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19 March, 2010

Good morning

I hope you had a great St Patrick's Day (just had to go for the green there) - I did.  But I wonder why it is that this day receives so much more attention than St George's Day or St David's Day or anyone else's day?

And I hope you had more success than me with setting your clocks to daylight saving time.  Upon waking on Sunday, I spent 5 minutes unsuccessfully trying to adjust the time in my bedside clock radio, only to discover, eventually, that it had automatically reset itself in the middle of the night.  And then a day or two after manually resetting one of my other clocks, it then automatically moved itself another hour forward, making it an hour out.  Sometimes technology can be too helpful.

I wrote briefly last week about the latest airline perfidy - and how they have swapped their stories.  Previously they'd been claiming that holding people on a plane stuck on the ground for three or more hours was so incredibly rare as to not need any sort of legislative intervention or control.  But now that the DoT is about to start enforcing a new requirement that airlines must deplane passengers within three hours, and provide passengers with food and water during the three hours, the airlines are saying they will have to cancel thousands of flights for fear of having delays exceeding three hours.

Yes, what just a few months ago were too flew flights to bother about are now being described as so many thousands of flights as to be sure to inconvenience us all needlessly.

Apparently the airlines understand the concept of 'cutting off your nose to spite your face'.  And their intention - to terrify the public into not wanting to be protected against inhumane and unnecessary imprisonment seems to have worked.  That bizarre organization, the so-called Business Travel Coalition, which invariably ends up on the opposite side of every issue to me, has now come out swinging in favor of the airlines, saying that the implementation of the DoT's proposed penalties should be delayed by a further year (in addition to the 120 days of notice already served on the airlines).

Strangely, the BTC agrees the airlines have had ample warnings, dating back to 1999, about the need to resolve the problem with flight delays, but because the airlines haven't yet done anything, the BTC turns its other cheek (I mean on its face, of course - what were you thinking?) and asks the airlines to be given yet another year.

Talk about rewarding bad behavior.  If the airlines have still done nothing at the end of another year, will the BTC then argue for another year's grace?

Enough, already.  We've tried begging and cajoling the airlines for way too long, and they've offered us platitudes and empty meaningless promises while changing nothing.  The carrot has failed.  Time for the stick.

Last week I pointed out that by far the majority of ground delays could be resolved by one very simple tweak to how airplanes queue to takeoff.  A number of people wrote in to point out one particular problem that might arise - potential gate congestion.  If an airport's gates are all full of planes waiting their turn to take off (rather than having the planes waiting somewhere on the airport taxi areas) there'd be no space for additional incoming planes, meaning that the incoming flights would end up stuck on taxi areas instead.  Hardly an improvement.

Well, that's true, but.....  With a little bit of thought surely most people could come up with a solution to that problem.  And in proof, in this week's column I offer not one but nine solutions.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  How to Avoid Trapping Passengers on Planes : The airlines can't see a problem with trapping us on their planes, but they can see problems with any solution to this 'non-problem'.  Here are plenty of feasible solutions to save us from being stuck on a plane unnecessarily, and which helps airports and airlines efficiently manage all their incoming and outgoing flights.

Scotland trip :  We now have an amazing 20 people confirmed on this tour - or should I say '20 amazing people' (see the next paragraph).  I'm now able to offer a special treat on the tour - a whisky tasting class lead by one of the world's most pre-eminent whisky gurus, the genius behind the extraordinary creativity flooding out of Bruichladdich on Islay, Jim McEwan; an experience which for whisky drinkers would validate the entire tour.

And one of our number has very kindly agreed to take some of his work with him.  He's an astronomer of note, indeed in the last nine years the project he heads has discovered 300 near-earth asteroids and 44 comets.  In return for an appropriate amount of liquid refreshment as inducement, he's going to show us the night sky one clear dark evening and hopefully reassure us that none of these new 344 asteroids and comets will splash down at our feet any time soon.

Whether you're a whisky aficionado (yet) or not, and whether or not you too would like to bring a 'show and tell' item to regale us all with, there's a lot of wonderful things to see, do and enjoy on our lovely 11 day tour of Scotland's Islands and Highlands this June.  But, please, if you would like to come with us, please do let me know as soon as possible.  We're really already full, and finessing extra accommodation is a growing challenge with each passing day.

Dinosaur watching :  Well, the British Airways strike seems likely to be on, first for this weekend starting tomorrow (for three days) and then again for four days March 27 - 30 inclusive.  I say 'seems likely' because it is the most complicated of matters, with more issues beneath the surface than are apparent, including a terribly conflicted government in Britain that on the one hand has as its largest single supporter the union which BA's flight attendants belong to, but on the other hand is gripped by the fear that if it is seen to be supporting the strike, it will lose public support, with a general election it will be struggling to win due in May.

It is clear this is about much more than the specific issue being argued about between BA and its flight attendants.  It really is a massive test of strength, the outcome of which will see whether the unions continue to hold the upper hand over management, or whether management can now claim supremacy over the unions.  Its outcome may change the paradigm of the workplace, and it is partially because of this overarching issue that the strike, which now seems to be over a difference in bargaining positions so trivial as to make the strike ridiculous for both parties, is likely to proceed.

On its side BA points to a growing number of other airlines providing help (now more than 60 other airlines, including competitors), and also reports that a significant number of flight attendants will be crossing the picket lines and reporting for work as normal.  BA is claiming that it will operate the majority of its flights.

On the other side, the union is lobbying for support from other unions, including even the Teamsters in the US.  What form this extra support may take remains unclear.

The bottom line is that it will be an interesting time and when BA and the union eventually do settle, we may never know the underlying obscured deeper issues that were resolved or who actually was the victor.

There's plenty of other labor unrest around the world at present, too.  On Wednesday, pilots from five airlines joined with United pilots to picket United's Chicago headquarters.  They are worried that a new joint venture between UA and Aer Lingus may see non United pilots flying the planes, and apparently believe that the joint venture should be obliged to recruit its staff from the highest labor cost country possible, not from the lowest.

As mentioned last week, AA's flight attendants are attempting to get the National Mediation Board to start the count-down timer to when they can lawfully strike against AA, due to their talks being at what they claim to be an impasse.

TAP Portugal pilots are going out on strike for six days from 26 March, after having been in unsuccessful negotiations since an earlier strike last September.

And the Air France flight attendants plan to strike from 28 through 31 March if they don't reach an agreement on working conditions with the airline prior to that time.

Although the FAA is projecting a slight decrease in air travel this year, as is always the case, an industry wide decrease generally means that some airlines are shrinking more than the overall average while some are shrinking less or even growing.

In this case, it seems that Virgin America is firmly on the growth side of the ledger, having announced plans to add nine more leased planes to its fleet, allowing it to start new service from both SFO and LAX to Toronto in June, marking its first flight outside the US itself.  It will then add flights to Orlando (again from LAX and SFO) in August and plans to add service to three more cities, as yet unnamed, later in the year.  One of these three cities is intriguingly referred to as a 'long-haul' route.  UK/Europe, perhaps?

While Virgin America's plans - if any - to fly to Europe are unknown, we are seeing the projected start of new flights between MSP and London's Stansted Airport.  Sun Country Airlines (currently, ahem, in bankruptcy) says it will operate one roundtrip flight a week for the ten week period between 11 June and 15 August, using a 737-800 that will make a necessary refueling stop in Gander each way.

Fares are projected at $798 plus taxes and fees.

This is a very strange move that will have almost no impact on the marketplace at all, and it is hard to see how it could make any money for the bankrupt airline.  There is nonstop service between MSP and Heathrow for the same price with DL/KLM - who would choose to fly to Stansted rather than Heathrow, and who would choose a flight with a refueling stop in Gander over a nonstop flight?

