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5 March, 2010
I've spent most of this week in Las Vegas,
attending the annual Travel Goods Show. Last year's show was a
disappointment, generally attributed to the troubled economic times, but
this year's show was an even greater disappointment, with notably fewer
travel gadget type products on offer, and mainly just a repeat showing
of 'the same old same old'.
There were a couple of interesting things,
including a self-weighing suitcase (it had four weight sensors in its
four legs), although the self-weighing suitcase seemed a bit ambivalent
about its weight, showing a different weight (in kg not lbs - the
manufacturer hadn't thought to design it to the US market and weight
system) each time I picked it up and set it down.
A design that perhaps has a few kinks to be
worked out of it still.
Another idea perhaps not yet ready for the
market was a remote transmitter/receiver pair to alert you when you get
close to your suitcase - for example, when the suitcase arrives on the
carousel at the end of a flight. But unlike other designs which
allow you to command the suitcase receiver to make a sound when it gets
close to you, this design has the transmitter silently on the suitcase
and it is the receiver in your hand that makes a noise.
I'm sure the airlines will love that -
airplane holds full of suitcases continually broadcasting radio signals
during the flight. We're not allowed to have even the most
harmless of powered items switched on during take-off and landing (eg
Kindle ebook readers and noise cancelling headphones) so I think the
chances of being allowed to put transmitters on our suitcases is close
For the last dozen or so trips I've made,
I've been traveling with one or two of a set of very light-weight Heys
USA 'Eco Case' suitcases. They are made of some type of ABS
plastic, and Heys said they've added extra plasticizers to keep the
plastic from going brittle.
I've always been intrigued by these very
light weight bags, wondering if they were sufficiently robust as to
withstand the rigors and demands of repeated airline flights, and I have
noticed that both bags have become dented, and the extendable handles
have become stiff to extend and retract, and their locking mechanisms
don't work as well as they used to either.
bag I traveled with to Vegas ended its life en route, with one corner
cracking 95% of the way around, leaving the wheel in that corner hanging
on to the rest of the bag by a small remaining piece of plastic.
As dire as this damage sounds, I only noticed it while wheeling the bag
into the hotel (the bag has four wheels).
Conventional wisdom says you must report any
baggage damage to the airline before leaving the airport.
Obviously that was not possible, but I took some pictures of the bag as
soon as I noticed the damage.
I called Alaska Airlines and their first
response was to say that damage to wheels is not covered. I tried
to explain that it wasn't the wheel, but rather the whole corner of the
bag that was damaged, and offered to send a photo, but I was told they
have no facility to accept emailed photos. That was a shame,
because I didn't want to make a roundtrip to the airport ($30+ in taxi
fares, and an hour or more of time) on what might be a fool's errand if
they'd refuse my claim.
So they graciously said I could show them
the bag when I flew home, while checking in, and as soon as the lady
checking me in saw the bag, she immediately offered to get it
repaired/replaced, so on balance I was very fairly treated by Alaska
I have to feel disappointed though in the
durability/robustness of the bag, and find myself again returning to
the typical type of soft-sided woven nylon bag for my future travels.
I've never had any such woven nylon bag calamitously/completely fail on
me the way this solid plastic bag did, and we all know the hassle factor
posed by a bag failure at the start of an extended trip.
I've long recommended Briggs & Riley bags,
not just for their bulletproof construction but also for the amazing no
questions asked all-encompassing lifetime warranty they give their bags.
Any time I mention B&R, I get a flood of emails from readers
enthusiastically sharing their own beyond-positive experiences, both
with the bags per se and the company's excellent support and
warranty/repair service if it has ever been required, and they continue
to hold a special place in my affections for these two vitally important
But it has to be conceded that B&R bags
carry a premium price, and so for a value alternative, I'm becoming
increasingly enamored of the High Sierra range of bags.
