Very few shopping days remaining until Christmas – but you already know that, I’m sure!
This week’s newsletter is in slightly different form. I arrived home at 1.30am on Thursday morning and the rest of Thursday has been a bit of a jetlagged blur, during the course of which I wrote an article which is added at the end of today’s newsletter.
The article was on a topic requested by Joe Brancatelli of JoeSentMe.com and evolved into an interesting look at some of the electronics we all either do or should travel with. You may find some last-minute Christmas gift ideas within the article too if you’re still trying to check everything and everyone off your Christmas list (including, of course, yourself!).
Christmas Markets Land Cruise
I’m now returned from our first ever Christmas Markets “Land Cruise”, which I believe exceeded everyone’s expectations, my own included.
A lovely hotel choice in Lille provided a great substitute for a cruise ship, the weather was reasonably good – cold, but not bitterly cold, and mercifully, with no rain, and while there was a little snow on the last days when we went to Switzerland, it was outside the coach rather than on us.
The Christmas market shooting in Strasbourg occurred while we were touring Christmas markets, but the increased security was very minimal, and, as always, life went on much as normal. We did get to lightly interact with some of the gilets jaunes protesters, which was more an interesting novelty experience than an inconvenience or problem.
This first trial of this “stay in one place for a week with day touring around the district” concept that I’m calling a land cruise was so successful that I plan to offer two more land cruises next year – late Sept/early Oct, at the end of summer when the days are still long and warm, to the Loire Valley. Different castles/chateaus and wineries, and beautiful scenery, every day, should make this a lovely treat.
And then we’ll do another Christmas land cruise, possible again based in Lille, oe maybe somewhere in Germany/Austria – still trying to decide about that, but it will be timed for the first week or two in December, the same as usual.
As always, the best part of this experience was the lovely group of fellow Travel Insiders. We enjoyed great shared times and fellowship; during the days, the evenings, at breakfast and other meals, on excursions, and during a couple of special “bonus” events. One was a champagne tasting of various different champagnes, ranging from Sir Winston Churchill’s favorite champagne (Pol Roger) to those from tiny champagne houses that you’d never see outside the local region.
The other, on another day, was a blind tasting of a €37 champagne and a €6 bottle of sparkling wine from a different part of France. Nearly everyone expressed their clear preference for the €6 sparkling wine and were surprised to learn they had chosen it rather than its more illustrious (Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin) champagne cousin. Apparently, at least with French wine, you don’t always get what you pay for, which had been the point I was trying to illustrate, although I didn’t really expect the cheaper product to be so overwhelmingly the favorite.
Most impressive was that we conducted this tasting on the coach, with each person having two fine-glass champagne flutes in front of them, and at the end of the tasting (during which quite a lot of wine was consumed and many miles traveled) not a single glass was broken, much to the relief of the driver and me.
Talking about getting what you paid for, I flew in both AA business class to Europe and Icelandair business class back. The Icelandair experience was awful. The AA experience was good. More on that another time.
San Francisco Airport
My route home from Zurich had me arriving into San Francisco, something I’ve not done for a few years. It was a very positive experience.
The international arrivals area was totally free of any congestion, including for arriving non-US citizens. In addition, they are trialling a new approach to Customs there, more like the common green/red lane experiences elsewhere in the world, but in this case, apparently with only one lane. After collecting your luggage, you just simply walk out, no need to line up for a Customs officer at all.
I spoke about this with a couple of Customs officers who were standing around, looking bemused and bored as passengers adjusted to the new and much easier experience. They said this is a test being conducted at SFO and several other airports around the country, and said to expect a number of other changes to the Customs “Inspection” process in 2019 as well. Sounds like some great things happening there.
Not so great was the security screening. SFO is one of the very few airports that uses private contractors rather than the TSA, and I found myself wishing for the TSA, something I never thought I’d say.
Unlike my last international journey the month before, I happily was not given the dreaded SSSS endorsement for special extra screening, and instead was shown as qualifying for the TSA Pre-check easy/fast process. When I checked in for the first of three flights in Zurich, the Icelandair checkin lady printed one boarding pass for all three flights, shown as three separate lines on the one form. I thought that was a great idea – there’s no reason why we should have three separate boarding passes for three flights.
