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16 April, 2010
The week started off promisingly with spring
in the air, but turned pear-shaped on Wednesday with first some British
airports closing, and subsequently on Thursday most British and
increasing numbers of European airports closing. Rather than
spring in the air, there were dangerous volcanic ashes in the upper
atmosphere from a volcano eruption in Iceland. These ashes can
damage jet engines and cause them to fail, and so airlines and air
traffic control either fly around any such plumes or else stop flying
If you're traveling to, from or within
Europe, keep checking on the status of your flight (and on the ongoing
volcano activity in Iceland), because no-one can confidently predict
what each subsequent day may bring.
Late Thursday reports suggest the volcano
activity is increasing rather than decreasing. Here's some
information on what has happened so far, and here's a link to an
ongoing Google newsfeed about the event that should give you updated
details of what further flight impacts may continue.
Perhaps now is not a good time to talk about
travel to Europe, but hopefully this unusual event will prove to be
short-lived. So, pressing on, I can now proudly reveal full
details of this year's
Cruise, which has been selected after the helpful feedback of
readers answering my timing question last week (thank you).
We're going to be enjoying the Rhine river
this year, with a one week cruise starting from Basel in Switzerland,
traveling through France and Germany and into Holland, where it ends in
The cruise dates are from Friday 3 December
through Friday 10 December.
Of particular note are marvelous pre and
post cruise extensions. Geneva, Lausanne, Bern, Zurich and
Lucerne are all on offer prior to the cruise, and The Hague, Rotterdam,
Antwerp and Brussels will be featured after the cruise. You can
enjoy as much, or as little, of either or both, and some of us will
choose to start and finish our tour in Paris, taking Europe's lovely
fast comfortable trains to join the tour in Geneva and back from
If you've come on any of the previous Danube
cruises, this is an excellent chance to see another part of Europe in
the same magical pre-Christmas time of year (and don't forget you'll get
a $100 per person past passenger discount).
If you've not enjoyed an earlier Christmas
market cruise, please do come on this one, this year. There are
just as many, or possible even more, Christmas markets featured on this
itinerary as there are on the Danube itineraries, and in France,
Switzerland, Holland and Belgium as well as Germany.
I can't really say if this is 'better' than
the Danube itinerary, because both are wonderful. But I can say
that if you're like the almost 200 readers who have traveled with me on
past Christmas cruises, you too are sure to have a wonderful time, both
on the ship, enjoying good food, drink, entertainment and times with
your fellow Travel Insiders; and ashore in the towns and cities we visit
seeing their history and beauty and treating yourself at the Christmas
Last, but not least, I've managed to secure
a 5% discount from Amawaterways for this cruise, so in choosing
to come with your fellow Travel Insiders, you're not only getting the
added value of the inclusions I provide, and the fellowship of like
minded travelers, you're also saving money too.
check out the details
of the cruise and the pre/post touring options, and choose to come with
So can you guess what I'm writing about this
This Week's Feature Column :
Rhine River Christmas
Markets Cruise : Share the beauty of the towns, the
Christmas markets, and the season on a one week cruise along the fabled
Rhine River this December with a small group of fellow Travel Insiders.
May I also offer a quick mention about the
Scotland Islands and
Highlands tour in June. This has proven very popular
indeed, and we now have 22 people confirmed. I've no remaining
hotel rooms, but might be able to get one if one more person or couple
wished to join us (I've set the group size at a maximum of 24).
If you'd like to join us, please let me know
Dinosaur watching : 'I'm from
the government and I'm here to help you.' Beware of government
officials with good intentions and a desire to 'help'.
After last week's surprising announcement by
Spirit Airlines to start charging $20 - $45 each way for carry-on bags,
there's been a rush of outraged protestation, not only by public
commentators, but by government officials and elected representatives
very gentle interview (notable for no hard questions and no
follow-ups) by Chris Elliott, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood
says (about the new Spirit fee) 'We're on this. Stay tuned.'
