Air Travel

Are Frequent Flyer Mile credit cards a good idea?

I just decided to cancel my AAdvantage credit card for a 1% cashback card with no annual fee. Many people have the frequent flyer cards so let’s consider the math on them. They typically come with a high annual fee (around $80) while other cards have no fee and other rewards.

Let’s say you spend $25,000 per year on the card, which is enough for 25,000 miles or one domestic flight on the typical airline. With a typical cashback card you get 1% back though some cards give 2% or even 4% back on certain classes of purchases. I have an Amex from Costco that gives 3% on gasoline and 2% on travel expenses, but Amex is not as accepted as Visa or MC.

  • Your cash cost for the 25K miles is $250 plus the $80 annual fee = $320
  • There are varying taxes and fees on award tickets, as low as $8 but sometimes much higher
  • If you are booking less than 3 weeks in advance, fees of $50 to $100 will apply
  • Finding available award seats can be quite difficult, the supply is far lower than for cash seats in most cases. There are also blackouts.
  • You will not receive miles for your trip. A typical cross-country return is 5,000 miles, of $50 at the 1% rate, $80-$100 at the rate airlines claim
  • Most people use miles long after they earn them, and in fact have a large balance. So a time discount should apply. Miles sitting in accounts earn no interest, cash does.

As such the free trip is harder to get and costs $400 to $500. But that is not far from (and sometimes more than) the cash price of a ticket. But cash is of course a much more flexible thing — you can use it for anything, not just airline tickets. There are a raft of cards out there now which tout “miles on any airline” and what they really give you is a 1% cashback that is only good on airlines. General 1% cashback is much better.

There is an argument that upgrades do much better. Upgrading with miles can be cheaper than upgrading with cash, since the cash price of business class seats is very high. However, as you learn if you are not a top elite flyer, upgrades are quite hard to get. Others are ahead of you in line. AA also instituted a cash co-pay on upgrades making them more expensive than before when done with miles.

If you spend less than $25K per year on the card, the math gets even worse. At $12.5K per year, you gave up at least $460 to $550 for your free ticket, and when the tickets are available on miles, the cash fare is often lower. If you spend much more a year, the cost may make some sense.

A common trick for people who have mileage cards is to pick up group checks at restaurants and have everybody pay you cash. However, the cards that give 3% cashback at restaurants like the Amex are much better for this.

Secrets of the "Clear" airport security line

Yesterday it was announced that “Clear” (Verified ID Pass) the special “bypass the line at security” card company, has shut its doors and its lines. They ran out of money and could not pay their debts. No surprise there, they were paying $300K/year rent for their space at SJC and only 11,000 members used that line.

As I explained earlier, something was fishy about the program. It required a detailed background check, with fingerprint and iris scan, but all it did was jump you to the front of the line — which you get for flying in first class at many airports without any background check. Their plan, as I outline below, was to also let you use a fancy shoe and coat scanning machine from GE, so you would not have to take them off. However, the TSA was only going to allow those machines once it was verified they were just as secure as existing methods — so again no need for the background check.

To learn more about the company, I attended a briefing they held a year ago for a contest they were holding: $500,000 to anybody who could come up with a system that sped up their lines at a low enough cost. I did have a system, but also wanted to learn more about how it all worked. I feel sorry for those who worked hard on the contest who presumably will not be paid.  read more »

The background check

Can airports do paging as well as a restaurant?

I have a lot of peeves about airports, like almost everybody. One of them is the constant flow of public address announcements. They make it hard to read, work or concentrate for many people. Certainly it’s hard to sleep. It’s often even hard to have a phone call with the announcements in the background.

One solution to this is the premium airline lounges. These are announcement-free, but you must watch the screens regularly to track any changes. And of course they cost a lot of money, and may be far from your gate.

Some airlines have also improved things by putting up screens at the gates that list the status of standby passengers and people waiting for upgrades. This also saves them a lot of questions at the gate, which is good.

But it’s not enough. Yet, even in a cheap restaurant, they often have a solution. They give you a special pager programmed to summon you when your table or food is ready. It vibrates (never beeps) and they are designed to stack on top of one another for recharging.

Airports could do a lot better. Yes, they could hand you an electronic pager instead of/in addition to a boarding pass. This could be used to signal you anywhere in the airport. It could have an active RFID to allow you to walk though an automatic gate onto the plane with no need for even a gate agent, depositing the pager as you board.

Each pager could also know where it is in the airport. Thus a signal could go out about the start of boarding, and if your pager is not at the gate, it could tell the airline where you are. If you’re in the security line, it might tell you to show the pager to somebody who can get you through faster (though of course if you make this a regular thing that has other downsides.)  read more »

Allow a refund on prepaid cell service for tourists

Years ago I asked that they let me buy a SIM card in the airport arrivals area and now they often do. I also started a forum here on the best company to buy a prepaid SIM from in each country which has a fair bit of traffic.

And indeed, I have been doing that, because often roaming rates remain obscene. I dropped my Canadian SIM when Sprint offered a plan with 20 cent/minute roaming in Canada that I can turn on for $3/month — this was comparable to the prepaid price I was getting, and prepaid had the “overhang balance” problem I will discuss below. But I’ve gotten or been loaned local SIMs in several countries to good use — especially when both I and my travel companion have one so we can use our cell phones as radios.

But a few problems exist with getting a local SIM. First, you have to get one. The cheapest place to do this is usually the local cell phone shops that can be found in most urban shopping areas. If you plan ahead, you can get one mailed to your hotel, though the companies that do this which aim at tourists always overcharge — perhaps enough to wipe out your savings if your call volume is modest or your stay short. The ideal SIM is near-free, and can be found where you enter the country.

Next, you must fill the account. Almost everywhere, you must use prepaid cards bought for cash from the shops, as they will not let you fill, or refill, with an out-of-country credit card, for supposed security reasons. This is annoying because you don’t want to have a large balance remaining (overhang) on your prepaid account when you leave the country, unless you will be back before it expires. (Sometimes you can use it up in other countries with obscene roaming rates, but often not even then.) But you also don’t want to have to risk running out of minutes in the middle of a call.

The answer: Let me put a fat balance on my prepaid account, and let me refund all or most of it when I am done — ideally back to my credit card when I leave.

