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5 August, 2005 

Good morning

And hello from glorious Havelock North, New Zealand.  Last week I opened by saying 'I must be getting old - I'm still feeling a bit under the weather after the 34 hour journey'.  Well; let me now tell you that ten days in NZ is a wonderful restorative and I'm again feeling completely relaxed and refreshed.

I need to keep reminding myself it is mid winter down here, because every day is sunny, with clear blue skies, reasonably warm, and just lovely in every respect.  There was rain one night, and briefly during a day while I was driving here, but other than that, it has been clear, sunny, warm, and dry.

I wake up in the morning to a lovely sunrise, and the loudest noises that interrupt me during the day are the native Bellbirds making their distinctive sounds in the trees around.  Tuis and other birds can also be heard, and when I lift my eyes from the computer screen, I look over to a lovely nature reserve.

And this is winter.  Imagine what summer is like.

Earlier this week I savored an astonishing rarity.  A 'view restaurant' with gourmet quality food, and at fair prices.  Usually such places sell you the view, with food as an afterthought, but the restaurant up Te Mata Peak offered wonderful food as well as quite literally a $1.75 million view (I was looking at vacant lots nearby, for sale at this price).

I enjoyed a lunch outside in the sun, looking down on the sweep of Hawkes Bay, from the Pacific Ocean, across to the art deco city of Napier, around the lush Heretaunga Plains, now liberally adorned with the grapes that feed into 30+ wineries in the region, and over to the distant mountain ranges and Mt Ruapehu, NZ's active volcano.  Stunning.

My lunch companion was late - she'd been at the dentist. I asked 'so how much do dentists charge these days?'

'Oh, they're dreadfully expensive' she replied. Upon further prompting she told me how her mother had recently had a tooth removed, and it cost the staggering sum of NZ$90 (US$63) for this tooth removal. Very expensive, indeed.....

The pace of life here is very different.  I've been wearing a suit because I've been in meetings, but when I walk down the main street of Napier or Hastings, or around the village roundabout in Havelock North, the only other people I see wearing ties are bankers, accountants, attorneys and real estate agents.  But that isn't to say the locals aren't sensitive to matters of dress - I went into a local convenience store and on the door was a sign reading 'Please leave muddy boots outside'.

As another example of life in NZ, the headlines this week on the front page of the local newspaper have been :

  • A court trial of half a dozen policemen who drove a convoy with the country's Prime Minister through part of the country at speeds over the posted limits.  They are being prosecuted for dangerous driving, and the fact they were escorting the Prime Minister, with their lights and sirens on, is not being accepted as excuse or justification.  (The Prime Minister was late for a rugby game, hence the speed.)

  • A local road crash in which four teenagers died after driving at stupidly high speeds.  This tragic event was lead item on the front page for three days in a row.  Even the country's Prime Minister was moved to comment on this, and it was the subject of a snap debate in Parliament.

  • Petrol prices have increased 2c a litre (US 5.5c/gallon) - this took up the entire top half of the front page last night.

  • Tonight's paper has a photo taking up half its front page showing a rider falling off a horse in a local horse race.

On the other hand, there haven't been headlines about Iraq, and the London problems have received only scant mention.  Some politicians have been opportunistically wondering if there are militant Muslims in this country wishing ill on New Zealand too, but I don't think anyone believes such a thing for an instant.

And while road safety seems to have been dominating the headlines this week, as I drive leisurely around Havelock North, I'm struck by several things :  No traffic lights.  No stop signs.  Very little traffic.  Nowhere is more than three or four minutes drive from anywhere else.  And, best of all, lots of free parking, wherever I need it.

Don't think that NZ has no interest in world affairs.  On the country's only nation-wide radio program, international topics were being given a thorough coverage on their prime-time talkback show this evening.  While I was driving earlier, the topic was 'Call in and tell us if you saw the Space Shuttle as it flew overhead half an hour ago'.  This generated rapturous calls from people who'd looked up in NZ's clear skies and watched it fly by (when did you last do this?).  And, later this evening, the topic for discussion will be 'Where in the world were you born from A to Z' whereby callers are encouraged to phone in, letter by letter, through the alphabet as the letter for their country of birth is called.

Earlier in the day, a journalist was grilling the Prime Minister on a contentious issue to do with education.  He asked a tough question, and she gave a direct answer, whereupon the journalist laughed and said 'Well, actually, Prime Minister, I have to agree with you 100%!'.  Apparently 'shock jock' and Rush Limbaugh style radio has yet to reach New Zealand, and the Prime Minister talks sense rather than soundbites.

