25 February 2008

Jet engine powered by Branson's hot air

A380 with port outer test engine for new fuel
At the beginning of the month a giant A380 Airbus made the first ever flight by a commercial aircraft with one of its four engines powered by synthetic fuel (which can be made from a range of hydrocarbon source material including natural gas or organic plant matter).

I wrote about it, and I expect others did, but I don't remember seeing any other reports.

Yesterday a Virgin jet did the same thing and it made headline news on TV, radio and in all the papers.

There are subtle differences between the two flights but I would suggest the major difference is that one of them was powered by Sir Richard Branson's formidable PR charisma.

20 February 2008

The Expert in "Expert Travel Directory"

I got an email yesterday from a marketing executive at a ski company with two well-known and longstanding ski brands.

She hoped I didn't mind her pointing out that my listings notes for her brands were factually wrong and could she suggest some updates.

Absolutely not! I love it (really!) when companies write in to correct or update stuff. Anything that makes my job easier...!

My listings said that her company was part of another major ski company and that one of their brands had reduced its portfolio of resorts to 17 from over 30 two seasons ago when they also featured North America.

"We have never been part of xxx Holidays" she wrote, "and (our brand) has never offered North America nor had 30+ resorts in the brochure".

I used her suggestions and updated the listings, but I also replied asking out of curiosity if she was absolutely sure. I could have made an error about the ownership but it was extremely unlikely I would write about resorts & countries if I wasn't looking at their brochure...


I was right. I've just had a reply.

They did have a programme featuring 30+ resorts in North America, and while I was wrong about the ownership, it turns out it's a common mistake because the company is owned by former xxx Holidays staff.

So when we describe Travel Lists as an "expert directory"......we mean 'expert'!

So 'expert' in fact, we sometimes know travel companies better than they know themselves.

19 February 2008

Keeping an eagle eye on runway debris

Changi Airport Air Traffic Controller

I don't suppose anybody really thought about the problem of runway debris till we all witnessed those terrible iconic video clips of the doomed Air France Concorde climbing away from Paris CDG airport in July 2000, with a huge tail of flames. As we know now the crash was caused by a metal strip lying on the runway which flew up and punctured a fuel tank.

And it wasn't a one-off incident. If you've seen any episodes of the tv documentary 'Airport' you'll know how much continuous time and attention the airside operations staff at Heathrow spend, running around in their yellow Landrovers checking the runways for the slightest sign of debris...in between scaring off birds.

The fact is, despite the well-ordered, strictly governed, high maintenance, standards of civil aviation....bits and pieces - from tiny to quite large - are always dropping of aeroplanes!

And their potential for harm is enormous. So I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Singapore's Changi airport this morning, telling me that they have completed a 15-month trial using a system called iFerret by Stratech Systems Ltd which automatically scans runways looking for FOD - Foreign Objects and Debris.

The system uses vision technology to detect and identify foreign objects on runways and pinpoint their exact location, on a 24-hour basis. It can then raise immediate alerts, enabling operators tovisually assess the object on a remote screen display without having to physically visit the runway. They can then take immediate action to clear the FOD if necessary.

Objects of various shapes, colours, materials and sizes – such as nuts, bolts, golf balls and paper cubes – were used in the trial, to test the system’s ability to detect and verify the presence of FOD.

The system was able to reliably detect foreign objects left on the runway surface down to 2cm in size from 300 metres away, under clear weather conditions.

It was also able to operate under day and night conditions, and accurately identify FOD despite the presence of environmental factors such as aircraft movements, ambient lighting, shadows, clouds or rain. It was able to detect FOD as small as 4cm in size under 16mm/hr of rainfall.

Excellent news!

Changi say they are now going ahead on installing a full iFerret system which should be operational in early 2009.

My only slight concern is that Stratech Systems have the slowest website I've ever encountered (could just be that the news triggered thousands of visits and overwhelmed the server..... possibly) so let's hope they are not using the same technology on iFerret, cos frankly it would be quicker to have a man walk down the runway after each take-off!

15 February 2008

Guardian Travel Editor under fire


Live by web 2.0, die by web 2.0!!

Guardian Travel Editor, Andy Pietrasik has certainly reaped the whirlwind. I'm not sure exactly what his crime was but it seems hiring Paul Gogarty's son to write (allegedly badly) a blog about his backpacking experience has got a few readers riled. Not even his attempt to set the record straight has helped soothe tempers!

11 February 2008

Social Media News Release

I've been watching the development of the Social Media News Release (SMNR) for what seems like ages now - probably a couple of years.

Several PR industry gurus, mostly in the USA, have been heralding its birth as the new generation multimedia press release for journalists living in the Web 2.0 world.

The prototype template for an SMNR was created by Shift Communications and combines AV clips, social tags, blog links and all the latest social media paraphenalia so that a press release becomes a sort of living/growing entity in its own right.

Some major US companies like General Motors are reported be using them, but I've not really seen a classic example of one with all its facilities being exploited....until now.

Here is an SMNR released by Webitpr for ITV2's winter schedule

I have been periodically briefing a couple of friends in the travel PR sector (who are particularly switched on to new media) about the development of the SMNR so I'm really hoping that sometime soon we can see how this format could be used for travel industry clients... particularly since one of the attributes of the SMNR is that it doesn't just disseminate news to the journalist, but to the public too.

