Are airport checkpoints getting worse?
Frisked, frazzled, and fed up, travelers have recently been filing more and more complaints about airport checkpoints with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Last August, there was an 88 percent spike in the number of complaints, compared with August 2006. In September, there was a 71 percent flare up in complaints, versus the previous year.
The TSA has offered a surprise defense. The agency says that, until about a year ago, it was accidentally losing customer gripes and was incorrectly counting how many complaints it was receiving. This is a bit like a doctor saying, "Yes, you do have a lot of cancer cells in your body, but at least it's not that much more cancer than you had last year because we were wrong last year when we told you that you had hardly had any tumors."
Okay, that was snarky, I admit it. Sorry. And I salute the TSA for redoubling its effort to count its sins correctly—a duty mandated by Congress. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the agency has added telephone lines and computer resources to track complaints.
But I just wish that the TSA would do a better job of responding to traveler complaints by addressing the most-griped about problems. In September, gripes about screener courtesy were up 138 percent, and complaints about processing time were up 430 percent.
The spike in complaints may have been due to an August ruling by the TSA that required air travelers to remove large video game consoles, DVD players, and remote control toys from their carry-on bags.
An alternative explanation for the rise in complaints is that travelers like you and me are to blame. We Americans may feel that a terrorist attack isn't likely because in recent years law enforcement, military actions, and good luck have prevented attacks. But as our fear subsides, we might be losing our patience about security checkpoints.
What do you think? Have airport checkpoints gotten worse?
photo of Rachel Bilson, star of the O.C., via PopSugar
Google Earth adds weather info
Today, weather info was added to the latest version of Google Earth. You can now see updated info on cloud cover, Doppler radar, temperatures, and weather forecasts for major cities worldwide. Data is updated frequently--from 15 minutes to an hour on average--for most parts of the globe. Sources of data include Weather.com and the Naval Research Labs' Marine Meteorology Division. While you're checking out a travel destination, you can get other information about it, such as info on local hotels, photos of local attractions. Check the layer folder in the Layers panel, and click on the Places of Interest checkbox. Some options include Wikipedia info about destinations worldwide, Panoramio photos uploaded by amateur photographers worldwide, and YouTube videos uploaded by people worldwide. If you like, you can download a file and see an animated version of clouds moving across the Earth's surface in the past day. (More info on that below...) After you've updated to the latest version of Google Earth (info below), you'll find a fresh Layers panel in the bottom, left-hand corner of your screen. Under Primary Database, you'll find new boxes for Weather. Expand the Weather layer folder by clicking the + sign. Click whether you want to see Clouds, Radar, or the other options. Then search on a place where you want to see the weather, by typing its name into the search engine. For example, when you type "Colorado Springs, Co." into the search engine, you'll get a satellite view of the town. Adjust the viewer so that you can view the entire city. You can do this by zooming out or by expanding the size of the viewer itself (use the maximize window control or drag the size of the window using the mouse). You can fly into and navigate very high resolution photos. To do this, in the Layers panel, check Featured Content > Gigapxl, and double click any photo icon in the 3D viewer. In popular destinations, You can easily view 3D models of buildings and more. To do this, check the 3D Buildings layer and tilt to get a better view You can use placemarks to mark any location on the planet. You can then quickly go to the marked location at any time by double clicking the placemark in the Places panel. That way you don't have to redo your search to find a place, when you're doing trip-planning research. Here's how to see animated images of clouds moving across the surface of the Earth, via the Google LatLong blog: Download a time animation of the last 24 hours of clouds data by clicking here. Once you download the file, you'll see a new item in your "Temporary Places" folder in the "Places" panel (either "Clouds Animation"). Make the animation visible by checking its associated checkbox, then click the "Play" button in the animation control at the top right of your screen and wait for the data to load (even though the resolution isn't as high as the static image, it might take a little while). If you load the clouds animation (be sure to turn off the current clouds image), you'll be rewarded with a beautiful animation of clouds dancing and swirling across the Earth's surface. If you already have Google Earth, you may need to upgrade to the latest version. You can download the latest version of Google Earth here. Click yes, save the file to your hard drive, then launch the file (which on a Windows computer will be "C:\My Downloads\Google_Earth_BZXD.exe"). The process takes up to 10 minutes on a broadband Internet connection.
