secret, and
only after having allowed for the official comment and response process
do they then release their final decision complete with full reasoning
and explanation. Ummm - is it only me,
but doesn't that sound a bit backward?
How can people comment on something if it is
not all revealed and open for comment? Is not, in particular, the
question about accountability and consequences something that should be
directly set out in the proposed ruling?
The whole basis of the DOT's ruling is that
the public will benefit from allowing AA and BA to work more closely
together, but nowhere in their 44 page provisional ruling do I see any
explanation of how it is they reached that conclusion. Because it
is such a counter-intuitive conclusion, and because it flies in the face
of the Department of Justice's submissions, I think we deserve a full
and complete explanation, don't you?
Anyway, I'm now approaching the matter in a
more roundabout way that might get me to the underlying truths (assuming
that any such truths do in fact exist), and in
one form or another, I will have an article completed for next week.
You can also be certain that I'll be
carefully reading their final order (probably to be released in about 90 days)
to make sure it contains answers to the questions I sent them and will
be highlighting any unanswered questions
that may remain.
Meantime, an open question to all you
other journalists and travel writers who read my newsletter.
Are you asking DoT the same questions?
Or is it only me and Sir Richard Branson who
are daring to challenge DoT's completely unsubstantiated
claims, claims which, absent the substantiation which they're
currently refusing to provide, seem ridiculously
Dinosaur watching : They're speaking
the 'c' word again. As in 'consolidation'. The President of
the Air Line Pilots Association said it was inevitable, and said that a
combination between UA and US made the most sense. His view
shared by senior executives of both the two airlines.
And I'm sure the DoT would enthusiastically
endorse such a concept too.
In Greece, the country's two largest
carriers, Aegean and the latest incarnation of the phoenix-like Olympic,
have agreed to team up, with the justification
being that this will allow them to better compete with foreign airlines.
The new airline will be known as, of course,
Olympic - the airline (name) that refuses to go away.
interesting article about the evolution of airline fees - and the
answer to the question in its headline is 'almost certainly not'.
I liked the article pointing out that Southwest's slogan 'Freedom from
Fees' has been dropped and replaced by the much less ambitious slogan
'Bags Fly Free'.
However, while Southwest has instituted some passenger fees, it
continues to maintain that its free bag policy benefits not just its
passengers but the airline and its financial results too.
CEO Gary Kelly defended the no-bag-fee
policy against criticism from Wall Street analysts, many of whom have
suggested that Southwest is missing out on hundreds of millions of extra
revenue by not charging for bags. He said
The analysts just don't get it. We are
making money and others (who have added baggage fees) are losing money.
We have gained market share because of our policy. If we added
baggage fees, we could lose more revenue from lost passengers than we
would gain by charging those who remain with Southwest.
He did say the airline would never say
never to charging a fee for bags, but said there are no plans at present
to do so, because it is a positive differentiator between Southwest and
I was reading Air France's annual report this week, and came across this
amazing section (referring to 2008)
While the airlines are cutting their capacity,
the TGV high-speed train continues its development in Europe, increasing
its market share in France by one point to 81% in 2008 and the number of
passengers from 91 million to 98 million. Over the same period, the
number of Air France domestic passengers declined from 20 million to 19
In other words, 81% of travelers in France (other than those driving by
private car) travel by train, and 16% by plane.
article - it is beyond excellent in its clarity of explanation and
completeness of coverage - about what may have occurred to the Air
France flight that mysteriously crashed in the Atlantic in a
thunderstorm en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris last May.
A couple of key points if you choose not to read the complete five page
article. The first key point is the article's explanation to one
of the big questions - why did the pilots choose to fly through the
storm rather than around it? The article says this is because the plane
was flying with insufficient fuel reserves to safely make it to Paris,
and so the pilots did not want to burn more fuel by detouring around the
storm for fear of having to land short of Paris and refuel.
were making use of a well known 'loophole' in the requirements of flight
planning and reserve fuel calculations. It is possible for pilots
to file a fictitious flight plan to a closer destination, and then if
all goes well as the flight proceeds, refile a new flight plan to the
actual, further-away destination.
Here's how this works (warning - gross simplification
and lengthy explanation follows, but the
underlying concepts are I believe reasonably close to true - skip to the
color change if of no interest).
you need 100 units of fuel to fly to your official destination.
