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Friday, 19 June, 2009

Good morning

A quick note - next week's newsletter may come out at a slightly nonstandard time due to my being in England.  The following week will see me somewhere in Germany on our Travel Insider river cruise, and then the week after that I'll be briefly in England again, so expect intermittent newsletters rather than the usual reliable as clockwork service.

Still another week has passed and we're not really any closer to understanding the cause (or causes) of the Air France A330 crash back on 1 June.  The black boxes remain undiscovered, and there's only about another week of battery life before their 'pingers' will fall silent, causing the black boxes to then become almost certainly lost forever.

One reader wrote in to ask 'Why is it we end up spending tens of millions of dollars to search for black boxes instead of spending much less money to equip them with flotation and better location devices up front?'.

The answer to that question is that the people who spend the money to search for black boxes, subsequent to a crash (ie national aviation safety authorities) are not the same people who would spend money to design and purchase better black boxes up front (ie the airlines).

So here's an obvious suggestion :  Either make airlines financially responsible for the location and retrieval of their planes' black boxes, or have national air safety organizations subsidize the cost of improving the locatability of black boxes.

The present situation is appalling and unnecessary.

One more thought on this point.  If you watched or read 'The Hunt for Red October' and/or if you know even a little about submarine sonar, you will know it is incredible how sensitive military sonar systems are.  Modern submarines have become so silent that it is no longer a joke to say 'you search for and locate an enemy submarine not by looking for the noise it makes, but by instead looking for an unexpected silence in the ocean around you'.  Yet the best sonar sensors, plus the arrays of passive receivers spread over much of the world's oceans, seem to successfully detect the faintest whispers from enemy vessels that are seeking to conceal themselves as much as possible.  So why is it we can't detect two black boxes that are trying their hardest to be heard?

Although there is nothing substantively new to report on the Air France crash, it is interesting to see the initial hypotheses evolving into more cogent arguments about what might have happened, although even if we can work out what happened, that does not necessarily explain the underlying reasons for the events that transpired.  Here's an interesting article from Thursday with some up to date information and pictures.

As always, I've an ear for discordant views, preferring to seek them out rather than passively accept and relay conventional wisdom.  Two discordant notes are of particular interest.

The first is a belief by some people that the national interests of France, its flag carrier, and their ties to Airbus, will override any impartial aspects of the investigation.

People suggesting this say that way too much attention is being given to issues to do with external 'pitot tube' speed sensors, which may be taking on a scapegoat role.  Perhaps it is better to blame a relatively trivial inexpensive external airplane accessory rather than the plane itself, or its fly-by-wire technology, or its pilots.

The second undercurrent is the inevitable reappearance of vociferous Airbus-haters (prolific in this area due to Boeing's presence, but rarely if ever found in Europe).  These people will gleefully trot out their belief that all Airbus planes are poorly built and liable to fall apart at any and all opportunities.  They point in particular to the airplane's tail section which was recovered largely in a single piece and suggest this indicates the plane simply broke up under the stresses of the turbulence, with the clear (but unknown and untested) implication being that no Boeing plane would similarly break up.

A central part of these people's argument is that Airbus planes are built from more composite materials than Boeing planes, but that's a line of reasoning that will have to be modified when Boeing finally gets its long delayed new 787 launched (with a first flight now hoped for next month).

As for the underlying claim that Airbus planes are fragile things and susceptible to falling apart at the first hint of bad weather - the numbers don't add up to suggest this.  There are many thousands of Airbus planes in the air all the time, flying tens of thousands of flights daily.

How many of these planes have broken up in flight due to stresses on their air frames?  Yes, there was the AA A300 flight from JFK in November 2001, but how many others have there been?  I'm not going to wade through every accident report, so there might be some others obscured in third world countries, or so long ago as to have little relevance to the planes being flown today, and will instead simply point out that Airbus planes have an excellent safety record (as do Boeing planes) and we as passengers need have no fear next time we board either an Airbus or a Boeing plane.

I'm putting my money where my mouth is on that point, and will be happily flying an A330 from Seattle to Amsterdam next Tuesday.

One of the serendipitous aspects of this website is the subjects I write about.  There's no real rhyme nor reason to subject selection, and the semi-random nature of the topics is magnified by the further randomness of which articles prove popular.  One more bit of apparent capriciousness is the quantity of articles on any topic.  By way of example of all these things, when one afternoon, after enjoying some wine tastings locally, I thought to write an article on the topic, I never imagined that it would grow and grow as it did.  The first planned single page article grew to four pages, then subsequently I added two more pages, and now it is time to add still two more pages.

