Air Travel

How to avoid a pilot suicide

After 9/11 there was a lot of talk about how to prevent it, and the best method was to fortify the cockpit door and prevent unauthorized access. Every security system, however, sometimes prevents authorized people from getting access, and the tragic results of that are now clear to the world. This is likely a highly unusual event, and we should not go overboard, but it’s still interesting to consider.

(I have an extra reason to take special interest here, I was boarding a flight out of Spain on Tuesday just before the Germanwings flight crashed.)

In 2001, it was very common to talk about how software systems, at least on fly-by-wire aircraft, might make it impossible for aircraft to do things like fly into buildings. Such modes might be enabled by remote command from air traffic control. Pilots resist this, they don’t like the idea of a plane that might refuse to obey them at any time, because with some justification they worry that a situation could arise where the automated system is in error, and they need full manual control to do what needs to be done.

The cockpit access protocol on the Airbus allows flight crew to enter a code to unlock the door. Quite reasonably, the pilot in the cockpit can override that access, because an external bad guy might force a flight crew member to enter the code.

So here’s an alternative — a code that can be entered by a flight crew member which sends and emergency alert to air traffic control. ATC would then have the power to unlock the door with no possibility of pilot override. In extreme cases, ATC might even be able to put the plane in a safe mode, where it can only fly to a designated airport, and auto-land at that airport. In planes with sufficient bandwidth near an airport, the plane might actually be landed by remote pilots like a UAV, an entirely reasonable idea for newer aircraft. In case of real terrorist attack, ATC would need to be ready to refuse to open the door no matter what is threatened to the passengers.

If ATC is out of range (like over the deep ocean) then the remote console might allow the flight crew — even a flight attendant — to direct the aircraft to fly to pre-approved waypoints along the planned flight path where quality radio contact can be established.

Clearly there is a risk to putting a plane in this mode, though ATC or the flight crew who did it could always return control to the cockpit.

It might still be possible to commit suicide but it would take a lot more detailed planning. Indeed, there have been pilot suicides where the door was not locked, and the suicidal pilot just put the plane into a non-recoverable spin so quickly that nobody could stop it. Still, in many cases of suicide, any impediment can sometimes make the difference.

Update: I have learned the lock has a manual component, and so the pilot in the cockpit could prevent even a remote opening for now. Of course, current planes are not set to be remotely flown, though that has been discussed. It’s non trivial (and would require lots of approval) but it could have other purposes.

A safe mode that prevents overt attempts to crash might be more effective than you think, in that with many suicides, even modest discouragement can make a difference. It’s why they still want to put a fence on the Golden Gate Bridge had have other similar things elsewhere. You won’t stop a determined suicide but it apparently does stop those who are still uncertain, which is lots of them.

The simpler solution — already going into effect in countries that did not have this rule already — is a regulation insisting that nobody is ever alone in the cockpit. Under this rule, if a pilot wants to go to the bathroom, a flight attendant waits in the cockpit. Of course, a determined suicidal pilot could disable this person, either because of physical power, or because sometimes there is a weapon available to pilots. That requires more resolve and planning, though.

Fixing the sad state of in-flight entertainment (your own or the airline's)

When Southwest started using tablets for in-flight entertainment, I lauded it. Everybody has been baffled by just how incredibly poor most in-flight video systems are. They tend to be very slow, with poor interfaces and low resolution screens. Even today it’s common to face a small widescreen that takes a widescreen film, letterboxes it and then pillarboxes it, with only an option to stretch it and make it look wrong. All this driven by a very large box in somebody’s footwell.

I found out one reason why these systems are so outdated. Apparently, all seatback screens have to be safety tested, to make sure that if you are launched forward and hit your head on the screen, it is not more dangerous than it needs to be. Such testing takes time and money, so these systems are only updated every 10 years. The process of redesigning, testing and installing takes long enough that it’s pretty sure the IFE system will seem like a dinosaur compared to your phone or tablet.

One airline is planning to just safety test a plastic case for the seatback into which they can insert different panels as they develop. Other airlines are moving to tablets, or providing you movies on your own tablet, though primarily they have fallen into the Apple walled garden and are doing it only for the iPad.

The natural desire is just to forget the airline system and bring your own choice of entertainment on your own tablet. This is magnified by the hugely annoying system which freezes the IFE system on every announcement. Not just the safety announcements. Not just the announcements in your language, but also the announcement that duty free shopping has begun in English, French and Chinese. While a few airlines let you start your movie right after boarding, you don’t want to do it, as you will get so many interruptions until the flight levels off that it will drive you crazy. The airline provided tablet services also do this interruption, so your own tablet is better.

In the further interests of safety, new rules insist you can only use the airline’s earbud headphones during takeoff and landing, not your nice noise cancellation phones. But you didn’t pick up earbuds since you have the nicer ones. The theory is, your nice headphones might make you miss a safety announcement when landing, even though they tend to block background noise and actually make speech clearer.

One of the better IFE systems is the one on Emirates. This one, I am told, knows who you are, and if you pause a show on one flight, it picks up there on your next flight. (Compare that to so many systems that often forget where you were in the film on the same flight, and also don’t warn you if you won’t be able to finish the movie before the system is turned off.)

Using your own tablet

It turns out to be no picnic using your own tablet.

  • You have to remember to pre-load the video, of course
  • You have to pay for it, which is annoying if:
    • The airline is already paying for it and providing it free in the IFE
    • You have it on netflix/etc. and could watch it at home at no cost
    • You wish to start a movie one day and finish it on another flight, but don’t want to pay to “own” the movie. (Because of this I mostly watch TV shows, which only have a $3 “own” price and no rental price.)

How to fix this:

  1. IFE systems should know who I am, know my language, know if I have already seen the safety briefing, and not interrupt me for anything but new or plane-specific safety announcements in my chosen language.
  2. Like the Emirates systems, they should know where I am in each movie, as well as my tastes.
  3. How to know the language of the announcement? Well, you could have a button for the FA to push, but today software is able to figure out the language pretty reliably, so an automated system could learn the languages and the order in which they are done on that flight. Software could also spot phrases like “Safety announcement” at the start of a public address, or there could be a button.
  4. Netflix should, like many other services, allow you to cache material for offline viewing. The material can have an expiration date, and the software can check when it’s online to update those dates, if you are really paranoid about people using the cache as a way to watch stuff after it leaves Netflix. Reportedly Amazon does this on the Kindle Fire.
  5. Online video stores (iTunes, Google Play, etc.) should offer a “plane rental” which allows you to finish a movie after the day you start it. In fact, why not have that ability for a week or two on all rentals? It would not let you restart, only let you watch material you have not yet viewed, plus perhaps a minute ahead of that.
  6. Perhaps I am greedy, but it would be nice if you could do a rental that lets 2 or more people in a household watch independently, so I watch it on my flight and she watches it on hers.
  7. If necessary, noise-cancelling headphones should have a “landing mode” that mixes in more outside sound, and a little airplane icon on them, so that we can keep them on during takeoff and landing. Or get rid of this pretty silly rule.

Choosing your film

There’s a lot of variance in the quality of in-flight films. Air Canada seems particularly good at choosing turkeys. Before they close the doors, I look up movies — if I can get the IFE system to work with all the announcements — in review sites to figure out what to watch. In November, at Dublin Web Summit, I met the developers of a travel app called Quicket, which specialized in having its resources offline. I suggested they include ratings for the movies on each flight — the airlines publish their catalog in advance — in the offline data, and in December they had implemented it. Great job, Quicket.

Let me be a bit late for the plane, occasionally.

One of air travel’s great curses is that you have to leave for the airport a long time before your flight. Airlines routinely “recommend” you be there 2 or 3 hours ahead, and airport ride companies often take it to heart and want to pick you up many hours before even short flights. The curse is strongest on short flights, where you can easily spend as much as twice the time getting to the flight as you spend in the air.

The reality, though, is that it’s not nearly that strict. I often arrive much later. I’ve missed 3 flights in my life — in two cases because cheap airlines literally had nobody at the counter past their cutoff deadline, and once because United’s automated bag check line was very long (I got there before the deadline) but their computer is fully strict on the deadline while humans usually are not. In all cases, I got on another flight, and the time lost to these missed flights is vastly less than the time gained by not being at the airport so early.

But it’s getting harder. Airlines are getting stricter, and in a few cases offering no flexibility.

The big curse is that many of the delays can’t be predicted. It may almost always take 20 minutes to get to the airport, but every so often traffic will make it 40. Security is usually only 5-10 minutes but there are times when it’s 30. Car rental return, parking shuttles, called taxis and Ubers can have unexpected delays. Parking lots can be full (as happened to me this xmas after Uber failed me.) Immigration can range from 2 minutes to 1.5 hours if you have to go to secondary screening. While in theory you could research this, sometimes at strange airports you are surprised to find it’s 30 minutes walk and people-mover to your gate.

If you ever fly privately, though, you will discover a different world, where even if you’re just a guest you can arrive a very short time before your flight. (If you’re the owner, of course, it doesn’t take off until you get there.) But there are many options that can speed your trip through the airport without needing to fly a private jet:

  • Tools like Google Now track traffic and warn you when you need to leave earlier to get to the airport
  • If you take a cab to the airport, you eliminate the delays of parking and car return
  • Though rarer today, ability to check bags in advance at remote locations helps a lot
  • Curb checking of bags is great, as of course is online check-in sent to your phone
  • (Not checking bags is of course better, and any savvy flyer avoids it whenever they can, but sometimes you can’t.)
  • Premium passengers get check-in gates with minimal lines, and premium security lines
  • If you have a Global Entry or Nexus card, you can skip the immigration/customs line
  • TSA PRE, “Clear” and premium passenger security lines provide a no-wait experience. Of course nobody should ever have to wait, ever.
  • Failing that, offering appointments at security for a predictable security trip can remove the time risk
  • Sometimes they also let people who are at risk of missing a flight skip past the security line (and some other lines)
  • In some cases, premium passengers are shuttled in vehicles within the terminal or on the tarmac
  • Business class passengers can board as late as they want (or as early) and still get a place in the bins on most flights

In addition, I believe that if you wanted to get your checked bag cleared quickly by the TSA for money, it could happen. Of course, we can’t have everybody do this all the time, or so I presume, because it would require too much in the way of resources. But what if we allow you to do this occasionally when factors beyond your control have made you late.

What is proposed is that every so often — perhaps one time in twenty — when factors like traffic, long security lines or other things mostly beyond your control made you late, you could invoke an urgent need, and still make your flight.

This would allow you to budget a more reasonable time to arrive

What does this all add up to? It should be possible, at an extra cost, to get a quick trip through the airport. Say that cost is $200 (I don’t think it’s that much, but say that it is.) You could pay $10 extra per flight for “insurance” and be able to invoke an urgent trip every so often when things go wrong. It’s worth it to pay every trip because it gives you a benefit on every trip — you leave later, knowing you will make it even if traffic, security lines or similar factors would delay you too much.

Some of the services you might get would include:

  • Somebody meets your car at the curb, takes your keys, and then parks it or returns it to the car rental facility
  • Another employee meets you and checks in your bags at the curb. Your bags are put in a special urgent queue in TSA inspection. If need be a staffer walks it through.
  • A golf cart takes you to security if it’s not close, and you get to the front of the line.
  • If your gate is far, another golf cart or escort takes you there

The natural question is, “why wouldn’t you want this all the time?” And indeed you would, and a large fraction of passengers would pay a fairly high fee to get this when they need it. Airlines might make it just part of the service with high-priced tickets or super-elite flyers, and I see no reason that should not happen. The price can be set so that the demand matches the supply, based on the cost of having extra employees to handle urgent passengers.

When it comes to more “public” resources like TSA screening, they have a simple rule. You can give premium services to premium passengers if what you do also speeds up the line for ordinary passengers. A simple implementation of this is to just pay for an extra screening station for the premium passengers, because now you don’t butt in line and in fact by not being in the regular line at all, you speed it up for all in it. You don’t need to be so extravagant, however. For example, the “TSE PRE” line, which allows a faster trip through the X-ray (you don’t have to take anything out, or remove your shoes in this line) speeds up everybody because we all wait behind people doing that. If you can show that the amount you speed up the whole process is greater than the delay you add by letting premium passengers jump the queue, it is allowed.

But as fancy as these services sound, with extra staff, they are really not that expensive. Perhaps just 20 minutes of employee time for most of it — more if they are driving your car to a parking lot for you. (Note that this curb hand-off is forbidden by most airports because car rental companies already would like to offer it to their top customers but it is believed that would be too popular and increase traffic. Special permission would need to be arranged.)

For the “insurance” approach, a few techniques could assure it was not being abused. The frequency of use is one of them, of course, but you could also give people an app for their phones. This app, using GPS and knowing a flight is coming, would know when you left for the airport. In fact, it could give you alerts as to when to leave based on information about traffic, parking and security wait times. If you left at the reasonable departure deadline, you would get the urgent service if traffic or other surprise factors made you late. If you left after that deadline, you would not be assured the fast track path.

What would be better would be an app that actually works with all the airport functions you will interact with — check in, the gate, bag check, passenger screening, parking lots, rental cars, traffic etc. Their databases could know their state, any special conditions, and both recommend a time to leave that will work, but even make appointments for you and tell you when to leave for them. Then your phone could guide you through the airport and do all the hard work. It would provide an ID to get you your appointment at security. It might tell you to not drive your own car and take a car service instead if that’s easier than parking your car for you. It would coordinate for all the passengers using the system to make sure they flow through the airport in a well regulated manner, with no surprises, so that people don’t have to try to get there hours in advance.

Sell me cheap, flexible tickets if I'm flexible too

Dave Barry once wrote that there is a federal law that no two people on a plane can pay the same price for their seat. Airlines use complex systems to manage ticket prices, constantly changing them based on expected demand and competition, and with over a dozen fare classes with different rules.

When it comes to the rules, a usual principle is that only the more expensive tickets give you the flexibility to change your plans. For any reasonable price, you will have change and cancellation fees, and for the lowest cost tickets, changes are next to impossible. This is compounded by the fact that changes usually require paying the difference to the current price, but the current price in the few days before a flight is the very expensive flexible price. Missing a flight or deciding to move a fight a day can be hugely expensive.

The flexible tickets are ridiculously expensive as well, often 2x or even 3x the inflexible cost. In general, unless you change your plans a lot, you are still better off buying the cheap inflexible tickets and then eating the high cost on the relatively rare times you make changes. (Many airlines do offer cheap “same day” changes, particularly to status flyers.)

Flexible tickets can command this price because they are of greatest use to business passengers. We fly more on short notice, and need to make sudden changes, while people on vacation generally do have a fixed schedule. Airlines know business customers will pay more, and so they search for things that only business passengers want, and charge heavily for them.

Sell me a ticket where I have to be flexible

For leisure travel, here’s an alternative. Sell me a ticket that allows reasonable and low-cost changes when seats are available. Make it not a big deal to let me leave when I want to. To make this ticket cheap, but a big burden on me — the airline can also delay my flight.

What this would mean is that up to some amount of time, like 24 hours before the flight, the airline can email me and say, “Sorry, that flight is selling out, we’ve moving you to another flight.” The other flight would be within a time window — the longer the window, the cheaper the ticket. 24 to 48 hours would usually be enough.

The typical business passenger is not going to tolerate this. In business, time is money and losing a day just isn’t an option.

Some leisure passengers would not tolerate it either. If you have other bookings that are hard to change, like sold-out hotels, or a cruise, you don’t want to miss them. (Though in the world of flight cancellations you have to prepare for this sometimes.) But many hotels and other things are pretty flexible.

Most could handle such a rule going home, unless they are going home and must get to work the next day. For retired people, and the many people who work flexible schedules (consultants, writers and many other self-employed) it is not a big issue to get home a day or two late. And for many of these people it’s also not a big issue to arrive at the destination a day late, and certainly not a few hours late. In addition, many people taking an extended trip to multiple cities would be perfectly fine with the idea that they might spend an extra day in Rome and a day less in London, or vice versa. (On shorter trips with several flights a day, the delay might well be only a few hours.)

You could also offer the airline the power to make you leave earlier, but they would have to give you more notice on most legs.

This is great for the airline. They get the power to move people off full planes to replace them with high revenue customers at no cost, and put them on planes that are less full, where the seats are almost free. (If both planes are full, they would not move you.) Today they do this by asking for volunteers and paying them with vouchers, or on some occasions doing a forced bumping.

This is like standby, in a way, but less uncertain than that. A bit more like the way employees fly free on their off-hours.

