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26 February, 2010

Good morning

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 pilots - 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 wonderful.

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?  Apparently, nobody.

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 economies.

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.

I'd written 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 wish - here it is.  The first two or three pages have most of the main points.

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 anti-trust?).

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 immunity.

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 pass.

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.  Stay tuned!

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 optimistic?

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 was 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.

Here's an 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 its competitors.

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 million.

In other words, 81% of travelers in France (other than those driving by private car) travel by train, and 16% by plane.

Here's an 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.

The pilots 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).

Say 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 air.)

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 it.

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.

Problems with 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, but when 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 recording capability?

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 remain unisex.

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 passengers.

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 women-only toilet?

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 two'?

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 offending men?

I 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 bathrooms).

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.

Oh, 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?  Happily, nothing!

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 Macs.

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 units).

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 then.

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 success.

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 list of the top 20 songs.

Small confession - I know neither these two groups/artists nor their music.

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.

Here's a 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 radio scanner.

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.

More details here.

We all know these days that passengers are less likely to meekly submit to would-be airplane hijackers.  Here's a 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 plane, undetected.

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 these 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, too?

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 again.

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

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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