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7 May, 2010

Good morning

As I write this, on Thursday evening, the outcome of the British election is starting to take shape, although exactly what that shape may be remains unclear.  Anglophile that I am, I have found the election coverage hypnotic and I confess I've spent much too much time watching the live feed on the BBC, and not enough time writing the newsletter.

As you may already know, I've been fighting what appears to be Carpal Tunnel Syndrome these last several weeks. My 'fight' has taken the form of using speech recognition technology (Dragon NaturallySpeaking) to reduce the amount of keyboarding that I otherwise would do.

I've been watching speech recognition technology for almost a decade, and occasionally dabbling with it.  Until now, the promise of what it claims to be able to do has always fallen much short of the actual reality of using it in a real-world environment.  But each time I've looked at it, it has been better, and this time, with version 10.1 of the software, it is possible that the technology may now be in an effective and usable form for many of us, some of the time.

Might it work for you too?  What should you actually expect?  I'm glad you asked me those questions, because I can now offer you the first three of what will be a five-part series all about speech recognition.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Speech Recognition Software : Is it Ready for Prime Time? :  Should you start using a microphone rather than the keyboard on your computer? Here is much of what you should know about this exciting and evolving technology, with the balance to come next week.

Dinosaur Watching : With a claim of 'expected net annual synergies of $1 billion to $1.2 billion and sustainable long-term value', United and Continental announced what they are calling 'a merger of equals'.  There are some ridiculous aspects to this merger, such as keeping the United name, but using Continental's logo and delivery; locating the headquarters in Chicago, but with the executive team to be primarily from formerly Houston-based Continental.  The merger is an all stock deal, with United shareholders ending up with approximately 53% of the new company.

The new airline will become the largest American carrier, taking the title from the merged Delta/Northwest.

It remains totally unclear how this new merged entity will benefit substantially more than it was able to as independent airlines and fellow Star Alliance members.  It isn't only me who is puzzled.  There have already been four lawsuits filed by groups of disgruntled Continental shareholders, claiming the transaction has undervalued Continental and their interests accordingly.

The whole deal is of course subject to government approval.  My prediction is that government approval will be forthcoming, albeit with some cosmetic requirements for a very minor tweaks and changes, perhaps giving back some gates or rights at a few selected airports.

But who knows.  There is a glimmer of hope - the DOT has actually shown a small piece of backbone in the last week.  In a ruling issued in February, it allowed US Airways and Delta to swap slots at Reagan National Airport in DC and LaGuardia in New York, subject to the two airlines divesting themselves of 14 slot pairs at Reagan National and 20 slot pairs at LaGuardia.

DL and US have now requested the DOT to approve their plan to sell the slot pairs (LGA pairs would go to Airtran, Spirit and Westjet; DCA pairs would go to JetBlue).  The DOT has, very astutely, objected.  Rather than allowing the two carriers to strategically pass slots to carriers which they presumably will feel to be the least competitively threatening, they are instead insisting that the slots be sold off in a blind auction, to whoever bids the highest.

A measure of the astuteness of this response by the DOT can be seen by what the airlines are saying in return.  You would think the airlines would be keen to sell these slots for top dollar, and this blind auction process seems to be an efficient way of gaining top dollar.  Instead, Delta and US Airways have said they will appeal.  One would infer that they don't want to sell slots for top dollar to potentially aggressive competitors, they want to quietly dispose of the slots to airlines that won't then use the slots against themselves.

There was a very interesting April result from Southwest.  They reported a slight decrease in flown passenger miles, a slightly greater capacity decrease, and therefore a slight increase in their load factor.  But all of this was rather unexciting and unexceptional.  What was notable was their average revenue per available seat mile increasing by an astonishing 18%.  Expressed another way, this means that Southwest's average fare has increased by approximately 16% from April last year to April this year.

Maybe fares were unusually low last year, but to see a massive 16% increase in airfares in a single year is astonishing.  Much more of this, and airfares will reach a point where passenger traffic will start to drop off again.

That would be a rather ironic outcome for the merged United/Continental. Because, when we read the code word "synergy" and the projection of billions of dollars of benefits, what we are really seeing is a masked hope that the two airlines together will be able to agree to compete less and fly fewer flights.

The theory goes (but not necessarily the reality) that by doing this, the airlines can stop offering low-priced fares, forcing people who wish to fly to pay the remaining higher fares.