This year I particularly liked two High
Sierra products. The first is an excellent full sized rollabout
bag from them weighing only 6.5lbs and with a retail price of only $120
(EL100 22" carry-on), and the second is a huge wheeled suitcase/duffle
weighing only 8.8lbs and priced extremely fairly at $150 (EL104 34"
Drop-bottom Wheeled Duffel).
High Sierra gives a somewhat vague 5 yr
warranty on their bags - I say vague but in a good way, because there is
the possibility they'll cover airline damage as well as other damage
(and, let's face it, the only sort of damage a bag gets is at the hands
of airlines). Most other luggage companies flat-out refuse to
cover airline damage.
So, extremely lightweight, robustly
constructed, great value, and with reasonably good warranties.
That's close to four out of four for High Sierra.
At the show I noted that two of the more
innovative companies I've followed with interest for some time, each
with only a single travel product, have both merged with or sold
themselves to larger companies that carry a broad range of all the usual
They each, separately, told me they feel
these days it is too hard for a single product company to survive in the
tough marketplace, and I guess what they most mean is that their costs
of marketing and distribution are way too high to be supported by a
single product and income stream. That's a shame because both
products will lose their prominence when merged into a broader product
range, but maybe the comments, independently offered by two different
entrepreneurs, are correct about needing to merge.
Which provides an excellent segue into this
week's feature article. As you know, whenever I read of another
airline merger being approved, and whenever I read of another
airline alliance successfully winning anti-trust immunity, I invariably
moan and groan about the nonsense being foisted on us; we are always
assured by the airlines involved and the compliant US Department of
Transportation that such moves are necessary and for our benefit.
I've never believed these statements, which seem at best
counter-intuitive and contrary to the fundamental principles of free
The trigger point for this week's feature
article was the announcement a couple of weeks ago about the pending
approval for the Oneworld (primarily AA & BA) joint operating agreement
and anti-trust immunity which is in the final stage of being granted by
DoT. In particular, this approval struck a raw nerve - not just
because it was piled on top of all the previous ones, and not just
because it attacked the special situation at Heathrow (shortage of slots
at this most desirable of all UK/EU airports giving incumbents a huge
advantage), but also because it represents, in effect, the last nail
in the coffin of trans-Atlantic airline competition.
According to the DoT's earlier ruling in the
2008 Skyteam alliance approval, just a couple of years ago there were 50
different airlines operating between the US and UK/EU. What with
alliance tie-ups and airlines going out of business, when this latest
approval is given, we'll end up with three mega-carriers (Skyteam, Star
and Oneworld), plus an assortment of unaligned airlines, most notably
Virgin Atlantic, struggling to compete. We've gone from 50 down to
three plus a couple of 'also ran' contenders? And we're supposed
to believe this is good for competition? Wow....
So I was all set to thunder forth my
disapproval of this latest approval, but as I researched the issue, I
realized it was not so much a new development, but rather the inevitable
conclusion of the growing avalanche of earlier approvals - first to
small airline combinations piecemeal, and then more generously across
the board to the airline alliances. The DoT's reasoning for why it
should give AA/BA the immunity to collude that they sought was wrapped
tightly up in the concept of 'if we've given it to the others, we can't
now not give it to AA/BA too', and that's an understandable line of
reasoning. Somehow, the measurement paradigm has changed from
'airline vs airline' and tens of different airlines competing, to
'alliance vs alliance' with only three alliances in the game.
But, although it is understandable that if
the other two get approval, so too must the third, it does not
necessarily lead to a correct conclusion. And so I started to look
first of all at how it is we got to be at the point we are now at.
I enjoyed excellent help from, believe it or not, the Department of
Transportation, with their relevant official spokesman always answering
my pesky and somewhat adversarial questions very quickly and very
helpfully. One of his answers astonished me so much I had to ask
him a second time to confirm, which he did.
I had asked what the DOT did after issuing
an anti-trust approval to follow up on all the extravagant (and to my
mind totally untrue) promises by the airlines, offering all sorts of
benefits to us as travelers such as lower fares and improved schedules.
