06
Dec
2010

The Association of Flight attendants has asked the federal government to ban inflight internet access. And it’s in the name of security. I give up.

British explosives consultant Roland Alford created a stir when he told New Scientist magazine that Wi-Fi is a “Pandora’s box” for terrorists and that giving passengers Internet access “gives a bomber lots of options for contacting a device on an aircraft.”

A number of airline workers, security professionals and technologists say they agree that Wi-Fi can create serious security risks. The Association of Flight Attendants, for example, has asked the government to ban Wi-Fi.

Wi-fi is a tool, and a medium of exchange. And like many tools, it can be used for good or evil. A knife can be used to cut your food, or stab someone in the eye. A bottle of wine can be broken over someone’s head and used as a weapon. So, should restaurants ban knives? Eliminate wine from their menus?

What is the alternative universe the Association of Flight Attendants wants to see? Passengers strapped into their seats, windowshades shut, hooded, gagged, and perhaps even sedated?

Personally, I’m thankful for every time there’s wi-fi in flight. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to be connected, but for long flights, I consider it a godsend. And while the Association of Flight Attendants may disapprove, I salute the airlines that expand their internet offerings, such as Lufthansa’s most recent reintroduction of internet access over the North Atlantic.

Hat tip: I’m not sure how I missed this when it first came out, but thankfully Jared Blank caught it.

Categorized in: inflight internet

Upgraded: Our understanding of why airline food sucks
Until now, I’ve always thought the dry cabin air, high salt content, and reheated-ness would have been the primary reasons for the typically underwhelming flavor in inflght meals, but apparently we should also take into account the level of background noise. The low rumble of flight apparently dulls the senses. If true, then, we should be able to test this scientifically. Taste-test the same food with noise-canceling headphones, and then without. Or taste it at the front of an MD-80, then again in the back, right next to the jets. (Maybe this is why food seems better in first class…)

Downgraded: Amex Platinum benefits
As readers have reminded me: Starting September 2011, American Express Platinum cards will no longer give you free access to Continental President’s Club airport lounges. (I thought I had blogged about this in the past, but a quick search proves that memory was fuzzy: I hadn’t actually posted about it, just written about it briefly in the comments to a post about American Airlines Admirals Clubs launching free drinks domestically.) With Continental cutting access to Amex members, I assume this means that United won’t be scrambling to join up, either…

Downgraded: Air marshals from first class
It’s historically been easy to spot the air marshal onboard a flight: The guy with the short hair in an aisle seat in the last row of first class. Maybe not much longer. “Airlines are asking the Federal Air Marshals Service to relax its policy of often seating undercover agents in first class because they say it has become a costly disruption that isn’t justified by current security threats.” Looks like your upgrade chances might improve!

Upgraded: The love of flying
Some people love flying. Really, really love it. Love it enough to build their own airplane in their backyard, even though they never had aerospace engineering training. While I fear for the test flight, I admire this gentleman’s moxie and truly wish him the best of luck.


Downgraded: The image of the pilot
The recent hearings surrounding the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo have focused on lack of training and cross-country commutes. But they have also brought attention to the low pay that starting pilots receive at the commuter airlines. Salaries for first officers at regional airlines can be terrible: $25,000 a year for starters, and only $33,000 on average after three years. See also this graphic, listing the average salaries by category.

Upgraded, but not quite enough: Kayak’s search engine
A month ago, I reviewed the airfare aggregators or metasearch sites. I gave TripAdvisor’s new engine the win, largely because of its ability to estimate ancillary fees like luggage fees. Now, Kayak is adding a baggage fee estimator as well, as pictured below. But it’s not quite to the level of TripAdvisor’s engine, which takes into account factors like elite status, and allows for a more granular approach to fees than simply asking about number of bags.

kayak baggage pulldown Upgrades and Downgrades    Pilot pay, Kayak searches, TSA names, and hotel taxes

Downgraded: Nicknames and Abbreviations
TSA is rolling out the first phase of its “Secure Flight” policy, which means your plane tickets will have to match your identification more precisely than in the past. “During this phase of the Secure Flight program, passengers are encouraged to book their reservations using their name as it appears on the government-issued ID they will use while traveling.” And that means that, at some point (though not today), you won’t be able to use a middle initial on your ticket if your ID uses your full middle name. Which will piss off thousands of passengers while doing absolutely nothing for security. Asinine.

Downgraded: Hotel searches for Columbus, Georgia
If you’re staying in the town of Columbus, Georgia, you won’t find much in the way of hotels if you search the major online travel agencies. Why the boycott? Expedia was ordered to pay occupancy taxes to the city on the basis of the displayed room rate (the one paid by customers booking on the site). Previously, they had been paying the occupancy tax on the basis of the wholesale rates which they had negotiated with the hotel. So, now the major sites are simply not listing hotels in Columbus, GA at all. I’m no lawyer, but I can see the agencies’ point here: It makes sense to me that local taxes should be based on the rate paid locally — in this case, at the wholesale rate. I’m sure Columbus hoteliers are thrilled…

Downgraded: InterContinental brands
InterContinental is downgrading their properties’ service requirements. Gary Leff has the rundown, which, depending on the brand in question, includes delaying the purchase of new beds, cutting restaurant hours, cotton towels, and overnight front desk service.


london photographer Upgrades and Downgrades    Dangerous photos, outsourcing, hostels and hotels
An act of terrorism, caught on film.