The cell company loses that wasted balance, sure, but instead, I am prone to use the phone more if I have a large enough balance and a good enough rate that I don’t have to worry. I will use it like a local. This would be a good competitive edge that would make the difference if I were buying a SIM. You could offer this only to people from out of the country but I see no reason not to offer it to local users too.

Yes, processing the refund has a small cost. If you insist, don’t refund the last few bucks to cover your costs. Or alternately, let me do “minutes transfer” to other prepaid users. Then I could meet somebody (or go into a shop) and transfer the minutes and get cash for them.

Of course, it would also be nice if you would let me just buy a monthly plan deal for just one month, with no contract. Cell companies seem loathe to do this, but T-Mobile in the USA has just started doing exactly that with their flex-pay. In that system you pre-pay for one month of any monthly plan, and if you think you will use more than the minutes on that plan, you can put money into an overage account. But you can’t get it back, so that’s one modification to add. But frankly I would probably never go over the monthly plan I bought in a typical trip.

The remaining big headache is data. Getting a prepaid plan with data at a decent price (or any data at all) can be hard. Those from the USA are used to unlimited data, which they resist selling in many countries. Those from the USA who bring their phones overseas and forget to turn off roaming data often find nightmare bills of many thousands of dollars. The world has to figure this out. Still, those who are used to fancy network PDA phones often find themselves literally lost without their Google Maps Mobile or their e-Mail. We need a way to roam data selectively, letting some apps use limited data budgets but preventing others if we can’t get a decent data price plan. E-mail apps can go into low-data move (never download attachments or long messages automatically, just imap headers) and less frequent checking. If one is careful, one can get something decent at the $2/megabyte (or $10/megabyte) crazy prices for mobile data roaming.

Oh yeah, and think about doing 2-SIM offers to tourists, who often arrive in pairs. Especially if they include cheap mobile-to-mobile calling in the pair.

Virgin America Airways and on-demand ordering

Yesterday I took my first flight on Virgin America airways, on the IAD-SFO run. Virgin offered a tremendous price (about $130 one way) but it’s worth examining how they have made use of technology on their planes. Mostly I usually end up on United, which is by far the largest carrier at SFO. Because of this, I fly enough on it to earn status, and that it turn provides a seat in their Economy Plus section which has more legroom, priority boarding and in theory, an empty middle if there are empty middles. This is 90% of the value of the status — the other main value, ability to upgrade, is hard to actually make use of because business class is usually full. The extra legroom is surprisingly pleasant, even for a widebody individual like myself who would much prefer extra width if I had a choice.

Other than Economy Plus (and some very nice business class on some of the long-haul planes,) United is falling behind other airlines. It would be hard to recommend an ordinary coach seat. The one big amenity that more and more other airlines are providing is power in coach, in particular 115v AC power which is more flexible than the older 15vdc “Empower” system United uses in business class. The main downside of the 115v connections is they tend to be mounted under the seats, making them hard to get to. Air Canada has put them in the personal video panels. Virgin placed them under the seats but high and forward enough to be reached (if you knew what you were looking for) but also so close as to make wall-warts bump against your legs. Virgin also offered USB jacks down under the seats, also hard to get to. Even if you don’t want to put 115v up higher, USB charging jacks are better placed in the video console/seatback I think.

American Airlines has a mix of DC and AC power, but still makes it available in coach. Continental has put EmPower on some planes in the front half of coach, but some newer planes have AC power all the way through coach.  read more »

Powered USB Hub in my hotel room, and more

What should be in a good hotel room?

Well, one thing that’s easy to add to the list is a powered USB hub, with as many as 6 ports and a 3 amp power supply. Toss in some mini-USB cables (possibly just built into the hub) as they have become, for better or worse, the present-day universal charging standard. (At only 2.5 watts, USB is a bit anemic as charging standard, but it’s what we have for now.) A mouse would be nice too, but is a security risk.

Alas, we can’t have a keyboard on it, as nice as that would be, since that can’t be trusted. It might have a keylogger put in it (even by the previous occupant of the room) to grab passwords.

Now this is a fairly cheap item (under $20) and like many other hotel items, it could also be available at the front desk, though it’s so cheap I don’t see a reason for that. While you could not be sure it would be there at every hotel, it would still be useful, since it can add to the charging you bring, and most laptops can be a charging station if you are willing to leave them on overnight. It’s also useful as a hub. Indeed, have two, one on the desk, and one by the bed for cell phones.

We’re almost ready to not need the hotel phone unless you are coming from overseas and pay ridiculous roaming charges. But they still need it to call you sometimes, and I don’t want to have to hand over my mobile number at check-in.

Most hotel rooms now are getting a flat-screen HDTV. That’s great, but rarely do they offer up the VGA port that many of these TVs have, or a cable to plug it in. I recommend a 1080p TV for each room, located in such a way that it can be an external monitor for my laptop. As such there should be a VGA cable connected or handy. The TV could also be connected to the USB hub, and use a video over USB protocol for devices that have USB out but not video out. (This usually needs a driver and has some limitations.)  read more »

Digital cameras, embrace your inner eBook

Lots of people are doing it — using their digital camera as a quick way to copy documents, not just for taking home, but to carry around. Rather than carry around a large travel guidebook (where most of the weight is devoted to hotels and restaurants in other towns) we normally just photograph the relevant pages for the area we will be exploring. We also do it even with portable items like guides and travel maps since we don’t really want the paper. We also find ourselves regularly photographing maps of cities, facilities and transit systems found on walls. We will photograph transit timetables: take a ferry out, photograph the schedule of ferries going back. In countries where you can’t write the language, photographing the names of destinations, so you can show it to cab drivers and locals is handy.

Yes, I have also seen copyright violation going on, with people taking a temporary photograph of somebody else’s guidebook, or one in a library or hotel. Not to save money, but for the convenience.

While I still think a dedicated travel device makes sense when doing tourism, cameras should embrace this function. Some travel guides, such as Lonely Planet, will sell you a PDF version of the book or chapters in it. Perhaps being able to read PDFs is more than a camera wants to do, but these could be converted to PNGs or some other clear and compact format. A very simple book browser in the camera is not a tall order, considering the level of processing they now have. Though there seems to be a lot to be said for the simplicity of the camera’s interface, where you turn a wheel to find a page and then zoom in. If there’s a browser it had better be easier to use than that.

