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30 April, 2010

Good morning

I've had a pleasantly productive week, with several things to now offer you.

First is a quick mini-review of a clever device which doesn't deserve a full page and thousands of words of commentary - it is a windshield/dashboard mount for iPhones and other phones and devices.  Unlike most, it is sturdy, well designed and constructed, and easy/effective in operation.

I've also updated the table of airline checked bag fees.  This is something I have to do on a regular basis, with the airlines continuing to increase their fees.  Interestingly, this time saw some decreases in fees - some of the ridiculous $200+ each way fees have been brought back to more sensible levels.

But there has also been a steady increase in the more 'normal' fees that most of us pay, with nearly all airlines now charging for even a first checked bag.

And another bit of updating to reflect the latest price increases, this time on the page about how to travel for the least cost on London's Underground.  This detailed analysis can be summarized in a single sentence :  Use an Oyster card and let it automatically assign you the lowest cost for your travels each day.

The various one, three and seven day passes are unlikely to save many of us much money at all, and the Oyster card makes it a 'no brainer'.  Convenience and simplicity are valuable attributes, particularly when traveling.

May I remind you about our Christmas markets cruise.  This is always a wonderful experience, and if you don't yet have plans for the pre-Christmas season, why don't you too escape the pressures and hassles associated with what should be a joyous time of year (and still is in Europe) and enjoy a charming relaxing and wonderful cruise along the Rhine River with me.  Full details here.

Although few can deny that airline competition is diminishing all around the world, there are some exceptions. One of the things that is consistently seen on routes when new competition appears is that airfares drop, and the number of flights increase, as do the number of people flying.

One would think this is a very effective rebuttal of the ridiculous claim which airlines make (and the DOT chooses to accept), with the airlines attempting to persuade us that by merging, and reducing capacity, somehow we as passengers will benefit, and no, fares will not increase.

Of course, unlike the many times observed reality and fact of the outcome of extra competition on a route -- so well known and universally acknowledged that it has even been given a name, "The Southwest Effect" - there do not appear to be any real world examples that reducing capacity and competition will be beneficial to us as passengers - a truly ridiculous claim the airlines delight in making with a straight face.

But, I am getting sidetracked. This is actually an introduction to a totally different topic. One of the routes which has been graced by increased competition is the route from the US down to Australia. This has been massively dominated by Qantas for decades, and not unsurprisingly has been the most profitable part of the entire worldwide Qantas route system.  For us as passengers, we have found ourselves paying fares that are massively more expensive, when expressed in cents per mile flown, than fares to Europe and most other long-haul destinations.

This has not helped make it easy to fly to New Zealand or Australia for a vacation, due to the massive cost of the airfare.

The massive profitability of this route has come to other airlines' attention.  Singapore Airlines has been attempting to get approval to fly the route for many years, but in what some people believe to be blatant acts of protection for their own national carrier, the Australian government has consistently refused to allow SQ onto the route.

Last year however, and after a fairly tortuous application and approval process, the Australian government found itself with no remaining alternative but to approve another carrier to fly on the route. This was Australia's own airline, Virgin Blue, which due to restrictions on the use of the Virgin name internationally (due to SQ having a major minority shareholding in Virgin Atlantic), started flying under the name V Australia.  At about the same time, Delta activated a long standing right to operate on the route as well.

All of a sudden, a route which had been massively dominated by Qantas, with a minimal amount of competition by United and indirect service by Air New Zealand, suddenly found itself assailed by two new hungry competitors. You can guess what happened next.

Airfares, which had been sometimes $1500 or more (between Los Angeles and Sydney) halved.  Business and first-class fares, which had been the high side of $20,000, also plunged (although this may have been due in equal part to the economic slowdown).

After a wonderful free-for-all for a while, Delta and V Australia have joined forces, and while we will probably not see airfares around the $500 mark reappear again anytime soon, fares are still appreciably lower than they were before these two extra airlines started competing.

The bottom line for us is that travel to Australia (and also New Zealand, which has become a related beneficiary to the Australian route competition) is now a very much better value than before, and if the cost had been holding you back from considering a journey downunder, that need no longer be such a constraint.