Downgraded: Tourist photography
The UK authorities’ security obsession is as bad as the US’. Austrian tourists in London were forced to delete photos off their digital cameras because they focused on transportation — buses and a bus station. How pointless. Don’t the bobbies know that any of these landmarks are already already visible on Google Maps StreetView from the comfort of your computer?… Klaus Matzka, the harassed camera-operator, wrote a letter to the editor of the Guardian, in which he asks, “I understand the need for some sensitivity in an era of terrorism, but isn’t it naive to think terrorism can be prevented by terrorising tourists?” Amen.

Upgraded: Hostels
The NYT has a piece on European hostels, and how they’ve improved over the years, reaching out to travelers who want more privacy (e.g., a double room instead of a bunk in a dormitory) and more luxury (if an ensuite bathroom is your idea of luxury… my bar is a tad higher). Remember, though, that no matter what the appointments are and the increase in private rooms, hostels are designed to bring people together. A (good) night’s rest may be coincidental to the social mission, so if you’re not feeling social, hostels are not for you. Maybe I’m a cranky old fart, but I prefer to choose the moments when I want to be social. Subsequently, hostels are not my cup of tea.

Downgraded: Offshore outsourcing
Airline call centers have famously been outsourced to offshore call centers, but as passenger numbers (and call volume) shrink, the size of the call center operation has shrunk alongside. Delta has now announced that they will no longer send calls to India, where they’ve been routing calls since 2002. Delta will also reduce call center operations in South Africa and Jamaica. Like most people, I’ve dealt with international call centers, but my complaint hasn’t ever been about understanding the person on the other end of the line. Acoustically, I could understand them. But on more than one occasion, they couldn’t understand what I wanted to do, or they were unable to perform any but the simplest reservation tasks. I often wondered if these outsourced call centers were costing the company more money (in disgruntled customers) than they saved in salaries and benefits. It took a while, but perhaps that equation has finally tilted back toward better-trained in-house employees. (Via FlightWisdom)

Upgraded: Hotel deals in Tampa
The sharpest hotel rate declines in the US? They’re in Tampa, with a 31% decrease, year-over-year, according to Hotwire.

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hi jacker Coming soon? Better recourse for innocent people on the no fly list

Such an unfortunately named device

Good news for travelers who share a name with someone on the no-fly list. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to provide better redress for passengers who mistakenly end up on one of the several terrorist watch lists.

The bill requires Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to establish a “timely and fair” appeal process and provide relief for those wrongly delayed or prevented from boarding a flight.
[...]
The bill would also spur the creation of an Office of Appeals and Redress to create a “comprehensive cleared list” of people who’ve been inappropriately added to watch lists or government databases.

The bill passed 413-3. (The three “no” votes: Representatives Broun (GA), Poe (TX), and Westmoreland (GA), all Republicans.) It still needs to go through the Senate, and on to President Obama’s desk. But thankfully, this signals that some changes to the security theater apparatus may actually be afoot.

Separately, a federal appeals court has ruled that the TSA has been collecting too much in fees, and has ordered the agencies to “recalculate the amount of fees it charges air carriers for passenger and baggage screening, a development that the airlines say could save them hundreds of millions of dollars.” Just don’t expect those savings to be passed on to you, the traveler…

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Categorized in: security, TSA

man with the golden gun Upgrades and Downgrades    Air marshals, LAvion gets a lounge, Thanksgiving math, and a TP emergencyDowngraded: Air Marshals
In a series of sting operations, several air marshals who were supposed to be protecting passengers inflight were using their free pass in American airports to smuggle cocaine, drug money, and child pornography. Lovely. My favorite part of this story: One marshal called himself “the Man with the Golden Badge.” Racy! Paging Roger Moore to take this guy out! Heck, paging Hervé Villechaize!

Upgraded: L’Avion lounge
When Tyler Colman reviewed the all-business class airline L’Avion for us last year, he commented on their lack of a real lounge at Newark Liberty Airport. That deficiency has been addressed, with the opening of a real lounge in Terminal B, shared by L’Avion and Jet Airways of India.

Upgraded: Thanksgiving Status Quo
Downgraded: Math

Just like last year, 39% of Americans are expected to travel for Thanksgiving, according to a recent poll. But the conclusion that travel will “mirror” last year as a result of comparable traveler numbers? That smells of bad math. Airline capacity is down from a year ago, with fewer planes in the air. Yet the same number of travelers? Look out. As we get closer to Thanksgiving, consider revisiting these holiday travel tips and these five ways to get an edge on fellow travelers.

Downgraded: Toilet paper supplies on Qantas
Here’s a horror story: Trapped on a plane for 24 hours, passengers on board a Qantas flight (from Singapore, diverted to Canberra) had their toilet paper rationed. Four squares per person. Not a square to spare. It’s a tale of absurdity: People on the ground, but unable to deplane, at government orders. But couldn’t they restock the plane’s supplies while on the ground? Bonus points to The Age for their punny headline, “Loo paper rationed on bummer of a diversion.” (rimshot) (Thanks, Rob!)

Upgraded: Concierges on television
“A concierge is the Winnipeg equivalent of a geisha.” So says Michael Scott on last week’s episode of The Office, whose plot centered on business travel. See the full episode here, where it’s available for online viewing until January 15, 2009.