However, even simpler would be a way to tag a photo as being text (indeed, many cameras could probably figure out that a photo is dense with text on their own.) Such photos would be put into their own special folder, and the camera’s menu should offer a way to directly go to those photos for browsing.

I realize the risk here. Forced convergence often results in a device that does nothing well. In this case people are already using the camera for this, because it is what they are carrying. There is already pressure to make camera screens bigger and higher resolution, and to give them good interfaces to move around and zoom in.

In time, though, travel guides might deliberately make versions that you store on the flash card of your camera. Of course, you can already do this on your PDA, and I read eBooks on my PDA all the time. And sometimes your cell phone/PDA is your camera.

Airlines should sell an empty middle seat for half price

Coach is cramped, but not everybody can afford business class. In addition, there are airlines that require fat people to purchase a second seat if they can’t fit into one. Fortunately I am not in that department, but it seems there is an interesting alternative that might make sense for all — selling half of a middle seat, for half price (or less) to somebody wanting more room in coach.

The idea, of course, is that two passengers want this extra room. So if sold at half-price, the airline effectively is selling that seat for full price. In fact, since they don’t have to provide any services for that missing passenger — nor carry the weight and luggage or offer miles — they could and should sell the guaranteed empty middle for less than half, perhaps as low as 1/3rd.

On the other hand, half the time there would be an odd number of passengers buying half a middle, which would cost the airline half a fare on half the flights. They might need to bump the cost slightly to account for this.

Of course, ideally these would be rows where the armrest is able to go up fully so it doesn’t stick into you even if you recline, though not all airlines do that.

Now there is a bit of gamesmanship to be played on flights that vary widely in load. After all, if a flight is not that loaded, the middle seats will be vacant anyway, and no revenue would be lost by offering the guaranteed empty seat. I can see two strategies for selling in these conditions:

  • The passenger pays full-bore (say 40% extra) for the seat. However, if the flight is light enough that many middles are empty, they pay nothing. The passenger always gets value for money and never feels they paid for what others got free.
  • The passenger pays a lower fraction, based on how often it’s truly needed. Say it’s needed only half the time. Pay 20% extra, and always get the empty middle, but no refund even on an empty plane. (Perhaps give “whole row” preference on really empty flights.)

Which would you prefer? Of course if you feel comfy in a full coach cabin, you would not desire either.

Passengers of course would be strategic, and look at the seat map to see how loaded the plane is, and buy the premium only if the flight is filling up. The airline may or may not wish to allow upgrading an existing ticket because of this.

This is also something that could be offered for miles instead of cash.

As you may know, many airlines already do this for their elite passengers, only filling the middle between two elites if the flight is completely full. Promotion to premium legroom sections (which United offers for cash) could be combined with this. A seat in United’s Economy Plus with an empty seat next to you gets much closer to Business Class in terms of space, though it still lacks other comforts.

Update: The question came up of full fights with sold empty middle seats. If a passenger has bought this because he can’t fit in a single seat, there are few options, unless the passenger they want to add is very small, like a child. However, if the passenger bought the seat simply for extra comfort, but still can fit, they could sell it back to the airline for whatever can be agreed on. The airline could offer cash, business class upgrades, or free half-seat upgrades on future flights, and many passengers might take it. After all, anybody who purchased such a half-seat is the sort who would find a business class upgrade valuable. This might be arranged in advance. For example, the fare rules might say, “The airline, at its discretion, can fill the empty middle seat with a passenger of below average size in exchange for compensation X.” A ticket where the seat can’t be filled, no way, no how, could cost more, but still a lot less than the option they offer today of purchasing an entire seat.

When I fly with my companion, of course, we usually book aisle and window with empty middle between us. If they seat somebody there, we let them have the window. There are tricks to try to otherwise get that empty middle.

Like premium economy, airlines could make money from selling these guaranteed middle seats to business travelers whose companies have a rule that they won’t pay for business class, but will pay for improved economy seating.

Some other options might include a focus on putting somebody as small as possible in the seat, such as an unaccompanied minor.

Some of this also touches on a different problem I will address in a future blog post. Airlines should, if they can, avoid seating two large people in the same pair or trio of seats. While I am sure I’ll get claims of “the fatties deserve this for not curbing their appetites” it’s a hard problem to solve, since everybody, thin or wide, would want to get tagged as wide to avoid having a crowded row. More on this later.

Providing what travelling guests need

I’m back from my 3-country tour that started with being guest of honour at Helsinki’s “Alternative Party” which introduced me to the Demoscene, something I will write about in some future blog posts. While I have much to say about this trip, and many gigs of photos, I thought I would start with some travel notes.

How to be nice to your guest

I don’t write this to fault the crew at Alternative Party. They were fine hosts, and great and friendly people. As a small, non-professional conference, they had to act on a budget, so they could not do everything a rich conference might do. And they did several of the things I list here as good ideas.

  • Hire a local travel agent to assist the guest, and to manage payments for travel. You can give the guest the option of using their own favourite agent, but somebody who knows local stuff is always a plus. And you can control spending via your own agent, and don’t have to worry about reimbursement.
  • If the guest pays some of their own expenses, reimburse as quickly as you can to make them feel good. While it’s rare, there are enough stories of guests who found out after the fact that something would not be reimbursed (including in fraudulent cases an entire trip) to provide enough jitters. Speaking fee doesn’t need to be paid as quickly because that’s a two-way street.
  • Write up a local guide web page for all guests with local info and information on at-event process. Include the mobile phone numbers of local organizers so somebody can always be reached.
  • If the guest is coming from another country, particularly another continent, offer them a local cell phone or local (possibly prepaid) SIM card. These are often dirt cheap and you may even have some spare. If the guest is coming with somebody else, offer two or more of such. USA guests may not own a phone that can work overseas, and many European phones won’t work in the USA/Canada. If they do work, calls are usually very expensive, both for you to reach them and them to call you. In many countries, there are providers who offer free or cheap “on-network” calling, so a pair of such cards or phones can be handy as walkie-talkies.
  • If the guest likes, circulate word among conference organizers or even known attendees to see if somebody who is a fan of the guest would be willing to be a local guide or driver before/after the event. Having a local pick you up at the airport and answer questions is very friendly compared to sending a limo or taxi. If the guest wishes, also arrange a dinner at a nice restaurant with interesting people from the conference.
  • Above and beyond any dinner, ask the guest what kinds of restaurants they like and prepare a list for them of some that are known to be good.