08 February 2008

Austrian Airlines - Hooray for the pioneers!

You know, Austrian Airlines are amazing.

I first realised it years ago (mid-nineties) when they invited me on their inaugral flight to Odessa on the Black Sea. Not only did I get to walk down the famous Battleship Potemkin steps, I also met Hobart Earle the, then, young and enthusiastic American conductor of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra, who were on the brink of being 'discovered'.

It was a heady time. Ukraine, like much of Eastern Europe, was just opening up and the atmosphere was exciting and optimistic.

And Austrian Airlines was a part of that. In fact, they were doing the opening up. They were pioneering all the new routes into eastern Europe that other airlines then followed.

...and they are still doing it.

I read today that Austrian Airlines are launching a sixth route into Romania, this time to a remote city in the north - Baia Mare, capital of the Maramures region.

Go Austrian!

Inntravel and the 'Circle of Life'

I've written about the 'cycle of life' for tour operators before. (eg. You can't keep the good ones down)

The 'up'...

The classic cycle is for a small niche operator to start out just doing one thing really well. As a result his clients come back to him. Then they ask if he could perhaps do what he does really well, somewhere else... a bit of variation. The business grows organically and develops a reputation for good service and excellent first-hand knowledge of their 'product'. At this point it probably joins the Association of Independent Tour Operators and becomes one of the elite!

The 'down'...

After a few years a big travel company seeking the kudos of a specialist brand with good reputation comes along and makes the owner an offer he/she cannot refuse. The brand gets subsumed into the parent company. The owner stays on as MD "with autonomy" (yeah! not!) or a'consultant', but sooner or later drifts away. Pretty quickly the individuality, enthusiasm and drive the 'brand' had, dissipates. The regular clients notice the difference and they too begin to drift away. After a few seasons the brand name is dropped and the programme gets integrated into the parent brand.

I've seen this pattern over and over again and I only mention it now because Inntravel have been an excellent specialist travel company for many years, which makes me sorry to hear they've just been bought by Inghams/Hotelpan. Inghams is a great travel company, but it is a big travel company. I fear Inntravel will never be the same again.

Ho hum... such is the circle of life.

Am I sorry? Yes.

Am I depressed? No.

The good thing is that exciting new specialist tour operators are being born all the time. In fact on this same day that news of the Inntravel sale comes through, I've also seen a birth announcement - a press release about Native Escapes, a new small group and tailor made tour operator launching high-quality safaris in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia.

Yaaay! :}

06 February 2008

Heathrow crash - "Um, yes. We're still waiting!"

OK, hands up everybody who remembers that a British Airways jet crash-landed at Heathrow earlier this year.

You do? Well so you should! After all it was only 20 days ago.

So I think it is rather surprising that the event has disappeared off the news radar completely when the cause of the accident remains a mystery. Since the Air Accident Investigations Board update on 23 Jan there has been silence.

Actually, call me cynical, but I don't really find it 'surprising' that everyone is being so tight-lipped, I find it slightly 'suspicious'.

I have a track record for being able to get to the core of events like this, pretty much instantly. (I'm not proud that within an hour of the collapse of both World Trade Centre towers my quick estimate of the death toll - based on likely Monday morning work attendance and the number of floors above & below the impact points - turned out to be less than 50 corpses out on the official number released months later) So, within minutes of seeing the TV news reports of the BA039 crash it was clear to me the cause could only be engine control related (not fuel, not bird-strike, unlikely to be pilot error) and that the implications were deadly serious.

The Boeing 777 , if you recall, was the revolutionary new aircraft which would shake up long-haul aviation once extensively trialled, tested and certified for ETOPS-180 allowing it to replace three & four engined aircraft on transatlantic routes operating up to 180 minutes away from an emergency airfield.

ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standard) is an aviation rule allowing airliners to fly routes that in places are further away from a diversionary airfield than the traditional maximum of 60 minutes flying time on one engine. See Wikipedia on ETOPS

As we know, the B777 achieved its performance targets and has gone on to fly successfully for twelve years.

However, though statistically insignificant measured against the number of flights the model has made, and not significant enough to compromise its ETOPS rating, the triple seven's service history hasn't been entirely fault-free when it comes to engine reliability. There have been a handful of incidents.

Lester Haines refers to them in his latest article on the crash of BA039 in The Register. He also notes concerns about the vulnerability of the B777's FADEC system (full authority digital engine control), a point picked up by pilots in the Professional Pilots Rumour Network forums.

If there is any doubt at all about the engine management system on the B777 then it is critically serious, because it fundementally undermines the whole design concept of the aircraft. It was designed to fly long distances safely over the ocean on two reliable engines. If the two engines could be prone to simultaneous loss of power wouldn't that make it 'unfit for purpose"?

Aside from passengers, there are a lot of people who might feel uncomfy with that. Not least all those airlines who operate the B777, the engine manufacturers (Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney & GE), and of course Boeing itself. In fact, pretty much the whole aviation industry.

Could that have anything to do with the way this matter has gone strangely quiet?