Alas, if you're not planning on visiting WA state any time soon (and now is the loveliest time of year to come) none of these articles are likely to be of vital interest, although wine lovers the world over may find the article on how/why wine costs as much as it does an interesting bit of analysis, and the article about wine in the US overall has broader appeal too.  But for my fellow Washingtonians, and for when you do choose to come visit, please now enjoy :

This Week's Feature Article :  Leavenworth Wine Touring and Tasting :  Leavenworth is one of my favorite parts of this state, which in turn is one of my favorite parts of the US, which in turn is one of my favorite parts of the world.  Add together a liking for wine, and here's a compelling activity in a lovely place.  The two new articles tell you what you need to know and where to go enjoy some lovely wines and wineries around the Leavenworth area.  Plus, of course, a microbrewery too.

A postscript note to this article.  Wine reviews tend to be couched in glowing and largely uncritical terms.  But not always.  Here's a wonderful review of US Chardonnays in the Wall St Journal that doesn't mince its words - I couldn't have written better myself.

Dinosaur watching :  So what is in store for the airlines?  A return to the good times, or more tough times?

US Airways CEO Doug Parker says they are seeing a 'nice uptick in leisure demand, leisure bookings, in the last couple of weeks which we believe is encouraging'.  In particular, he noted that bookings were increasing of their own accord, rather than in response to any airfare sales.

AirTran is also feeling very positive, and says it expects to have 'one of the best years in the company's history' this year.

Perhaps because of such positive sentiment, the airlines as a whole succeeded in introducing a $20 per roundtrip increase in most airfares this last week.

Delta initiated the move, and after Southwest joined in, the other majors decided it was a fare rise that would stick and all eagerly joined in.

In addition, all airlines are enjoying substantial boosts to their bottom lines as a result of the baggage fees they now charge.

According to the DOT, the top ten US airlines collected $566.3 million in baggage fees in the first quarter of this year, compared to $122.6 million in Q1 of 2008.  AA took in the most ($108.1 million) followed by DL ($102.8 million) and US ($94.2 million).

But, on the other hand, there are still some gloom and doom merchants, and invariably, when times get tough, the airlines look for handouts.  We currently see two very different strategies for handouts at work.

In Canada, Air Canada is asking the Canadian government for $200 million, saying the money could be in the form of a loan rather than a cash giveaway, and underscoring its total need for about $600 million at present.

Failure to secure this $600 million in funding may push AC into another bankruptcy.

In Britain, British Airways has a different strategy.  BA is asking its staff to work for free, and has asked 40,000 staff members to volunteer up to four weeks of unpaid work to help the airline over its current difficulties.  Employees are also being offered the 'opportunity' to take unpaid leave.

Whatever will be next?  Asking passengers to buy tickets but not to fly on them?  A 'profit surcharge' on all tickets sold - no, wait, we already have that.  But to preserve some decorum, they call it a fuel surcharge.

A bit of good news for us as passengers.  Continental's request to coordinate its prices and schedules with United Airlines - part of its transition to the Star Alliance - was given preliminary approval by the DOT (the people who 'just can't say no') in April, but now the Department of Justice is seeking to delay approval while they review the implications of an approval, particularly on routes where Star carriers are already dominant.

Delta and its SkyTeam partners have already been granted similar antitrust immunity, but it isn't clear if this will make it easier or harder for additional approvals to the other airlines.

Potentially we could end up with the three major alliances (Oneworld being the third) setting prices and services across the Atlantic, plus a few minor players who lack the strength and presence to have appreciable impact on the three giant alliances.

Now tell me how that massive loss of competition between individual airlines, replaced by coordinated pricing in three oligopolistic airline blocs will benefit us as passengers?

Congress to the rescue?  Not only is there a bill in Congress that might make it harder for airlines to be granted antitrust immunity (I'll believe this when I see it in ultimate form, should it ever get passed), but now there's a new bill that seeks to quality control carry on bags, too.

Currently each airline is free to generally set its own restrictions as to bag size, weight, and total number of pieces.  The Securing Carry-On Baggage Act, HR 2870, would create a universal size requirement for carry-on bags instead of allowing each carrier to determine its own size requirements.  Realistically recognizing that, for whatever reason, airlines refuse to enforce even their own carry-on rules, the bill also requires that these restrictions be enforced at screening locations through use of a template.

The bill would allow items measuring up to 22" x 18" x 10" - this is theoretically larger than the 'standard' carry-on bag size limit of about 22" x 14" x 9", but bizarrely, most carry-on bags are measured and quoted in terms of their internal size, giving a false impression of each bag's size.  Maximum external size - the dimension that would be measured by a template - is frequently larger by an inch or more, due to sticking out bits like carry handle assemblies and wheels.

Anyone who has watched boarding passengers flagrantly disregard airline 'rules' about the number and size of carry-on pieces, only to then board themselves and find no remaining overhead space for their own modest sized single piece, will support this legislation.

Chances are the airlines might too - now that they've successfully transitioned checked baggage from a hassle they didn't like, to a profitable revenue opportunity, it seems they should support this legislation, thereby ensuring its passage.