Earlier in the interview he says
And weíre gonna hold the airlineís feet
to the fire on this. Because we have an obligation to do it
and we have the ability to do it. I think itís a bit
outrageous that an airline is going to charge someone to carry on a
bag and put it in the overhead. And Iíve told our people to
try and figure out a way to mitigate that. I think itís
Eight days later, and nothing has happened.
But, not to worry - we have Ray LaHood's assurance that they're 'on
While the DoT over-promises and
under-delivers, our dynamic elected representatives are unfortunately
moving with lightning speed. Senators Cardin (D) of Maryland
and Landrieu (D) of Louisiana have introduced a bill, S-3195, that would
stop airlines from charging fees for carry-on luggage and require
advance notice of special fees for checked items.
Senator Schumer (D) of New York is
threatening that he may follow up with legislation to ban airlines
from imposing fees for carry-on items. According to
this article Sen
Schumer has also asked the Treasury Department (presumably it means
Transportation Department) to rule that carry-on items are essential and
therefore must be included in the ticket price.
Remember that moderate sized carry-on items
can still be carried onto Spirit flights for free. Who in their
right mind can say that an oversized huge heavy roll-aboard suitcase,
supplemented by a bulging big backpack, and with a computer bag also
coming along for the ride too, are an essential need for every
passenger? On the other hand, if they are, perhaps Sen Schumer
would also get the Treasury/Transportation Department to mandate that
airlines therefore provide sufficient overhead space for us all to
travel with our apparently essential multiple numbers of huge carry-ons.
Last but not least, Senator Menendez (D) of
New Jersey is calling for legislation to require full disclosure by the
airlines of all fees charged.
As for me, I don't see a problem.
I don't like being charged for carry-on bags - and neither do I like the
terribly unfair rip-off prices charged for checked bags - surely a
checked bag is at least as much an essential item for a person on a two
week journey as a carry-on. But I also don't like seeing people
flagrantly flaunt the carry-on rules/limits, and selfishly take up all
the overhead space so that when I get on board with my smaller carry-on
(which incidentally wouldn't be charged for by Spirit), there's no room
Most of all I accept Spirit's right to
set any policy and price it chooses for carry-on luggage, the same
as it can for checked bags. If I don't like it, I'll fly with
someone else - it isn't as though Spirit is a measurable player in the
aviation marketplace anyway.
To put it in popular parlance 'I don't agree
with their policy, but I defend their right to set it'.
Heaven forbid that our government would
start meddling to this level of detail over the operational aspects of
If the government is going to start
concerning itself with $20 carry-on bag fees, perhaps it could wake
itself up enough to take another look at airline mergers - surely a need
to regular $20 fees implies an admission that the airlines are no
longer truly competing with each other. Depending on how you
cast the numbers, airline mergers may already be costing us a great deal
more than $20 extra on every flight we take, and/or if not, surely soon
A source described as 'someone close to the
merger talks' between UA and US said they are currently very serious but
very sensitive, and could fall apart as easily as they could be
consummated. Which is a bit like placing a bet each way on a horse
race, isn't it - there are only two possible outcomes, and the source
has told us, 'off the record', to expect one or the other outcome.
If a merger does take place, it seems it
would be United that remains, with the US Airways brand disappearing.
US Airways, incidentally, still hasn't completed all the labor merger
issues associated with its 2005 merger/buy out with/by America West
Airlines, so labor issues are cited as one of the problems still
Meanwhile the director-general of the
International Air Transport Association (IATA) says mergers are
essential to cut costs and improve competitiveness and says
'...we have to consolidate in order to build more efficiency'.
The last time I wrote to IATA asking for
some of the statistical data they apparently hold, my request was
ignored, so I guess there's no point asking them this time to provide
any (yes, anything at all) data to support their claim that bigger
airlines are more efficient than smaller ones.
Until they do such a thing, my cold hard
facts showing clearly and completely the opposite remain unrebutted.
chart halfway down this article for the most visual and impactful
proof that bigger airlines are not better.
Talking about mergers, Republic Airlines has
announced that its two public branded scheduled airlines, Frontier and
Midwest will be combined into a single whole, with the new entity to
assume the Frontier brand. However the chocolate chip cookies
which were a signature feature of the former Midwest Airlines will now
become part of Frontier's service.