You are then supposed to add a fuel reserve to allow for delays, head winds (or simply the lack of tail winds),
inefficient routings, etc, and just for simple safety. This
reserve is calculated mainly as being a percentage of the fuel required,
so, in simple terms, let's say the pilot needs to add a reserve of 2
units plus 10%. So to fly to the true destination, the pilot needs
to load 100 + 2 + (10% of 100 = 10) units of fuel, 112 units in total.
But if the pilot loads extra fuel, that means two things - it reduces
the capacity of the plane to carry weight in the alternate form of
revenue producing cargo or passengers, and it also means it costs the
airline money to fly those 12 units of fuel (and each unit could be as
heavy as a ton or more) that hopefully it won't need.
So, for whatever operational reason - to reduce costs, or to allow for
more freight to be loaded, or because the plane is flying
weight-restricted at close
to its maximum range, the pilot might only load 106 units of fuel.
This still gives him 6 units of spare fuel, and probably it won't be
needed, plus of course, if the plane does use more fuel than expected,
this won't take him by surprise, but will become increasingly obvious as
the flight progresses and in such a scenario he can plan, hours in advance, to land
somewhere before running out of fuel.
So the pilot might instead file a flight plan to a destination that
is on the path to the true ultimate destination, and one that only
requires 92 units of fuel. The calculation then would be 92 + 2 +
9.2 = 103.2 units of fuel, and he has 106 units of fuel on board, making it
a totally legal flight plan.
Then, when the flight is two thirds of the way complete, the pilot does
a new calculation. He has burned 66.5 units of fuel, leaving 39.5
units of fuel onboard. He needs 33.5 more units of fuel to go all
the way to the final destination, plus the reserve of 2 units plus 10%
(3.4 units), which totals 39 units, so he refiles a flight plan to the
final destination at that point, with a need for 33.5 units, a total
need with reserves of 39 units, and an actual fuel load of 39.5 units.
Everything is again legal and perfect, and the net result is the flight
gets to its final destination, it lands with an adequate reserve of fuel
on board, and everyone is happy.
But if anything happens during the flight that increases the projected
fuel burn, the pilot has less margin to play with, and for sure, in the
real world, neither the airline's managers and accountants, nor the
flight's passengers, will be happy if he ends up having to land and
refuel en route. The time and money cost of an extra landing and
refueling is significant. So in such cases, the pilot may choose to fly the shortest route even if it means going through a
storm, because if he were to detour around the storm, he could end up
having to land short of the final destination for refueling.
In the specific case of the Air France flight, the article implies that
possibly the captain of the flight filed a flight plan to Bordeaux
rather than to Paris, exploiting the loophole discussed above. The
article then points out that the plane had been flying for three hours
at a lower than optimum altitude - apparently the best flying level was
at 36,000 ft and the plane was at 35,000 ft, meaning that its fuel burn
was slightly higher than expected. (As a rule of thumb, the higher
a plane is, the more efficiently it flies, due to there being less air
resistance/friction to impede the plane's high speed passage through the
So, one of the factors for the plane's crash may well be the pilot's
decision (or need based on having only minimal fuel reserves) to save
Air France money by flying straight through the storm rather than around
To be fair, planes fly through storms hundreds - probably thousands - of
times a day, and 99.999% of the time do so with no problems other than
the discomfort so caused. This was not a reckless act on the
pilot's part, although few of his passengers would have been
appreciating his decision during what was apparently an extended period
of very rough flight.
Now for the second issue. Ice apparently blocked the plane's speed
sensors - its 'pitot tubes' meaning that the pilots and the plane's
computers suddenly had no idea how fast/slow the plane was flying. If the
plane flies too fast in severe turbulence, then the
possibility of structural damage becomes a concern, and if it flies
too slow, it might go into a 'stall' where the aerodynamic principles of
flight fail and the plane starts to fall out of the sky.
The article reveals several points of concern about
how the pitot tubes failed.
For example, the pitot tubes are tested based on flight parameters created in
1947, prior to the first passenger jets, and so are never tested for the
temperatures and altitudes that are common on modern day flights (higher
altitudes and colder temperatures).
That would be forgivable, perhaps if the
pitot tubes had a 100% perfect reliability record in the past. But
it becomes much less forgivable when
one juxtaposes that with a series of past problems that planes have
encountered with pitot tubes, and in particular the brand/model of tubes
on the AF plane. There were nine recorded problems with those pitot tubes in a single six month period in 2008.
them occurred as far back as 1998, and while there was a demand for the
design to be changed as a result of the 1998 near tragedy, nothing had
yet happened more than ten years later, although in 2005 the
manufacturer set up a research team to seek solutions.