Best economy-class seats yet?
Cathay Pacific is adding better seats to its airplanes. On Oct. 18, the airline began offering these seats on its daily flights out of San Francisco. [Update 11/6: A Cathay Pacific spokesperson now says that the San Francisco flights will begin to offer these seats in March 2008.] On Nov. 16, it will add the seats to its flights out of New York City to Hong Kong. Last week, I got my first look at 'em. In economy-class, the most important new feature is that the seats no longer recline backward at an angle. Instead, the seats have cushions that slide down and recline into the shell of the seat. This is good news if you're someone who hates it when the passenger in front of you reclines his or her seatback into your space. But the legroom (called "seat pitch") remains the same: 32 inches. Tall passengers may find that Cathay Pacific's seat cushions now slightly move one's legs forward. However, airline spokespeople say this shouldn't be a problem. The seat frame and structure has been designed to max out knee and shin clearance by stripping out the awkward fixtures and fittings that jam up against the kneecaps on many airline seats. Another change: The pocket (or netting) that's used for storing magazines and other items has been moved by designers from underneath the tray table to underneath your seat, lessening the chance that your legs will touch it. Here are some other perks of the economy-class seats: Each seat comes with an eyeglass holder, which is a real boon if you wear specs and have had to store them while sleeping mid-flight. Each seat also comes with a 110-volt standard electric socket. As a standard feature, a coat-hook is also offered. Most important for some travelers, the seatback TV screen is nine-inches, somewhat larger than Cathay Pacific's previous standard for economy class. Each seat also has a three-point belt, which means that it will be much more obvious to flight attendants passing through the aisles whether your seat buckle is fastened. Today, the industry standard is, of course, the two-point belt. If you toss a blanket over top of your two-point belt while you're sleeping, you hide it from the flight attendant, who may have to disturb you to check to see that it is belt buckled during the flight. Not all Cathay Pacific flights have these seats, but they are being rolled out to all flights to-and-from the U.S. by May 2008. THE REAL DEAL This year, Cathay Pacific upgraded its famous All Asia Pass, enabling you to visit roughly two-dozen cities in 21 days. The pass includes travel to 23 cities in Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam. It costs $1,599. If you sign up for the airline's e-newsletter, you can qualify for a $200 discount for departures on certain days of the week. Additional airport taxes and fees are roughly $54 for the U.S. as well as from $20 to $80 for each foreign destination. The pass must be booked through a travel agent, who will likely charge a fee. EARLIER: Worst new idea in seating? Face-to-face seatbacks.
Winter photography tips from a pro
If you have a digital camera—you know, one of those $200 to $300 point-and-shoots—then you should listen to Allen Birnbach, a professional photographer in Denver and Los Angeles, who offers insights into taking better photos at TakeGreatPictures.com. He also teaches photography to hobbyists who own fancier cameras through his blog, abetterphotograph.com. In an interview, Allen offered the following tips on taking better photographs outdoors during the winter. If there's snow, be careful about where you're standing in relation to your subject. The relation between where you're shooting and where the sun is will affect how the snow appears in your photos—as a blank white space or as a textured surface. The key is to have sunlight come in from an angle, says Allen. "Most people would think that their best position as the photographer is always having the sun behind them, but not in this situation. Let's say, we're looking south, and the sun is coming from the east: That would be in an ideal position to get the snow looking realistic and not a blank, texture-less white. Alternatively, if you're facing into the west as the sun sets, you'll get your scene backlit by having sun in your pic. That could also make for a nice effect." Your photos can often become 50 percent better simply by returning to shoot the same setting on another day, or at a different time on the same day. If you're like me, the inspiration to take a photo often happens spontaneously. There's something about a setting, such as a backyard garden, that instantly says, "Snap a picture!" But Allen points out that such a scene might become even more photo-worthy when the light is better at a different time of day. Shoot at dawn or dusk. "If you shoot midday, it'll typically be hard to see surface details of the objects you're photographing because the sunlight will usually be too harsh. Late in the afternoon or early in the morning, as a rule of thumb, you'll find better natural light. Pro photographers who are shooting portraits of people outdoors always try to shoot during the early morning and late evening magic hours." Returning to a scene, you may get a much better shot. Opt for your camera's highest image quality setting. Many compact digital cameras these days give you an option to record images in various levels of image quality: standard, large, fine, and superfine. (Your camera may use different words for similar functions.) People tend to use the low-resolution image settings because low-res images don't eat up as much memory on a memory card, enabling you to cram more pictures onto a single card. "I recommend setting your camera to take pictures at the highest possible image resolution and then buy additional flash memory cards for you to take with you on your trip. Memory cards are inexpensive now, costing at about $40 to $70 a pop. These high-resolution images will look a lot sharper." Winter weather requires that you adjust your camera's settings. Most digital cameras have settings for adjusting to various light conditions, such as indoor, sunny, and nighttime. You can typically adjust these settings by going to your digital camera's electronic menu. (For example, you may see icons such as the image of a cloud covering the sun.) Some cameras instead use a number system called ISO, which is a measurement of the sensitivity of a camera's sensor to light. Says Allen, "The rule of thumb is on sunny days you could be working with an ISO of 100 to 200; on cloudy days, 200 to 400; and when it's twilight, 400 to 800. Don't go more than 800, or else you'll you get grain in the film or noise in the digital file. In other words, your photos will look odd." MORE TIPS: How to take better photos of your friends. (Advice from Budget Travel's photo department!) Read more tips from pro shooters at TakeGreatPictures.com. Here's a new device that cures awkward-arm syndrome for photographers. ($25, xshotpix.com.) Listen to a podcast of photographer Rick Sammon offering advanced digital photography tips. Before you buy a camera, visit this website. Photo by Allen Birnbach
I bet you'll let Skybus fail
As noted in this previous blog post, Skybus airlines is expanding. In January, it will add 11 daily flights from Greensboro, N.C., serving eight other cities. (See the full Skybus route map.) But if history is any guide, many of you will not fly Skybus. And because you don't step up, Skybus will fail. Here's how travelers typically ruin new low-cost airlines: Travelers rejoice when a discounter arrives on the scene. They love it because the discounter usually sparks a fare war with the well-known major airline that serves their hometown. But as fares drop, many travelers simply fly the major airline, taking advantage of its lower fares. Few fly the new discounter. Then, the discounter fails because of lack of business. And the major airline hikes its fares back up, hurting consumers. A classic case: Years ago, AirTran began service to Pittsburgh, challenging US Airways on many routes. But over time, US Airways matched AirTran's low fares, and customers flocked to US Airways. AirTran has since withdrawn almost entirely from Pittsburgh. Folks in Washington, D.C., witnessed this pattern when scrappy newcomer Independence Air challenged United on various routes, such as one to Burlington, Vt. That airline was forced to shut down within two years of challenging United on these routes. Frontier, which charged relatively low rates without being a true discounter, also lost its battle against United when it challenged the dinosaur on its prized San Francisco to Denver route. While other factors were involved in the above situations, the trend is fairly well-established. People don't support the low-fare airlines as much as they should. Southwest is a rare exception and it grew partly by avoiding competition with the major airlines during its early years. Here's my plea: If you live where Skybus flies and you like the low fares it has brought to your area, then you owe this airline your business. Otherwise, you are partly to blame for high ticket prices. Feel free to post a comment with your thoughts. EARLIER: Skybus expands its routes and $10 fares. ELSEWHERE: As much as we like Skybus, it's wrong to say that Portsmouth, Mass., is "near" Boston, says Jaunted. Photo by the inimitable Jessie Barber, via Flickr.