This theory is only imperfectly matched by marketplace reality, and in particular, if airfares are starting to reach a high level, it is just not possible to push them substantially further.

Talking about Southwest, it has just been slapped with a $200,000 fine by the DOT for failing to follow the rules when bumping passengers involuntarily off its flights.  Details here.  And if you'd like to know what those rules are, I wrote a series on the topic here.

And talking about naughty airlines, my comments last week about Alaska Airlines refusing to respond to my e-mails, with the clear inference that Alaska Airlines are lying to me, continues in another week with still nothing heard from either their customer service or media relations people.

But I should not be shocked or horrified at the thought of an airline lying to a customer. Who here has not experienced something similar?

But few of us have turned around and sued an airline for $25,000 in damages. This is what is happening at present after American Airlines destroyed a shipment that was being sent to the American Museum of Natural History. The shipment - two barrels of African fish - was lost en route in Brussels. In explaining the loss, AA allegedly told the Museum 'that the barrels had to be destroyed because they were purportedly leaking and 'full of maggots'.

The museum is not buying that explanation and in its lawsuit says that 'explanation is not credible because the fish specimens had been preserved in a solution of formalin and then double-bagged, creating an environment in which no maggot or pest could survive'.

This Week's Security Horror Story : Here is an interesting story of a Canadian couple who ran afoul of US immigration officials when driving across the border into New York to go shopping for the day.

The fact that the guy was secretly recording his interaction with the immigration officials right from the very start, and his obnoxious attitude, does not speak to his favor.  And his generally transparent lies and blustering about 'knowing the law' was not only guaranteed to annoy the the immigration official, but also gave some grounds for concern.

But, in a free society, there is some vague amount of right given to the citizens of that free society to be obstreperous and obnoxious when dealing with law enforcement authorities.  They are the trained professionals after all, and it is right and proper that we should expect a higher standard of behavior from them than from us.

Actually, I thought that the official being secretly recorded once the couple were taken inside was being very patient.  But then, something happened, I'm not exactly sure what (and my feeling is the recording has been edited in a couple of places) and all of a sudden the man and his wife are both arrested, and a new character appears on the tape.

Most alarmingly, this new character is both apparently the duty officer in charge and also an extreme bully. "You're going to jail" was his triumphant and repeated chant.

What sensible person can possibly feel pleased at making criminals out of a law abiding (albeit argumentative) Canadian couple, who were merely seeking to travel to the US to spend some of their money in our country?

Talking about making criminals out of law-abiding couples, here is an over-the-top story of a young couple who got lost in Baltimore. They asked a passing by police officer for directions, and instead of getting the directions they asked for, they got a night in jail instead.

The clean-cut law-abiding young couple don't seem to have done anything to deserve that sort of response; in fact both the girl's parents are Pennsylvania police officers, and I have to believe that all children of policemen understand 'the rules' when it comes to interacting with police.

The fact that the couple were released without charge - but not until the next morning - speaks to the complete lack of justification for their arrest.

Are the police really on our side these days?

Good things come to those who wait.  In this case, we will have to wait until April 13, 2013.  That is the date that new security regulations will come into effect in the EU.  At this stage, it is expected that restrictions on carrying liquids onto planes will be lifted at that time.  There will also be a reduction in the current practice of rescreening transferring passengers when they are arriving from an approved airport.  More details here.

Poor old British Airways is facing the threat of further strike action by its cabin crew in May.  The cabin crew union had kept quiet about things during the general election campaign, so as not to hurt the chances of its preferred party winning (Labour).  But now that the general election is over and done with, look for more strikes, with ten days of strikes threatened in May.  Details to follow.

But passengers on this BA flight probably found themselves wishing the flight had never taken off.  Indeed, it seems that the flight should never have departed, because it left London on a 12 hour flight with four of its six toilets full.  The toilets were not emptied while the plane was in London.  Needless to say, the other two toilets also filled, with the captain suggesting that passengers avoid drinking any liquids for the balance of the flight.

Lastly this week, as I pointed out last week, the new whole body image scanners that are being deployed at airports around the country are generally considered by impartial experts to be useless when it comes to preventing terrorists from smuggling explosives on board planes.

But, as has also been discussed in some detail, they are good at revealing the shapes of body parts underneath our clothing.  This amusing story of a TSA screener now being charged with assault after his coworkers repeatedly poked fun at him about the small size of what was revealed underneath his own clothing is a good case in point.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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