These assorted observations are details which the transient tourist, rushing around, seldom slows down to notice.  But for people choosing to spend a couple of months a year here, living as the local residents do, they form part of the charm and character of the very different lifestyle experience New Zealand offers.

The State Department issued a worldwide caution on terrorism on Tuesday, and the warning referred to potential attacks against US interests in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  No mention of New Zealand.

Yes, a country where a rider falling off a horse is front page news, where the police and politicians are held accountable to the same rules as the rest of the nation, and where Iraq and terrorism are a world away is a refreshing change of pace, and I'll be sad to head back to Seattle on Monday.

I've separately briefed people who receive the New Zealand Winter Home newsletter on some of my findings in terms of creating opposite season homes for northern hemisphere residents, allowing us to leave winter behind and head down to NZ for a second summer each year.  This project is looking increasingly feasible; and if you'd like to receive these updates, please let me know.

Last thing on New Zealand (for this week).  Is there a reader out there who doesn't already know of our October tour to New Zealand?  People are slowly but steadily confirming their interest by sending in deposits, and if you've been considering this, now would be a great time to 'put your hand up' and join us, as I'll soon have to close the tour and finalize bookings.

If you are considering joining us, there's an interesting new airfare being offered by Air Tahiti Nui you might wish to take advantage of.  It allows you free unlimited stopovers in Tahiti and New Zealand, and the ability to add flights on to Australia for very little extra money.  Prices from $998 ex LAX and $1198 ex NYC.

There's no feature column this week.  I've been too busy here, and I'll also confess the more relaxed pace of life that pervades the area has encouraged me to take it slightly easier than normal.  But here's something reader Norman passed on that I'd like to draw to your attention :

ICE could save your life - Nightly News with Brian Williams - MSNBC.com Dawn Fratangelo Correspondent

NEW YORK - At Montefiore Medical Center, New York City's busiest emergency room, information is vital, and sometimes hard to come by, like when a woman in cardiac arrest is brought in alone and unconscious.

We were resuscitating this woman with no information, says Dr. Robert Meyer, and only two hours later did someone show up.

News that she'd had chest pains for weeks came too late, but she was carrying a potential lifeline: a cell phone.  That sort of situation is just what Robert Stimpson, the acting police chief in Madison, Conn., is thinking.  Now he's launching a campaign that's catching on: asking cell phone users to create a specific entry called ICE, or In Case of Emergency.

It couldn't be easier.  Enter the number of your emergency contact into your cell phone's address book. Label it as ICE and store it.  Paramedics or doctors can then access that number if you're in an accident.

A program like ICE, says Stimpson, would make our job much easier, save a lot of time, help the emergency provider, and ultimately, help the person in need.

Most of the 193 million cell phone users in the United States probably already have an in case of emergency number.  It just may be under something like mom.  Programming it again under ICE only takes moments.

There are some concerns, especially that the emergency contact be up to date about medical history.

The idea caught on after the bombings in Great Britain, where a paramedic conceived it.  Word spread, and a grass-roots movement was under way from the Internet to hospitals worldwide.

Its a no-brainer, says Meyer.  It's a wonderful idea.  It's cost-free.  It's three simple letters that could help save lives.

And now, I suppose I must turn once more to something that currently seems a universe removed from life in Havelock North ....

Dinosaur watching :  Cheap at half the price?  US Airways, presently in Chapter 11 and in the process of being bought out/merged with America West, announced a loss of $62 million for the second quarter.  The good news is costs per available seat mile, excluding fuel, were down a massive 17%.  The bad news is, of course, that this isn't enough when you're staring at a $62 million loss.  America West, on the other hand, reported a $14 million profit.

If you were making a slim $14 million profit, would you feel good at absorbing another company with a $62 million loss?  There sure are going to have to be some massive efficiencies in the merger to make this work.

July operating statistics are coming out, showing still further lifts in flight load factors, now ranging up into the high 80 percents.  These are numbers that only a year or two ago would have been considered completely impossible to achieve, but now are happening routinely.

United achieved an extraordinary 87.1% load factor.  Struggling startup Independence Air is continuing to improve in leaps and bounds, and showed a very healthy 79% load factor.  And winner of the 'most crowded plane' award is JetBlue, with a stunning load factor of 91.2%.  This is all the more incredible when you remember that JetBlue don't overbook their flights.

This week's non-news story :  United has asked for yet another postponement for when it files its reorganization plan.  Last month, they promised a plan by 1 August.  Now they're saying it will be about a month before they provide 'additional details on exit timing'.  Whatever that means.