There is one class of business passenger who might tolerate this, namely those making a visit to a branch office. They might be able to continue work for another day at the branch rather than go home if they don’t have meetings scheduled. I don’t think there would be a lot of this, unless you could also do it for business class tickets.

As part of the deal, the airline would also offer you a guaranteed low rate on an airport hotel for your extra day. They already have negotiated rates and spaces. With advance notice, though, you will probably be able to stay at your own hotel unless you travel at a sold-out time. These fares might make more sense in shoulder seasons, where hotel changes are easy.

As a passenger

As a reminder, you do all this to save money on a flexible ticket. You get a ticket where you can leave whenever you want without a large change fee. For a certain class of voyager (the retired in particular) this is the sort of ticket they want. Of course, seats have to be available, you can’t switch to a sold-out flight, and seat selection may be limited if you do things on short notice. But it need not always be on short notice.

The notice from the airline could even be long, too. Their computers are estimating the load all the time, and they might send you a request to move even a week or month in advance. For a higher cost, you might lengthen the window so you need a week’s notice if you are going to be moved (and they might then move you forward or backward.)

I was a robot for 3 days in London

In August, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in London. I did it while in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho by means of a remote Telepresence Robot(*). The WorldCon is half conference, half party, and I was fully involved — telepresent there for around 10 hours a day for 3 days, attending sessions, asking questions, going to parties. Back in Idaho I was speaking at a local robotics conference, but I also attended a meeting back at the office using an identical device while I was there.

After doing this, I have written up a detailed account of what it’s like to attend a conference and social event using these devices, how fun it is now, and what it means for the future.

You can read Attending the World Science Fiction convention on the other side of the world by remote telepresence robot

For those of you in the TL;DR crowd, the upshot is that it works. No, it’s not as good as being there in person. But it is a substantial fraction of the way there, and it’s going to get better. I truly feel I attended that convention, but I didn’t have spend the money and time required to travel to London, and I was able to do other things in Idaho and California at the same time.

When you see at new technology that seems not quite there yet, you have to decide — is this going to get better and explode, or is it going to fizzle. I’m voting for the improvement argument. It won’t replace being there all of the time, but it will replace being there some of the time, and thus have big effects on travel — particularly air travel — and socialization. There are also interesting consequences for the disabled, for the use of remote labour and many other things.

(*)As the maker will point out, this is not technically a robot, just a remote controlled machine. Robots have sensors and make some of their own decisions on how they move.

Near-perfect virtual reality of recent times and tourism

Recently I tried Facebook/Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype. It has more resolution (I will guess 1280 x 1600 per eye or similar) and runs at 90 frames/second. It also has better head tracking, so you can walk around a small space with some realism — but only a very small space. Still, it was much more impressive than the DK2 and a sign of where things are going. I could still see a faint screen door, they were annoyed that I could see it.

We still have a lot of resolution gain left to go. The human eye sees about a minute of arc, which means about 5,000 pixels for a 90 degree field of view. Since we have some ability for sub-pixel resolution, it might be suggested that 10,000 pixels of width is needed to reproduce the world. But that’s not that many Moore’s law generations from where we are today. The graphics rendering problem is harder, though with high frame rates, if you can track the eyes, you need only render full resolution where the fovea of the eye is. This actually gives a boost to onto-the-eye systems like a contact lens projector or the rumoured Magic Leap technology which may project with lasers onto the retina, as they need actually render far fewer pixels. (Get really clever, and realize the optic nerve only has about 600,000 neurons, and in theory you can get full real-world resolution with half a megapixel if you do it right.)

Walking around Rome, I realized something else — we are now digitizing our world, at least the popular outdoor spaces, at a very high resolution. That’s because millions of tourists are taking billions of pictures every day of everything from every angle, in every lighting. Software of the future will be able to produce very accurate 3D representations of all these spaces, both with real data and reasonably interpolated data. They will use our photographs today and the better photographs tomorrow to produce a highly accurate version of our world today.

This means that anybody in the future will be able to take a highly realistic walk around the early 21st century version of almost everything. Even many interiors will be captured in smaller numbers of photos. Only things that are normally covered or hidden will not be recorded, but in most cases it should be possible to figure out what was there. This will be trivial for fairly permanent things, like the ruins in Rome, but even possible for things that changed from day to day in our highly photographed world. A bit of AI will be able to turn the people in photos into 3-D animated models that can move within these VRs.

It will also be possible to extend this VR back into the past. The 20th century, before the advent of the digital camera, was not nearly so photographed, but it was still photographed quite a lot. For persistent things, the combination of modern (and future) recordings with older, less frequent and lower resolution recordings should still allow the creation of a fairly accurate model. The further back in time we go, the more interpolation and eventually artistic interpretation you will need, but very realistic seeming experiences will be possible. Even some of the 19th century should be doable, at least in some areas.

This is a good thing, because as I have written, the world’s tourist destinations are unable to bear the brunt of the rising middle class. As the Chinese, Indians and other nations get richer and begin to tour the world, their greater numbers will overcrowd those destinations even more than the waves of Americans, Germans and Japanese that already mobbed them in the 20th century. Indeed, with walking chairs (successors of the BigDog Robot) every spot will be accessible to everybody of any level of physical ability.

VR offers one answer to this. In VR, people will visit such places and get the views and the sounds — and perhaps even the smells. They will get a view captured at the perfect time in the perfect light, perhaps while the location is closed for digitization and thus empty of crowds. It might be, in many ways, a superior experience. That experience might satisfy people, though some might find themselves more driven to visit the real thing.

In the future, everybody will have had a chance to visit all the world’s great sites in VR while they are young. In fact, doing so might take no more than a few weekends, changing the nature of tourism greatly. This doesn’t alter the demand for the other half of tourism — true experience of the culture, eating the food, interacting with the locals and making friends. But so much commercial tourism — people being herded in tour groups to major sites and museums, then eating at tour-group restaurants — can be replaced.

I expect VR to reproduce the sights and sounds and a few other things. Special rooms could also reproduce winds and even some movement (for example, the feeling of being on a ship.) Right now, walking is harder to reproduce. With the OR Crescent Bay you could only walk 2-3 feet, but one could imagine warehouse size spaces or even outdoor stadia where large amounts of real walking might be possible if the simulated surface is also flat. Simulating walking over rough surfaces and stairs offers real challenges. I have tried systems where you walk inside a sphere but they don’t yet quite do it for me. I’ve also seen a system where you are held in place and move your feet in slippery socks on a smooth surface. Fun, but not quite there. Your body knows when it is staying in one place, at least for now. Touching other things in a realistic way would require a very involved robotic system — not impossible, but quite difficult.

Also interesting will be immersive augmented reality. There are a few ways I know of that people are developing

  • With a VR headset, bring in the real world with cameras, modify it and present that view to the screens, so they are seeing the world through the headset. This provides a complete image, but the real world is reduced significantly in quality, at least for now, and latency must be extremely low.
  • With a semi-transparent screen, show the augmentation with the real world behind it. This is very difficult outdoors, and you can’t really stop bright items from the background mixing with your augmentation. Focus depth is an issue here (and is with most other systems.) In some plans, the screens have LCDs that can go opaque to block the background where an augmentation is being placed.
  • CastAR has you place retroreflective cloth in your environment, and it can present objects on that cloth. They do not blend with the existing reality, but replace it where the cloth is.
  • Projecting into the eye with lasers from glasses, or on a contact lens can be brighter than the outside world, but again you can’t really paint over the bright objects in your environment.

Getting back to Rome, my goal would be to create an augmented reality that let you walk around ancient Rome, seeing the buildings as they were. The people around you would be converted to Romans, and the modern roads and buildings would be turned into areas you can’t enter (since we don’t want to see the cars, and turning them into fast chariots would look silly.) There have been attempts to create a virtual walk through ancient Rome, but being able to do it in the real location would be very cool.

Hotel rooms and temporary apartments need to adapt better for the digital nomad

I’ve been on the road for the last month, and there’s more to come. Right now I’m in Amsterdam for a few hours, to be followed by a few events in London, then on to New York for Singularity U’s Exponential Finance conference, followed by the opening of our Singularity University Graduate Studies Program for 2014. (You can attend our opening ceremony June 16 by getting tickets here — it’s always a good crowd)

But while on the road, let me lament about what’s missing from so many of the hotel rooms and AirBnB apartments I’ve stayed in, which is an understanding of what digital folks, especially digital couples need.

Desk space

Yes, rooms are small, especially in Europe, and one thing they often sacrifice is desk space. In particular, desk space for two people with laptops. This is OK if you’ve ditched the laptop for a tablet, but many rooms barely have desk space enough for one, or the apartments have no desk, only the kitchen table. And some only have one chair.

We need desk space, and we need a bit of room to put things, and we need it for two. Of course, there should be plugs at desk level if you can — the best thing is to have a power strip on the desk, so we can plug in laptops, camera chargers, phone chargers and the like.

Strangely, at least half the hotels I stay in have a glass tabletop for their desk. The once surface my mouse won’t work on. Yes, I hate the trackpad so I use a mouse if I am doing any serious computing. I can pull over a piece of paper or book to be a mousepad, but this is silly.


Really sweet, but rarely seen, is an external monitor. Nice 24” computer monitors cost under $150 these days, so there should be one — or two. And there should be cables (HDMI and VGA at least) because while I bring cables sometimes, you never know which cable the monitor in a room will use. Sometimes you can plug into the room’s TV — but sometimes it has been modified so you can’t. It’s nice if you can, though a TV on the while is not a great monitor for working. It’s OK for watching video if I wanted to.

For extra credit, perhaps the TV can support some of the new video over wireless protocols, like Miracast, Widi or Apple’s TV protocol, to make it easy to connect devices, even phones and tablets.

Sadly, there is no way yet for you to provide me with a keyboard or mouse in the room that I could trust.


Though when it comes to phone chargers, many use their phone as their alarm clock, and so they want it by the bed. There should be power by the bed, and it should not require you to unplug the bedside lamp or clock radio.

Another nice touch would be plugs or power strips with the universal multi-socket that accepts all the major types of plugs. Sure, I always have adapters but it’s nice to not have to use them. My stuff is all multi-voltage of course.

Luggage holders

Most hotel rooms come with a folding luggage stand, which is good. But they should really come with two. Couples and families routinely have 3 bags. A hotel should know that if you’ve booked a double room, you probably want at least two. Sometimes I have called down to the desk to get more and they don’t have any more — just one in each room. If you are not going to put them in the room, the bell desk should be able to bring up any you need.

Free Wifi (and wired) without a goddamned captive portal

I’ve ranted about this before, but captive portals which hijack your browser — thus breaking applications and your first use — are still very common. Worse, some of them reset every time you turn off your computer — or your phone, and you have to re-auth. Some portals are there to charge you, but I find that not an excuse any more. When hotels charge me for internet, I ask them how much the electricity and water are in the room. It’s past time that hotels that charge for internet just have that included in the online shopping sites like Kayak and Tripadvisor when you search for hotels. Or at the least I should be able to check a box for “show me the price with internet, and any taxes and made-up resort fees” so I can compare the real price.

But either way, the captive portals break too many things. (Google Glass can’t even work at all with them.) Cheap hotels give free wifi with no portal — this is a curse of fancier hotels. If you want sell premium wifi, so be it — but let me log into the basic one with no portal, and then I can go to a URL where I can pay for the upgrade. If you insist give me really crappy internet, 2G speed internet, with no portal, so that things at least work, though slowly, until I upgrade.

If you need a password, use WPA2. You can set up a server so people enter their room number and name with WPA2-Enterprise. You can meet certain “know your user” laws that force these portals on people that way.

And have wired internet — with a cable — if you can. At a desk, it’s more reliable and has no setup programs and needs no password or portal at all.

Can they make a better black box pinger?

I wrote earlier on how we might make it easier to find a lost jet and this included the proposal that the pingers in the black boxes follow a schedule of slowing down their pings to make their batteries last much longer.

In most cases, we’ll know where the jet went down and even see debris, and so getting a ping every second is useful. But if it’s been a week, something is clearly wrong, and having the pinger last much longer becomes important. It should slow down, eventually dropping to intervals as long as one minute, or even an hour, to keep it going for a year or more.

But it would be even more valuable if the pinger was precise about when it pinged. It’s easy to get very accurate clocks these days, either sourced from GPS chips (which cost $5) or just synced on occasion from other sources. Unlike GPS transmitter clocks, which must sync to the nanosecond, here even a second of drift is tolerable.

The key is that the receiver who hears a ping must be able to figure out when it was sent, because if they can do that they can get the range, and even a very rough range is magic when it comes to finding the box. Just 2 received pings from different places with range will probably find the box.

I presume the audio signal is full of noise and you can’t encode data into it very well, but you can vary the interval between pings. For example, while a pinger might bleep every second, every 30 seconds it could ping twice in a second. Any listener who hears 30 seconds of pings would then know the pinger’s clock and when each ping was sent. There could be other variations in the intervals to help pin the time down even better, but it’s probably not needed. In 30 seconds, sound travels 28 miles underwater, and it’s unlikely you would hear the ping from that far away.

When the ping slows down as battery gets lower, you don’t need the variation any more, because you will know that pings are sent at precise seconds. If pings are down to one a minute, you might hear just one, but knowing it was sent at exactly the top of the minute, you will know its range, at least if you are within 50 miles.

Of course things can interfere here — I don’t know if sound travels with such reliable speed in water, and of course, waves bounce off the sea floor and other things. It is possible the multipath problem for sound is much worse than I imagine, making this impossible. Perhaps that’s why it hasn’t been done. This also adds some complexity to the pinger which they may wish to avoid. But anything that made the pings distinctive would also allow two ships tracking the pings to know they had both heard the same particular ping and thus solve for the location of the pinger. Simple designs are possible.

Two way pinger

If you want to get complex of course you could make the pinger smart, and listening for commands from outside. Listening takes much less power, and a smart pinger could know not to bother pinging if it can’t hear the ship searching for it. Ships can ping with much more volume, and be sure to be heard. While there is a risk a pinger with a broken microphone might not understand it has a broken microphone, otherwise, a pinger should sit silent until it hears request pings from ships, and answer those. It could answer them with much more power and thus more range, because it would only ping when commanded to. It could sit under the sea for years until it heard a request from a passing ship or robot. (Like the robots made by my friends at Liquid Robotics, which cruise unmanned at 2 knots using wave power and could spend years searching an area.)

The search for MH370 has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, so this is something worth investigating.

Other more radical ideas might be a pinger able to release small quantities of radioactive material after waiting a few weeks without being found. Or anything else that can be detected in extremely minute concentrations. Spotting those chemicals could be done sampling the sea, and if found soon enough — we would know exactly when they would be released — could help narrow the search area.

Track the waves

I will repeat a new idea I added to the end of the older post. As soon as the search zone is identified, a search aircraft should drop small floating devices with small radio transmitters good to find them again at modest range. Drop them as densely as you can, which might mean every 10 miles or every 100 miles but try to get coverage on the area.

Then, if you find debris from the plane, do a radio hunt for the nearest such beacon. When you find it, or others, you can note their serial number, know where they were dropped, and thus get an idea of where the debris might have come from. Make them fancier, broadcasting their GPS location or remembering it for a dump when re-collected, and you could build a model of motion on the surface of the sea, and thus have a clue of how to track debris back to the crash site. In this case, it would have been a long time before the search zone was located, but in other cases it will be known sooner.

Conspiracy theory!

Reporting has not been clear, but it appears that the ships which heard the pings did so in the very first place they looked. With a range of only a few miles, that seems close to impossibly good luck. If it turns out they did hear the last gasp of the black boxes, this suggests an interesting theory.

The theory would be that some advanced intelligence agencies have always known where the plane went down, but could not reveal that because they did not want reveal their capabilities. A common technique in intelligence, when you learn something important by secret means, is to then engineer another way to learn that information, so that it appears it was learned through non-secret means or luck. In the war, for example, spies who broke enemy codes and learned about troop movements would then have a “lucky” recon plane “just happen” to fly over the area, to explain how you knew where they were. Too much good luck and they might get suspicious, and might learn you have broken their crypto.

In this case the luck is astounding. Yes, it is the central area predicted by the one ping found by Inmarsat, but that was never so precise. In this case, though, all we might discern — if we believe this theory at all — is that maybe, just maybe, some intelligence agency among the countries searching has some hidden ways to track aircraft. Not really all that surprising as a bit of news, though.

Let’s hope they do find what’s left — but if they do, it seems likely to me it happened because the spies know things they aren’t telling us.

Getting rid of lines at airport security

Why are there lines at airport security? I mean, we know why the lines form, when passenger load exceeds the capacity, with the bottleneck usually being the X-ray machines. The question is why this imbalance is allowed to happen?

The variable wait at airport security levies a high cost, because passengers must assume it will be long, just in case it is. That means every passenger gets there 15 or more minutes earlier than they would need to, even if there is no wait. Web sites listing wait times can help, but they can change quickly.

For these passengers, especially business passengers, their time is valuable, and almost surely a lot more costly than that of TSA screeners. If there are extra screeners, it costs more money to keep them idle when loads are low, but the passengers would be more than willing to pay that cost to get assuredly short airport lines.

(There are some alternatives, as Orwellian programs like Clear and TSA-PRE allow you to bypass the line if you will be fingerprinted and get a background check. But this should not be the answer.)

In some cases, the limit is the size of the screening area. After 9/11, screening got more intensive, and they needed more room for machines and more table space for people to prepare their bags for all the rules about shoes, laptops, liquids and anything in their pockets.

Here are some solutions:

Appointments at security

The TSA has considered this but it is not widely in use. Rather than a time of departure, what you care about is when you need to get to the airport. You want an appointment at security, so if you show up at that time, you get screened immediately and are on your way to the gate in time. Airlines or passengers could pay for appointments, though in theory they should be free and all should get them, with the premium passengers just paying for appointments that are closer to departure time.

Double-decker X-ray machines

There may not be enough floor space, but X-ray machines could be made double decker, with two conveyor belts. No hand luggage is allowed to be more than a foot high, though you need a little more headroom to arrange your things. Taller people could be asked to use the upper belt, though by lowering the lower belt a little you can get enough room for all and easy access to the upper belt for all but children and very short folks.

A double width deck is also possible, if people are able to reach over, or use the other side to load. (See below.)

This might be overkill, as I doubt the existing X-ray machines run at half their capacity. It is the screener’s deliberation that takes the time, and thus the next step is key…

Remote X-ray screeners

The X-ray screener’s job is to look at the X-ray image and flag suspect items. There is no need for them to be at the security station. There is no need for them to even be in the airport or the city, come to that. With redundant, reliable bandwidth, screeners could work in central screening stations, and be sent virtually to whatever security station has the highest load.

Each airport would have some local screeners, though they could work in a central facility so they can virtually move from station to station as needed, and even go there physically in the event of some major equipment failure. They would be enough to handle the airport’s base-load, but peak loads would call in screeners from other locations in the city, state or country.

Using truly remote screeners creates a risk that a network outage could greatly slow processing. This would mean delayed flights until text messages can go out to all passengers to expect longer lines and temporary workers can come in — or the outage can be repaired. To avoid this, you want reliable, redundant bandwidth, multiple screener centers and the ability to even use LTE cell phones as a backup. And, perhaps, an ability to quickly move screeners from airport to airport to handle downtimes at a particular airport. (Fortunately, there happens to be a handy technology for moving people from airport to airport!)

Screeners need not be working a specific line. Screeners could be allocated by item. Ie. one bag is looked at by screener 12 and the next bag is looked at by screener 24, just giving each item or set of items to the next available screener, which means an X-ray could actually constantly run at full speed if there are available staff. Each screener would, if they saw an issue, get to look at the other bags of the same passenger, and any bag flagged as suspect could immediately be presented to one or more other screeners for re-evaluation. In addition, as capacity is available, a random subset of bags could be looked at by 2 or more screeners.

It can also make sense to just skip having a human look at some bags at random to reduce wait and cost. It might even make sense to let some bags go unviewed in order to have other bags be viewed by 2 screeners. Software triage of how many screeners should look at a bag (0, 1, 2, etc.) is also possible though random might be better because attackers might figure out how to fool the software. With the screeners being remote and the belts operating at a fixed speed, passengers won’t learn who was randomly selected for inspection or not.

Some screeners need to be there — the one who swabs your bag, or does an extra search on it, the one who does the overly-intimate patdown and the one with the gun who tries to stop you if you try to run. But the ones who just give advice can be remote, and the one who inspects your boarding pass can be remote for passengers able to hold those things up to the scanners. I suspect remote inspection of ID is also possible though I can see people resisting that. The scanner who looks at your nude photo can certainly be remote — currently they are out of view so you don’t feel as bothered.

This remote approach, instead of costing more, might actually save money, especially on the national level. That’s because the different time zones have different peak times, and remote workers can quickly move to follow the traffic loads.

It’s also easier with remote screeners for passengers to use both sides of the belt to load and get their stuff. Agents would have to go in among them to pull bags for special inspection, though.

Of course it could be even better

Don’t misunderstand — the whole system should be scrapped and replaced with something that is more flyer-friendly as well as more capable of catching actual hijacker techniques. But if it’s going to exist, it should be possible to remove the line for everybody, not just those who go through background checks and fingerprinting just to travel.

After 2001, a company developed bomb proof luggage containers and now there is a new bag approach which would reduce the need to x-ray and delay checked luggage as much as they do. They were never widely deployed, because they cost more and weigh more.

I have 3 things I carry on planes:

  1. The things I need on the plane (like my computer, books and other items.)
  2. The vital and fragile things which I insist not leave my control, such as my camera gear and medicines.
  3. When I am not checking a bag, everything else for short trips.

I’m open to having all but #1 being put into a bomb-proof container by me and removed by me in a manner similar to gate check, so I can assure it’s always on the plane with me. Of course if I’m to do that then security (for just me and the items of type one) must be close to the plane — which it is for many international flights to the USA. That would speed up that security a lot. The use of remote screeners could make it easier to have security at the gate, too.

Personally, once the problem of taking over the cockpit was solved by new cockpit doors and access policies, I think there was an argument that you need not screen passengers at all. Sure, they could bring on guns, but would be no longer able to hijack the aircraft, so it’s no different from a bus or a train. Kept to small items, they would not be able to cause as much damage as they could do with a suitcase sized bomb in the security line. The security line is, by definition, unsecured, and anybody can bring a large uninspected roll-aboard up to it, amidst a very large crowd — similar to what happened in Moscow in 2011.

Instead, you would have gates where a portal in the wall would have a bomb-proof luggage container into which you could put your personal bags and coats. Most people would then just get on, but a random sampling would be directed to extra security. Those wishing to bring larger things on-board (medical gear, super-fragiles, mega-laptops) would need to arrive earlier and go through security too. A forklift would quickly move the bombproof container into the hold and the plane would take off.

Making sea crashes easier to find

We’ve all learned a lot about what can and can’t be done from the tragic story of MH 370, as well as the Air France flight lost over the Atlantic. Of course, nobody expected the real transponders to be disconnected or fail, and so it may be silly to speculate about how to avoid this situation when there already is supposed to be a system that stops aircraft from getting lost. Even so, here are some things to consider:

In the next few years, Iridium plans to launch a new generation of satellites with 1 megabit of bandwidth, replacing the pitiful 2400 bps they have now. In addition, with luck, Google Loon may get launched and do even more. With that much bandwidth, you can augment the “black box” with a live stream of the most important data. In particular, you would want a box to transmit as much as it could in the event of catastrophic shock, loss of signal from the aircraft and any unplanned descent, including of course getting close to the ground away from the target airport set at takeoff. Even the high cost of Iridium is no barrier for rare use, and you actually have a lot of seconds in the case of planes lost while flying at high altitude. Not enough to send much cockpit voice, but the ability to send all major alerts, odd-readings and cockpit inputs.

You could send more to geosync satellites but I will assume in a crisis it’s hard to keep aimed.

Another place you could stream live data would be to other aircraft. Turns out that up high as they are, aircraft are often able to transmit to other aircraft line of sight. Yes, the deep south Indian ocean may not be one of those places, but in general the range would be 500 miles, and longer if you used any wavelength that could travel beyond the horizon. Out there over the ocean, there’s nobody to interfere with, and closer to land, you can talk to the land. Near land, the live stream would go to terrestrial receivers, even cell towers. Live data gives you information even if the black box is destroyed or lost. If you are sure that can never happen, the black box is enough.

It also could make sense to have the black box be on the outside of the aircraft, meant to break away on impact with ground or water, and of course, it should float. The Emergency Locator Transmitter should be set up this way as well. You want another box pinging that sinks with the plane, though. The floating ELT/black box could even eject itself from the plane on its own if it detected an imminent crash in any remote area, including the ocean. With a GPS, it will know its altitude and location. It could even have a parachute on it.

