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17 March, 2006  

Good morning

And greetings from York, England.  Due to traveling, this will be a short newsletter, but hopefully you'll agree a short newsletter is better than none at all.

York is one of my favorite cities in England, and I would like to write up a feature series on it, much like I did for Salisbury a couple of years ago.  So last night, feeling hungry, I decided to go out and enjoy a meal at a local restaurant as a practical way of researching where one could have a good meal.  Slight problem :  After eliminating pizza places, pubs, all the interesting eateries that close at 6pm (!), and Mexican restaurants, nothing was left.  York is not overflowing with restaurants, especially if one wants to enjoy fine English dining -no, that is not an oxymoron, but yes it is a rare experience.

So after a dinner at the hotel - the characterful Royal York Hotel, redolent with faded glory - I spent a quiet time looking out the windows towards the Minster (York's cathedral), and trying to comprehend the thinking and inspiration that caused people to create such enormous and enduring buildings, almost 800 years ago.  How many buildings are created these days with a projected life span of 800 + years?  Can we even predict what the world will be like that far into the future, let alone build structures that may remain useful and relevant in that future time?

One thing is for sure - the founders of York Minster would never have anticipated a time when a public house of God would charge people £5 each to enter the building (or £6.50 for the main areas of the Minster plus the basement, and an extra £3 if you want to climb up to the roof).  The Anglican Church's aggressive charging of entrance fees into its historic cathedrals is something true Christians should feel very uncomfortable about.

As so often seems to be the case, the in-room broadband wasn't working properly at the Royal York Hotel, and calls to the (800) support number failed to resolve the issue, with the problem apparently being with the wiring in the walls, needing an engineer to come on-site and fix.  Fortunately the hotel behaved very credibly, offering me the room adjacent to mine as a second room, saving me the bother of moving my stuff, and giving me a room to sleep in and a room to work in.  This offer was particularly generous because the two rooms in question were the two best suites in the entire hotel; I insisted the second room should not also be a suite but merely an ordinary room slightly further down the corridor.  If only all hotels were so helpful.

Which got me to thinking.  I regularly have problems with broadband connections at hotels, and wonder what your experience is, too.  So can you please click on the link below to complete the instant email survey - results will be shared next week.

Note this is only about WIRED broadband internet access through an ethernet network cable connection, it is not about dialup modem access and it is not about wireless/Wi-Fi access, just about wired broadband access :

I never have any problems with a hotel's wired broadband internet service

I rarely have problems

I sometimes have problems

I have problems about half the time

I have problems most of the time

I have problems all the time

And, while you're thinking about this, could you also please answer this related question by sending in a second email response.  When you do have problems, are they quickly and easily solved (ie with a single phone call to the support service); do they take some time to be resolved (ie a need for a call back from a second level support person) or do they take half a day or more to resolve?

Problems are usually quickly resolved

Problems usually take some time to be resolved

Problems usually take half a day or more to be resolved

Our Christmas Markets Cruise is now up to 28 people.  We still have some A and B cabins available, and if you'd like to join our group for this lovely cruise, you're most welcome.  I will be limiting the group size, and we're almost at the limit, but we could accept a couple more couples.  Please consider this wonderful pre-Christmas experience.

We're offering our own custom post-cruise extension to Prague, too, including a stop in the beautiful medieval town of Cesky Krumlov while traveling between Nuremberg and Prague, plus have an exclusive included side trip to Salzburg while on the cruise, and some other special events for group members while on board.

There's no feature column this week, but next week I'll be reviewing an Iridium satellite phone.  If you have used an Iridium satellite phone, I'd appreciate any comments you have to help ensure that my article fully covers all issues.

Dinosaur watching :  It is unusual that I find myself on the other side of an airline service issue to my readers, but - and unlike the several readers who have already written in about it - I find myself supporting Northwest's decision to charge a $15 premium if you want to be seated in a 'good' seat - an exit row seat, or an aisle seat near the front of the plane.

I'd probably choose to pay this, and more to the point, I prefer having an opportunity to decide for myself if I will pay extra for this or not.  If certain seats have more value than other seats, why not charge extra for them?  It seems prudent and sensible to do so.  It doesn't preclude the airline from giving these valuable seats, for free, to their most frequent fliers, but it does allow other passengers to also access the seats.

It is estimated this may add as much as $20 million in extra revenue for Northwest.

Northwest is being investigated by the Labor Department to see if the airline withheld payments into employee pension plans over the last three years and then filed for bankruptcy in order to avoid making a $65 million payment that was due.  Surely this can't be so...

One wonders where the Labor Dept was while United was walking away from its billions in obligations, and what the Labor Dept will be doing with Delta's underfunding of $11 billion in pension payments (almost twice the size of NW's total liability, and destined to become the largest ever corporate pension plan default).

Bankrupt Delta pleads poverty in submissions to an arbitration committee this week.  Delta told the arbitration committee it was tapped out and can't borrow any more money because it has nothing left to use as collateral.  CFO Edward Bastian said 'We are clearly in the worst shape and are the most fragile of anyone in the industry.'

The committee heard Monday that Delta would have to scrap the pilots' pension plan.

Being a profitable airline is really tremendously simple.  You sell your airfares for more than your cost.  And if your costs go up - for example, due to increased fuel prices - you simply increase your ticket prices.  The nation's only consistently profitable airline - Southwest - has given a demonstration on how to do this.  They increased all fares earlier this week, being their second increase this year.  The small increases - $2 each way for flights under 400 miles, $4 for longer flights, and $10 for walk up fares - are unlikely to discourage people from flying, but will have a big effect on Southwest's bottom line, potentially adding half a billion dollars to their annual profit.

This latest increase by Southwest is particularly significant because they've also increased their one-way fare cap, up from $299 to $309.  The fare cap had been in place for the last four years.

There was an interesting statistic about JetBlue in an otherwise vapid editorial in the LA Times.  Seventeen of JetBlue's last 20 new routes have yet to become profitable.  It is certainly true that the airline seems to have suffered from hubris, but their current problems are almost certainly surmountable and there's no reason to view them as fatally weakened or in danger of closing down.  And now that they've been humbled, let's hope they quickly get back to their mainstream business model and return back to profitability.

One interesting development they're pursuing at present is partnerships with international carriers, probably starting with interlining of bags (so you don't have to recheck bags when changing flights between JetBlue and the international carrier).  At present, most of the dinosaurs are making most of their money on international rather than domestic flights and so a move to strengthen the appeal of competing services will be of concern to them.

2005 should have been a great year for US airlines.  US Dept of Transportation statistics released this week record a 4.1% increase in domestic passenger numbers, up to 635 million, carried on 10 million flights.  Not only were passenger numbers up, but capacity was almost steady (a 1% increase), and average flight length very slightly increased to 867 miles (up from 864 miles in 2004).

Southwest carried the most passengers (88 million) and Atlanta was the busiest airport (39 million boardings).

Sometimes I think I may occasionally be too critical of US airlines and their occasional delays and cancellations of service.  Times such as when I read an article like this one, about flying on Iraqi Airways, for example.

But then I think of what I observed at Seatac airport while waiting to checkin for my BA flight to London, and am reminded again that possessing even a very small degree of intelligence is not necessary when working for an airline.  A passenger staggered up to the counter with a huge backpack bulging from every corner and with extra things strapped to the outside, and carrying various other bags and bits and pieces in her hands.  She wanted to carry the backpack on to the plane rather than check it, and the checkin agent quite correctly refused, saying it was both way too big and way too heavy.

So far so good.  But wait.  The passenger asked if she could remove some essential things from her backpack to take on board the plane with her, and the agent allowed her to do that.  So for the next five minutes, the girl proceeded to take this out and that off, eventually ending up with a quite small backpack while having her hands full of plastic bags and other things full of stuff.

Now get this :  She then said to the checkin agent 'Now that my backpack is small and light, can I carry it on?'  And the agent said yes!  So the girl went onboard with all the stuff she originally had, but instead of in a single backpack, it was now in half a dozen different bags, and probably took all the overhead space that three or four ordinary passengers could otherwise share.

The threat of bird flu continues to loom menacingly over us all, with the only good news being that with each passing month that bird flu doesn't hit, we have more time to plan and prepare, in the hope of minimizing the impacts if (when) bird flu becomes a human to human transmittable virus.

One of the measures proposed jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Dept. of Health and Human Services is to collect and store airline passenger data so as to make it possible to locate potentially infected travelers.  The guidelines would, among other things, require airlines and cruise lines to report any passengers who exhibit signs of an influenza-like illness. Airlines and cruise lines would also have to maintain records detailing the passengerís name, seat/room assignment and emergency contact information for up to 60 days.  The data would also include the passengerís e-mail address, home address, passport number, names of traveling companions and flight information, including return flight, as well as the passengerís home and mobile telephone numbers.

Being as how air travel is the major route through which this potential pandemic would be spread, and being as how air travel will be terribly affected if bird flu does become a problem (remember how the airlines suffered collapses in passenger numbers during SARS) you'd think the airlines would be eager to help with this as much as possible.

If you think this, you'd be, alas, wrong.  In comments about the proposal, British Airways said the data-collection requirement amounts to 'a wholly unreasonable demand' (even though conceding it already collects and stores most of this information through its Departure Control system.

The Departure Control system only holds data for 24 hours, however.  No big deal, you'd think - simply buy another hard disk and archive the data for longer.  BA said that updating its systems for 60-day storage 'is not feasible,' because to do so would force it to 'build a completely new database' in order to comply with the guidelines.

Virgin Atlantic joined forces with its arch-rival in contesting the proposal, saying this would cause considerable operational problems and additional time for passengers at checkin.

ASTA also sided with the airlines, saying this would impose a cost on travel agents, and described it as 'important that the travel industry not be presented with what amounts, in practical terms, to random requirements to collect, store and transmit personal information about travelers'.

A random requirement?  Really, ASTA, there's nothing random about this systematic process at all....

Interestingly, the privacy concerns involved in this data collection seem not to have worried the airlines as much as the trivial issues involved in collecting and holding the data.

There was another twist on the Loch Ness monster story last week, when it was suggested maybe Nessie (the monster) was actually a series of swimming elephants from a traveling circus, bathing in the loch.  This is a foolish and probably lighthearted theory.

There was another revelation as well.  Remember flying saucers?  UFOs?  Am I the only person who wonders why the number of sightings seems to have declined, particularly in this age where almost everyone has a digital camera or camcorder at hand.  You'd have thought there'd be a large increase in film of UFOs, but the opposite seems to have occurred.

Here's a possible explanation.  Maybe the devices were experimental and never made it to full commercial production.  But who would have been developing them?  The answer may surprise you, and came to light last week.

A student browsing through records in the European Patent Office website has uncovered a patent for a flying saucer, to be powered by a controlled thermonuclear fusion reaction, ignited by laser beams.

The patent was filed on 11 December, 1970, and finally approved on 21 March, 1973.  Some scientists, when approached for comment, said the fusion process does not exist.  Certainly, there's no commercial or official acknowledgement of the technology, other than in this patent.

The company filing the patent?  British Rail.  When asked about their patent, the UK Department of Transportation said 'We have no plans to introduce nuclear-powered flying saucers to the [rail] network.'

I briefly mentioned, last week, about about the expensive tickets to ride the Las Vegas monorail ($5 for a single ticket).

Here's an interesting article that reveals some of the ugliness behind this project; the monorail proudly proclaims itself as having no public money involvement, which just goes to show that the private sector doesn't always do any better than the public sector when it comes to transportation projects.

Reader David sends in a very clever website that provides realtime 3D views of flights traveling in to seven US airports as an extension to the Google earth project.

This Week's Security Horror StoryLast week I wrote about a guy in line with me, Charles Miller, and his problems arising from being on the TSA Watch List.

Reader Ruth writes in as follow up :

You really touched a nerve with last week's horror story. My husband, another Charles Miller, is also on the 'watch list'.  It doesn't matter that this 70-year-old Eagle Scout and retired Air Force officer had a top-secret security clearance during his professional life. He's still on the list.

But, the really strange thing?  He seems to be only on AirTran's list.  We have checked in with Delta and other carriers from Russia, to Seoul, to Egypt; all without question.  But let us try to check in for an AirTran flight, and we can't do on-line check-in, electronic check-in or curbside check-in.  We always have to step out of line, go to another counter, and wait for AirTran to call the 'special number'.

This usually takes another 30 minutes.  We have learned to check in at least 2 hours ahead.  By the way, not only does the watchlist only semi-randomly apply to flights, but we just renewed our passports without a hitch.

So it seems the watch list only works some of the time (last week's example) and on some airlines (this week's example), and doesn't have any impact when applying for a passport.  Do you feel safer?

Authorities evacuated Delta's terminal at LGA on Friday after a man left a checkpoint before he had been cleared by the screeners.  It seems they were doing an explosives swab test on his shoes, and the swab gave a possible positive result, but when the screeners turned back around, the man had gone, along with his potentially explosive shoes.

An hour after this happened, the authorities decided to close down the terminal and search for the man using tracker dogs.  He was never found, and normal flights resumed almost two hours after they were suspended.

TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis played down the incident, saying 'The fact that the machine alarmed should not be a cause for concern as some commonly found substances can set it off.'  This was probably a puzzling statement for passengers who found their flights delayed two hours.  One wonders what sort of a statement she'd have made if the man had been found.

You might be thinking that the Keystone Kops TSA Screeners showed incompetence in allowing the man to leave the secondary screening area, compounded by not being able to find him again.  But Ms Davis helpfully explains who is really to blame :  'The lesson learned here is that passengers need to pay close attention during the screening process'.

Yes, folks, it is not the TSA's problem when they let slip a potential terrorist.  It is the potential terrorist's fault, for not knowing what to do.  We're all expected to be better at the TSA's job than they are themselves.

And talking about bombs, while the TSA is busy running around losing passengers with potentially explosive shoes, how many people are they letting walk through security with no problems, while these people are test smuggling home made bombs on board planes?  As this article reports, federal investigators succeeded at smuggling home made bombs through airport security in all the 21 airports they tested.

The TSA's response was a wooden non sequitur 'detecting explosive materials and IEDs at the checkpoint is TSA's top priority'.  Their response does however beg the question - if you're failing 100% at your top priority task, is there anything you're doing right at all?

Here's another thing they're not doing right.  Months ago, I wrote about a widely reported loophole that allows a person to board a plane under a fake name, thereby avoiding the TSA watch list screening.  Matching passenger identities against TSA No Fly and Watch lists is one of the most talked about layers of defense in our security screening, and new systems would make the electronic scrutiny of who is flying even more rigorous/obtrusive.  But all this is a total waste of time and money if people can use fake names and avoid having their real identity scrutinized.

So what has happened in the several months since this vulnerability was widely talked about?  Unfortunately, nothing, as this article reports.  It also gives yet another step by step lesson in how to do this yourself.

I guess ensuring that only known passengers board planes isn't a top priority for the TSA.

So, our aviation security at present comprises :  Few or no controls on the freight that is shipped on passenger flights, an inability to detect non-traditional explosive materials carried on by passengers, and a low tech loophole that allows people to buy tickets and travel under an assumed name.  On the other hand, while we can now carry small pairs of scissors on planes once more, miniature pocket knives are banned.  So - do you feel safer traveling these days?

And, while 'lynch mob justice' overturned the deal selling the management of some ports to a Dubai company, we could as well have al Qaida directly managing our ports at present and the vulnerabilities would be no greater than they already are, as this article details.

I wrote a couple of months ago about surveillance cameras in the UK being used for the amusement of the people controlling/monitoring them.  It seems this type of 're-purposing' of surveillance cameras is not limited to Britain.  A Martin County, FL, sheriff's deputy was recently fired after an investigation revealed he used his patrol car's video system 'for unofficial purposes'.  Video from the camera revealed zooms in on bikini clad women, and scores of other images best described merely as 'inappropriate' for fear of arousing your spam filter.

Washington State has just come up with a new tourism slogan.  I'm embarrassed to repeat it; and alas, their 32 member 'Brand Development Task Force' did not include me.  However, we are told the new slogan is 'a distillation of the sense of wonder that comes with discovery,' according to the tourism office's Web site. 'It describes the moment when an experience becomes emotional. Where the traveler is no longer an observer, but a participant. The [slogan] moment.'

This article tells more, but tactfully omits the detail as to how much this wondrous new slogan cost to develop and now be added to all promotional materials.

Lastly this week, Sarah sends in this page about a restaurant and its interesting menu.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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