But when I went to the Pre-check lane at SFO, the woman restricting entry to only bona fide Pre-check people refused to let me in, because she didn’t recognize the boarding pass! I managed to successfully argue my way past her, showing her where on the boarding pass it showed my Precheck status, but when it came to the next person who checked my ID and boarding pass, they refused, claiming that their boarding pass reader didn’t recognize my Precheck status (even though it lit up with a green indicator light).
I had a long four-hour layover so I went back out and got Alaska Airlines to print me a separate boarding pass for this last flight from SFO to SEA, and their boarding pass made it past both people and the machine.
But my carry-on bag didn’t make it through the X-ray machine. For the first time in a long time, it was selected for further checking due to some anomaly. That wouldn’t be a big problem, normally, but I had to wait ten minutes while the bag prior to mine was being checked by hand. Truly, I exaggerate not. A security offer with an enormous Afro haircut was moving at almost literally a snail’s pace, taking everything out of a capacious backpack, then placing them exactly in a pattern in screening bins to screen each item individually, and it did take more than ten minutes for this to happen.
In the course of doing this, he also managed to drop the man’s camera onto the floor, which he tried to then blame on the passenger – “you didn’t tell me you had a camera in here” was the phrase I overhead. I guess even his slow movements just proved to be too fast for his even slower mental processes.
Mercifully another screener eventually came to clear the backlog of other people waiting for their bags to be manually checked, and when I left, the hapless passenger was arguing with a supervisor over who was liable for what with his dropped camera. Ugh.
During my 10+ minute wait, I was astonished at the high level of bags being selected for further screening, and the large number of people who “beeped” going through the metal detector. This was unlike most TSA operated Pre-check lanes in other airports.
When I went to board the flight, there were four more contractors in the jetway checking IDs and boarding passes and occasionally pulling people out for further bag screening. I’m not sure if this was just the private contractors being hyper-active or if there was some heightened security alert.
The last flight was a late flight, scheduled to leave SFO at 10.15pm and arrive into SEA at 12.35am. It was 10 minutes late pushing back from the gate, but was on the ground and at the terminal 20 minutes early in Seattle. It has often been my experience that the last flight of the day will arrive early, particularly when the pilots are flying back to their home base.
This was definitely a case on that flight, where the pilots were keen to finish their day and get home – to pick up 30 minutes on a 2 hr 20 minute flight is no mean feat. And part of the reason for that was our taxiing in at SEA was conducted at a speed only slightly less than take-off speed. We were rushing along the ground so fast that no-one needed to be reminded to keep their seatbelts fastened! I’m sure the passengers were as eager as the pilots to get home.
Deliberate Drone Disruption at Gatwick
It seems every Christmas season there’s a terrible weather-related disruption to air traffic somewhere in the US or Europe. This year – at least so far – the worst disruption is man-made rather than weather-related, the total closure of London’s Gatwick Airport for now more than a day (30+ hours as of late Thursday night here) due to a wayward drone (or possibly more than one) flying semi-randomly around the airport, creating a potential hazard for planes arriving or departing.
It is hard to estimate how many people have been affected, due to the ripple effect impacting not just on people flying in/out of LGW but on others who can’t fly on other flights due to their inbound plane not arriving, and so on. This comprehensive article estimates 350,000. A count of 760 grounded/cancelled flights (so far) has also been cited.
To make matters worse, Heathrow had a “brief” IT problem at Terminal 5 which saw delays for an uncertain amount of time as well.
So what is the risk of drones at airports? There’s basically only one risk, which is having the drone sucked into a jet engine. That would almost surely cause an immediate and complete engine failure. Of course, a single engine failure shouldn’t imperil any modern airplane with reasonably competent pilots, but it would definitely cost the airline a great deal of money to repair/replace the engine.
Maneuvering a drone to get it into the path of a jet would be very difficult, although far from impossible, and when a plane is taking off, it is at its least maneuverable, slowest, and with its engines desperately sucking in the most amount of air.
A determined attacker would simply have a drone obscured on the ground at the end of a runway, and then when a departing plane started its take-off roll, time the drone’s sudden ascent to match the airplane’s take-off roll (easier than it sounds, because the attacker could observe many departing planes and work out fairly exactly the times and heights for a particular type of plane). In general, drones can fly at 40- 100 mph, and can climb vertically at a rate of 1000 – 2000 ft per minute. A typical drone can be controlled from as far as 5 miles away, and can have a flying time of up to an hour, and a standby time, waiting on the ground, of a day or more.
