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23 April, 2010

Good morning

Many thanks to the many readers who rushed to offer me advice (and sympathy) apropos my Carpal Tunnel Syndrome challenge.  One reader even telephoned from London and then faxed some helpful information on the topic.

As invariably seems to be the case, and no matter what the topic, there proved to be an abundance of readers with expertise and helpful information. Several readers pointed me to a new type of CTS surgery and even offered personal testimonials as to its effectiveness.  Should matters deteriorate to that point, I am greatly encouraged at what seems to be a massively less invasive solution.

I am continuing to primarily dictate my writing through Dragon NaturallySpeaking and suspect a few errors may slip in undetected, apologies in advance.

We have now had the first couple choose to join us for this year's Christmas markets cruise.  This year, the cruise is different from previous cruises; we are going along the Rhine River instead of the Danube.  In both cases, on both rivers, there are wonderful Christmas markets full of crafts and food stuffs, in both cases we will enjoy the beautiful vistas along a lovely stretch of river, and we will have a pleasant mix of food, drink, and entertainment as well as the fellowship of a group of like minded Travel Insiders.

I've risked overloading you with information about this cruise.  Here is the main page of information and sign-up form; here is a detailed day by day itinerary; and here is information on the optional pre-and post cruise touring  that I have also created.

So please do consider this, and hopefully choose to join us on what promises to be another wonderful experience.

Air travel over Europe is slowly returning back to what approximates for normal, although there remains a frisson of uncertainty about the volcano's plans for the future - the governmental aviation controlling bodies have not given the airlines a blank check to fly through all types and concentrations of volcanic ash; they have merely moved from a zero ash policy to what is hoped to be a less restrictive but still completely safe policy.

The new issue that is occupying the minds of many is one of compensation.  While a reasonable person would probably hesitate to seek any form of compensation from anyone over a matter that can't really be described as anyone's fault or within anyone's control, the aviation industry is not known for being populated by reasonable people.

Just how much did the airlines actually lose from this whole event?  We are told that the airlines suffered a loss of $1.7 billion in gross revenue during the time they could not fly.  But for an airline that makes a net profit of 0%, or possibly even runs at a loss, just how much net income results from each dollar of gross revenue?  One cent?  Less?  How much compensation should the airlines seek in return for losing out on $1.7 billion of gross revenue?  The airlines themselves seem willing to graciously accept the full $1.7 billion.

One wonders also as to how much of the lost revenue during the week or so of no flying will be re-captured in the weeks that follow.  Most people will still end up flying.

And a reader pointed out to me that the cost of buying a simple economy class ticket from the US to the UK in the next little while had risen as high as $5000; it won't take too many $5000 coach class fares to help the airlines claw back their lost revenue.

The airlines of course are seeking compensation from the governments that created the no-fly rules.  Their argument, and with the benefit of hindsight it appears to have some justification, is that the no fly rules were unrealistic and unreasonable and so unfairly penalized the airlines (and passengers) who could have and would have continued to fly most flights if the subsequently introduced more realistic rules had been originally in place.

Maybe the airlines truly do deserve something.

Another group who feels they deserve some compensation are the inconvenienced passengers.  In the EU, passengers are automatically entitled to compensation when their flights are delayed or canceled.

Although the preamble to the legislation countenances exemptions for weather related issues such as of volcano eruptions, the actual legislation itself only exempts airlines from being required to pay cash compensation in the case of circumstances beyond their reasonable control.  It does not exempt airlines from an obligation to provide hotel accommodation, meals, refreshments, phone calls, and transportation between the airport and hotel (see article 9).

As a result, airlines could potentially find themselves liable for many hundreds of dollars in hotel bills and related costs for each of the hundreds of thousands of inconvenienced passengers; and budget airlines in particular, who may have sold the airfare for less than $100 to start with, and in conjunction with it being an arguably inappropriate government fiat that prevented them from flying in the first place, are now and understandably saying they should not have to compensate passengers over a matter that was entirely outside of their control, and to a level that is many times the initial ticket value.

With so many passengers having possibly substantial claims against airlines, get ready for massive class actions and lengthy lawsuits.

As mentioned in one of my special newsletters earlier this week, one thing we can all keep in mind for the future is the appropriateness of our travel insurance coverages.  Some policies might currently be a little vague as to if they will cover flight delays and cancellations caused by things such as volcanoes.  Many policies now have specific guidelines about hurricane coverage and probably we will see, in the future, clearer guidelines about volcano related delays too.

Of course all (volcanic ash) clouds have a silver lining.  Not everyone lost out during the disruptions.  Eurostar were operating all their 58 trains per day between Britain and Europe at capacity, representing some 46,000 passengers a day.  The channel ferries were similarly full.  Looking further afield, the Queen Mary 2 sailed from Southampton to New York on Thursday, also full, and with over 1000 people on a waiting list.  Her next four crossings are all sold out too.

While many passengers had to suffer the indignity of camping out at airports, there were a privileged few who had access to airport lounges. Most international passengers flying business and first class get access to an airport lounge while waiting for their flight, as do some super elite frequent flyers, and anyone/everyone else who chooses to buy an annual lounge membership from an airline.  Generally it costs about $400 a year to belong to an airline lounge club.

With the problems of the last week freshly in mind, it seemed like a good time to write about airport and airline lounge programs.  While it is true that annual membership does cost about $400 a year, there are other ways, at lower cost. to access lounges on occasion too.  And so, for your education and enjoyment, here is :

This Week's Feature Column :  How to Access Airline Lounges for Less :  Here are four possible ways of getting inside airline lounges for less than the typical $400 annual fee.

Dinosaur watching : There has been a slight change in the cast of players for the next anticipated merger.  Apparently US Airways was a little put out to indirectly discover that at the same time it thought United was promising to become its best friend, it seems United was also getting hot and heavy with Continental.  And so US Airways has stalked off in a huff, and the game now seems to be between United and Continental.

You may or may not remember that it is barely two years since the last time UA and CO were rumored to be getting close to doing a deal.  Last time around, CO chose to remain semi- sort of independent, becoming a Star Alliance partner with United instead.

In my recent article about the lack of airline competition, I quoted the generally held definition of an oligopoly as being when four companies share between them 50% of the market.  If four companies share 80% of the market between them this becomes a monopoly (yes, a monopoly can allow for more than just one participant).

Currently, as measured by revenue passenger miles, the four largest US carriers (DL AA UA CO) have 60% of the market.  If United and Continental merge (which would then make them the largest carrier), the four largest airlines then would become UA/CO, Delta, American, and Southwest.  They would have 69% of the market between them; still not quite a monopoly, but absolutely completely and incontrovertibly not a fair open competitive market.

Interestingly, it is only recently that the airlines have become a classic textbook example of an oligopoly rather than something that would normally be assumed to be competitive.  Prior to the Delta and Northwest merger, the four largest airlines had barely 50% of the market, making the airlines right on the cusp of becoming an oligopoly.  Now, little more than a year later, we are inevitably transitioning from fair competition, through unfair oligopoly, and continuing towards outrageous monopoly.

Hello, DOT?  Is there anyone home?  When will you stop rubberstamping these airline merger requests?  When will you stop telling us that we as passengers benefit from the continued disappearance of airline competition?

Some divergent profit results are being reported for the first quarter.  Southwest Airlines is reporting an $11 million net profit, a turnaround from a $91 million loss in the first quarter of last year.  Delta also claims to have some good news, with a $256 million loss.  This is good news because last year it lost $794 million.  But although Southwest (and possibly Delta) clearly shows that it is possible to improve on last year, other airlines are not following its example.  AirTran has a $12 million loss compared to a $28 million profit.Continental reported a $146 million loss, $10 million worse than last year.

As we know at the pump, oil prices are rising steadily.  And so the airlines are once again flirting with fuel surcharges, with Delta leading the pack this week to institute a $20 round-trip fuel surcharge.

A couple of weeks ago Spirit Airlines introduced its now infamous carry on bag fee.  it did so under the guise of saving most passengers money -- it said that it had dropped some fears by an amount to compensate for the cost of paying for a carry-on bag.

This week, Spirit has a similarly positive way of introducing a new "innovation".  The airline has announced that the seating on its two new Airbus A320s will feature 'pre-reclined seats'.  What is a pre-reclined deceit (I said 'seat' but Dragon misheard me - there's something ironic about its mistake, though, isn't there) you might wonder?  This is a fancy way of saying a seat that will not recline at all.  All of a sudden, it doesn't sound quite so good, does it?

But perhaps there is a reason that these seats do not recline.  The reason is probably because there is no room for the seat to recline back.  Whereas most planes offer a 30 inch or greater pitch between seat rows, Spirit is giving us only 28 inches.  And if you think that the difference between 28 and 30+ is minor, next time you are in a plane, have a look at your knees and then imagine them being two or more inches closer to the seat in front of you.  Then imagine some more what happens if the seat in front reclines as far back as it can.

As I've said before, I'm entirely unworried by Spirit charging a carry-on bag fee.  But I don't want to add knee injuries to my wrist injury, and so there's no way you'll find me on a 28 inch seat pitch plane operated by Spirit.  We all have choices when it comes to whether we have large or small carry-on bags, but we have no choices when we come to sit in the seat.  No choices that is, other than the ultimate choice of not flying that airline.

Do you need a new computer?  Or, perhaps, a better question would be "How do you know when you need a new computer?"

As part of trying to get good use from the Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition/transcription software, it has become painfully obvious to me that I need a more powerful computer than the one I had been using.

But I was not certain just how much better and how much faster a new computer would be in the real world.  Sure, you can look at various measures like CPU speed, but these are not always directly linked to real world performance and actual observed speed in everyday computing.  In trying to translate theoretical specifications to real world results, I found an excellent free program that runs real world applications on your computer and benchmarks your computer's speed.  You can match your computer's score with the scores of other computers tested by the website, and other computers you might already have.

In my case, the main computer that I had been using for the last three years scored 532.  My lovely Dell laptop scored 920.  My little Netbook scored a disappointing 320.  Powerful new computers in the $1200-$1500 price range can be expected to score around about the same score as their dollar cost.

This marked a significant transition for me; something I have been anticipating for a while and have now finally implemented.  With my laptop being at least 50% faster than my desktop, my desktop is now obsolete.  I have an external scree,n keyboard and monitor connected to my laptop, which is in a docking station, and my laptop is now performing very much better in every respect than my desktop has been.

Best of all, when traveling, I don't need to bother about backing up or replicating or duplicating any files.  I simply remove the laptop from its docking station and off I go; and obviously, upon my return, I simply replace it back in its docking station and continue work.  Wonderful.

Suggestion :  Test your computer using this free software, and if it too is scoring 500 or less, and if you're starting to feel that it is slow, maybe it is time for you to consider an upgrade also.  New computers will be literally twice as fast.

As an aside, my feeling is that even my fast Dell laptop is a little underpowered for best results with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.  I will probably end up getting a new desktop computer powered by an Intel i7-930 CPU which I will then overclock by perhaps 10%, perhaps 20%.  This is probably right at the sweet spot of power versus price.  Unless you to want to deploy the Dragon software, you probably would not need a computer this powerful.

As for the Dragon software, I plan to review this in a week or two's time when I have given it a full fair chance to tune itself for best performance.

Imagine carrying a device with you that broadcasts your identity and location continually, wherever you are.  Now imagine carrying any cell phone - that's what it is doing.

The latest example of how our cell phones are increasingly informing on us, and how this information will be commercially exploited, is this new service being trialed at Best Buy and Macy's.

Talking about having cell phones with us wherever we go, any taxi driver will tell you that an amazing number of people leave their cell phones behind when leaving the taxi.  This also happens in bars, restaurants, and many other places.  So what?

The "so what" issue I'm writing about here is the unfortunate act by an Apple engineer who inadvertently forgot to take his supersecret new iPhone with him after leaving a bar one night.  This resulted in the phone being discovered and eventually sold to a high tech magazine for $5000, with the magazine gleefully publishing as many details as it could ascertain from the lost phone (Apple remotely disabled the phone, limiting how much could be done with it).  If you'd like to know more about the new iPhone, which is probably going to be officially announced in June, click here.

In quick summary, the good news is the new phone has a larger battery and a better camera.  The bad news is that although its screen appears to be appreciably higher resolution, it is also apparently slightly smaller.  This is against the trend manifested by most other state-of-the-art phones at present, and detracts from the phone's ability to display webpages and video.  Could it be that Apple has made the phone screen smaller so as to encourage people to buy both an iPhone and an iPad?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  What with the volcano preoccupying most of us all week, there's nothing truly horrifying to report this week.  But here's an interesting story of a woman's complaint about the TSA, and its charges brought against her.  what I find puzzling about this is the apparent lack of any video which would surely confirm/deny their divergent stories of what happened.  The TSA has shown itself to be very fast at showing us video to rebut unfair complaints about itself, so where is the video this time?

Here is an unfortunate story of a reprehensible act of abuse by an Air Marshal.  It reminds me of the very sad statistic that more Air Marshals have been arrested than they themselves have arrested terrorists, and indeed miscreants of all sorts.  Even if one increases the tally to allow for mentally deranged people they have shot and killed, the "positive" side of their ledger is massively outweighed by their negative.

Lastly this week, a request.  Do you know anyone who you think would enjoy receiving and reading this free weekly newsletter?  If you do, please forward this newsletter on to them with a suggestion they consider joining.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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