These promises usually seemed to be the clinching part of the airline
applications, showing the anti-trust immunity to be 'in the public
So it seemed to me that rather than
accepting these extravagantly optimistic and unrealistic promises at
face value, there should be some sort of accountability built in to the
system. His answer to how the DOT followed up on these promises :
we haven’t done the analysis to quantify
specific after-the-fact benefits
Hmmm! Well, maybe the DOT haven't, but
I've now done some 'back of an envelope' calculations myself, in the
second of the first two parts of what is becoming yet another lengthy
article series. Care to guess if my calculations confirm or deny
the reality of the airline promises?
To find out, you'll have to click over and
This Week's Feature Article(s) :
Competition, 1980 - 2010, R.I.P. : Air traffic is growing;
more people are flying more planes to more destinations than ever
before, but the number of independent airlines is disappearing faster
than polar bears and glaciers. After a mere 30 years of
competitive existence, I'm naming 2010 as the year that international
airline competition became extinct.
Scotland Tour : A quick update
on this, all good news. We currently have 18 people signed up, and
assuming they all travel, that means the tour price has dropped to the
19+ person rate, $2545 per person. And the UK exchange rate is
holding steady currently below the 1.56 rate which the tour was costed
at, meaning that the price will drop by another $100 per person if the
exchange rate holds at its present 1.50 level, reducing the tour price
to $2445, a heck of a deal for a
great tour of Scotland's
Islands and Highlands.
There is still time to chose to join us, but
please do let me know as soon as possible if you wish to do so.
Dinosaur watching : British
Airways is doing amazing things in continued anticipation of a
strike by their flight attendants. Maybe this is to calm anxious
would-be passengers, or maybe it is to send a very strong message to the
flight attendants, but their latest announcement details not only how
they now have 1,000 volunteer staff members from other parts of their UK
operation trained and ready to stand in for striking flight attendants
(including even many pilots), but they've made arrangements to 'wet
lease' 23 planes, complete with crews, from a charter company to provide
backup support. 6,000 other BA staff have volunteered to help in
other operational areas to help the airline through a strike.
BA says this means they'll be able to
operate all their flights from London City Airport, all their long haul
flights from Gatwick (I don't think they operate many longhauls from
Gatwick), half their short haul flights from Gatwick, and 'a substantial
number' of flights from Heathrow.
In this game of poker, the table stakes are
rising and BA continues to call the flight attendants' bluff.
A similar story applies to American
Airlines, however, where their flight attendants are also proving
fractious - or is it AA who is playing hardball? The strike
process is more cumbersome in the US, with the flight attendants needing
to give 30 days notice and secure approval from the National Mediation
Board on the basis of negotiations being stalled before than can strike.
AA says that negotiations aren't stalled, but did walk out of contract
talks ten hours before their scheduled completion.
This is probably posturing on both sides,
and apparently they're reasonably close to agreement on most issues
already. So no need to panic and cancel your forward AA bookings
just yet. Details
Talking about flight attendants, I wonder if
the new agreement being negotiated at AA will include a provision about
what to do when flights have to be cancelled due to fighting between
the flight attendants, as was the case with
this Delta flight.
United Airlines has a peculiar version of a
'Don't Ask/Don't Tell' policy. They charge $25 if you are checking
a bag on a domestic flight, and $35 if checking a second bag.
Now, there are some bicycles that can be
collapsed and folded up and packed into a normal sized suitcase, in
particular, those made by Bike Friday.
So, imagine this scenario. You go up
to check two suitcases for your flight from, eg, Los Angeles to San
Francisco, with $60 in hand to pay for the cost of checking them.
The United counter agent casually asks you 'that's a lot of luggage for
your three day trip. What have you got in your bags - bricks?'
You enthusiastically reply 'Oh no, the first bag has my clothes and
stuff in it, and I've a folded portable bike in the other bag.'
The checkin agent leans forward and says
'Oh. I see. That will be an extra $175 then for the
Yes, no matter that it is a regular size,
shape and weight suitcase. If United discovers there's a bike
inside, it will up the fee to $175 each way for your suitcase.