I have a series of pages about travel to New Zealand already on the site.  It seems appropriate to start adding some pages about Australia too.  To launch the new article series, I thought I would answer the question "When Is the Best Time to Visit Australia".  You'll probably not be surprised to learn that rather than answering this question with a single short sentence, I have ended up with a 3000 word treatise on the topic.

How can it possibly take 3000 words to answer a simple question like this?  Well, to find out, you have to go and look-see for yourself.  And so :

This Week's Feature Article :  When is the Best Time to Visit Australia :  This wideranging article considers many issues, starting with the weather in Australia, which varies greatly from region to region.  Also considered are issues such as airfare cost, daylight hours, Australian national holidays, and the best order to visit places in Australia.

Dinosaur watching :  It seems I caught Alaska Airlines out in their attempts to tell me (and all their other passengers) an egregious lie.  You've probably been told this lie yourself, too.

Prior to the plane pushing back, we are invariably told that we must turn off all our electronic items.  In the case of Alaska Airlines, their flight attendants claim it is an FAA regulation that all electronic items be turned off prior to the plane's door closing.

I've never really believed that, because it makes no logical sense to me that the FAA would require all electronics to be switched off before even the cabin door closes, while at the other end of the flight, allowing electronics to be switched on while the plane is still taxiing at considerable speed immediately after landing.  What conceivable harm could any piece of electronic equipment do to a stationary plane before even the engines start on the ground, especially if that same piece of electronic equipment can be safely operated when the plane is taxiing at 30 miles an hour or faster?

On my last few Alaska Airlines flights, I've noticed the flight attendants have become increasingly militant at enforcing this requirement, and rather than asking us to turn off our electronics immediately prior to the door closing, they have been demanding we do so 10 minutes before the door shuts, even while passengers are still boarding.  On a recent flight, I was physically struck by a flight attendant, who seemed to think that she was a school teacher and able to strike me as if I were a naughty pupil.  Actually -- wait -- teachers aren't allowed to do that anymore, as they?  But apparently flight attendants still can.  Neither I nor the passenger next to me had heard any announcement about needing to turn off electronics (especially so far in advance of the door closing), and the passenger next to me was horrified at the flight attendant's rudeness and her hitting me.

I wrote to Alaska Airlines eight weeks ago, on 3 March, complaining about how the requirement to turn off devices immediately prior to the door closing had become a requirement to turn off devices 10 minutes prior to the door closing.  My initial complaint was not so much the FAA regulation cited by the flight attendants (there's no point in complaining about FAA regulations, particularly to an airline that has no ability to vary the regulations) but rather the fact that, for the cabin crews convenience rather than for the passengers convenience, they would demand we turn everything off ridiculously far in advance of when they actually were ready to close the front door.

I got a dismayingly stupid letter back from Alaska Airlines three weeks later on 24 March.  The response, as so often seems to be the case when airlines respond to customer complaints, was an irrelevant piece of boilerplate that completely failed to address my complaint at all.

I have never understood how a supposedly sentient being can read a simple e-mail and then send a completely irrelevant reply back, and get paid for doing that as if they are doing their job properly; but I have seen it plenty of times when readers send me copies of ridiculous replies they receive from airlines to the simple problems they have written about.  It almost seems as if customer e-mails go through an automated system that picks out keywords and then sends an automated response based on the keywords, without any consideration for the context in which the keywords appear.

I expressed my dismay at their irrelevant nonreply, and a week later received a more intelligent reply.  The gist of the reply was that it is our fault as passengers that we must turn off electronics so far in advance of the door closing, due to some passengers taking more time than others to do so.  I don't know why, but something sounded false in the opening line of their response

Unfortunately, the policy of turning off all electronics prior to the doors closing is an FAA policy/procedure. Therefore, this would not be something that can be changed by Alaska Airlines

The more I thought about this, the more I found myself doubting the underlying truth of it being an FAA requirement at all.  So I wrote a polite note back asking if they would be as kind as to tell me which FAA regulation it is that requires electronics to be switched off prior to door closure.