Hotels should do some of this

In St. Petersburg, we stayed at a very nice B&B. But I still had a few suggestions of inexpensive things that could improve life.

  • As with the conference, hotels should make local phones and SIMs available to guests with only a modest profit margin. Program the hotel concierge into the SIM’s phonebook, too. My German prepaid SIM could not make calls in Russia (it worked in Finland and Sweden though at roaming prices) and while I could have bought a Russian SIM, shopping for this would have been time-consuming without knowing the language.
  • Of course, providing wireless internet should be de rigeur. It has become essential to our travels as we read news, get weather and look up tourist information on the internet regularly. In addition, have some loaner computers available, both for those who don’t bring a laptop, and for couples who bring only one but who can then both do their E-mail at once.
  • European hotels almost universally serve a couple by putting two single beds together. They then put two sets of single sheets on the bed, or a single duvet. These can’t be tucked in, and at least for me, it means they always come off. And it’s no good for cuddling as a couple. It would not be that expensive to also keep a modest number of full-bed sheets around for those who prefer that. The single duvets could still sit on top. I realize the European system may make housekeeping easier, but I find it highly annoying and I am sure many others do as well.
  • Many hotels offer a laundry service at a very high price. (Often the cost of cleaning socks and underwear will exceed the cost of buying new ones at discount stores like Costco.) But for those that don’t, the hotel should offer the location of a nearby laundry that does “wash and fold” (ordinary laundry charged by the kilogram) and perhaps even have a relationship with them. Once a trip gets over 8 or 9 days, laundry is important but you don’t want to waste time on it.

A plane that goes on a train

As I noted, at DLD Lufthansa had a contest (which I won) for suggestions on how to innovate to compete with trains. They set the time horizon out 15 years, which really means a lot is possible, so while I mostly threw in ideas from this blog which are short term, I put in some longer term ones too.

One was the equivalent of “multi modal transport.” To do this, you would build new short-haul planes which consisted of an empty shell, like the cargo planes you have seen where the nose hinges up, and cargo modules are slid in on rails. This would be combine with “passenger modules” which can slide into the shell, and which can also slide into a special rail car. There might be one module on a plane, though it is also possible to have several.

Passengers would board a train normally at the train station. Then, as the train moved to the airport, they could move to the passenger module car. They would place their luggage onto a belt to put it down low into the luggage module (under the passenger module) or be assisted by a porter. They would enter the passenger module, stow their carry-ons and otherwise get ready in their seat. By the time the train got to the airport, all passengers would be in their seats, belted and ready.

The train would split up into different cars if there were several flights on it, and each would move to a terminus where the plane-shell was waiting. Yet to be invented technology would laser-align the train and the parked shell in advance, and then the passenger module would slip into the aircraft hull on special rails. Connecting passengers could board the train at the airport before it moves to the hull, and their bags could be loaded into the bottom the standard way. (Though this is for short-haul flights, so there may not be connecting passengers.) An automated system would connect power, data and air venting on the passenger modules. Water/sewage would be self-contained and processed at the train station. Catering would probably be handled there too.

The nose would come down, the pilots board via their own door and takeoff would begin shortly.  read more »

German Ideas

I’m back from my German trip, which included the DLD conference and a bit of touring in Austria and Bavaria. DLD was a good crowd of people and speakers, though the programming was a bit of a mishmash. I’ll have some nice photos up soon.

One highlight was winning Lufthansa’s contest for innovative ideas to help aviation compete with trains. I mostly offered ideas you may have seen on this blog before, and a couple of new ones, but one of them was good enough to win their very nice prize, 2 business class tickets anywhere Lufthansa flies. I suspect I’ll return to Africa with these as that’s pricey to get to, even in coach. Of course I was helped by the fact that most conference attendees did not notice the contest/forum, and I had few competitors.

This was my 3rd trip to Germany (if you don’t count changing planes) but the first serious one as an adult. So some of these observations will be old but I felt it worth writing them down.

General observations:

  • Note to self: Go back and do more travel in Europe when the Euro was 80 cents, not $1.47. It does put a lot of sticker shock on the prices of things.
  • In particular, over $7 for gasoline, and they take it in stride. They use a lot more transit all over Europe of course, and drive a lot more tiny cars that are much better on fuel. I rented a Toyota Yaris, which actually was quite suitable except climbing some hills in the Alps. They need to start selling more cars like it in the USA, if just for parking.
  • Why do Europeans make good bread so reliably? In the USA, bad bread is just too easy to find.
  • The food in Tirol is great, a nice mix of Italian and Germanic. Surprised this hasn’t spread out more into the world. Tirol used to be Italian, now it’s Austrian.
  • We found a tremendous deal for SIM cards for our phones at the Schleker drugstores for For 15 euros we got 2 SIM cards, each loaded with 10 euros of airtime, and best of all 1/cent minute for on-network calls for the first 30 days. For us all we wanted was 10 days and thus they were like almost free walkie-talkies. Of course, higher prices while in Austria so nothing’s perfect but this rate was hard to beat. Unfortunately all instructions, menus etc. were in German.
  • OK, Salzberg, I get it that Mozart was born in your town. Really.
  • Pizza seems to be the top fast food of Bavaria and Tirol, with Donner Kebabs a close second. Now close to Italy you would think that made sense until you realize that Pizza itself, while Italian in heritage, was developed in the USA. (Not that Italians don’t know how to make it well, of course.)

Good ideas:

  • An old idea, but that Autobahn works. People keep to the right, and don’t block traffic that wants to go faster out of some sense of knowing what the right speed for others is. Lower accident rate, people going much faster.
  • Lufthansa has a very simple SMS check-in (for German Residents only) but you still need to get a card at the airport.
  • Boarding in Frankfurt, they had a sealed waiting area, and you had your boarding pass/passport scanned when you entered the waiting area, not when trying to get on the plane. As a result, loading the 777 was super fast, they just wanted to make sure you were in the rows they called. They did not allow Premier members to board early — but I think that’s the right thing to do anyways.
  • Stay in German Gasthausen and Pensions rather than fancier hotels. Cheaper and better experience.
  • For even cheaper calling if you don’t have a local SIM card, hunt for wireless and use Skype or VoIP from your laptop.
  • The pedestrian plaza at MUC airport to walk to the trains from the terminal is quite nice. Nice pedestrian spaces are not so common in U.S. airports which are all about getting people from cars to planes.
  • Deutches Museum, which we intended to spend more time in, but instead must return to again.
  • It’s fun to see how totally vanished the borders have become. I wonder if some day the disused border stations might be rented out as gas stations or convenience stores. Even the Swiss-Austrian border is just a wave through, no questions, no showing of ID. Meanwhile, the Canada-US border grows tighter, with passport demands and probably fingerprints some day.
  • Taking the side-roads when the Autobahn in Austria wants to go through a 20km tunnel. What views! Some of the tunnels don’t seem to bypass anything, they must be there to keep snow off the roads and highway noise away from the rural settings. Pretty expensive way to do that, though.