In addition, who would choose a once a week service compared to a daily (or more frequent) service, and who would choose an airline that has few other routes and a minimal value frequent flier program over a major carrier with a better frequent flier program?

One possible point in favor of flying to Stansted is that discount carriers Ryanair and Easyjet offer plenty of flights from there on to other points in Europe.  But will people choose to book a ticket on Sun Country, via Gander, to Stansted, and then a separate ticket on a European discount carrier they might know nothing about and probably wouldn't even find on most major booking services?  Color me unconvinced.

About the only good thing that can be said is that Sun Country is 'cherry picking' by only offering service in the height of the peak season, when maybe people will be forced onto its planes due to no remaining seats at decent prices on other carriers.  Is this type of tiny infiltration into big markets the way that new airlines will have to compete against the majors - by being so small that the majors choose to ignore rather than respond to their presence?

It will be very interesting to see if Sun Country chooses to extend this service, and to bring it back again in some form or another for next year too.

In adding this service, Sun Country would become one of the very few airlines taking advantage of the liberalized rules for airlines operating between the US and EU subsequent to the enactment of the Open Skies agreement between them.

But this treaty - an excellent concept that has yet to be taken advantage of to any measurable extent by the airlines - is at risk, because what is currently enacted is merely the first part of a two stage process.  If the second part of the process can't be agreed upon by November, much of the current provisions will then self-destruct, presumably returning us to the more restrictive situation that previously applied.

A key outstanding provision is for restrictions on foreign ownership of US airlines to be 'removed or modified' (whatever that means) and to date the US has shown no signs of willingness to consider this.  More talks are scheduled for next week.

Some interesting statistics from Europe, showing that low cost carriers are eating the dinosaurs' lunch.  In 2009, the dinosaurs carried 20 million fewer passengers, a reduction of nearly 6%.  But low cost carriers increased their passenger numbers by 8.7%.

The three largest low cost carriers are Ryanair, Air Berlin and Easyjet, and they carried over 139 million passengers in 2009, up 7.7% on the previous year.  Looking further back, this number is up 80% from their 2005 levels.

Low cost carriers now control 36% of the total capacity in Europe, and while they've tended to focus on short-haul services within Europe, we all live in hope that they may boldly start to extend to North America.

Expansion is also underway at JetBlue, which says it will double its nonstops between JFK and LAX from two to four a day, as from 1 July.

Have you pre-ordered your iPad yet?  Using the excuse 'I must get one to review and report back to my readers about' I put my name down for one, and will receive it on the day of launch, Saturday 3 April.

I'd been in two minds about the wisdom of buying one at all, because it is very clear that the initial product will be replaced by one with at least one and possibly two cameras built in (one facing to the user for webcam/chat, and one facing away as a traditional camera/camcorder), whenever it is that Apple will update its model range.  Who knows what other upgrades and enhancements might appear on a second generation iPad, too.

There's also a good chance that the pricing will drop after Apple has sold the first wave of units to 'early adopters'.  And there's not yet a great breadth of software that takes best advantage of the iPad screen.  But curiosity and my genuine desire to report back on the iPad won out.

If you're going to buy one too, which model should you choose?  The iPad comes in three capacities (16, 32 and 64GB) and in models both with and without 3G wireless data service through AT&T.  The three non-3G models are priced at $499, $599 and $699; adding 3G wireless adds another $130 to these prices (plus the extra monthly cost of wireless data service from AT&T - either $15 for 250MB or $30 for unlimited data).

If you're going to store any videos on your iPad, you absolutely must choose either the 32GB or 64GB version.  I'm guessing that reasonable quality video will consume at least 1GB per hour of video stored, so a 32GB unit could hold a dozen movies and still have the better part of 10GB for several hundred hours of audio recording, some stored pictures, and miscellaneous other data.

If you're sure you'll never store video, then you should choose between the 16GB and 32GB units, with the major space requirements to consider being music tracks and pictures.