And Lufthansa, owner of the airline known as
"bmi" since last year has decided to rename bmi back to its former name,
British Midland, the name that bmi was formerly known as until 9 years
The reason for renaming bmi back to British
Midland isn't just because bmi is a stupid affected name, but because
the new German owners of the airline want to, ummm, emphasis the
Do you remember the controversy some years
ago when a British Airways 747 had an engine fail shortly after
take-off, on a flight from (I think) Los Angeles to London? The
pilot decided to press on with the flight (and eventually had to land a
bit short of London due to having burned up too much fuel by necessarily
flying lower and slower on only three instead of four engines).
Some people, including the US FAA, felt this
to have been an ill-advised move. But at least a 747 is blessed
with four engines, such that the loss of one could be followed up by the
loss of a second one and the plane would still have half its power.
Even if a third engine also gave up, the one remaining engine would at
least lengthen the plane's glide/descent and give the pilot lots of time
and options for what to do and where to land.
But if you lose an engine in a twin engined
plane, you've got no remaining safety margin at all. Lose
the second engine and you better hope you've got Captain Sully at the
controls at the Hudson River nearby.
One more thing about engine failures.
Unless you know exactly what caused an engine to fail, you have to
immediately and urgently start worrying that whatever mysterious thing
it was that caused one engine to fail might start working its mischief
on your other engine(s) too. Even if that is not the case, the
other engine(s) become more stressed and so more likely to fail for
other reasons. There is a statistically significant correlation
between the failure of one system on a complex device like an airline
and the likely failure of any other systems on the same complex device,
whether immediately/obviously related or not.
So, with that as background, how to
understand the pilots of the Cathay Pacific Airbus A330-300 who
continued flying their scheduled flight from Surabaya to Hong Kong
after the plane had one of its engines fail shortly after
reaching cruising altitude?
An A330 has only two engines, not four.
Instead of seeking the nearest airport to
land, they continued on their 4 hr 40 minute flight to Hong Kong -
mainly over water, and at times 300+ miles from any airport.
And - ooops, after losing power in the right
engine, guess what happened 20 minutes prior to landing in Hong Kong?
The left engine started to misbehave too, and for brief periods neither
engine was delivering any power at all in what became a harrowing
descent into Hong Kong.
The good news is that the plane landed
safely and the only injuries (8 people) were caused when the 322
passengers and crew exited the plane after landing, down the emergency
Was it really a wise decision to continue
the flight after the first engine failed?
Talking about crashes, an Indonesian
operated 737 skidded off the runway in heavy rain and broke in two on
Tuesday. Look at the
picture of the plane here, and marvel at how there were no deaths -
20 of the 100 people on board were injured.
My point is that airplane accidents are
more survivable than most people perceive. If you haven't done
so before, you might wish to read my series on
how to survive a
And now, if after these tales of airplane
misfortunes, you still feel like flying, how are you going to buy your
next airline ticket? Here's an
interesting story in Computerworld Magazine that - believe it or not
for a computer magazine - says that buying airline tickets through an
'old fashioned' travel agent is best. According to the writer,
it is quicker, easier, and may also result in a lower priced fare as
It is amusing to see how the people who were
first in the rush to abandon travel agents in favor of the internet are
now advocating a return back to travel agents.
The 20th annual Airline Quality Index has
been released this week by Wichita State University. Amazingly,
most airlines have scored better this year. Top airline was
Hawaiian (for the second year in a row), followed by AirTran (also two
years in a row), JetBlue (yes, two years in a row), Northwest (three
years in a row) and Southwest (up from sixth place last year).
Lowest rated major airline was Delta, which
came 15th out of the 18 airlines rated. American Eagle was the
absolutely lowest, followed by Atlantic Southeast, Comair, and then
Biggest rating change went to Alaska
Airlines, which plunged from 5th place in 2008 to 11th place for the
Our President's words are being described as
reminiscent of JFK's.