What happened next shows the conflict between the ugliness of the real
world and the sometimes sterile nature of theoretical procedures.
With the speed sensors out of order, there is a 'rule of thumb'
workaround that pilots can use to estimate their speed. This
involves balancing the plane's 'angle of attack' (AOA) - the degree it
is pitched up as it travels through the air - with its engine power
setting. All other things being more or less equal, if you know
the plane's angle of attack, altitude and engine power setting, you can
derive its probable speed to an acceptable accuracy level.
Apparently there is a table in one of the in-cockpit manuals that the
pilots can refer to. But the article postulates that the severe
turbulence was so overwhelming as to interfere with the ability of the
pilots to quickly get the manual, turn to the appropriate page, and read
along the correct line and column to get the answer needed.
Besides which, it is possible that with the turbulence there was a
degree of imprecision about the AOA value anyway.
What happened next is the tragedy we know about. It seems the
plane went out of control, and plummeted down to the sea, while still in
a 'straight and level' sort of pitch, striking the sea more as a hard
landing than as a nose dive into the water. (I don't understand
how it is the pilots could not recover from this apparent stall in the
extended time they had as the plane fell out of the sky - if any pilot
readers can explain that, I'd love to know.)
The plane did not
break up in mid air, and neither did it lose pressure on its plunge down,
it hit, it did so with an estimated 36 times the force of gravity.
Imagine if you are a 180lb person, then suddenly your body takes on the
effect of weighing over 3 tons. The article lists some of the
gruesome outcomes of that violent collision between plane and ocean.
The biggest lesson here is one I've pondered before. Why is it
that after a failed terrorist attempt to blow up a plane, new measures
are instantly introduced to counter the perceived threat exposed
by the failed terrorist action (think most recently of the crotch-bomber
and the nonsense restrictions introduced within hours of his failed
attempt to destroy a plane last December); but when a mechanical or
operational, rather than terrorist, type safety issue and potential risk
is uncovered, the authorities move with glacial speed?
It seems to take more years to respond to
operational and mechanical airplane threats than it
takes hours to respond to terrorist threats.
Please remember that in any given year, more planes crash from
'ordinary' and 'normal' problems than from terrorist problems, and more
potential plane crashes (that are happily prevented/avoided) arise from
ordinary/normal problems than from foiled terrorist threats.
It was interesting to read also of plans to
start another search for the
plane's missing black boxes, a search unlikely to be any more fruitful
than the previous searches. On a related topic,
this article has a good picture of a 'black box' (actually orange in
color) in case you've ever wondered what they look like.
The article talks about the NTSB wanting to be able to monitor pilot
conversations on all flights, not just flights which have problems, as a
way of better understanding the cockpit dynamic of what happens in normal flight
as well as in abnormal flight. Pilots are, unsurprisingly, not
very keen for this to happen.
In any event, there'd be little the NTSB could glean from most cockpit
recordings at present, because most cockpit voice recorders only record
an endless loop of 30 minutes of conversation.
This is part of the
mystery of the NW pilots who overflew their destination - they claim
they were simply distracted, some cynics believe they were both asleep,
and we'll probably never know for sure because the 30 minute recording
in that case didn't extend far enough back to the puzzling period during
which the pilots were incommunicado).
As another example of the lamentable lack of priority given to all
non-terror related safety issues, there's still more than two years to
go before all CVRs are required to be capable of storing a two hour
rather than 30 minute conversation loop.
As I said some months ago, why stop at two hours? Why not make it
ten or twenty? A tiny iPod can store hundreds of hours of voice
conversation in no more space than a matchbook, and for $100 or less;
why can't the exorbitantly expensive CVRs have a similar extended
ANA continues with its focus on human bodily functions. You may
remember them as the airline that asked passengers to use the waiting
area facilities before boarding a flight so as to lighten the total
weight carried on the plane.
They've now decided to implement another much talked about concept - no,
not pay toilets. That remains exclusively something threatened by
Ryanair. Instead, ANA has said they'll convert one of the toilets
on their international flights to be a female-only toilet. There's
not going to be a compensating male only toilet, all other toilets will
ANA says a survey of women fliers identified
a dedicated toilet as the second most
appealing service they wished for (number one was being offered desserts with
meals). One wonders if ANA also surveyed male fliers as to their
thoughts on losing access to one of the toilets.