Ideas that may not be so good:

  • Almost all the toilets we used had their tank (and yes, at least some had a tank) mounted in the wall. Germans don’t seem to want to see the tank. Not sure how you fix it when it goes bad, though. Like Australians, some had 2 buttons (one for #1 and one for #2) or a way to stop the flush for a lesser flush. Perhaps I am confused and all were just on 3/4” pipe and had no tank, but some seemed to.
  • One downside of the local hotels: German beds, which involve two twins next to each other, and two independent integrated sheet/blankets. Really annoying for a couple sleeping together, hard to tuck in, easy to create air gaps. Easy for cleaning but that’s about it.
  • Most of the old towns had complex regulations about who could drive in and when. As such, it could not be expressed in international road signs, making it very confusing for tourists — and these old towns are the main tourist targets — who come in cars. Bring a good translation guide to try to understand where you can stop or park! I’m not demanding everybody speak English, of course, but in tourist areas a special effort is worthwhile.
  • Car rental is very expensive and has not reached the computerized ease of use seen from things like Hertz #1 Club where you just walk up and your car is waiting, keys in it. Of course it is a much less car oriented place, but there are still lots of cars. Unlike almost everything else, rental car companies advertise rates without taxes.
  • Germans for some time have been huge consumers of bottled mineral water, usually fizzy. I don’t like this myself, and in fact I don’t even like the bottled still waters which are the only alternatives a lot of the time. It’s not just the fact that it’s $8 for a bottle at most restaurants: bottled water is very un-green which you would think the birthplace of the Green party would understand. But when I asked for tap water they always looked at me strangely, and in one case even refused to serve it to me! Attempts to explain the ecological point always resulted in “that’s the first time I’ve heard that.”
  • Like many other countries, a hotel room for 2 is much more than a room for 1. Which is, I guess, good for the single traveller and bad for the couple. Of course, one main reason is that almost always a room comes with a fairly nice breakfast. Some hotels list their double price, some list a per-person price for a double making it harder to compare.

Videocall terminals, with scanners and printers, for customer service

I just went through a hellish weekend at the hands of United Airlines, trying to change planes at Dulles on Saturday, and not getting to California until Monday. I wasn’t alone, and while I do wish to vent at the airline, there are things that could have been better with a bit of new thinking.

As flights were canceled or delayed, and planes filled up, for most customers the only answer was the customer service centers inside the terminals. These quickly had lines of hundreds of people with waits of several hours. In some cases, just for simple transactions like getting a hotel voucher because you had been moved to the next day. (While it is possible to get such vouchers at the ticketing desks outside the secure area, Dulles is not an easy airport to move around, and people were reluctant to take the shuttles to the master terminal and leave the secure area without knowing their fate.)

Among the many things the airline is to be faulted for is having no real way to deal with the huge numbers of customers who need service when a cascading problem occurs. Multi-hour waits simply don’t cut it. The answer lies in extending the facilities of the self-service kiosks. At those kiosks you can do basic check-in, changes of seating and some other minor changes. You go up, put in your card or confirmation number, and you can do some transactions. You can also pick up the phone and talk to an agent sitting in their Nova Scotia call center. The kiosk has a printer that can print boarding passes. Unfortunately the agents are not empowered to do more than help you with what the kiosk can do. They can’t be like the other customer service agents and rebook flights or issue vouchers.

When you have a big company like an airline, that may suddenly need hundreds of agents for one trouble spot, video kiosks with printers (and scanners) seem like a great idea. Stations could be installed where customers can come and talk to an agent by videocall. They can feed documents into scanners or show them to the camera. They can feed documents into hoppers that will destroy them if that’s needed. And a more full printer could print them any documents they need — boarding passes, tickets, hotel, food and transportation vouchers. In fact, unless agents have to physically handle luggage or control who gets on a plane, they don’t need to be right there at all.

Of course this is not as personal as a live human in front of you. But it’s much better than a phone agent (and lots of listening to Rhapsody in Blue.) And, if the need arises, you can suddenly have 100 agents serving a problem area instead of 5, and focus the on-site agents on on-site problems.

Of course, the scanners and printers are only needed at rare intervals during the transactions, so another approach would be to let people have a combined web/videocall experience on any laptop computer, and to contract with the providers of airport wifi service to make access to the airline’s support website a free feature. Do that and suddenly there can be a thousand customer service videoconference tools in an airport that needs one. (They can all show video, and a growing number of laptops can also send it.) A smaller bank of scanners and printers can handle the portions of the transaction that need that. For example, you contact customer service on the laptop and the agent tells you to line up at scanner #5 and scan your documents. Then you work out your problems, and the agent tells you to go to printer #3 and get your new documents. (Destruction of old documents can be handled by the machine or possibly an on-site agent who does little but that.)

In fact, a lot of the stuff done at airport gates could be done this way. All the hassling at the desk is easy to do remotely. Only the actual ushering onto the planes needs live people. It may be less personal but I would rather have this than standing in line for long periods. They key factor is the ability to move agents around to where they are needed in an instant, so that there is no waiting (and little wasted time by agents.)

Of course, agents can also be very far away. Though I would resist the temptation to make them too far away (like India.) Not that there aren’t good workers in India but too many companies fall for the temptation to get employees in India that are even cheaper than the good ones, and simply not up to the jobs they are given. The Nova Scotia crew were helpful and their distance was not a problem.

This principle can apply to conference and tradeshow registration as well. Why fly in staff to a remote tradeshow to do such jobs which tend to be quite bursty. Have local staff to man scanners and printers, and remote staff to talk on the videophone and solve my problems. It’s so much cheaper than the cost of transporting and housing staff.