As for the 3G data option, most people should probably choose not to add this.  Most of us won't have our iPads always with us, all the time, in the same way that we probably have our cell phone (due to the size of the iPad as much as for any other reason).  Instead, we'll tend to keep it at home, and/or in the office, and so the built in Wi-Fi capabilities that are included in both the 3G and non 3G units will give us all the wireless data connectivity we need.

In my case, I've something like 20GB of music files, and I do want to load the unit up with some video too, to make it a useful travel companion both for when I'm traveling myself and also when I'm seeking ways to entertain my 5.5 year old daughter traveling with me somewhere.

While it could be argued that 'only' paying $100 more to grow the unit's capacity from 32GB to 64GB is a good deal, and extends the unit's useful life into the future, for me, the reality is that as soon as a second generation unit comes out, I'll probably need to get one, even if only for review purposes, so I ended up choosing a 32GB non-3G unit.

If at first you don't succeed?  Google's 'Nexus One' cell phone has been a dismal disappointment.  Although there was a lot of interest, excitement, and hype in the build up to its release, the actual reality of the phone showed it to be comparable to the Motorola Droid in most respects, and with nothing outstanding or uniquely compelling to motivate people to rush out and buy one.  A curious business model for selling it - the phone was only available through Google's own site, and service was only available through T-Mobile; a high cost for a handset ($529 without contract, $179 with a two year T-Mobile contract), problems with the phone's operation and bad/nonexistent phone support with T-Mobile, Google, and HTC (the actual manufacturer of the phone) all blaming each other, added up to an insignificant number of sales.

Estimates range from 135,000 units sold in 74 days at the high end, to 125,000 units sold in 90 days at the low end.  Well, maybe selling more than 100,000 units sounds like a lot to you?  By comparison, in the last quarter, Apple sold 8.7 million iPhones.

But rather than shamefacedly retreat away from its so-far ill-starred venture into phone hardware, and content itself with its very successful sponsorship of the Android phone operating system, Google is pushing on, and is now releasing two more versions of the Nexus One - one version will work on AT&T's network, which has different 3G frequencies than T-Mobile, and the other unit will work with Sprint and possibly soon Verizon too.  Unfortunately, there's not a version that supports the five different 3G frequencies for T-Mobile, AT&T, and most other countries, and of course the Sprint/Verizon units don't work with GSM services such as either/both AT&T or T-Mobile.

Confused?  That's hardly surprising, and points to the crazy mess of different frequencies and standards that mobile wireless companies now offer, due in large part to the terrible shortage of wireless spectrum (frequencies) available for these new services.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  What an absolute utter waste of resource, time, effort, energy and money.  The US Travel Association has proudly announced, under the heading 'Experts Align to Create New Vision for Air Travel Security Screening Process' that it is creating a 'Blue Ribbon Panel for Frictionless Security' that will 'create a vision for the world’s most secure, efficient and customer-friendly air travel security screening process'.

When you've finished rolling your eyes at such hyperbolic nonsense, you can read the rest of the announcement of the formation of this ridiculous new committee here.

Will it uncover some amazing new approach to security that no-one else has ever thought of?  No, of course not.  Will it find a way for security to become 'customer friendly'?  Not as long as we have to take our shoes off, etc etc.

And while describing the panel as comprising 'the foremost experts on air security', it is far from clear how many of the committee members and panel chairs actually qualify for such an appellation.  On the other hand, names that I'd like to see on the committee - including some Travel Insider readers - are conspicuously absent.

Most of all, no matter what lofty conclusions this self-constituted committee may in time offer up, who will care?  Who will listen?  Who will accept and act on them?  Noting the fact that this group was not formed at the request of the TSA or Homeland Security Department, or any other branch of the government, the answers are almost certainly no-one, no-one and no-one.

Don't you hate it when flight attendants lie to you.  Here's an interesting article where a passenger calls the bluff of flight attendants after being told that, for security reasons, webcam chat, using his laptop and the plane's Wi-fi connection back to the ground, was illegal.