This is a bad idea, at least according to a
part of statistics known as queuing theory.
This calculates how to service the most number of people in the best
way possible. Of course, any flying experience uncovers plenty of
examples of airlines' complete indifference to optimizing their queues
and happily allowing passengers to wait extended periods of time, but
access to airplane bathrooms is something we should alI feel
particularly protective about, particularly with the quadruple evils of
airplane pilots who keep us stuck in our seats with the seat belt sign
on for too much of any flight, even in perfectly calm air, flight attendant
service carts blocking the aisles making it impossible for us to get to
a bathroom even if the seat belt sign is not lit, TSA security rules
that prohibit too many people from waiting in line for their turn, and a
gradual but steady deterioration in the ratio of bathrooms to
How would you feel as a man on a plane if the general toilets were in use, and a
line of men were waiting, while the women-only toilet was free?
What will the penalty be for a man 'caught short' dashing into the
And would women queue interchangeably for whichever toilet came free
first, or would they stand in line for the women's only toilet, even if
other toilets were free? Women would, of course, get the best of
both worlds, men would get the worst.
We've all probably stood outside a toilet uncomfortably, needing our
turn as soon as possible, while the person inside spends an inexplicable
amount of time doing things best not thought about, if we are to change
toilets from a universal role, should we perhaps not split them into
toilets for - how to put this discreetly - 'number one' and 'number
Actually, simple queuing theory tells us that none of these changes
would improve overall throughput. The best strategy at present is
to leave things the way they are - all toilets open to all passengers
for all purposes. Anything else will increase the average wait to
access a toilet.
My sense also is that in most cases, there are slightly more men than
women on any given plane. Does ANA think that its attempt to cater
to women passengers will win it more passengers than it will lose by
should also offer one other thought on the subject of bathrooms.
Many years ago while still a student I worked at sea part-time - here
is one of my favorite pictures of my favorite ship I served on (and yes, I've
been onboard in weather like that, while crossing Cook Strait in New
Zealand, one of the roughest stretches of water in the world). I
was sometimes tasked with cleaning a set of
women's bathrooms (as well as sometimes being in charge of men's
Based on those experiences, here's some news - they
might be the fairer sex, but women make just as much mess in their
bathrooms as men do in theirs.
and in case you think that I'm exaggerating about the weather, here's
another picture of my old ship - the lovely GMV Aramoana.
This shows her in
1968 alongside a much larger passenger ship that was in the final stages
of - ooops - sinking after being caught in stormy weather in the Cook
Strait approaches to Wellington harbor.
53 people lost their lives.
What's that got to do with toilets?
Here's a speculation offered to the Mac addicts out there. Just
how committed is Apple to its Mac range of laptop and desktop computers?
Might the company discontinue them? Apple has been increasingly
describing itself as a 'mobile device' company - this was a theme
of their iPad launch presentation by Steve Jobs, and has been amplified
further in comments given to an investor conference in San Francisco by
their COO Timothy Cook this week.
While it is true their Mac sales
remain healthy, Mac sales are now dwarfed by income from other product
categories, and the new iPad launch in March will further diminish the
once overriding importance of Mac computers to the company.
For the quarter ended 31 Dec 09, Apple reported $4.45 billion income
from Mac sales, being 28.4% of total sales, down from the quarter ended
31 Dec 08, where Mac sales were 30.0% of total income.
Iphone sales doubled between the two periods, and represented 36% of the
company's revenue for the 31 Dec 09 period, compared to 28.4% for the
Interestingly, iPod sales struggled to maintain their same
unit level - almost certainly due to people switching from buying an
iPod to buying an iPhone (which combines iPod functionality too), while
increasing in terms of average price paid per unit (the more expensive
iPod Touch is becoming more popular than the less expensive other iPod
There can be no doubt that Apple is putting most of its future energy
into developing mobile devices, and here's an
interesting article speculating that Apple may be seeking to add its
iPhone/iPod/iPad OS to still more devices.
So, at best, its 'old' business line of Mac computers is no longer the
product that defines and drives Apple. Beyond that - who knows?