Of course, you can also just plain have a good internet/web customer service center. But I’m talking here about the problem of people who are at your facility, and deserve more than that. They need a live person to solve their problems, they need to combine what they can do on the computer with what a skilled (and authorized) agent can make happen, and because they are on location and upset, and not just at home on the computer, they deserve the expense of a bit more money to provide good service.  read more »

Miles for charity

Many people accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles they will never use. Some of the airlines allow you to donate miles to a very limited set of charities. I can see why they limit it — they would much rather have you not use the miles than have the charity use them. Though it’s possible that while the donor does not get any tax credit for donated miles, the airline does.

However, it should be possible for a clever web philanthropist to set up a system to allow people to donate miles to any charity they wish. This is not a violation of the terms of service on flyer miles, which only forbid trading them for some valuable consideration, in particular money.

The site would allow charities to register and donors to promise miles to the charities. A charity could then look at its balance, and go to the airline’s web site before they book travel to see if the flight they want can be purchased with miles. If so, they would enter the exact itinerary into the web site, and a suitable donor would be mailed the itinerary and passenger’s name. They would make the booking, and send the details back to the charity. (Several donors could be mailed, the first to claim would do the booking.) In a few situations, the available seats would vanish before the donor could do the booking, in which case the charity would need to try another airline or paid seat.

Donors could specify what they would donate, whether they are willing to buy upgrades or business class tickets (probably not) and so on.

Now it turns out that while the donor can’t accept money for the miles, the charity might be able to. Oftentimes non-profit representatives travel for things like speaking engagements where the host has a travel budget. Some hosts would probably be happy to cover something other than airfare, such as other travel expenses, or a speaking honorarium with the money. In this case, the charity would actually gain real money for the donation, a win for all — except the airline. But in the case of the airline, we are talking about revenue it would have lost if the donor had used the miles for a flight for themselves or an associate. So the real question is whether the airline can be indignant about having miles that would have gone unused suddenly find a useful home.

Now it’s true the booking interfaces on the airline sites are not great, but they are improving. And some employee of the non-profit would need to have an account, possibly even one with enough miles, just to test what flights are available. But this will be true in many cases.

Would the airlines try to stop it? I doubt it, because this would never be that big, and they would be seen as pretty nasty going after something that benefits charities.

Miles could also be used for hotel stays and other travel items.

Backwards airplane middle seats

It’s annoying (and vidicating at the same time) when you see somebody else developing an idea you’re working on, and today I saw one such idea announced in Europe.

Last year while flying I mused about how sitting in a row makes us bump up against one another at the point we are all widest — the elbows and butts. We are not rectangles, so there are roomier ways to pack us. I toyed with a number of ideas.

First I considered staggering the rows slightly, either by angling them back or front a bit, or simply having the middle seats be about 6” behind the aisle and window seats. Then our elbows would not overlap, but it would make the “corridor” (if you can call it that) to the window seat have some narrow corners, and would suffer some of the problems I will outline below.

Then I realized it might make sense to just reverse the middle seat. All the middle seats in a section could face backwards, and we would then have more space because wide parts would mesh with narrow parts. Somebody else has also worked up the same idea and has even got some prototypes and drawings, which are better than the ones I had worked up to show here. However, I will outline some of the issues I came up with in my experiments — mostly done with household chairs laid out in experimental patterns.  read more »

An airliner mesh network over the oceans

A friend (Larry P.) once suggested to me that he thought you could build a rural mobile phone much cheaper than Iridium network by putting nodes in all the airliners flying over the country. The airliners have power, and have line of sight to ground stations, and to a circle of about 200 miles radius around them. That’s pretty big (125,000 square miles) and in fact most locations will be within sight of an airliner most of the time. Indeed, the airlines already would like to have high speed data links to their planes to sell to the passengers, and relaying to people on the ground makes sense. It would not be a 100% on network, but that’s OK for many users. Phones would be able to warn about outages with plenty of advance notice to handle conversations, and indeed based on live computerized data from the air traffic control system, phones could even display a list of the times they would be connected.

I was thinking more about this in the context of InMarSat, which provides satellite services to ships and planes in the deep ocean. It uses geosynchronous satellites and auto-aiming dishes, but is quite expensive. Few people launch satellites to have footprints over the ocean.

Airliners fly so often these days, spaced often just 40 miles apart along the oceanic routes. It should be possible with modern technology to produce a mesh network that transmits data from plane to plane using line of sight. Two planes should in theory be able to get line of sight at 30,000 feet if they are up to 400 nautical miles apart. The planes could provide data and voice service for passengers at a reasonable price, and also could relay for ships at sea and even remote locations.

One can also use lower bands that can go further, since there is no spectrum competition over the the open ocean, but I suspect planes don’t spend too much time more than 400 miles from any other airliner (or 200 miles from any land station.) In the high bands many megabits of data bandwidth are available, and in theory spectrum allocation is not an issue when out of sight of land, so even hundreds of megabits would be possible. (We would of course not transmit on any band actually in use out there, and could even make a cognitive radio system which detects other users and avoids those bands.) An airline could offer just this service, or at a higher price switch to satellite in the few dead zones — which again, it should be able to predict with some accuracy. Aiming should be easy, since the aircraft all transmit their GPS coordinates regularly on transponder frequencies and can also do so in the data network. In fact, you would be able to know where a new mesh partner will be approaching, and where to point, before you could ever detect it with an omnidirectional antenna. And people could be given enough bandwidth for real internet, including voice. (Though that still means they should perhaps go to a phone lounge to have long conversations.)

Of course, I often find transoceanic flights one of the rare times I get work done without the distraction of the internet, so this could also be a terrible idea.

Some technical notes: Jim Thompson points out that doppler effects make this particularly challenging, which is an issue. I believe that since we know the exact vector of ourselves and the other aircraft, and we have many more bands at our disposal, this should be a tractable problem.

Censored and uncensored soundtrack on the airplane

A recent story that United had removed all instances of the word “God” (not simply Goddamn) from a historical movie reminded me just how much they censor the movies on planes.

Here they have an easy and simple way out. Everybody is on headsets, and they already offer different soundtracks in different languages by dialing the dial. So offer the censored and real soundtrack on two different audio channels. Parents can easily make sure the kids are on whatever soundtrack they have chosen for them, as the number glows on the armrest.