Here's another airline hiding behind Swine flu as an excuse for no longer providing blankets and pillows.  Southwest tossed their entire inventory of pillows and blankets, and now say they have no plans to return them to planes, for two reasons, both of which will have you rolling your eyes.

Firstly, they say passengers appreciate the extra space in overhead bins, and few passengers want blankets in the summer months anyway.  I'd have actually thought that a passenger wearing summer clothing would more likely want a blanket when airborne at normal cabin temperatures than a person already wearing their 'winter woollies'.

Secondly, they say that eliminating the pillows and blankets reduces the weight on each plane.  My goodness me - has it got to the point that the weight of pillows and blankets on a plane makes an appreciable difference in profit to an airline?

Oh, here's a third observation.  Southwest - which prides itself as being the 'no fee' airline, you'll recall - says that no decision has been made about returning pillows and blankets at any future time, or whether to charge passengers for them.

Read between those lines and get ready to pay for them if they should ever return.

The Paris Airshow is underway and there's been very little in the form of new airplane orders announced by either Airbus or Boeing, with both manufacturers struggling to keep their net new orders for the year to date at zero - order cancellations have been almost balancing new plane orders received.

There was an interesting, not entirely unexpected, and disappointing announcement from Airbus however.  As background, both Airbus and Boeing are very aware that their 737/A320 families of planes are aging and no longer represent 'best practice', such as can be seen in the 787 and A350, for example.

But these two families of planes are the 'cash cows' of both manufacturers, and there's no pressure on either manufacturer to come up with a costly new design - but only as long as the other manufacturer also doesn't come up with a competitor.

So both manufacturers have been warily circling each other for some years now; each hoping against hope they won't need to suddenly start investing resource they are desperately short on - both money and men - into a new plane family.  Boeing is still struggling with its 787 development program, and Airbus not only has continuing issues with its A380 but also has the completely new A350 project to attend to as urgently quickly as possible.

So each company vaguely acknowledges plans for the eventual replacement of the current family of planes, but neither is rushing to do anything about it.

Airbus has now said it doesn't expect to see a successor model appear until about 2020 - 2022, pushing back its earlier 2018 - 2020 projection by two years, and keeping it so far in the future that any airline needing 150 - 200 passenger planes has no choice but to continue reluctantly ordering A320 or 737 type planes.

Here's an interesting and thoughtful article about passenger rail issues in Britain.  While it is in part an advocacy piece rather than a fully balanced summation of issues, it is interesting to look at some of the numbers mentioned in the article.  Britain has added 300 miles of extra passenger track, and either reopened previous stations or opened new stations totaling another 300 stations on their network.  The article lists various major expansion programs currently in the works totaling about 24.5 billion (there are plenty of ongoing minor investments as well), and the UK subsidizes its rail network to the tune of about 5 billion a year.

If we convert from pounds to dollars, and upscale to reflect the difference between Britain's 60 million population and our 300 million, this would suggest the US should have $180 billion in major rail capital expenditures underway, and be funding rail operations to the tune of $36 billion a year.

Instead, Amtrak gets slightly more than $1 billion a year, and other than the $8 billion in high speed rail seed funding as part of the current financial stimulus expenditure, there's precious little else in the works.

It is hard to advocate funding ongoing passenger rail operations to the tune of $36 billion a year, but other countries do this on an adjusted per capita basis.  Shouldn't we be willing to at least spend a little more than the inadequate amount we currently do?  At present we spend too little, and get too little back in return.  Better to spend a prudent amount more to get a valuable increase in service in return.

I wrote about potential problems with the GPS satellites four weeks ago.  At the time, I was skeptical that the loss of a few of the satellites currently in orbit would make much difference to the GPS service we increasingly enjoy and rely upon in our cars (and in our phones), and I also crossed my fingers and hoped that the somewhat optimistic plans to replace the elderly and now failing GPS satellites wouldn't suffer any delays.

It now seems my optimism was misplaced, and the problem may indeed be serious, and possibly even more serious than was outlined in this earlier excellent GAO report, which makes surprisingly good and easy reading.  This Wall St Journal article indicates problems with the latest generation of replacement satellites - their new capabilities are interfering with and degrading the accuracy of the normal signals we receive, and while a loss of accuracy from +/- 2 feet to +/- 20 ft might seem trivial, the reality is that this loss of accuracy expands and multiplies way beyond the 2' (or 20') due to other inaccuracies inherent in the system.

How can it be that one part of the satellite is interfering with the functionality of another part of the satellite, and, more to the point - why was it only discovered after launching the satellite into orbit?  Does no-one in the development and deployment teams know of a concept called 'quality control'?