Maybe we might see the demise or at least
de-emphasis or possibly even spin-off of the Mac computer line and have
Apple transition entirely into a 'mobile device' company. An
interesting thing to speculate about, if nothing else (I says
contentedly at the keyboard of my Dell computer).
Talking about Apple, here's an
interesting article that contrasts the survey results of potential
purchasers of the iPhone prior to it becoming available for sale, and
now the survey results of potential purchasers of the iPad prior to its
release in late March. The result - more people seem to be
interested in buying iPads now than were interested in buying iPhones
Since the first flurry of excited commentary about the iPad, it seems
that opinions have turned more negative, or at least neutral, about the
actual value of the iPad and its potential use, so it is interesting to
see that this survey suggests the iPad may become another runaway Apple
Apple also passed another milestone on Wednesday when it had its 10
billionth song downloaded from its iTunes store. The iTunes
service, originally launched to sell music to iPod owners, has been
operating for almost 7 yrs. It reached its one billionth
download in 2006.
The most downloaded song was 'I Gotta Feeling' by the Black Eyed Peas,
which also had the third most downloaded song, 'Boom Boom Pow'.
Number two went to Lady Gaga with 'Poker Face' - this person also had
the sixth most popular song, 'Just Dance'. Here's a
the top 20 songs.
Small confession - I know neither these two groups/artists nor their
Talking about Apple, one thinks of their
iPhones and their reliance, in the US, on AT&T's 3G data network.
AT&T has been constantly criticized by most people who use its data
network, and so I've been interested to try 3G networks in Canada and
the UK recently.
There was no perceptible improvement in
quality with other networks in other countries, and as best I can
tell with my experiences of T-Mobile's 3G in the US, it is not
noticeably better than AT&T either.
In all cases, network bandwidth has ranged
from slow (110kb) to moderately fast (1.4Mb), and has never got anywhere
near theoretical speeds (of up to 7.2 Mb).
But, fairly or unfairly, it always seems to
be AT&T that attracts the highest profile criticism. So here now
is an interesting and reasonably
scientific study that ranks the performance of all US 3G networks in
13 major regions. AT&T comes out tops almost every time,
and usually by convincing margins.
Well done, AT&T.
very lucky pilot. He reported for duty to fly a 767 from
Heathrow back to the US while over the alcohol limit and was arrested
shortly prior to take-off.
Appearing for sentencing in a UK court, he
was given a ten month jail sentence for the offence, but the sentence
was then immediately suspended. However, showing that British
justice is tough on criminals, the judge gave the pilot a stern
admonition. So there!
Here's another anti-global warming article,
appearing in, yet again, Britain's left-leaning pro-global warming
newspaper, The Guardian.
It tells how the scientists who predicted a 32" rise in sea levels
by the end of the century have now withdrawn their claim. Ooops.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
Modern passports contain an RFID chip that allows the
passport to be remotely read by an appropriate RFID
reader. The reason for this, we are told, is to allow digital data
about the passport bearer to be stored in the passport, which is
said to be more secure than the data printed on the passport pages itself.
We are told the
encryption process makes it harder to tamper and alter the digital data,
compared to the lower tech approaches to preventing alteration of regular passport pages
and the information and photos contained on them.
This is a familiar trope that is served up
to us in many contexts. Digital computer data is more secure and
better than old fashioned hard copy data. There's only one thing wrong with
this trope - it is usually completely wrong. For anyone who
disagrees with me, I've two words - 'identity theft' - a whole new
industry based almost entirely on digital data - the theft of it and the
manipulation of it.
Digital data suffers from one huge weakness.
Unlike 'normal' hardcopy physical information, if digital data is
changed, then the earlier data vanishes without trace and there's no
evidence or indication of the data having been changed or tampered with.
No tell-tale smudges or ink marks.
Even the most skillful passport forger usually ends up leaving some tell-tale
signs that a passport has been altered - they might be subtle signs that
few immigration officers would bother carefully looking for with a
jeweler's loupe, but they are usually
present. Not so with digital data. Once you've changed a bit
from a 0 to a 1 or vice versa, its previous state has vanished forever.
Okay, so then there's the backup security
level of encrypting the data. But this encryption has been broken
in several demonstrations already.
So the assertion that new passports with
digital data stored on a chip are 'more secure' than old fashioned
passports is, alas, nonsense.