Here's the annoying part.  If the passenger had refused to cooperate, he'd probably have been arrested.  But the consequences to the flight attendant for lying to him?  Nothing.

Have you ever forgotten to turn your cell phone off (or any other 'electronic device' for that matter) on a plane.  I sometimes travel with multiple cell phones, and will confess to having on occasion forgotten one of them.  And even when I've turned all my phones off, I've often noticed other people who don't.  Needless to say, the plane has never crashed and burned.

Don't you think if there really was a risk of a plane losing control due to a cell phone being left on, the airlines should do something more than simply make announcements over the pa system asking passengers to turn their phones off?

But what else could they do?  Well, I'm glad you asked that question.  They could get one of these devices - a 'Bloodhound' that detects any cell phones that are switched on in its vicinity.

I touched lightly, last week, on the incipient global crisis, possibly due to strike us all in 2014.  This is when global demand for oil exceeds global supply.  We'll see skyrocketing prices for oil that will make $150/barrel look cheap.

A couple of readers wrote in, pointing out things like the currently completely unexploited massive Bakken oil reserve that sprawls over some of MT, ND and SK.  Estimates vary, but to be optimistic, it might have as many as 3.65 billion barrels of oil in it.  So there's no real reason to panic, right?

Wrong.  The world is currently consuming about 86.6 million barrels of oil a day.  So - and assuming no increase in oil consumption - this huge Bakken oil reserve represents a mere 42 days of global oil needs.  Even if we were to start drilling it now (which we're not), it would be a struggle to get it onstream and producing by 2014.

What with the certain crisis that is coming, whether in 2014 or a couple of years later (or even a couple of years sooner), and the lead times to get new oil sources producing, we should be desperately prospecting for and developing new oil fields wherever we can, as quickly as we can.

So how to understand the announcement last week by the US Secretary of Energy that the administration is banning all off-shore drilling for three years.  Are these people determined to destroy us?

As this article mildly puts it, this is indeed a policy for [US] economic suicide.

But, if you fly over the Gulf of Mexico, you might notice new activity commencing there in the next little while.  Look closely at the flags they are flying.  Red, white, and blue?  Yes.  But, stars and stripes?  No.  They will be Russian.

While the US refuses to drill for the oil in its own backyard, it sits back and watches Russia establish an oil presence in the Gulf of Mexico.  It makes you wonder exactly which side our elected leaders are on.  Details here.

Meanwhile, researchers have uncovered a new cause of global warming.  Illegal drug use.  Perhaps someone should pass a law making it - oh, wait, it already is illegal.

Winning this week's award for 'best excuse' is the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.  This article reports on the interesting fact that the NY Taxi and Limousine Commission is able to match up each taxi's billing records with its trip records from GPS reporting, and as part of a billing audit, noticed an appreciable level of taxis overbilling passengers by setting the meter to the wrong billing rate, twice the proper rate.

Some drivers in particular were noted to be doing this a great deal.  And so the NY Taxi Workers Alliance suggested that because the overbilling was so prevalent, the problem might be - oh no, not dishonest taxi drivers, but rather faulty technology.

Tell it to the judge.

Lastly this week, what is happening in Dubai - formerly touting itself as the world's best choice for both business and leisure travel?  First we hear stories of Dubai's financial crisis, which is sort of understandable, although like everything else in Dubai, apparently on a much larger scale than in the rest of the world.

But what about its moral crackdown - how to reconcile that with its claim as being a tourist friendly destination?  First there was the couple convicted for having sex on a beach - okay, that's a bit beyond the pale.  And the couple who were nearly arrested for sharing a hotel room, but got off, only after they produced a marriage certificate.

And now there is a couple who were recently jailed for a month for the crime of kissing in a restaurant.  Whatever next?

Glad you asked that question.  Now there's a couple facing a three month jail sentence for - wait for it - sending 'sexually explicit text messages' to each other.  Details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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