United has announced a clever new program.  Many of their planes have an 'Economy Plus' section at the front of the coach cabin, with more spacing between the seat rows.  These seats have formerly been available only to their most frequent fliers (Premier and Premier Executive members) but now UA will sell you the right to be upgraded to those seats, for a year, for a flat fee.  $299 buys you and a companion the ability to reserve seats in these roomy rows.  Add another $400 and you get a year's membership in their Red Carpet Club airport lounge program as well (I remember back when the cost was $125/year).  Add another $50 and United will lower the qualifying requirement to become a Premier frequent flier, down from 25,000 miles or 30 segments, to 15,000 miles or 15 segments.

Bona fide frequent fliers will of course be disappointed if this reduces their own access to this seating, but for those of us who don't fly enough to become Premier frequent fliers, but who can look to doing some UA flights each year, this is a great deal.

The Washington Post on 2 August published an article predicting both Northwest and Delta will go into Chapter 11 in mid September.  The article says the airlines are choosing this timing so as to avoid 'distressing employees during the busy summer'.  I never realized the airlines were so sensitive and caring.

Delta's stock is now at the lowest recorded in the 43 years the University of Chicago has been tracking the stock, and has lost 25% in value this week alone.  The shares were at $4 in mid July and now are at $2.24, with trading volumes up.

Reader Pete has a suggestion as to why DL is losing so much money.  He needed to change a DL reservation he'd made on the internet in error, and so called the airline to ask them to help correct the flights he'd booked to the ones he actually wanted.  After a couple of transfers, he ended up speaking to a woman in their Customer Service Dept, who said 'If I change your flights, I'll have to charge you a $50 change fee, but if you like, I'll cancel them completely without penalty'.

Pete wonders why DL makes it easier for people to cancel complete itineraries rather than encouraging them to stay with DL and allowing changes.  He suggests DL should bone up on the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, in particular, Rule #1 which states 'Once you have their money, you never give it back'.

Bad news for Northwest.  AirTran - already battling Delta in Atlanta, is now bringing service to NW's Detroit hub, starting flights to Atlanta and Orlando on 8 Nov and to Sarasota on 15 Feb.  This is hardly a major incursion into NW's fortress hub, but it is a toe-hold and is likely to spark an aggressive response from NW.  Being as how AirTran has managed to withstand Delta's attacks against its position in Atlanta, we can expect them to be in it for the long haul in this move against Northwest.

Air Canada had an embarrassing problem at the end of July.  They had to cancel 4% of its flight because they ran out of pilots.  Their pilots had used up all their flying time for the month.  There's a similar problem across all of the UK, with some airlines having pilot positions open they simply can't fill.

The incredibly shrinking Boeing :  Boeing is selling off its factory in Arnprior, Canada.  The plant makes precision-machined metal detail parts and sheet metal subassemblies including complete electrical and electronic tray and shelf rack assemblies for all Boeing jets.  Boeing would rather buy these parts in from third parties than make them itself.

However, while not investing in its own inhouse manufacturing capabilities, Boeing has found a much more core part of its business to invest in.  It is looking to buy the building in Chicago in which its headquarters are located.

At its present rate of divestiture, perhaps Boeing will end up solely as a property investor and no longer manufacture airplanes at all.

Talking about shrinking, the average hotel room is probably somewhere between 150 and 300 sq ft.  But Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of no frills budget airline easyJet and the budget cruise line EasyCruise is now releasing onto an unsuspecting world his latest de minimus creation, easyHotel, a no-frills hotel concept.

The good news - room rates start as low as 20 ($35.50) for a room at the Earls Court London hotel.  The bad news?  Well, only three of the 34 rooms have windows.  Rooms range in size from 49 sq ft (with the ceiling only 7 ft off the floor) all the way up to 80 sq ft.  Amazingly, the rooms do contain showers, sinks and toilets.  And beds.  More details here.

In other hotel news, hackers can now access hotel mainframes - and possibly your email if you're going through a hotel internet service using the infra-red remote control sensors in hotel rooms.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Winning the prize for most egregious use of the 'security' excuse as a bludgeon is Boston's Logan Airport who deserve an entire wing in the Hall of Shame.

At Logan you can access Wi-Fi, much like in many other airports.  Some airports, like Las Vegas for example, even give away free Wi-Fi access throughout all terminals.  Others have various resellers such as T-mobile selling their access services.

Continental has been giving free Wi-Fi access in its Presidents Club lounge at Logan for the last year, while the airport itself charges $7.95 for people to access its own Wi-Fi service.  All of a sudden, someone in the airport's management crawled out from under the rock where they belong and noticed that Continental's free Wi-Fi was competing against their pay service; albeit only to CO President Club members, and only in CO's lounge, or within a few hundred feet of the lounge.

So what does this person do?  He has the airport's attorney send a letter to Continental, demanding CO discontinue its free service.

And the reason?  Nothing to do with CO's free service potentially taking a few paying customers from the airport's own public Wi-Fi service.  Oh no.  The real reason is because CO's free Wi-Fi compromises the airport's security.

Shame on Logan.  And kudos to Continental, now appealing the matter to the FCC.  More details here.

I read an interesting item in a NZ paper; I wonder if it has been given much coverage in the US.  The bombs used by the London bombers were home-made using regular household chemicals (you probably know this much already).  But did you also know these types of bombs - which are the exact same type of bomb as the infamous 'shoe-bomber' tried to ignite - can not be detected by Xray machines or bomb 'sniffers'.  These bombs have the wrong density to be identified as possibly explosives, so don't sound any alarms when going through checked luggage X-ray machines (or carry-on Xray machines either), and because they're not Nitrogen based, don't give off the typical Nitrogen compounds which bomb sniffing machines test for.

Airport security spokespeople dispute this claim, saying they can detect such explosives, but refused to say how.  The most eloquent rebuttal to this 'trust us, we know best' claim was from the Professor who originally asserted the explosives were undetectable.  To prove his point, he smuggled a small container of the explosive through six airports, including JFK and Tel Aviv, without it being detected.

Is your airport a winner or a loser?  In their infinite wisdom, Congress capped the total number of TSA screeners (even though passenger numbers are steadily increasing) at 45,000.  So the TSA has to shift hundreds of security screening jobs among the nation's airports to reflect the varying patterns of which airports are getting the most traffic.  Atlanta, the nation's busiest airport, will loose 21 screeners (after initially being told they would lose between 350 and 400), Portland, OR will lose 168, JFK will lose 162 and Pittsburgh will lose 122.  Las Vegas will gain 247, Houston 152, LAX 120, Fort Lauderdale 112 and West Palm Beach 101.

Although Norman Mineta continues to insist everyone be given equal scrutiny in our airports, and limits the amount of scrutiny that can be given to young male Muslims, the British are working from a different page of the politically correct manual.  British Transport Police's Chief Constable said his officers would not 'waste time searching old white ladies' during their current security operations in London's Underground.

My comment about the syringe notice in my Rotorua hotel brought a lot of responses.  Yes, indeed, it was probably targeted at diabetics and other bona fide users of syringes, although its lack of such qualification immediately made it seem like it was addressed more to drug users.  One would also think that bona fide users don't need to be lectured on the appropriate disposal of such things, although some readers pointed out this is not as valid an assumption as I'd have thought.

A reader in Iraq mentioned that when he was recently in Rotorua (yes, we have readers everywhere, and they travel everywhere else!) the different hotel he was staying at had a similar sign.  Must be a Rotorua thing.

This week's most stupid excuse for being caught drug smuggling award goes to a 33 year old South African flight attendant who brought 1.2 kg - $5 million worth - of heroin into Australia.  He had packets strapped to his body and more sewn into women's underwear in his luggage.  His excuse?  He thought the packages contained porridge.  His excuse (and actions) earned him 18 years in prison.

Travel Insider readers have a keen eye for a bargain.  So you might want to watch out for Vienna's prestigious Leopold Museum, who will now allow people in for free.  But only if they comply with certain dress code requirements.

I don't make the news.  I simply report it.  And so I'll pass this on without comment.

Lastly this week, copied from the main news page of another New Zealand newspaper this week is this story.

The flight had taken off a couple of minutes previously, and the captain came onto the intercom and gave his usual welcome speech, telling passengers how long their flight would be, when they'd land, and the other routine information.  He finished, and there was a click-ick noise.  He'd turned off the PA switch, but it had fallen back on again and his microphone remained live.

The pilot turned to his co-pilot and said 'I'm so bored.  My third Auckland Wellington flight today.  You know what would really make this flight perfect?

An unintelligible sound from the co-pilot was heard, and the pilot continued 'First, I'd like a pitcher of cold beer.  And then; that new blonde flight attendant.  I need to initiate her into the mile high club.'

The blonde flight attendant turned bright red, unbuckled herself from her seat and rushed up to the cockpit to tell the captain the microphone was still live.  A little old lady in an aisle seat turned to her and said in a kindly voice 'There's no need to hurry, dear.  He's probably still drinking his beer.'

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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