At Gatwick, it seems the drone operator is choosing to taunt the police and airport authorities, being deliberately visible to scare the airport into closing down, rather than actually trying to cause damage to a plane. That is a good strategy in terms of maximum impacts, as is evident from the outcome and disruption to date.
What can the authorities do to defend against deliberate drone disruption? The good news part of this situation is that it will cause such questions to be thrown into finer focus and encourage the development of practical and positive answers. Most defenses revolve either around disrupting the radio signal or disabling the device. While the British are agonizing over the danger of firing bullets from rifles into the air and what might happen when they eventually fall to the ground again (actually a valid concern), they ignore the practical impossibility of hitting a drone with a rifle round, when the drone is probably 100 – 400 yards away, and traveling at 40+ mph. Try hitting a duck with a rifle to get a feeling for how hard it is.
Shotguns are unfortunately only effective at very shorter ranges, but much better if the drone is within that range, and much safer in terms of spent shot falling to earth.
Another approach is to ignore the drone and to focus instead on the drone’s operator. With typical control distances of less than five miles, it is possible, with enough special equipment, to use radio direction finding techniques (like used to spot enemy spy radio transmitters in WW2) to very accurately pinpoint the location of the control transmitter. If in a mobile car/van, this makes things a little more difficult, but in Britain with so many surveillance cameras everywhere and automated tracking of vehicles by their registration plates, it merely delays rather than prevents identifying which vehicle the controller is located.
Unfortunately, there can be some very clever enhancements that can be done to drones to make this more difficult. In particular, changing a drone to receive commands via cell phone transmissions would make things very much harder (but still not impossible, just more time-consuming).
The non-symmetrical nature of drone attacks/disruption – where a $1000 drone can cause many millions of dollars of disruption – and the lack of effective and deployed defenses currently – probably means we’ll see more of this sort of event in the future. Any amateur could repeat what has been happening at LGW and inevitably, some copy-cats will surface and do so.
Progress – a funny thing, isn’t it.
Security Nonsense Part Infinity
How many times have we read stories about people being misidentified as terrorists, due to a slightly similar name, but being totally and improbably different in every imaginable way.
The latest poster child for this idiocy is a 90-year-old respected historian and army veteran with a former top-secret clearance, by the name of Professor David Mayer. He is being confused with a 30-something-year old Chechen tourist, known as “Akhmed the One-armed” (due to having only one arm).
Even the stupidest security person should be able to tell the difference between a two armed 90-yr-old war veteran and a 30-something-year old one-armed Chechen terrorist. But, not only can they not tell the difference, they also seem unable to correct the system so as to end the ongoing misidentifications.
Oh – one more thing. The Chechen terrorist was killed over a year ago. Professor Mayer’s problems continue, unabated.
We’re From Google/Kayak/etc And We Know Best
More prevalent this year than ever before were websites that helpfully auto-detected where in the world I was and automatically shifted to their local language versions, while giving me no way to get back to English/American versions.
Usually such “helpfulness” has an opt-out where you can say you actually really do want the American version of a site, but poorly designed sites sometimes omit this. Yes, Kayak, and even yes, Google, I’m talking about you…..
It was also interesting to see how many US-based websites now refuse access from Europe due to the new European data privacy laws that went into effect earlier this year.
As the “festive season” reaches it commercial climax this coming week, may I share with you some true Christmas wishes and blessings.
Two final thoughts to leave with you – first, happy 150th anniversary to a faithful culinary friend that I missed the last two weeks, and secondly, a nice tale of the Christmas carol celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, the ever-popular Silent Night.
Depending on what I find for me under the tree on Tuesday, I may or may not be back next week, and expect I probably shall be, have lots to write about. In case not, I hope that as your 2018 draws to a close, you look back on it happily, and that you are ready for 2019, equipped with stalwart resolutions as always, and confidence for your and our future.
Thank you for being at the other end of these emails, and, for some of you in particular, for your much appreciated support.
Please enjoy safe travels, wherever you might be going this year. Apparently 46 million of us will be traveling by air.