Now most people, given the choice are going to take the real soundtrack. Which is fine, since now they certainly can’t complain if it does offend them. A few will take the censored soundtrack. But most people should be happy. This is not much work since the real work is creating the censored track. Assuming there is room for more tracks on the DVD, keeping the original one is no big deal.

Flying Cars -- Airport Carshare system

Parking at airports seems a terrible waste — expensive parking and your car sits doing nothing. I first started thinking about the various Car Share companies (City CarShare, ZipCar, FlexCar — effectively membership based hourly car rentals which include gas/insurance and need no human staff) and why one can’t use them from the airport. Of course, airports are full of rental car companies, which is a competitive problem, and parking space there is at a premium.

Right now the CarShare services tend to require round-trip rentals, but for airports the right idea would be one-way rentals — one member drives the car to the airport, and ideally very shortly another member drives the car out of the airport. In an ideal situation, coordinated by cell phone, the 2nd member is waiting at the curb, and you would just hand off the car once it confirms their membership for you. (Members use a code or carry a key fob.) Since you would know in advance before you entered the airport whether somebody is ready, you would know whether to go to short term parking or the curb — or a planned long-term parking lot with a bit more advance notice so you allocate the extra time for that.

Of course the 2nd member might not want to go to the location you got the car from, which creates the one-way rental problem that carshares seem to need to avoid. Perhaps better balancing algorithms could work, or at worst case, the car might have to wait until somebody from your local depot wants to go there. That’s wasteful, though. However, I think this could be made to work as long as the member base is big enough that some member is going in and out of the airport.

I started thinking about something grander though, namely being willing to rent your own private car out to bonded members of a true car sharing service. This is tougher to do but easier to make efficient. The hard part is bonding reliability on the part of all concerned.

Read on for more thinking on it…  read more »

Better forms of differential pricing that don't punish flexibility so much

Differential pricing occurs when a company attempts to charge different prices to two different customers for what is essentially the same product. One place we all encounter it a lot is air travel, where it seems no two passengers paid the same price for their tickets on any given flight. You also see it in things like one of my phones, which has 4 line buttons but only 2 work — I must pay $30 for a code to enable the other 2 buttons.

The public tends to hate differential pricing, though in truth we should only hate it when it makes us pay more. Clearly some of the time we’re paying less than we might pay if differential pricing were not possible or illegal.

So even if differential pricing is neutral, one can rail if it punishes/overcharges the wrong thing. There might be a better way to get at the vendor’s goal of charging each customer the most they will tolerate — hopefully subject to competition. Competition makes differential pricing complex, as it’s only stable if all competitors use roughly the same strategy.

In air travel, the prevailing wisdom has been that business travellers will tolerate higher ticket prices than vacation travellers, and so most of the very complex pricing rules in that field are based on that philosophy. Business travellers don’t want to stay over weekends, they like to change their flights, they want to fly a combination of one-way trips and they want to book flights at short notice. (They also like to fly business class.) All these things cost a lot more in the current regime.

Because of this, almost all the travel industry has put a giant surcharge on flexibility. It makes sense that it might cost a bit more — it’s much easier to schedule your airline or hotel if people will book well in advance and keep to their booking — but it seems as though the surcharge has gotten immense, where flexible travel can cost 2 to 4 times what rigidly scheduled travel costs. Missing the last flight of the day can be wallet-breaking. Indeed, there are many arguments that since an empty seat or hotel room is largely wasted, vendors might be encouraged to provide cheaper tickets to those coming in at the last minute, rather than the most expensive. (And sometimes they do. In the old days flying standby was the cheapest way to fly, suitable only for students or the poor. There are vendors that sell cheap last minute trips.)

Vendors have shied away from selling cheap last-minute travel because they don’t want customers to find it reliable enough to depend on. But otherwise it makes a lot of sense.

So my “Solve this” problem is to come up with schemes that still charge people as much as they will tolerate, but don’t punish travel flexiblity as much.

One idea is to come up with negative features for cheap tickets that flexible, non-business travellers will tolerate but serious business travellers and wealthy travellers will not. For example, tickets might come with a significant (perhaps 10-20%) chance of being bumped, ideally with sufficient advance notice by cell phone that you don’t waste time going to the airport. For example, the airline might sell a cheap ticket but effectively treat the seat as available for sale again to a higher-paying passenger if they should come along. You might learn the morning of your trip that somebody else bought your seat, and that you’ll be going on a different flight or even the next day. They would put a cap on how much they could delay you, and that cap might change the price of your ticket.

For a person with a flexible work schedule (like a consultant) or the retired, they might well not care much about exactly what day they get back home. They might like the option to visit a place until they feel like returning, with the ability to get a ticket then, but the risk that it might not be possible for a day or two more. Few business travellers would buy such a ticket.

Such tickets would be of most value to those with flexible accomodations, who are staying with friends and family, for example, or in flexible hotels. Rental cars tend to be fairly flexible.

Of course, if you’re willing to be bumped right at the airport, that should given you an even cheaper ticket, but that’s quite a burden. And with today’s ubiquitous cell phones and computer systems there’s little reason not to inform people well in advance.

This technique could even provide cheaper first-class. You might buy a ticket at a lower price, a bit above coach, that gets you a first class seat half the time but half the time puts you in coach because somebody willing to pay the real price of first class bought a ticket. (To some extent, the upgrade system, where upgrades are released at boarding time based on how many showed up for first class, does something like this.)

Any other ideas how airlines could provide cheaper flexible tickets without eating into their business flyer market? If only one airline tries a new idea, you get an interesting pattern where everybody who likes the new fare rules switches over to that airline in the competitive market, and the idea is forced to spread.

Added note: In order to maintain most of their differential pricing schemes today, airlines need and want the photo-ID requirement for flying. If tickets (including tickets to half a return trip) could be easily resold on the web to anybody, they could not use the systems they currently use. However, the system I suggest, which requires the passenger be willing to be bumped, inhibits resale without requiring any type of ID. A business traveller might well buy a cheap ticket at the last minute from somebody who bought earlier, but they are going to be less willing to buy a ticket with unacceptable delay risks associated with it.

Beware the Weather Warn

This weekend I experienced an air travel policy that I had not seen before and which I found quite shocking. I was flying on United Express (Skywest)’s flight from San Francisco to Calgary. As we waited for the early morning flight, they announced this “weather warn.” Visibility was poor in Calgary due to low clouds. Below 0.5 miles they plane would not be allowed to land there. They rated about a 1/3rd chance of this happening, 2/3 chance we would land normally.