But don't just take my word for this
rebuttal, any more than you should accept the assertion itself without
supporting proof either. Here's
an article complete with video that shows a fraudulently
altered electronic passport being accepted at one of the increasingly
common automated entry stations at a European airport. The
passport's electronic data was altered to suggest that the bearer was
one Elvis Aaron Presley, and even had a recognizable photo of 'The King'
in it as well, and the passport was coded to be from a non-existent
country (which in this crazy electronic world actually makes it harder
for the fraud to be detected). The passport was accepted without problem and its bearer
allowed to proceed.
The two hackers who conducted this test say
that it would cost about $100 in readily available materials to
digitally alter a
passport the way they did. The hardest part of the process would be obtaining a
passport to alter; the altering itself, as they showed so clearly, is
easy, simple and straightforward, and leaves no trace or indication of
any changes having been made.
As an interesting contrast, although these
two hackers readily altered an electronic passport in a way that
requires no particular skill, special materials, or expense, there's no
way in the world they'd have the skill to fraudulently alter or
counterfeit an old fashioned non-electronic passport.
Do you feel safer?
It happened a few years ago in Greece, and
now it is happening in India. A couple of British plane
spotters have been arrested and charged with spying, because they
were watching and taking notes of airplanes at Delhi airport and had a
You'd think in a country massively troubled
by real spies and terrorists, the Indian authorities would be able to
tell the difference between a couple of harmless middle class middle
aged British train and plane nutters and real spies/terrorists.
Besides which - newsflash to India - the Brits aren't your enemies.
Your enemies are much closer at hand.
We all know these days that passengers are
less likely to meekly submit to would-be airplane hijackers.
heartwarming story of a ferocious battle between a pilot and
hijacker in which, eventually, the pilot won. Well done.
Did you read about the dead stowaway found
in the landing gear compartment of a Delta 777 when it landed at Narita?
The stowaway presumably somehow got onto (or does one say into) the
plane prior to its departure from JFK.
Good job it was a dead stowaway, not a
live terrorist or a 150lb bomb, don't you think? And so while
we have TSA agents obsessing over miniature pocket knives in the
terminal building, somehow a person gets onto the tarmac and into a
Fortunately, we can be reassured to learn
that the TSA is working closely to review the incident and they are
quoted here as saying they'll take the appropriate action necessary.
Do you feel safe now?
Increasingly these days computers and
monitors come with built in webcams. That was the case with
high school students who were given Mac laptops. Several of
the students noticed the cam activity light would sometimes come on, but
they were told it was a meaningless software bug or something like that
(as if such things would ever occur on a Mac!).
But it turns out that the camera activity
indicator truly did mean exactly that. Unbeknownst to the
students, their Mac laptops could have the camera remotely turned on by
school officials, and there has apparently been an unknown number of
occasions when the school was remotely monitoring its students,
outside school hours, when they were at home.
Hmmm - still glad you have a built in webcam
in your computer screen? Oh - does it have a built in microphone,
Lastly this week, is history repeating
itself? Do you remember the sad end to Cunard's liner, Queen
Elizabeth? The original Queen Elizabeth was a classy classic
liner that plied the transatlantic trade for 28 years before being sold
to a group of Philadelphia businessmen in 1968. Their plan was to
operate the ship as a hotel and tourist attraction in Port Everglades,
FL, in a manner akin to that of the Queen Mary in Long Beach.
The plan never succeeded, and the ship was
then sold to Hong Kong magnate C Y Tung in 1970. His intention was
to convert the ship into a floating university, and it was being
converted for its new use, in Hong Kong, when in 1972 a fire was
deliberately set on the ship by persons unknown. This destroyed
the ship, and it capsized. Much of the wreckage was dismantled fro
scrap in 1974-75, and the remains of the ship remain on the bottom of
Hong Kong Harbor, close to the container port.
The Queen Elizabeth was replaced by the
QE2, which also plied the transatlantic routes as well as roaming
much further afield, with a longer life of 40 years.
Upon retiring from service with Cunard in
2007, the QE2 was sold to Dubai World, apparently for $100 million, with
the deja vu intention of it becoming a floating hotel moored alongside
the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai.
But money woes have prevented Dubai World
from achieving this, and - deja vu again - the ship is now for sale
My guess is the ship's present owners would
accept quite a lot less than $100 million for it, so go ahead and make
an offer. But, before you ask, my days of working as a sea going
washroom attendant are long behind me! But I might accept a
teaching position on board if you convert it to a floating university.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels