Please read on to enjoy, in this issue :
- More on our Annual Fundraising (of course)
- Enhancements to blog and newsletter
- A Mysterious Cockpit Button
- The Glamorous Days of Flying
- Wine on Planes
- Amazing Emirates
- 787 now delivered, but at what cost to Boeing
- Fewer choices to Australia
- Who will the Virgin airlines ally with
- The new Kindle Fire and its subtle trap
- More on US visa issuing policies
- The appropriate new DHS building (pictured at the top)
- Cockpit safety
- Ballpark safety
- Pilots get preferential treatment in heaven
- Oh - and don't forget our annual fundraising!
We've now had two weeks of our annual fundraising drive. At the end of the first week there were 103 supporters. Now, at the end of our second week, the number has grown encouragingly to 210. Thank you very much to the 107 extra people who joined the first week's 103 supporters, and as always, there's a special thank you to our latest super supporters.
This week's super supporters are Laszlo (all the way from Budapest), Steve, Steven (who is doubling up, he qualified as a super supporter last week, and now has done so a second time this week) Philip, Maureen, Bill B, Bill C, Bill W (but not 'that' Bill W!), Ahmed, Paul, Beverly, Lynn, Len, Paul, Neal, Max, Ken A, and Ken W.
And then there are two 'Outliers' (to quote Malcolm Gladwell) - super duper supporters Frank S and Steve K.
Please can we reach 500 supporters this year. Last year we only managed 422, but the year before saw us almost at 1,000, and after two weeks of this year, we're ahead of where we were two weeks into last year (210 compared to 195). Although, in ugly financial terms, 500 supporters will still be insufficient to keep The Travel Insider afloat for another year, it will buy me enough time to hopefully tweak the business model and to adapt, adopt and improve as best possible. Please will you become one of the 500.
One such piece of adapting, adopting and improving will become visible to you some time in the next few days - a new design for the blogging part of the website.
While I'm still very much out of synch with the latter-day obsession with 'social networking' and with some people's preoccupation with recording their views of the world in 140 character Twitter entries (I struggle to get anything said in 1400 words, not 140 characters!) I hope you'll find the new blog format to be more engaging, and please remember you're always welcome to share your thoughts on any of the items blogged. Every item has space for reader comments, be they in agreement or not.
Some blog layout issues and functions remain imperfect, but I want to get it live now - even at present I think you'll agree it is more visually appealing and functional than the earlier format has been. There'll be a day or so of confusion as the DNS services update, so if things look a bit strange, please simply try again the next day.
The newsletter format will be essentially the same, although some of the type styles might change a tad and, as you can see above, I'm experimenting with the concept of a table of contents. Is that useful for you?
If you like the changes, tell me. And if you don't, tell me that, too! It really is all about getting as presentable and engaging a format as possible for you - it matters not to me if my writing appears in any color or style or size or in any different color/style/size.
I've thought out loud, the last two weeks, about how much The Travel Insider is worth to you - it is hard to cost out an intangible, and the best I've been able to do is equate it to tipping people on your travels, or to buying cups of coffee. Of course, there are occasionally times when The Travel Insider definitely can save (or make) you money - for example, the deal where signing up for a free credit card got you 110,000 miles/points in their membership program; or occasional specials on things like noise cancelling headphones or who knows what else.
In addition to these calculations, one reader reported that while he was recently traveling internationally, he calculated that the data charges on his cell phone for receiving the weekly newsletters averaged $4.50 an issue. As I said to him in reply, that's way too much to pay (especially when the money was going to AT&T, not to me!). And of course, it is all free to you; but please do meet me partway, and honor your part of our social bargain. Please do contribute something.
I'm not going to keep pestering you week in and week out - that's another part of our PBS fundraising model. A brief interruption for fundraising, then a return to normalcy (and unlike PBS, I do it only once a year). So please help me try to finish this fundraising this week, and please respond now with a quick and simple credit card contribution from this page. Thank you.
Here's an interesting article about a copilot accidentally pushing the wrong button in his 737 cockpit. He meant to push the 'open the cockpit door' button to allow the pilot back in after a bathroom break. But he instead pushed a mysterious adjacent button - I'd love to know what it was. This other button, instead of opening the door, caused the plane to plunge an extraordinary 6300 ft down in 30 seconds, almost turn onto its back, and according to this report, to drop backwards.
What sort of button would cause such instant and extreme maneuvers? Is it an anti-terrorist button, as has sometimes been speculated, with the purpose to throw about and knock out anyone not strapped into their seats (such as terrorists advancing on the cockpit)?
(See also below for a couple of commentaries on the risk of terrorists breaking into cockpits.)
I wrote earlier in the week (see further down the compendium of articles) about the Phoenix businessman who received a three month jail term in London after being served too much drink on a BA business class flight to London. I commented that part of the fault must surely lie with his accusers - the BA cabin crew who both allowed him to get drunk and then mishandled the social dynamic when belatedly refusing to serve him any more.
In the good old days, cabin crew were indeed trained in such matters, as this delightful picture reveals. Indeed, you might like to flip back and forwards through the complete collection of images, and reminisce about how times have changed, mainly for the worse, on our flights.
One of the definite deteriorations that has occurred on most flights has been a diminishing quality in the wines on offer. Maybe this is a deliberate way of reducing the number of passengers who may choose to become drunk and subsequently disorderly?
So it was with delight that I read about Malaysian Airlines returning some great quality wines to their premium cabins, including vintage year Dom Pérignon champagne, Chateau Léoville Poyferré Grand Cru Bordeaux and Frédéric Magnien Meursault White Burgundy. Mmmmm - all sound good, particularly late on a Thursday night with the newsletter almost finished!
The airline recently appointed one of the only 289 'Masters of Wine' worldwide as their wine consultant, and at least so far, it seems they're actually following some of his recommendations. Bravo.
Talking about fine wines and 'the good old days' there is of course one airline - actually, I'm going to call it the 'un-airline' because it does most things completely differently from traditional airlines - where high standards remain the norm for their cabin crew, their planes, their cuisine and their drinks (to say nothing of their 1000+ channels of entertainment on their in-flight entertainment systems).
I'm talking of course about that extraordinary airline, Emirates - an airline that, based on current rates of growth (whether measured in airplane purchases, routes flown, or profit earned), promises to become the world's largest carrier before too much longer.
So imagine my delight to read that Emirates is about to start daily service to my home town of Seattle on 1 March 2012. I'm astounded. Daily service (probably in one of their 777 planes) between Seattle and Dubai? Although I've been teasing Emirates for some time that they should start service to Seattle, I never really expected them to do so. Does that mean I'll have to deliver on my (equally joking!) promise to fill their planes if they bring them here?
It is 7400 miles on the shortest (polar) route from Seattle to Dubai. But where would people fly on to from Dubai if starting their journey in Seattle - or, equally, where would people come from, hubbing through Dubai, and on to Seattle? Maybe some of India, much of the countries from south-east China through to Turkey, all the Arab states of course, over to Egypt, and down through eastern Africa, but probably not western Europe, southeast Asia, or Australia.
Okay - so that's probably more than enough, especially if the Indian flights compete reasonably in terms of time and cost with other alternatives presently available (three hours flying time from Dubai gets a plane to most of India's major cities).
Emirates are also starting daily service to Dallas on 2 February, and said they hope to double the US cities they serve in the next few years. That's got to be good news, and the only thing that could possibly make it better would be adding a second hub somewhere closer to Europe. Dubai is an excellent location for some routes, but on the highest traffic routes between the US and other countries (ie to/from western Europe, eastern China/Japan, and Australia) it is just plain in the wrong place.
Talking about planes, everything eventually has an ending, yes. And now, 40 months late, it seems the 787 development saga might possibly be coming to an end, with the weekend just past seeing the first 787 delivered to ANA and shortly to start regular commercial service.
Except - 'regular' commercial service? ANA will be operating the plane on flights between Tokyo, Okayama and Hiroshima. These are about 500 and 600 mile flights, very short haul, and far from what the 787 was originally designed for. So why is ANA, an airline that operates international long haul flights to Europe, the US and other Asian countries - using the 787 on short domestic sectors?
That's a very good question, the obscured answer to which hints at enduring issues with the 787. In his typical Australian straight-talking manner, Ben Sandilands claims the 787 is 'so heavy it is useless for long range flights'. That might be a slight exaggeration, but it does seem that the promises, expectations and hopes for the 787's weight, payload and range have not been met. Exactly what the shortfalls are remains unclear at this stage, but it does seem that the plane is appreciably inferior to what was originally hoped for.
So just exactly how fuel efficient will it be? How revolutionary is its composite construction? Boeing's not sharing any specifics right now.
And how about the overall profitability to Boeing of its 787 program? That's also a completely obfuscated matter, albeit at least partially for bona fide reasons of commercial confidentiality - although even that, a bit like military secrets, seems to be as much an excuse for avoiding public embarrassment. Just as opposing countries usually know a great deal about their enemy's war preparations, I'll wager that Airbus knows almost as much about the 787 as does Boeing itself, and so too therefore do airline purchasing managers. The only people being truly kept in the dark are Boeing's investors and the flying public.
Here's an interesting article full of forensic accounting guesswork, but which estimates the approximate costs to Boeing of the 787 program as being in the order of $32 billion. And that estimate does not include many billions of dollars in compensation payments Boeing has had to make to airlines for delivery delays, and probably additional billions to compensate airlines if the 787 does not meet its promised performance specifications.
The original estimated cost of developing the 787 was about $5.8 billion.
The article suggests that it will require the sale of more than a thousand of the planes before the program breaks even - possibly requiring almost 2,000 planes to be sold to finally reach profitability. 821 have been sold so far.
Note also in the article reference to as yet unresolved mechanical and software problems with the planes.
So - will I be rushing to be one of the first people to fly on a 787? Although I'd have loved to be one of the first on the A380, and felt serenely confident when enjoying an A380 flight on Emirates a couple of years back, I'm far from comfortable at the thought of taking a 787 flight any time soon.
Choices for flying between the US and Australia have suddenly diminished. The last couple of weeks have seen final approvals given to both a Delta/Virgin Australia tie-up and a Qantas/American Airlines tie-up. Add to that the Air NZ/United tie-up, and you end up with the classic three-way split between the three major alliances.
What a shame Dubai isn't in line with Australia and the US. One of Emirates distinctive features is that it feels no need to join any alliance. If there's a profitable route, it will fly the route itself and keep the profit for itself, too. If the route isn't profitable, it wants no part of it. That almost sounds sensible, doesn't it.
The Delta/Virgin Australia tie-up, under the auspices of the Skyteam alliance, is interesting and confusing. The various Virgin airlines around the world, all owned and controlled to a greater or lesser extent by Sir Richard Branson, are believed to be hunting around for an alliance that will accept them. You might thing that the tie up between Delta and Virgin Australia is a pre-cursor to entering the Skyteam alliance, but at the same time, Air New Zealand has been buying up shares in Virgin Australia (and now is at 19.9% - any more would be difficult to obtain for several reasons).
Air NZ (of the Star alliance) is working closely with Virgin Australia on trans-Tasman services, and let's not forget that Virgin Atlantic is 49% owned by Star alliance member, Singapore Airlines (although they are reputedly keen to sell their stake in VS).
As for Virgin America, it has relationships with just about everyone, ranging from Cathay and Qantas (Oneworld) to South African Airways and Singapore Airlines (Star) and even to Emirates and El Al. A very promiscuous Virgin, indeed (yes, I know - I had to say that, didn't I!).
The big news in the personal electronics world this week was Amazon's launch of its new Android tablet type eBook reader - the Fire. Although this was widely anticipated, Amazon managed a double surprise - first, the new Fire product is priced at only $199 (most predictions suggested $249); and secondly, it simultaneously added three new Kindle style eBook readers too, with the entry level reader now available for a mere $79. Contrast that with the Kindle's introduction, not quite four years ago, when it was priced at $399.
There is no doubt that Amazon's new products will be winners, and indeed at present they are the top four best sellers of anything/everything on Amazon - first is the Fire, second is the $79 Kindle, then third and fourth are the $99 and $149 Kindles.
But not so widely commented on is the 'sting in the tail' of Amazon's new products. One of the new services offered by Amazon is its Silk web browser. Ostensibly (and probably in reality too) it is a very clever way of causing all web pages to load faster on mobile devices, and with less bandwidth required. What is not to like about that?
Well, the sting in the tail is that the Silk service also allows Amazon to record every web page you visit, and also all the data you send and retrieve to those web pages. In its mildest form, this would allow Amazon to enhance its 'product recommendations' to you the next time you visit Amazon, by reflecting not only what you've both browsed and/or bought on Amazon, but also what you've browsed and/or bought anywhere/everywhere else as well.
In a more aggressive form, it gives Amazon constantly updated real-time information about competitors and their pricing for products also sold by Amazon; and it also knows what you know. If you visited three other websites looking for a specific product, and if those websites shows prices of $25, $26 and $27, then if you visited Amazon to check the price there, what do you think the chances would be of Amazon showing you the product for $20?
At least in theory, Amazon should be able to modify the price it presents to you based on the $25 - 27 prices you've seen elsewhere and offer it for $24.95 (Amazon has been caught out experimenting with individualized pricing in the past, so this is far from hypothetical).
But wait, there's more. Amazon can use this information in other respects, too. It can sell it to other companies so they know what to pitch to you and how to pitch it. Heck, it could even sell it to Homeland Security - our internet usage, the sites we visit, the emails we send and receive, all of this becomes known by Amazon.
Amazon's capabilities to know everything about you put it in the top tier of intrusiveness. Probably no-one else other than Google can build such an all-encompassing perspective on your life and how you live it.
But - you say; but at least this is only on the Fire. Amazon doesn't know what I do on my laptop or desktop, and that is where I do most of my internet activity.
Well, yes, that is true, today. But for how much longer. Amazon's director in charge of their Silk browser is quoted in this article as giving a very broad hint that the Silk browser will likely be released to operate on other internet platforms too.
One thing's for sure. Amazon has come a long way from simply being 'the biggest bookstore on planet Earth'. Selling physical books is now the smallest part of what it does at present, and what it wishes to do in the future.
One of our focus topics of late is the vital importance of tourism to the US economy, and how our government's tourist-unfriendly restrictive visa issuing policies are costing us big money. To be more precise, a return to our former slightly more relaxed approach to granting visas is believed to represent 1.3 million new jobs that would be created by the influx of foreign visitors, and a $859 billion (yes, billion, not million) boost to our economy as a whole. We can't afford the luxury of ridiculous xenophobia and paranoia.
Here are three interesting items on this topic.
First, I got a press release from Visit Britain and British Airways on Thursday. To skip to the bottom line, there's a $150 discount available on BA's Premium Economy fares at present, and if you're looking at traveling from San Francisco or Los Angeles to London, and can book/buy your tickets in the next couple of days, you can get $200 off Premium Economy or $100 off regular coach fares - details on BA's website, of course.
But what really interested me was the commentary from Visit Britain. We Americans made 2.7 million visits to the UK in 2010 and spent $3.2 billion in the UK while doing so. Visit Britain values tourism, and appreciates our visits to the UK, and even boasts about how many Americans visit the UK. But how do we feel about the Brits coming to the US? Who knows!
The second point shows how Vietnam is beating us a second time, albeit in a very different field. After the extended agony of the Vietnam War, and what - if not a loss, was certainly a failure on the US' part to achieve its objectives (how is that for being politically correct), the still notionally communist state of Vietnam is now showing a greater awareness of capital ideology than the US.
Vietnam is about to initiate a Visitor Tax Refund plan, refunding foreign visitors 10% of the price they pay (ie the tax component) on goods they buy in Vietnam. Why are they doing that? Because they believe this will promote tourism, improve the country's balance of payments and encourage impulse buying.
Even Vietnam understands about the value of tourism to its economy, and is doing something to get more. But we in the US - a country with no type of 'VAT refund' scheme to start with - remain obstinately blind to the benefits of tourism.
Now for the third story. And this one's the strange one - the exception which 'proves' the rule. As you probably already know, some absolutely upstanding fine people are being denied tourist visas to the US, even after submitting stacks of documents proving their income, their employment, their assets, their houses and cars, their bank balances, and all types of other ties to their home country. These people travel sometimes thousands of miles after waiting sometimes many months for an in-person interview that sometimes lasts only a minute or at the most two, with almost no questions being asked, just an automatic refusal being issued.
But - and here's the but. A heavily pregnant woman in the Philippines was given tourist visas for herself and her three children to travel to visit her sister in Massachusetts. She actually went into labor on the flight from Manila to the US and her latest child was born while the plane was still in international airspace. She is now claiming the child should be considered a US citizen, and says it is her intention to stay in the US permanently.
How did a woman, nearly pregnant all the way to term, get granted a tourist visa for herself and her three children, to go visit her sister in MA? What was so special about her visa application, compared to Chinese businessmen who are not pregnant and not traveling with their children and not going to visit their brother or sister?
Not only are we refusing admission to bona fide tourists and businessmen, it seems that somehow people who oh so obviously should have been refused a visa as per our own current visa issuing standards are being welcomed into the country.
Question - which visa officer do you think got into more trouble? The one refusing visas to the group of Chinese MBA businessmen? Or the one who granted tourist visas to the pregnant Filipina and her three children? Ha, ha - trick question! Of course, neither are likely to have suffered any consequence at all, even though both made an obviously ridiculously wrong decision.
Here's a story you couldn't make up. The Department of Homeland Security wishes for its national headquarters to be located in an abandoned 19th century lunatic asylum (pictured at the top of this newsletter). The obvious snide comment is, well, so obvious that I'm not even going to say it.
I wrote above about the mysterious button in an ANA 737 cockpit that, when accidentally pushed, caused the plane to plunge 6300 ft in 30 seconds (that's *really* fast) and almost flip on its back. I wondered if it was some sort of anti-terrorist defense in cases where terrorists were rushing up the aisles in an attempt to take control of the plane.
Here's an article (or part of it if you're not a WSJ subscriber) that comments on plans to equip planes with 'airlock' type double barrier/doors between the cockpit and the passenger cabin, so that there won't even be a split second of having the cockpit door open in a flight.
But are these really necessary? Here's a very rational analysis of the 'risk' that makes excellent reading. Please do so - it is well past time for us to stop being afraid of our own shadows, and to accept some infinitesimal degree of risk as unavoidable.
And talking about zero tolerance and demanding zero risk, have you noticed the latest encroachment of 'security' measures? Pat-downs (increasingly of more and more of one's body) and metal detectors/wanding at ball games? See, for example, this article.
I find this even more an insult to common sense than having double doors on airplane cockpits. Think about it in this way for the briefest of seconds : If the TSA say it is necessary for us to take off our shoes and jackets, to open up our briefcases, and not to bring more than small bottles of liquids with us when we're at the airport, and if they back that up with whole body imaging scanners and very intimate/aggressive grope style patdowns, what sort of 'security' is being offered by partial body frisks and quick whisks of a hand wand metal detector at the entrance to a ball park?
No security whatsoever is the answer. It will inconvenience patrons, for sure, but if there is a determined terrorist wishing to wreak mayhem and murder on a ballgame event, he'll breeze through the security without a pause.
If we must have security, give us real security. But don't demean us, infringe on our rights, and inconvenience us under the excuse of security when you're giving us none in return.
Do we have time for a joke before turning to the rest of the material for you this week? Yes, I think so.
A priest dies and is waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. Ahead of him is a guy who's dressed in sunglasses, a loud shirt, leather jacket, and jeans. Saint Peter addresses this cool guy, 'Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven? '
The guy replies, 'I'm Jack, retired airline pilot from Houston.'
Saint Peter consults his list. He smiles and says to the pilot, 'Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom.' The pilot goes into Heaven with his robe and staff.
Next, it's the priest's turn. He stands erect and booms out, 'I am Father Bob, pastor of Saint Mary's for the last 43 years.'
Saint Peter consults his list. He says to the priest, 'Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom.'
'Just a minute,' says the good Father. 'That man was a pilot and he gets a silken robe and golden staff and I get only cotton and wood. How can this be?'
'Up here we go by results,' says Saint Peter. 'When you preached, people slept. When he flew, people prayed.'
Would it be too much of a segue to close with a small prayer that you please consider participating in this year's annual fundraising drive? :)
Until next week, including the probable release of Apple's latest iPhone on Tuesday (which of course I'll be giving you a fast analysis on, just like the Kindle Fire this week), please enjoy safe flights