$350 roundtrip - that's more than most tickets it sells.
Maybe better to buy a regular ticket for your bike, and to sign it up
for a Mileage Plus membership too.
Okay, so maybe I'm joking about the
ludicrous nature of this charge, but it isn't really a joke. By
what shred of fairness can United justify charging $350 roundtrip for a
suitcase with a bike inside, but $50 roundtrip for the same suitcase
with the same or greater weight of clothes inside? Things like
this are outrageous and encapsulate all the reasons why we hate the
airlines so much.
There's a Facebook protest group with
currently 6281 members
here, and more information about United and other airline policies
and Bike Friday here.
Talking about baggage, I saw an amazing
thing when flying on Alaska Airlines to Las Vegas. They had a
carry-on sizing template at the gate, and announced over the pa system
that they'd be using it with any passengers who had larger sized carry-ons.
If the carry-on didn't fit in the template, they'd require the passenger
to check their bag and would charge a $25 checked bag fee, too.
The net result was a completely full flight,
but with empty space in the overheads. Amazing.
I've heard from ARTA that other airlines
are starting to enforce their carry-on rules too. It is about
It isn't just the airlines that are charging
outrageous fees these days. The cost of a US passport is about
to increase, now up to a massive $135 for a first time passport and
$110 for a renewal. These fees are claimed to be simply recovering
the costs of providing the passports to us, not having any extra profit
component at all.
Most astonishing of all, the Department of
State has calculated that it costs them $82.48 to stick a bunch of
extra pages into a current passport. Sometimes people fill up
their passport with visas before it expires - this can be quite easy
with the full page visas that are stuck in passports by many countries
these days, and until now, one could get the Passport Office to simply
stick in some extra pages, for free.
Don't ask me how, but the Department of
State calculates 'the cost of the pages themselves, of having the pages
placed in the book in a secure manner by trained personnel, and of
completing the required security checks results in a cost to the U.S.
Government of $82.48'.
Of course, this is from the government that
happily pays thousands of dollars for toilet seats and screws, so
perhaps we should not be surprised, but there's something enormously
wrong with our government's cost of doing business if sticking a
bunch of pages into a passport costs $82.48.
The bottom line is that adding extra
pages to your passport, something formerly done for free, will now cost
Oh, if you're one of my many non-US readers,
and if you'd been thinking of traveling to the US, the cost of a basic
single entry US visa is proposed to rise, too. Sure, your country
may well allow us to visit without a visa, or may sell us a visa for a
few paltry dollars, but we're now going to charge you $150 for the
privilege of traveling to our marvelous and mighty country. Trust
us - it is well worth the cost.
We have a few days remaining to share
comments about the fairness of these proposed fees if you wish.
You can comment online
Talking about government fees, the
Canadians are charging new increased 'security' fees to airline
passengers. Strangely, the security fees are set at three
levels - the lowest level, an extra C$2.50, applying to domestic
passengers, and higher levels applying to passengers traveling
internationally, or to the US.
Now, we all know that the US is applying
paranoid, draconian and largely ineffective security measures to
passengers traveling inbound from Canada that far surpass the cursory
security screening that is given, more or less identically, to domestic
passengers and to passengers to other international destinations.
So you'd expect the security fee for travel
to the US to be highest, right? Strangely, no. Passengers
pay C$4.37 (a strange amount implying a very exact calculation) if
they're flying to the US, and a massive C$8.91 for travel to other
Does this mean that passengers to the US
are only getting half the security of other foreign bound passengers?
And does it mean that domestic passengers get little more than one
quarter as much screening as international passengers?
One can't start to guess at how these sums
were calculated. Details
A lot of killjoys have been getting
needlessly upset about a story that has even been described as
'young kid controls planes at busy New York control tower'.
Nothing of the sort happened, but plenty of
fools are getting themselves all upset. What happened was a
controller brought his school aged child in to work (apparently on an
approved basis) and while his child was there, allowed him to make five
broadcasts, almost certainly whispering the words to say to his child.