After eviscerating much of NASA's space
programs and making us reliant on the Russians for our ongoing space
commitments, Obama has tasked NASA with landing a man on Mars.
said in May 1961, when tasking NASA with putting a man on the moon,
'I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal,
before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning
him safely to Earth' - a goal successfully achieved barely eight years
later in July 1969 after a national effort and commitment that we can
all be proud of, even now.
And so, the words reminiscent of JFK?
As to when Obama wants us to put a man on mars, he says in what we are
expected to believe are similarly stirring tones, 'I expect to be
around to see it'.
When exactly will that be? In case you
wondered, Obama is currently thought to be 48 (although his
MySpace page earlier claimed him to be 52, and there is of course
all that uncertainty about when/where he was born, which rather than
resolving by showing his birth certificate, he instead ridicules people
who simply want to see it). The life expectancy of a 48 yr old
male with Obama's general health profile in the US is about 88, so that
means we can 'hope to see' a Mars Landing sometime between now and 2050.
So, Mr President, which date shall we mark
on our calendars for the Mars landing? It took us 8 years to put a
man on the moon from a standing start (Kennedy's speech was two weeks
after Alan Shepherd became the first man in 'space' with a sub-orbital
flight that traveled only 302 miles from Cape Canaveral. Today, we
have a space station, we land robotic vehicles on Mars, etc etc, but it
seems that we might, in about 40 years, hope to get a man to Mars?
And when our man finally does get to Mars,
will he be greeted by a pre-existing colony of Chinese, Indians,
Russians, or who else?
What part of this nebulous underachieving is
reminiscent of JFK?
fascinating article about some of the economics of cruising and the
impacts cruise ships have on the ports they visit.
Did you know that cruise lines make as much
as 30% of their annual profit from selling shore excursions to
passengers? Did you know that cruise lines make more money, per
passenger, from shipboard charges than they do from the up-front cruise
fare? Did you know that cruise lines get kickbacks of up to 40%
from shore retailers they designate as preferred? Well worth
My iPad is now officially broken, and
I'm replacing it later today at the local Apple store. Its Wi-Fi
has been insensitive - in places where my iPhone and other devices pick
up a strong signal, it can't pick up any signal at all. After
going through the usual charade of resetting this and reloading that,
Apple have now agreed that it might be a hardware problem, and are
exchanging the iPad for hopefully a better one. We'll see.
Quite apart from the Wi-Fi problem (one of
their suggested solutions was to attempt to upgrade me at full price to
a unit with built in 3G wireless data service too) I realized that I
haven't touched my iPad in three days. Why not? Because
there's nothing I need to use it for, nothing that it does better or
more conveniently than the other computer and phone gear I already have.
Keep holding off your own purchase of
an iPad as long as you can - better devices are being announced all
This Week's Security Horror Story :
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the
impossibility of securing mass
transit systems. A vivid example of this was offered to me
while visiting Disneyland last week, with their superficial screening of
bags for all visitors.
Although the screening was extremely cursory
- my multi-compartmented bag got only a brief 1 second look in the
center compartment. I could have had pistols, grenades, poisons,
explosives and all manner of other nasty things variously on my person
and in the other parts of the bag. But this brief noninspection
still caused annoying backups of people, all impatient to
spending money enjoy a day at Disneyland, with the most
annoying part of the delays being that they were for no good purpose
whatsoever, because these superficial non-searches were not achieving
But that's not my point. That's merely
setting the Disney scene. What does one do when one gets inside
Disneyland (other than wait in interminable lines, walk endless
distances, and pay exorbitant prices for everything)? One takes
pictures, right? Some of us use the cameras in our cell phones.
Others use small 'point and click' cameras. And others lug around
huge big professional cameras, with bags full of lenses, flash units,
tripods, and who knows what else. Back when Disney stood to
rip us off still further make a fair and reasonable
profit from selling film, they even had signs around the park suggesting
places to take pictures from. An appreciable number of amateur
photographers even go to Disney parks solely to take pictures.
But try telling this to the security guards
who accosted and detained an amateur photographer, citing security
concerns about his filming the exterior of a building in the public
normal part of Downtown Disney in Orlando.
Read the mild and fairly written account of
what transpired here, and
the reader comments beneath it which suggest that he is far from the
only person to have suffered such nonsense by Disney's security guards.
Things have gone way too far beyond
ridiculous when a company that is nominally as sensitive to ensuring the
positive experience of its paying guests as Disney is (was?) now allows
idiots free rein to first inconvenience incoming guests for no good
reason, and then to harass people who are so obviously and completely
innocently doing something that is one of the reasons why people visit
Disney properties in the first place.
On Tuesday last week the TSA announced that
iPads did not need to be removed from carry-on bags when going through
security. In an announcement that they seemed very proud to be
making (the subtext being 'We're so with it that we're making new
policies on the Tuesday after the weekend the iPad first went on sale')
they explained that nothing smaller than a laptop needed to be removed
from bags going through the X-ray machines.
While sending this release out to the press,
it seems the TSA forgot to tell their own staff. On both my
flights last week, I had to take not only my iPad but also my netbook
out of the bags they were in, and got lectured about being a naughty boy
for trying to smuggle them through.
When I told the screeners that their own
bosses had said that anything smaller than a laptop need not be removed,
I was greeted by astonished disbelief. And the steadfast
insistence to remove the two objects.
Do you remember the huge excitement in the
press about a month or so ago about the problem with Toyota cars and
their accelerators. Although - as best I can determine -
no-one was killed as a result of these problems, which were very few in
number, the matter made national headlines for day after day. Both
NASA and the National Academy of Sciences are now studying the subject,
as well as the DOT and NHTSA. Congress and the Senate both held
hearings on the topic. Close on 10 million vehicles were recalled
- all over some mysterious thing that occurred in a few hundred
vehicles, and for which there are convincing 'human error' explanations
that no-one has been brave enough to fully put forward.
Or how about the fuss over lead paint?
Or mercury? Or any one of many other things that we used to quite
happily and safely surround ourselves with, to no apparent ill effect,
but now spend extraordinary amounts of money to insulate ourselves from?
So what if I were to tell you of a
preventable something that it is generally agreed upon kills 10,000 or
more innocent people every year, and seriously injures another 100,000
or more? What would you say about that? Leave it be as
unimportant? Or push the biggest panic button in the room and
demand something be urgently done about it?
Actually, the Toyota example is relevant,
because these 10,000 or more deaths each year are in preventable road
deaths. But wait - before you start demanding we lower the speed
limit, raise the minimum driving age, and increase penalties for drunken
driving, these deaths are not directly related to any of these factors.
Instead, and based on studies from groups as
diverse as the National Academy of Sciences, the NHTSA, the Brookings
Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health, and even that
ultimate of scholarly journals, USA Today, these deaths are the result
of cars being built lighter and more flimsier than in the past.
Why are cars being built lighter than
before? Because that is one of the necessary strategies auto
manufacturers must adopt to meet the federal government's average fuel
Yes, the federal government's fuel
efficiency mandates are killing over 10,000 people every year, and
injuring another 100,000. And, please read back a couple of
paragraphs - the federal government knows this. Their own NHTSA
and NAS have done 'official' research proving it.
And as for the purported justification of
saving fuel, that didn't quite work out. It seems that when people
get autos that have better fuel efficiency, they drive them more.
(A bit like people who get low nicotine cigarettes, but smoke twice as
Oh - the reason for mentioning this now.
The federal government has just decided to sacrifice more Americans on
the altar of environmental political correctness. It is upping the
fuel efficiency averages to 35.5 mpg. How many more people will
die as a result? According to USA Today, 7,700 extra people die
annually for each extra 1 mpg in fuel efficiency.
Most of our upcoming
Scotland's Islands and
Highlands Tour, and the optional parts of our
Rhine River Christmas
Markets Cruise, will involve traveling by motorcoach. But
happily we have no Australians on board, and only (only?) three New
Which leads me to hope that it will be safe
for other motorists to be driving behind the coach, unlike the
situation showcased in this story.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
(and be careful behind Australian tour buses)