The catch was this, if, when they got to Calgary, they found they could not land, they would divert to Great Falls, MT. After dropping the passengers in Great Falls, we would be entirely on our own, with no assistance at all with getting to Calgary via ground or air. (United Express and a few other airlines do sell tickets from Great Falls to Calgary, though all via fairly distant hubs like Denver, Salt Lake etc.) The important point about this is that the diversion is to an airport in a different country from the intended destination. This makes ground transportation particularly difficult, as car rental companies are disinclined to offer economical one-way rentals between countries — not to mention the 6 hour drive. (Hertz will do it for about $320/day.)

I just checked and Greyhound will get you there in 1 day, 14 hours via Seattle and Vancouver. Amtrak doesn’t even go there.

Now the other passengers who had seen this before said that it usually works out, so we got on with a sense of adventure. But it would have been a big adventure had we been diverted, and just seemed to be a rather strange state for the airline to leave passengers. Yes, they did say that if we elected not to get on the flight, we could try a later one (with no assurance there would not be the same weather warning on that flight.) Most of the passengers got on, and we did land OK, but a few backed out.

Some international bureaucracy, they said, forbids them from landing at another Canadian airport, such as obvious choices like Edmonton, or even various smaller airports since this was a Canadair regional jet able to land at small airports. But just about anything would have been superior to Great Falls in the USA — some city with a means of getting to the destination. Indeed, the plane after landing in either GF or Calgary would have headed on to Chicago, which while far away, is at least a city one could find a flight to Calgary from, and from which United could certainly have arranged travel for the passengers.

I’m taking a wild guess that this bureaucracy is 9/11 related, but I could be wrong. But if it is, it’s another secret burden of that day.

(The likely result — passengers would probably have formed up in groups of 5 to rent Hertz cars and drive to Calgary. The cost — $320 plus $50 of gas — would have been tolerable shared among 5 people who would know one another much better by the end of the day. Of course we didn’t know this when making the decision.) There are also some slight cheaper but inconvenient tricks involving an in-Montana rental which drives to an Alberta town near the border, where one of the passengers rents a car there, and both cars drive to a Montana drop-off and then the Alberta car continues to Calgary. You would need a sense of adventure to do that.

On forging boarding passes

You’ve seen the flap recently because a student, to demonstrate the fairly well discussed airport security flaw involving the ease forgeability of boarding passes, created a web site where you could easily create a fake Northwest boarding pass. Congressman Markey even called for the student’s arrest, then apologized, but in the meantime the FBI raided his house and took his stuff.

As noted, this flaw has been discussed for some time. I certainly saw it the first time I was able to print my own boarding pass. However, it’s not really limited to print-at-home boarding passes, and it’s a shame the likely reaction to this will be to disable that highly convenient service. Airline issued boarding passes are just thicker paper. I don’t see it being particularly difficult with modern colour printers — which are able to pull off passable money given the right paper — to produce good airline printed boarding passes.

It’s possible the reaction to this will be to simpy add a gate ID check for people with home printed boarding passes, which will at least retain those passes without slowing down the boarding process even more, but it doesn’t actually fix the problem.

The current system of easy to forge boarding passes, combined with ID check at TSA security and boarding pass check at the gate, has the following flaws:

  • You can, as noted, fly if you are on the no-fly list with no problems. If I were named David Nelson I would consider it.
  • You can bypass the selectee system, where they print SSSS on your boarding pass to mark you for “full service” searching. (I’ve been told an additional stamp is placed on your boarding pass after the search, you need to forge this too.)
  • You can transfer your ticket to another person without telling the airline or paying them. You also earn flyer miles even though somebody else got on the plane
  • It allows people to enter the gate area who aren’t actually flying. This is not a big security risk, but it slows down the security line. You don’t want to miss your flight because people slowed down the line to meet their friends at the gate.

Some airports have the TSA ID-checker put a a stamp on the boarding pass. However, this is also not particularly difficult to forge. Just have somebody go through once to get today’s stamp, have them come back out and now you can forge it.

The simplest answer is to have ID check at the gate. This slows boarding, however, which is bad enough as it is. The hard answer is to have unforgeable boarding passes or an unforgeable stamp or non-removable sticker at TSA.

Probably the best solution is that the TSA station be equipped with an electronic boarding pass reader which can read the barcodes on all types of boarding passes, which themselves must be cryptographically secure. Then the name printed on the pass becomes unimportant, except so you can tell yours from your companion’s. The scanner would scan the pass, and display the name of the passenger on the screen, which could then be compared to the ID.

Sadly, I fear this suggestion would go further, and the full panopticon-enabled system would display the photo of the passenger on the screen — no need to show your ID at all.

Though mind you, if we didn’t have the no-fly-list concept, one could actually develop a more privacy enhancing system with photos. When you bought your ticket, if you didn’t care about FF miles, you would provide a photo of the passenger, not their name or anything else about them. The photo would be tied to the boarding record. To go through security or board the aircraft, you would present the boarding pass number or bar-code, and TSA, gate and luggage check agents would see your photo, and pass you through. The photo confirms that the person pictured has a valid ticket. This meets most of the goals of the current system, except for these:

  • It doesn’t allow a no-fly-list. But the no-fly-list is bad security. Only random screening is good security
  • It doesn’t allow gathering marketing data on passengers. But the frequent flyer system does.
  • It doesn’t allow the airline to generate a list of dead passengers in the event of a crash.

As noted, the marketing data goal is met by the FF program. It would be possible, by the way to build a fairly private FF program where you don’t give your name or address for the program. You just create an FF account online, and get a password, and you can place a picture in it and associate it with flights. You can then redeem flights from it, all online. But I doubt the airlines will rush to do this, they love selling data about you.

The dead-passenger problem can be solved to some degree. They would have, after all, pictures of all the passengers so they could be identified by people who know them. In a pinch, identity could also be escrowed, with the escrow agency requiring proof of the death of the passenger before revealing their identity. That’s pretty complex.

There’s no good way to solve the no-fly-list problem unless you have credible face recognition software. Even that wouldn’t work because it’s not hard to modify a photo to screw up what the face recognition software is looking for but still have it look like you. But frankly the no-fly-list is bad security and it’s not a bug that it doesn’t work in this system.

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