Speaking of pinging, one issue right now is the boxes only have power for 2 weeks. Obviously there is a limit on power, and you want a strong signal, but it is possible to slow down your ping rate as your battery gets low, to the point that you are perhaps only pinging a few times a day. The trick is you would ping at very specific and predictable times, so people would know precisely when to listen — even years later if they get a new idea about where to look. Computers can go to sleep on these sorts of batteries and last for years if they only have to use power once a day.

If all you want to know is where an aircraft is, we’ve seen from this that it doesn’t take too much. A slightly more frequent accurately timed ping of any kind picked up by 2 satellites (LEO or geosync) is enough to get a pretty good idea where a plane is. The cheapest and simplest solution might be a radio that can’t be disabled that does this basic ping either all the time, or any time it doesn’t get the signal that others systems like ACARS are not doing their job.

Like many, I was surprised that the cell phones on board the aircraft that were left on — and every flight has many phones left on — didn’t help at all. Aircraft fly too high for most cell phones to actually associate with cell towers on the ground, so you would not see any connections made, but it seems likely that as the plane returned over inhabited areas on its way south, some of those phones probably transmitted something to those ground stations, something the ground stations ignored because they could not complete the handshake. If those stations kept lower level logs, there might be information there, but they probably don’t keep them. Because metal plane skins block signals, they might have been very weak. If the passengers were conscious, they probably would have been trying to hold their phones near the window, even though they could not connect at their altitude.

Another thing I have not understood is why we have only seen the results of one ping detected by the Inmarsat over the Indian. From that ping, they were able to calculate the distance of the aircraft to the satellite, and thus draw that giant arc we’ve all seen on the maps. It’s not clear to me why there was only one ping. Another ping would have drawn another arc, and so on, but that would have given us much more data to narrow down the course of the aircraft, as it’s a fair presumption it was flying straight. The reason they know know the one ping came from the southern hemisphere is the satellite itself is not perfectly centered and so moves up and down, giving a different doppler for north vs. south.

We may not learn their fate. I must admit, I’m probably an unusual passenger. I am an astronomer, and so will notice if a plane has made such a big course correction, though I have to admit in the southern hemisphere I would get confused. But then I would pull out my phone and ask its GPS where we are. I do this all the time, and I often notice when the aircraft I am in does something odd like divert or circle. But I guess there are not so many people of this stripe on a typical plane. (Though I have flown in and out of KL on Malaysian Airlines myself, but long ago.)

While hope for the people aboard is gone, I do hope we learn the cause of the tragedy, to see if anything we can think that is not too expensive would prevent it from happening again. The cost need not be that low. The cost of this search and the Air France search both added up to a lot.

Update: A New Idea — as soon as the search zone is identified, a search aircraft should drop small floating devices with small radio transmitters good to find them again at modest range. Drop them as densely as you can, which might mean every 10 miles or every 100 miles but try to get coverage on the area.

Then, if you find debris from the plane, do a radio hunt for the nearest such beacon. When you find it, or others, you can note their serial number, know where they were dropped, and thus get an idea of where the debris might have come from. Make them fancier, broadcasting their GPS location or remembering it for a dump when re-collected, and you could build a model of motion on the surface of the sea, and thus have a clue of how to track debris back to the crash site. In this case, it would have been a long time before the search zone was located, but in other cases it will be known sooner.

Southwest gets it (mostly) right for in-flight entertainment

Southwest recently announced a very different approach to providing in-flight entertainment. Partnering with dish network they will offer live TV and on-demand programming over the in-plane WIFI to people’s personal devices. Sadly, for now, it’s just Apple devices. I will presume they will extend this to other platforms, including laptops, soon, and they should consider also allowing you to rent a tablet one-way if you don’t have your own.

Everywhere else, we see airlines putting in “fancy” and expensive in-flight entertainment systems. In coach they use small screens in the headrests, and business class and 1st class seats have fairly large displays. I’ve tried a number of these, and uniformly, in spite of all the money, they suck compared to just having pre-loaded video on your own tablet, laptop or DVD player. Even your phone with its small screen is better. Why?

  • Almost every one of the systems I’ve seen has been badly written and underpowered, resulting in atrociously slow response time and poor UI
  • The ones that charge you sit there all flight advertising to you if you don’t pay. Clever people can figure out how to turn off the screen, but it doesn’t matter, because most of the other screens are this very distracting synchronized spam video. Worse, during boarding, they turn up the audio on this ad.
  • They pause your video for every little announcement, including non-safety announcements, spam to shop duty free or join the FF club, and translations of announcements into other languages. I can almost accept doing this for safety announcements (I would rather take a safety quiz online or at my seat and be free from the routine ones) but if you start your movie before take-off (which is a nice thing to do) you will be interrupted literally dozens of times.
  • The video, game and music selections are often quite lame compared to what you can get in any online store for your phone or tablet
  • The live TV has advertising in it, and you can’t FF or get up for a snack like at home. Unless its news or sports, why watch live?
  • There is often a surprisingly large box under the seat in every seat cluster for the in-flight computer. That takes away foot room and storage space and adds weight to the plane. Plus, why are the boxes so large — consider these devices seem to have far less power than a typical tablet?
  • If they have a touchscreen, the guy behind you is always pushing on the back of your seat. Otherwise they have a fairly hard to use hand remote (and for unknown reasons, long latency on button pushes.)
  • Disturbingly, movies are often played in the wrong aspect ratio on these screens, and you can’t do anything about it but watch fat characters.
  • The small screen ones tend to be fairly low resolution, mostly because they are older. Your phone or tablet is usually not that old and has HD resolution.

That’s a pretty astonishing list of failings. Your own tablet has one main downside — they force you to shut it off on takeoff and landing, for no good reason since tests all show a tablet does not interfere with the plane. It also may have battery limitations, though those are fixed with a USB charge port in the seatback. You do need to bring a stand for it, it would be nice if there were something on the seatback to mount your tablet. You would need an app to do plane-related stuff like the moving map or safety training.

What’s amazing is that all the other airlines have paid a lot of money to install these bad systems, and more to the point carry the weight of them everywhere. This is the classic battle between custom technology, which gets obsolete very quickly, and consumer technology like phones and tablets which are generic but replaced frequently so always modern. The consumer tech will always win, but people don’t realize that.

At first, they might have worried that they needed to provide a screen for everybody. This could easily have been solved with rentals, both out in the terminal and to a lesser extent on-board. Especially if you put in power jacks so recharge is not an issue.

Today the airlines would all be wise to tear out their systems and follow Southwest. I don’t care about the Dish Network streaming that much, but better (and more popular) would be on-board servers which offer a local version of the Google Play store and iTunes store containing the most popular movies and new releases. I venture those companies would be OK with providing that if allowed, and if not, somebody else would.

As a side note, let me say that it would be nice if the online movie stores offered a form of rental more amenable to flying. Most offer a 24 hour rental, which starts when you start playing (so you can download in advance.) However, they don’t offer the ability to start a movie on your flight out and finish it on your flight back. So you dare not start a rental movie unless you are sure you are going to finish it on the flight. Another case where the DRM doesn’t really match what people want to do. (I don’t want to “buy” the movie just to finish it later.)

I will admit one nice feature of the rental is that if I am on a flight, I can watch a movie, and that activates the same 24 hour rental period at home, so those at home can watch it there too. That way, if there is a movie we all wanted to see, we can all see it — if those at home are willing to watch it that particular day.

More on in-seat video

Just returned from an overseas trip to Moscow, I am reminded of the rant I posted earlier about the constant interruptions on the in-flight entertainment system.

Everything I said before remains valid:

  • Know me by my flyer number and don’t repeat things to me I’ve already certified as knowing, like safety rules
  • Know my language (I input it, after all) and don’t bother me with announcements other than in my best understood language
  • Show me most things as text, perhaps in a crawl under my show. If need be, have me confirm I understand.
  • Tailor the message to my age and my location in the plane. Show me exits on the screen for my seat.
  • Cut back on the spam about how great your airline is, how wonderful the FF plan is or why I should buy duty free.

Today, instead you can see the visible frustration on the faces of flyers as their movie is interrupted so that they can here the translation into Russian of the long announcement they just heard in German and English.

Having good custom in-flight entertainment is good, and considered a major competitive feature, but already I see more and more people preferring to put out a tablet, even when they have a super-fancy system in the first-class seats. The tablet of course does not have the interruptions (even for the tiny number of real announcements such as in our case last week, “we can’t get the landing gear doors to close so we’re dumping fuel and returning to the airport”) and it also has, if you prepare it, customized entertainment that you know you want to watch.

Frankly, I am not sure who programs the video selections on many of the airlines but I have to suspect they don’t just try to get the best movies with good reviews. They either try to get the cheapest movies or have deals with certain studios — it’s amazing how few quality films they might have in a selection of 100 movies.

I also remain disappointed at how badly implemented most of the in-flight systems I have seen. They are all slow, with highly noticeable lags after keypresses, poor touchscreens, freezes and crashes. Any tablet or phone puts them to shame when it comes to UI and responsiveness. And to top it off, they are huge — on main airlines, many of the seats have reduced footroom to fit the box for the video system. (It also has other in-seat electronics I presume but still, it’s about 10x bigger than it needs to be.) This is odd particularly since in planes floor space and weight are at such a premium. A tablet computer, either fixed in the seat or on an anti-theft power/data tether, would provide a better system — smaller, lighter, better UI, cheaper, better screen — in just about every way. Of course when they first designed these seats years ago they did not have cheap tablets but there is little excuse to continue installing the old ones.

Wait, how could they have known? How could they have not known. It’s 2012. We’ve known for decades now that each year computer products get smaller, faster, cheaper and superior in major ways. When you are designing a system to install in the future, it’s a mistake to design it based on the current technology. You should bet that something better will be along and make your design adaptable to it. If nothing else your standard design is going to get faster and higher resolution — which makes the slow response time of the existing systems inexplicable.

Many airlines are starting to offer satellite TV. That’s better than the old limited selections (or in particular a single bad movie) but actually not too appealing. Aside from being full of commercials and ignoring your schedule, with TV the announcements and interruptions make you miss crucial parts of your show as they talk over them. More than once I’ve been watching a show on an airline to have them talk over the climax of the film.

I’m whining a lot but it’s because I do believe this is important. Truth is that on a flight you are often tired and cramped, and reading and working are not tremendously comfortable. I bring a book but read at a reduced speed. Having nice noise-cancelling headphones and a good in-flight entertainment system with quality content can make a make a flight much better, and it’s a shame that so many things are obviously wrong with the systems they have built. Today’s flights are stressful in any cabin, and a quiet and uninterrupted experience would do a lot to increase customer satisfaction.

Airline bureacracy reigns at United

Two recent flight booking experiences on United Airlines:

a) I booked a round trip to Toronto with miles. Due to new plans, I ended up getting a different flight to Toronto but wanted to take the same flight back. I had booked return tickets for 2 passengers, but you can book one-way tickets for the same miles price, and you can book passengers together or independently (later joining the reservations to sit together.) It doesn’t cost any more to get 4 single legs, it’s just a lot more work for you and the airline.

When I needed to change it, they said, no, there was no way to just use the return leg. I must cancel or not use the entire trip. To cancel and re-credit the miles is $250 for 2 passengers — so much for free. To re-book the one-way leg another $200 or so. The original booking was $125 in fees. That’s a bunch. Had I booked it as independent trips, I could have used my return leg, and just refunded or re-used the outgoing leg. I decided to re-use the whole trip and buy a paid fare ticket. Perhaps that’s what they wanted, but now if I want flexibility I must jump through hoops booking, and make them jump too.

b) The alternate trip was to Brussels. I booked a flight with one flight number that stops and changes flights in Chicago. It’s really two flights but with one number. Many other alternatives existed that were really two flights with different numbers. On checking in, I found that there were business class seats available. Normally on United, if you have status, that means a complimentary upgrade to busines class on the domestic flights. But because I booked it as one flight, I have no domestic flight. Other people on the same flight to Chicago with me are getting upgraded because they are not flying on to Europe while I’ll sit in coach. It’s not a long flight, but still. Next time, never book a single flight unless that’s what you really want, which you may do if it’s the same plane and that reduces your risk of lost luggage and gets you better seats. In this case, there is no advantage to the single flight number it seems, and a big loss.

Of course, phone staff have no power to make things right. Sigh.

End of rant.

The efficacy of trusted traveler programs

A new paper on trusted traveler programs from RAND Corp goes into some detailed math analysis of various approaches to a trusted traveler program. In such a program, you pre-screen some people, and those who pass go into a trusted line where they receive a lesser security check. The resources saved in the lesser check are applied to give all other passengers a better security check. This was the eventual goal of the failed CLEAR card — though while it operated it just got you to the front of the line, it didn’t reduce your security check.

The analysis shows that with a “spherical horse” there are situations where the TT program could reduce the number of terrorists making it through security with some weapon, though it concludes the benefit is often minor, and sometimes negative. I say spherical horse because they have to idealize the security checks in their model, just declaring that an approach has an X% chance of catching a weapon, and that this chance increases when you spend more money and decreases when you spend less, though it has diminishing returns since you can’t get better than 100% no matter what you spend.

The authors know this assumption is risky. Turns out there is a form of security check which does match this model, which is random intense checking. There the percentage of weapons caught is pretty closely tied with the frequency of the random check. The TTs would just get a lower probability of random check. However, very few people seem to be proposing this model. The real approaches you see involve things like the TTs not having to take their shoes off, or somehow bypassing or reducing one of the specific elements of the security process compared to the public. I believe these approaches negate the positive results in the Rand study.

This is important because while the paper puts a focus on whether TT programs can get better security for the same dollar, the reality is I think a big motive for the TT approach is not more security, but placation of the wealthy and the frequent flyer. We all hate security and the TSA, and the airlines want to give better service and even the TSA wants to be hated a bit less. When a grandmother or 10 year old girl gets a security pat down, it is politically bad, even though it is the right security procedure. Letting important passengers get a less intrusive search has value to the airlines and the powerful, and not doing intrusive searches that seem stupid to the public has political value to the TSA as well.

We already have such a program, and it’s not just the bypass of the nudatrons (X ray scanners) that has been won by members of congress and airline pilots. It’s called private air travel. People with their own planes can board without security at all for them or their guests. They could fly their planes into buildings if they wished, though most are not as big as the airliners from 9/11. Fortunately, the chance that the captains of industry who fly these planes would do this is tiny, so they fly without the TSA. The bypass for pilots seems to make a lot of sense at first blush — why search a pilot for a weapon she might use to take control of the plane? The reality is that giving a pass to the pilots means the bad guy’s problem changes from getting a weapon through the X-ray to creating fake pilot ID. It seems the latter might actually be easier than the former.  read more »

Selling empty middle seats by dutch auction

I have written before about letting passengers pay for an empty middle seat next to them and recently about ANZ’s cuddle class and related programs which partially implement this.

While I believe airlines could sell the empty middle for somewhere in the range of 30-40% of a regular ticket, this still has issues. In particular, are they really going to bump a poor standby passenger who had a cancelled flight and make them stay another night so that people can get a more comfortable seat?

One idea is to allow the sale of empty middles by dutch auction. In effect this would say, “If there are going to be empty middles on this plane, those who bid the most will get to sit next to them.” If this can be done, it’s a goldmine of extra revenue for the airline. What they sell costs them nothing — they are just selling the distribution of passengers on the plane. If the plane fills up, however, they sell it all and nobody is charged.

The dutch auction approach would let each passenger make an offer. If there are 5 empty middles, then the 10 people who sit next to them win, but they all pay the 10th highest bid price. If only 9 passengers bid, the 10th highest price is zero, and everybody pays zero — which is what happens today, except it’s semi-random. While this may seem like a loss for the airline, many game theory tests suggest that dutch auctions often bring the best result, as they make both sides happy, and people bid more, knowing they will actually pay the fair price if they win.

(On the other hand, airlines are masters at having two people pay vastly different prices for exactly the same thing and have managed to avoid too much resentment over it.)

There is one huge problem to solve: How do you arrange that matched bidders are sitting together to share the empty middle? Each empty middle benefits two passengers.  read more »

Air New Zealand "Cuddle Class"

Some years ago I made the proposal that airlines sell half of a middle seat at half price or less so that two coach passengers could assure they would have an empty middle next to them.

I learned a while ago about one approach to this plan, a new “cuddle class” from Air New Zealand also known as the skycouch. It’s a row of 3 coach seats that folds down into a very narrow and short bed for two. The idea is that couples can book the whole row for 2.5x the cost of one seat, ie. the empty middle is being sold at a pretty reasonable half-price, or 1/4 price per person.

As I noted earlier, that alone would be worthwhile. Many people would gladly pay 25% more for an aisle or window with a guarantee that nobody was in the middle, and would get together with other solo voyagers to do this. Air New Zealand has for some time offered what it calls the “Twinseat” which is the ability to buy (for a fairly low price around $60) an assured empty adjacent seat “subject to availability.” This is something different — it’s simply saying that, if there are going to be empty middles on the plane anyway, the people who pay more at the gate will get those next to them. You can’t assure it on a flight unless you make sure you take a flight that won’t fill up.

This skycouch seat however has armrests that really go all the way up, and a footrest that comes up to make the whole thing a platform. Frankly, since 3 seats is only 4.5’ long and the bed is narrower than a twin bed, you need a couple that sleeps together very comfortably while spooning. While everybody likes doing that for a little while, it’s fewer who can do that for a whole night. One person could buy the whole row, I guess, but at 2.5x it starts to approach a nice business class seat, many of which now lie flat. (Mind you I’m picky enough that I don’t sleep that well in the business class flat seats, and I have yet to want to pay for the 1st class ones.)

It’s nice to the see the innovation, though. I mean some airlines even have coach armrests that don’t go up all the way when reclined, and that’s a real pain for couples who want to relax together even in the old seating designs.

What would be more interesting, if less romantic, would be a way to have a portable platform that could be installed on top of this row to turn it into two bunkbeds. From a physical standpoint, you could have 4 slots for poles, some reinforcing straps to form X braces on the poles, and a board with inflatable mattress on the top, such boards packed somewhere compactly in the ceiling when not in use. The poles would have to go up and hold a net and bars to stop the top bunkmate from falling out. But the hard part would be making this strong enough to qualify as safe in an emergency landing, since an emergency might arise while these are still assembled, though they would all be dismantled well before landing and they would only be used on flights 10 hours and up. If there were a section of these you could help it along by having no recline in these seats so the seat backs are solid and able to support the upper berth.

In this case, you could have strangers happily paying 125% of the base ticket price for one of these bunks. Lot of work to set up and tear down, though. Probably need a weight limit in the upper bunk. If you can do it at all.

Designing a better, faster, secure, vastly cheaper airport with proto-robocars

Like just about everybody, I hate the way travel through airports has become. Airports get slower and bigger and more expensive, and for short-haul flights you can easily spend more time on the ground at airports than you do in the air. Security rules are a large part of the cause, but not all of it.

In this completely rewritten essay, I outline the design on a super-cheap airport with very few buildings, based on a fleet of proto-robocars. I call them proto models because these are cars we know how to build today, which navigate on prepared courses on pavement, in controlled situations and without civilian cars to worry about.

In this robocar airport, which I describe first in a narrative and then in detail, there are no terminal buildings or gates. Each plane just parks on the tarmac and robotic stairs and ramps move up and dock to all its doors. (Catering trucks, fuel trucks and luggage robots also arrive.) The passengers arrive in a perfect boarding order in robocars that dock at the ramps/steps to let them get on the plane through every entrance. Luggage is handled by different robots, and is checked and picked up not in carousels and check-in desks, but at curbs, parking lots, rental car centers and airport hotels.

The change is so dramatic that (even with security issues) people could arrive at airports for flights under 20 minutes before take-off, and get out even faster. Checked luggage would add time, but not much. I also believe you could build a high capacity airport for a tiny fraction of the cost of today’s modern multi-billion dollar edifices. I believe the overall experience would also be more pleasant and more productive for all.

This essay is a long one, but I am interested in feedback. What will work here, and what won’t? Would you love to fly through this airport or hate it? This is an airport designed not to give you a glorious building in which to wait but to get you through it without waiting most of the time.

The airport gets even better when real robocars, that can drive on the streets to the airport, come on the scene.

Give me your feedback on The Robocar Airport.

Key elements of the design include:  read more »

Robot landing pad for planes without landing gear

Here’s an idea that seems a bit wild and scary at first, but it’s doable today and has broad benefits: Small aircraft that don’t have landing gear, but instead land and take off from robotic “can’t miss” platforms pulled by cables on short airfields.

For every small aircraft purchaser, a big decision is whether to get retractable landing gear. They are very expensive, and create a risk of failure, but your plane will fly a lot faster and be more fuel efficient if you get them. What if we could leave the landing gear on the ground?

Imagine a wheeled platform on the runway with robotic control and a variety of systems to perfectly track an approaching aircraft. Pulled by cables, it can accelerate at several “g”s forward and back and left and right. As the aircraft approaches it tracks it and the cockpit display indicates positive lock. If the plane veers left, it veers left. If the plane speeds up it speeds up. Pretty much no matter what the pilot or winds do (other than missing the runway entirely) the plane can’t miss landing on it. It’s spring loaded so even if the landing is a bit hard the shock is cushioned. Done right, it’s just like having fancy shock absorbing landing gear.  read more »

The road trip car and the hotel luggage rack

Just back from some time on the road, which always prompts me to think of ways to improve travel.

First, and most simply: Every hotel room comes with a small foldable stand on which to put your suitcase. The problem is they all come with exactly one of these. In some rooms there is space on the tables or dresser for another bag, but often there is not. Doing solo business travel I have just one bag, but all couples, and many solo wanderers have more than one, and so you end up putting bags on the floor. It’s quite annoying, since these stands can hardly be very expensive — folding cloth and metal chairs can be had for $10 in most stores. I’ve only tried once or twice to ask housekeeping for another, and been surprised to learn they don’t keep spares. Frankly, I think it would be cheaper to just put 2 in every room than waste staff time delivering extras, but either would work. And the hotel often knows if a room is booked for 2 rather than one in advance. If you have a bellman take up your bags, not only does the bellman see how many bags you have but it’s a sure thing you have several. Every bell station should have some extra racks and throw what is needed on the luggage cart.

Next, I think it would be interesting to see car rental companies develop cars just for road trips. They are the largest buyers of cars (and often owned by car companies) so custom cars are not out of the question. SUVs and some minivans contain many of the features of a road trip car, but they are often 3 times as expensive when reserved in advance, and 1.5x to 2x more expensive in gasoline usage. What features might a road trip car have?  read more »

Airline baggage solutions

Everybody knows about the Jet Blue attendant who flew off the handle when he got hit in the head by a bag and had fights with passengers over stored carry-ons. And we know airlines are starting to charge higher fees for checked bags (and even carry-ons) which netted them over $700 million last year. This pushes more people to want to use carry-on bags, which we already wanted to save time, and that means more waits at security and more waits getting on and off flights.

I admit to being a heavy user of carry-on bags. For one thing I usually have lots of camera equipment with me which is too fragile to check unless I have bulky foam cases. Which they then might lose, and which means getting to the airport around 20 to 30 minutes earlier and leaving it 15 minutes later with several more bags. (And perversely, paying more on some airlines.)

The system is getting stretched. I’ve often thought about one useful solution, which would be standardized carry-on bag racks with rails. The standard sized bags would quickly slick in and click-lock in place. No doors even (except for aesthetics) and no fussing with overhead bags, or rearranging. Perhaps some small unstructured place on top or between for coats and purses and laptop bags but mostly they would go under the seat, or in the seat pocket. (Currently they are not permitted in the seat pockets but these could be strengthened and given a closure so the computer can’t fly out in a crash.)

Add to this a system of official gate-check racks. These racks would be there at the gate or in the jetway. If need be they would be mounted in a special elevator or forklift so that they can be quickly and reasonably gently inserted and removed in the cargo hold. These racks would include some rails for standardized bags (especially on puddle-jumper planes which can’t have as many overhead rails) and some amorphous sections with strong cargo netting. They would have shock absorbers to reduce shocks when they are put on the plane or taken out. You would place your items in these racks yourself — in parallel with other passengers, in a wide space where doing so is not blocking others — and the goal would be that you could put semi-fragile items, including things like cameras and laptops into the racks with full confidence. To help with this, we could have a camera on the wing which feeds the seatback screens so that passengers could watch this module as it is loaded and unloaded. This would do a lot to ensure that it is treated with care in a way that checked luggage often is not.  read more »

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