Besides which, the problems threaten to delay the desperately needed next generation of satellites, which means we may lose more satellites and more GPS functionality across the board during extended delays in commissioning the replacement satellites for those that are currently failing.  This means that the problem projections of barely a month ago by the GAO (which, to be fair, did express grave concern about the ability of Boeing and the Air Force to meet their projected and very optimistic schedules for implementing the next generation of satellites) may be proven to be a best case, not a worst case scenario, with a true outcome severely worse.

How did we find ourselves with a technology that is becoming increasingly essential not just to our military, but to all of us in our every day lives too, yet one that is becoming increasingly at risk from predictable problems that have been building inexorably over many years?

Who was asleep at the helm, and what type of accountability exists?

Here's a fascinating story of a new experimental Nokia cell phone that recharges itself by simply taking power out of the air - that is, it receives some of the omnipresent radio waves and converts the radio wave energy received into power.

The article thinks this is a good thing, and for sure, it is wonderful to have a cell phone that will almost never need to be recharged.  But I see it as a terrifying testament to the insidious and largely invisible growth of radio energy that surrounds us all, everywhere we go.  Call me a superstitious Luddite if you wish, but there's no way you can convince me that this level of RF energy is anything but harmful to us all.

I continue to be astonished that we have set ridiculously low levels of tolerance for all manner of toxins and carcinogens ranging from asbestos to lead to mercury, but this invisible toxin - radio frequency energy - is permitted to grow and grow with no control or constraint.

Look at the numbers from a different perspective.  Researchers hope to make an individual phone be able to extract about 50 milliwatts of power per phone.  Let's assume the power extraction process is 50% efficient, and let's say there are about 250 million cell phones in the US.

This means that if all the cell phones are netting 50 mW of broadcast power, in total we are taking 25 Megawatts of energy out of the airwaves.  While I'm pleased that there will be this amount of energy that could otherwise be absorbed by us, subsequently taken out of the system, what does that imply in terms of the amount of energy bouncing around everywhere at present?

Time to start wrapping ourselves in tin foil.

Some people swear by the value provided by Trip Advisor, which some people hold out as an example of all that is best in the new paradigm of 'Web 2.0' interactive and participative user-generated content driven websites.

Other people swear at Trip Advisor, and maintain the honesty and reliability of its user ratings are fundamentally flawed, with good ratings usually coming primarily from people directly associated with the hotel or other travel product, and bad ratings often coming from competitors.

Now there's confirmation of the suspect nature of some (many?) of Trip Advisor's ratings - from an unexpected source.  Trip Advisor itself is now flagging some ratings as being possibly skewed by biased reviews.

But some critics are still not satisfied, maintaining that the problem of bogus reviews strikes much more into the very heart of Trip Advisor's content than the website is yet prepared to admit.

Here's a good article that outlines the issues and problems.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A passenger was stopped while going through airport security in Bristol, England.  The screeners discovered a bottle of water in his carry-on, confiscated it, and allowed him then to continue on his way.

Hardly a horror story, you say?  Correct.  But, while these apparently alert screeners picked up on the bottle of water, they missed a six inch knife, which also had a three inch metal spike on its other side.

Ooops.  As some of us have maintained for a long time, the focus on bottles of water and other liquids is not only ridiculous on the face of it, but diverts attention and scrutiny from graver threats, such as the knife in this case.  More details here.

Now that Swine Flu is officially a global pandemic, you might feel reassured to know that many airports have thermal scanners to view people's heat signatures as they walk off a plane and into the terminal.  Anyone with an elevated temperature, such as might be caused by a flu infection, set off an alarm.

There are two reasons why this is only a minimally useful device.  The first is that people are infectious for a day or more before getting a temperature, and so many people could pass through these detectors without setting off an alarm.

Okay, you might say, they aren't infallible, but at least they help us detect people who truly do have a temperature.

Maybe.  But look at this article, which details how some people with fevers are taking 'anti-pyretic' drugs to to deliberately reduce their temperature, and thereby avoid detection too.  An anti-pyretic drug can be as simple as an aspirin.

So the scanners have fallen victim to the scammers.

If you visit Naples this summer, you might notice city workers in tourist hot spots, helping tourists - answering questions, giving directions, and even sometimes escorting tourists through some of the more dangerous alleyways and areas.  These helpers will be wearing garish yellow jackets and caps, almost like some sort of prison garb.

Maybe the reason for the color choice is because these people are indeed ex-convicts.  But, on the basis of 'it takes a thief to catch a thief' the Mayor of Naples explains this hiring policy 'It's true that we're entrusting tourists to former prisoners but who knows the risks of the city better than they do?'.

Mamma mia.

Lastly this week, and noting the ongoing level of interest in, ahem, matters to do with plumbing, here's a 'must watch' video.  I'm sure there's a way you can use the new-found knowledge from this video to win a bet in a pub - or, even better, on a plane.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and remember, next week's newsletter may appear at a different time to normal, and will be brief due to my being in England.

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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