The pilots enjoyed it, you can be sure the
child loved it, and speaking as a proud parent myself, I'm sure the
father did too. Indeed, speaking also as a loving son, some of my
most vivid childhood memories were of visiting my father at his office
and being allowed to do things there.
Everyone had so much fun that the next day,
the controller brought more children in and let them make a couple of
announcements too. No harm, no foul, right?
Wrong. When people completely
unaffected by this harmless act found out about it, they worked
themselves up into a foaming fury, and the politically correct FAA has
suspended the controller and his supervisor, saying 'This lapse in
judgment not only violated FAA's own policies, but common sense
standards for professional conduct. These kinds of distractions
are totally unacceptable. This kind of behavior does not reflect the
true calibre of our work force.'
Even the union representing air traffic
controllers condemned the workers' behavior. They offered a
meaningless but negative comment 'It is not indicative of the highest
professional standards that controllers set for themselves and exceed
each and everyday in the advancement of aviation safety.'
Shame on the FAA for its knee-jerk political
correctness, and double shame on the controllers' union for not acting
as a voice of reason.
But when it comes to the ne plus ultra of
pathetic political correctness run amok, how about the story of some
sad sorry AirTran flight attendants who are protesting about their
airline painting up one of its planes in the picture of a swimsuit clad
model as part of a tie-in to this year's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit
Wait! Don't leap to any conclusions.
For sure, the annual SI issue features women of stunning beauty and in
very revealing swimsuits. But look at the picture of the AirTran
plane and its artwork (shown
here) first before you decide if there is even a shred of reason
behind the protests of the flight attendants.
But wait, I've an even better story.
How about the Rahway NJ family who were told by the police they had
to cover their snowman - it was in the shape of the famous statue of
Venus de Milo. Picture
Good job they didn't ask the policeman why,
but instead obediently complied. If they'd asked why, they would
have risked being arrested, as happened to
this person in Atlanta.
Talking still more about politically
correct and pathetic actions, as you know, the last few months have
seen the almost complete implosion of what can now be fairly termed the
global warming myth, a myth that has been revealed as being based on
lies, pseudo-science, and demagoguery (most recently
here), and perpetuated by a cravenly corrupt United Nations cabal of
countries and individuals who see the topic as an opportunity for the
biggest and most baseless transfer of wealth from rich nations (us) to
poor nations (them) in the history of the planet.
So what does the University of Tennessee in
Knoxville decide to do? Oh, they've decided to award an honorary
Doctorate of Laws and Humane Letters in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
to that person whose career they describe as marked by visionary
leadership, and his work as quite literally changing our planet for the
better. This person is also described as being among the most
accomplished and respected Tennesseans in history (shame on those of you
who said that isn't setting the bar very high), and in being awarded
this doctorate, now takes his rightful place alongside the only two
other recipients of honorary degrees from UT - ex Sen Howard Baker and
This person is, of course, none other than
Nobel laureate and Oscar winner, Al Gore. Currently 94% of
the readers of
this article feel this to have been a bad decision.
As an aside, people sometimes attack me for including global warming rebuttals on the
grounds that it is nothing to do with a travel newsletter. Not so.
When the global warming advocates decided that air travel was their
enemy, and when they sought to marginalize and tax air travel to 'save
the planet', they made global warming a front and center issue for all
of us who appreciate convenient and affordable travel (and all those
who rely on the travel industry for their income). We ignore them
at our peril.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
A Muslim woman who was booked to fly out of Manchester, UK to Pakistan,
refused to be screened by one of the new Whole Body Imaging devices, and
left the airport rather than be screened or searched.
Her reason for refusing, and for choosing to
abandon her travel plans to Pakistan entirely? She had an
One of the things I've never understood is
how a fighter plane flying alongside a passenger plane can 'assist' the
plane, either in the case of a terrorist attack or, as in
this case, with an unruly passenger.