27 days later I had heard nothing further, so I sent a follow-up request to the customer service agent.  I also sent a request to their Press Relations people, asking if they could help me get a response, and telling them that the extended silence from their Customer Service department made me suspect that no such FAA regulation existed.

Two days later I sent a further follow-up note to their PR people, this time adding that their own silence seemed to be nothing other than a shamefaced agreement that my suspicion of no FAA regulation existing was indeed correct.

That was on Wednesday.  I've still heard nothing from them, which leads me to believe that while there may indeed be an FAA (or FCC) regulation restricting the use of electronics during flight, there is no such regulation requiring all electronics to be switched off prior to the cabin door closing and the engines starting on the ground.

I've searched the FAA regulations myself, and have not found any regulation to support Alaska Airlines' claim that the FAA requires us to turn off all electronics before they can close the plane's door.  This seems to be the most relevant regulation, and it clearly gives complete responsibility for what may and may not be operated and when it may be operated to the airline itself.

Sec. 121.306 - Portable electronic devices.

(a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, no person may operate, nor may any operator or pilot in command of an aircraft allow the operation of, any portable electronic device on any U.S.-registered civil aircraft operating under this part.

(b) Paragraph (a) of this section does not apply to --

(1) Portable voice recorders;

(2) Hearing aids;

(3) Heart pacemakers;

(4) Electric shavers; or

(5) Any other portable electronic device that the part 119 certificate holder [ie the airline] has determined will not cause interference with the navigation or communication system of the aircraft on which it is to be used.

(c) The determination required by paragraph (b)(5) of this section shall be made by that part 119 certificate holder operating the particular device to be used.

So, it seems probable that Alaska Airlines has outright lied to me repeatedly (and to you too) about it being an FAA requirement that all electronics be switched off before the cabin door can be closed.  Every time we go on an AS flight, their flight attendants lie about this.  When I asked the Customer Service department about it, they too lied about it.  When I asked the Press Office about it, they ignore me.  When I tell the Press Office that I believe this means they are lying, they continue to ignore me.

So, who here is brave enough to confront the flight attendants with their perfidy next time they are demanding we turn off our electronics due to a nonexistent FAA regulation?  Because, as we all know, if we were to confront the flight attendants with their naked bare faced lie; rather than embarrassing them, we would find ourselves frog marched off the plane in handcuffs and banned from flying that airline again.

There is something extremely wrong with the world when airlines can lie to us without consequence, and if we dare to challenge them on that lie, we will be arrested and probably charged with federal felony offenses.

One last quick comment on the subject of using electronics on board planes.  At the end of this article, note the reference to the co-pilot who was texting on her phone while her plane was taxiing to take off.  If pilots can text while their plane is taxiing, why does Alaska Airlines make us turn off all our electronic devices ten minutes before they close the door?

Talking about passenger rights - or, more accurately, the lack thereof - Thursday saw the new rules and penalty provisions relating to airlines trapping passengers on planes go into effect.  The DOT is threatening to fine airlines up to $27,500 per affected passenger if the airline doesn't allow passengers to deplane prior to three hours of being trapped on a plane.  The DOT has refused the rush of requests for exemptions by airlines, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has said the new rule will be strictly enforced.

Will it really be strictly enforced?  There are already some massive exceptions allowed for in the rule (exceptions for safety reasons, for security reasons, or due to Air Traffic Control stating that deplaning would be disruptive to airport operations).

And will fines immediately be set to maximum?  Or will there be warnings and 'slap on the wrist' fines?

The airlines are pretending that any and every incident, no matter how trivial, will result in maximum fines.  I very much doubt it.

United's possible merger with US Airways Continental has slowed down a bit, apparently due to differences of opinion about the respective values of each airline at present.  But it will doubtless proceed as best the airlines can manage - indeed one commentator has speculated that we might end up with a three way merger, combining UA, US and CO (unlikely, but who knows).

I regularly express puzzlement about why airlines merge, because it never seems to be of any benefit to the merged entity.  A university professor who taught me economics published a lengthy analysis of hundreds of mergers, showing consistently all the way through that the mergers never added value or synergy to the new entity.  His conclusion was that it was as much about executive ego boosting as anything else.

But there may be another reason - not just executive ego boosting, but also executive wallet fattening.  Did you know that in the event of a change of control of the company, United's Chairman and CEO, Glenn Tilton, will get a $9 million payout if he loses his job within two years?  The President would get $3.7 million.  In total, the top five UA executives could gain as much as $17.6 million.

Wouldn't it be better to reward the company's senior managers if they can succeed at keeping the company independent and making it profitable?

Further to my polemic above about the ill effects on us as passengers whenever airlines merge, there's a good article here on the same topic.

It seems the airlines are playing a corporate version of the game of chicken.  Two airlines will start playing together - or to use the formal term - colluding - with each egging the other on to be naughtier and naughtier.  The game appears to be to see which airline will chicken out first and report the other to a regulatory authority, and then get immunity from prosecution in return for informing on their erstwhile partner in crime.

Virgin Atlantic and British Airways played that game, allegedly secretly fixing the price of fuel surcharges during 18 months between 2004 and 2006, before Virgin Atlantic went chicken and reported the deal to the UK Office of Fair Trade.  Four BA executives are now on trial in a London court, while the Virgin executives have been granted immunity in return for informing on BA.

But Virgin Atlantic seems to be losing a second game of chicken, this time played with Cathay Pacific.  The two airlines allegedly colluded on price fixing for fares on the air route between London and Hong Kong over a number of years.  This time, it was Cathay that went chicken and informed on Virgin Atlantic to the Office of Fair Trade, and it is Cathay Pacific who has been given immunity from prosecution.

Ah, the games the big boys play.

Talking about British Airways, they have been exposed as selling seats on flights immediately after the European air closures for exorbitant prices (several readers sent in examples to me) while - get this - denying those same open seats to passengers who had been stranded during the week of no flights.  Some passengers are still waiting - a week after flights resumed - to complete (or commence) their travels, while seats they could have been taking are being sold for many thousands of dollars to other people.

I've also heard stories of people flying on planes (not necessarily BA) that weren't full.  Clearly, the resolution of the problems caused by the airspace closure is not being well handled.

A terrorist fails to blow up a plane.  World governments panic, there's a mad scramble to rush out counter-measures, and hundreds of millions of dollars are spent, often to no good effect - but, wait, I'm getting ahead of this week's security horror story, below a few more paragraphs.

But when planes crash for other reasons, safety and regulatory bodies yawn, delay and prevaricate, sometimes for years or even decades.

Here's a dismaying article about a technology - head up displays in cockpits - that has been around for decades, and which if deployed could have prevented hundreds of commercial airline accidents.  According to a study by the Flight Safety Foundation, this technology could have prevented or at least reduced the severity of almost 40% of all major plane crashes between 1995 and 2007.

This finding is nothing new.  An earlier and well respected report, 20 years ago, into the same technology, also advocated its deployment.

It is still not mandatory, although some airlines are deploying it on a voluntary basis.

More details here.  Why the continuing double standard?  Why is the threat of a death from terrorist attack considered so much worse than the reality of a death due to a technological shortcoming of the airplane?

Is Google now taking a step back from making its own cell phones?  After the massively lackluster sales of its Nexus One phone, released first on the T-Mobile network and then subsequently in a second version that works for AT&T and many international networks, Google has cancelled its plans to release a version for the Verizon network, recommending that people instead buy a state of the art HTC manufactured phone that works with Verizon.

Cell phones are dangerous for your health, continued still further :  Yet another new study of the dangers of cell phone radiation has been announced.  But don't hold your breath waiting for the results.  It is proposed to be a 30 year study.

A cynic would say that the cell phone companies will strongly support this, because it has just bought them 30 more years of ambiguity, uncertainty and delay.  I bet the cigarette companies are wishing they'd advocated a 30 year study when the links between smoking and cancer were being debated.

Details here.

In other cell phone news, Apple has said it will announce the details of this year's new iPhone model on 7 June.  If you have been thinking of buying a new smartphone, you'll probably want to wait six weeks to see just how much better the new iPhone will be than the current iPhone, and what will happen in terms of consequential price reductions of current model iPhones.

And, in cell phone non-news, HP has bought Palm.  Who cares.  Palm ceased to be a major player in the cell phone marketplace perhaps a couple of years ago, and their desperate attempt to revive themselves last year failed to succeed, hence their sale.

As for HP buying them, I have one word to offer - Why?  It makes no more sense for HP - primarily a hardware company - to buy Palm (primarily an OS/software company) so as to have a proprietary software to run on the new phones they hope to make as it would make sense for them to buy/develop their own proprietary software for the computers they also make.

In addition, there are too many cell phone OS's out there at present.  Some have to fail.  The iPhone OS and Android both seem sure to survive, which leaves Microsoft, Nokia, Blackberry and Palm as other major contenders (plus even more minor players too).  At best, we could possibly hope for three OS's to survive (similar to the number of computer OS's - Windows, Mac and Unix).

HP would be much better advised sticking to their core business - hardware - and using the free Android OS (and/or continuing their past partnership with Microsoft) to power the hardware they design and build.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  After the crotch bomber successfully smuggled his crotch bomb onto the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit last Christmas, our government scrambled to deploy new countermeasures to make it impossible for future crotch bombers to succeed where the first one failed.  The key new process is requiring us to go through Whole Body Imaging devices - very expensive devices that use a type of x-ray technology to see beneath our clothes.

This is supposed to mean that it will be impossible for a terrorist to smuggle a non-metallic explosive through a metal detector which would be incapable of detecting it.  Hundreds and hundreds of these scanners have been ordered, and are being deployed at airports around the US and around the world as fast as they can be delivered.

There's only one small problem.  They don't work.

I've said as much myself on several occasions before, and have linked to videos showing trials of the scanners where people have successfully smuggled explosives through the scanners.  And now the former chief security officer of the Israel Airport Authority, a 30-year veteran in airport security and defence technology, and one of the designers of the security procedures at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, confirms what I've been saying.  He told Canadian parliamentarians probing the state of aviation safety in Canada  "I don't know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747.  That's why we haven't put them in our airport."

The TSA says they do work.  The Israelis - and many other experts - disagree.  Who do you believe?

Here's an otherwise ordinary article but with an interesting disclosure for those who read it carefully.  It tells the story of a seemingly deranged passenger who made some nonsense threats about smuggling bombs onto his Delta flight from Paris to Atlanta, causing it to be diverted to Maine.

But notice the interesting comment close to the end.  The flight had Federal Air Marshals on board - okay, so that isn't particularly interesting.  But the article discloses that this A330 flight had not one or two FAMs on board, but four (possibly even more that we weren't told about).

Four Federal Air Marshals?  Why so many?  What were they expecting?

If it takes four FAMs to secure an A330, how many does it take to secure a 747?  And how many more to secure an A380?

This also opens up an interesting question.  Which strategy would make us more secure?  Putting one marshal on each of four flights, or four marshals on one flight?

The real world issues aren't quite this simple, but nonetheless, four marshals (that we know of) on a single flight?  Mind you, Paris in the spring is supposed to be a lovely place to visit....

Many of us have come to view flying cars as about as likely to ever happen as flying pigs.  Every once in a while, a new flying car project grabs the headlines for a short period of time before then receding back into oblivion.

But here's a project that shows it might have, well, the wings to actually take off and succeed, due to it having the backing of - and funding from - DARPA.

Here's a question for you.  An international panel of 806 food writers/critics/chefs/gourmands from around the world has recently established a 'Top 50' listing of the world's best restaurants.  The US, the UK, and France.  See if you can guess which country had three restaurants in the top ten places, which country had one, and which country had none?

The country vilified for its cuisine had a restaurant come in as the world's third best.  The country which venerates itself for its cuisine had no restaurants in the top ten at all, while that new world usurper had three restaurants placed at numbers 7, 8 & 10.

The French are outraged.  The rest of the world is delighted.  Details here.

Lastly this week, please remember one of the underlying objectives of this newsletter - to hold the airlines accountable for their lies and deceit, by exposing their fraud to as wide an audience as possible.  You can help by increasing the size of the audience - please pass this newsletter on to friends and encourage them to sign up and receive the free weekly newsletters too.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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