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16 April, 2010

Good morning

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 entirely.

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 Christmas Markets 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 Amsterdam.

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 Brussels.

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 markets.

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.

Please do check out the details of the cruise and the pre/post touring options, and choose to come with us.

So can you guess what I'm writing about this week?

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 soonest.

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 too.

In a 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 ridiculous.

Eight days later, and nothing has happened.  But, not to worry - we have Ray LaHood's assurance that they're 'on this'.

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 for it.

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 free enterprise.

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 will.

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.  Wow.  Insightful.

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 unresolved.

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.  See the 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 ago.

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 airline's 'Britishness'.

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 slides.

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 plane crash.

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 well.

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 Delta.

Biggest rating change went to Alaska Airlines, which plunged from 5th place in 2008 to 11th place for the 2009 year.

More details here.

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.

JFK 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.  Perhaps.

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?

Here's a 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 reading.

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 the time.

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 start 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 anything.

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 efficiency standards.

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 many.)

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.

More details here.

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 Zealanders.

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)

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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