Although some reports of this particular
incident referred to the Royal Air Force scrambling two fighters to
'assist' the flight, let's be honest and direct about this, don't you
think? The planes were sent with orders to shoot down the plane
and all its passengers if it seemed that terrorists had taken
control of it and were likely to crash it into a building or other
I wrote last week about how the Lower Merion
School District in Ardmore PA has been discovered surreptitiously
monitoring its students, at home, and out of school hours, via the
webcams in the Mac laptops provided to the high school students.
The school district continues to deny most
of the allegations made against it, claiming the remote monitoring was
only used - and successfully so - to trace and recover stolen laptops,
but a continuing tidal wave of reports from students of their webcam
activation lights coming on at random times, with their computers
absolutely not being reported as stolen, seems to speak against the
school district's claims. And the school district itself
contradicts its protestations by its actions - it
appears it used images obtained through remote monitoring a student
at home after school to accuse (incorrectly) the student of dealing
There are some other related details that
are distressing about this case too. The school district never
disclosed in any form to parents or students that it had any type of
remote monitoring capabilities, and when students asked why their camera
lights kept coming on, they were lied to and told it must be some sort
of glitch in the system. Disabling the camera was impossible.
Furthermore, the school district mandated
that all students must use the school provided laptops. Use of
personal laptops was totally prohibited - a prohibition backed up with
the threat of confiscation of the laptop. Any attempt to secure
the provided laptop against remote monitoring was grounds for expulsion
of the student.
good article, although somewhat technical, about all the 'good
practice' violations, as well as the privacy violations, inherent in
what the school district did. An unspoken subtext of course has to
be what types of images, over and above that of the adolescent boy
eating candy, may have been obtained of the high school students while
they had their laptops with them in their bedrooms.
Bottom line - if you're buying any sort of
online device with a built in camera or microphone, be aware that
there's a chance it could be remotely activated. Some years back,
I knew people in the security field who, when wishing to be discreet,
would not only insist that everyone turned off their phones, but would
then require us to remove the batteries from our phones too.
I'm not sure how they'd handle iPhones and
other phones which don't have a user-removable battery. Well, yes,
I am sure - they'd emulate other companies I've dealt with that forbid
people to take phones inside their building.
It is interesting to compare the fairly
passive response to the school district's surreptitious video recording
of its students at home with
this story of a man who was prevented from taking a picture of his
son on a child's train ride in a mall due to concerns about being a
pedophile, and then threatened with arrest if he didn't obey the
(unlawful) demand that he surrender his cell phone/camera to a
I know airline food is bad, but you'd
have to be pretty hungry to eat a scratch lottery card on a flight.
And if you'd just been told that the lottery card had won you $14,000,
which you could collect at the end of your journey, the action becomes
incomprehensible. But that is apparently what a man did on a
Ryanair flight earlier this week (they sell scratch lottery cards on
Ryanair flights, apparently).
He was reportedly upset that the cash wasn't
presented to him on the plane, and so he ate the card. A spokesman
for the airline said 'In the last two year's Ryanair's scratch cards
have given away 10 cars, over €300,000 in cash prizes and over 100,000
flight vouchers. Passengers have always been delighted to claim their
large cash prizes after returning home. Unfortunately our latest
winner felt that we should have his €10,000 prize kicking around on the
aircraft. Yesterday's events prove that while Ryanair's scratch
cards offer large cash prizes they clearly taste great too! Crew
tried to stop the gourmet scratch card eater by offering him one of our
great tasting sandwiches, pizzas or snacks instead, but clearly he had
much more expensive tastes!'
Ryanair - masters at public relations that
they are - say they will donate the unclaimed winnings to charity, and
are inviting members of the public to vote on a range of possible
Next time you look at the man in a pilot's
uniform walking confidently into the cockpit, spare a thought for
this story of the pilot who flew for 13 years with a fake pilot's
licence. Actually, after 13 safe years of flying, perhaps the fact
that his original licence was fake no longer matters much.
And talking about uniforms, I'll close this
week with a
report about a hot demand for 'hot' JAL stewardess uniforms.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels