Posts made in September, 2013

Africa’s size in perspective

Posted on Sep 27, 2013 | Comments Off on Africa’s size in perspective


Travellers to Africa are often surprised that many friends regard the Dark Continent as an homogenous destination, whereas you’ll be grilled for specifics if travelling to the US, or even Italy. This graphic by Kai Krause, a computer-graphics guru shows just how much of the world would fit into the huge African continent.

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The Most – and Least – Honest Cities?

Posted on Sep 26, 2013 | Comments Off on The Most – and Least – Honest Cities?


Reader’s Digest conducted a global, social experiment to find out the relative honesty of several cities. The reporters “lost” 192 wallets in cities around the world. In each, they put a name with a cellphone number, a family photo, coupons, and business cards, plus the equivalent of $50. They “dropped” 12 wallets in each of the 16 cities  selected, leaving them in parks, near shopping malls, and on sidewalks.

The results:

Most honest: Helsinki, Finland. Wallets returned: 11 out of 12.

Mumbai, India. Wallets returned: 9 out of 12.

Budapest, Hungary. Wallets returned: 8 out of 12.

New York City, U.S.A.. Wallets returned: 8 out of 12.

Moscow, Russia. Wallets returned: 7 out of 12.

Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Wallets returned: 7 out of 12.

Berlin, Germany. Wallets returned: 6 out of 12.

Ljubljana, Slovenia. Wallets returned: 6 out of 12.

London, England. Wallets returned: 5 out of 12.

Warsaw, Poland. Wallets returned: 5 out of 12.

Bucharest, Romania. Wallets returned: 4 out of 12.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Wallets returned: 4 out of 12.

Zurich, Switzerland. Wallets returned: 4 out of 12.

Prague, Czech Republic. Wallets returned: 3 out of 12.

Madrid, Spain. Wallets returned: 2 out of 12.

Least honest: Lisbon, Portugal. Wallets returned: 1 out of 12. Oh, and the couple that returned the wallet were visiting from Holland.

Of the 192 wallets dropped, 90 were returned—47 percent. As we looked over our results we found that age is no predictor of whether a person is going to be honest or dishonest; young and old both kept or returned wallets; male and female were unpredictable; and comparative wealth seemed no guarantee of honesty. There are honest and dishonest people everywhere.

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Bob Geldof Space Tourist – I don’t like Moondays?

Posted on Sep 16, 2013 | Comments Off on Bob Geldof Space Tourist – I don’t like Moondays?

Sir Bob Geldof as the first rock astronaut

Space Expedition Corporation has confirmed the news that singer, philanthropist and Nobel Price nominee Sir Bob Geldof has secured a seat in one of their upcoming space flights, officially becoming an astronaut. He follows in the space steps of  Guy Laliberté, Canadian co-founder and the current CEO of Cirque du Soleil who went into space in September 2009.

Geldof said, “Being the first Irishman in space is not only a fantastic honor but pretty mind-blowing. The first rock astronaut space rat! Elvis may have left the building but Bob Geldof will have left the Planet! Wild! Who would have thought it would be possible in my lifetime.”

SXC Founder Michiel Mol added, “We are so proud to have Mr. Geldof aboard. He is an icon of social responsibility and in projects like Live Aid, he proved that entertainment and meaningfulness can be a great combination. We share that vision by offering our astronauts a life changing experience, while at the same time, we are changing the concept of sustainable airline transportation all together; namely outside the earth’s atmosphere.”

Mr. Geldof will be undertaking his first step of training in the space flight simulator based in the Netherlands on September 26th 2013.

From 2014 on, Space Expedition Corporation (SXC) will perform daily commercial flights into space. SXC offers participants a life-changing experience in viewing our planet Earth from 100 kilometers high. Plus, having been at that altitude, they can rightly be called astronauts. XCOR Aerospace in Mojave, California, USA, designed and built the Lynx spacecraft, which will perform the space flights. SXC is proud to be the launching customer of the Lynx, which comfortably takes off and lands like a normal airplane, from regular airports. The flexibility of the Lynx spacecraft enables operation from almost any commercial airport. The operation has sold over 250 tickets so far.

However, Geldorf hasn’t taken the opportunity provided by a rival space voyage company that is promising the dark side of the moon – then perhaps we have either a Pink Floyd cover or a new Boomtown Rats song that, in fact, he does like Moondays.

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Thailand’s Elephants – An Educated Appraisal

Posted on Sep 12, 2013 | Comments Off on Thailand’s Elephants – An Educated Appraisal

John Roberts Anantara's Conservation Director

Brave New World (or why you should support your local trekking camp)

By John Roberts
12 September 2013 04:25:00

This is a repeat of a blog written by John Roberts, the expert behind the elephant training program of Anantara Golden Triangle. The original can be found here:–or-why-you-should-support-your-local-trekking-camp-/


Ladies and gentlemen, I believe have seen a future for captive elephants in Thailand, at least the foreseeable future (I reckon that to be about 5 years) and I’m here to tell you that, unless we do something constructive, it is bleak.

The future, I believe, of the captive Thai elephant is to spend ten/twelve hours a day walking in a circle with three people on her back, without rest, without good fodder, without jungle time.  The future is to emulate a machine.

The reason for this is not, I believe, cruelty, the reason is ignorance.  Ignorance on the part of some new camp owners who have no idea about elephants, ignorance on the part of the guests who know nothing about elephants but want the experience of sitting on one as, as yet, they have no idea there are other ways to get close and, yes, ever forgiving no matter how many times they prove me wrong, ignorance on the part of the mahouts who have never actually worked, & I mean really worked, liked the old days in the forest or in the logging yards, their elephants so really don’t have an idea how much, or how little, elephants can stand.

The old style trekking camps are not, were never, like this.

So what has changed?  Well, exactly what we said would change.  Thailand has suddenly been discovered as a tourist destination by our very large, very populous neighbour to the North: China.

Every tourism operator worth the title businessman is configuring his business to welcome Chinese guests.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a great thing for Thailand and for the globe, for wildlife in general – “the Chinese” are so often demonised as the cause of all wildlife and ecological ills, I’ve pointed out in these pages and on the web how I’ve not found this to be true in travels to my little part of that massive country, that the chance to actually engage guests that have traveled down the river to join us and explain our points of view have been enlightening and have fallen on fertile ground – despite what many would have you believe wildlife conservation is not an unknown concept in China and most of the folks I’ve had the pleasure of talking to have been keen to learn more, the wild elephants in Xishuangbanna & Pu’er are far more tolerated when they visit a village than they are in some other parts of Asia.

What does every guest, from wherever in the world, want to do when they come to Thailand? (well, yes, that too, oh, yes, and that as well – Thailand is popular for many reasons) but also ride an elephant.  It is kind of one of our trademarks.

I’ve told you before that riding an elephant, an elephant trek in the saddle, is not an inherently bad thing – anyone who tells you it is is either projecting their dislike (which I share) of having captive beasts onto your decision making (while ignoring the history involved and the fact that, until a month ago, an unridden elephant was an unfed elephant) or trying to push their own business agenda.

My point is that, when you welcome even .0001% of the Chinese traveling population to Thailand you are welcoming a lot of people, I’m not sure of the figures but as I travel around Bangkok and other tourist cities, a little empirical study shows me that it won’t be long before our Northern neighbours become the number one nationality to visit.

What’s more China is a boom country, these aren’t your dodgy backpackers grumbling about paying more than 20 baht for a bowl of phad thai, these are guys that are happy to pay a fair price for what they get.

Perfect guests and a lot of them.

So, if you’re a Thai businessman with no consideration that elephants can get tired, you have an unlimited supply of guests and a limited supply of elephants what are you going to do?  …and this is the future and I have seen it:

You get as many elephants as you can and you have them walk in circles for ten/twelve hours a day (the mahouts eat lunch on their eles) they can drop off one set of guests, walk fifteen ele paces unladen (though, obviously with the saddle and ropes still on) and pick up two new guests, follow the arse of the elephant in front of them for fifteen minutes along a well trod route until they get to the ‘off’ platform drop their guests, walk fifteen unladen paces….

Repeat until your legs give out.

From my perspective the guests may as well have paid to get on a merry go round, would at least be merrier – still, what you don’t know, you don’t know and everyone gets to say they’ve been on an elephant, gets a photo to take home.

Now, as I said above, trekking is not inherently bad, when it becomes bad is when it is overdone.  When the saddle is not removed between treks, when there are too many treks, where rubbed skin is not dealt with where – and this is important – the elephant HAS to work in order to make money/food.

That’s when mahouts push elephants to and then beyond their limits.

Interestingly (& we’re losing elephants to this phenomenon here but this is not what that’s about) despite the earnings promised to mahouts and owners for taking their elephants to these camps – it’s a good time to be a mahout if you just want to make money, the bust time is over, the money these camps are offering on a base salary + tip + ‘working minute’ bonus is huge – the old guys are resisting.

The old mahouts from Surin (some of our guys) and ‘other’ big elephant owning community from the mountains above Chiang Mai so far want no part of it, I think this is because they’ve all done hard work on their elephants, they’ve all seen mahouts work elephants too hard – back in the old days up in the forest when the work was truly hard – they know the damage that can be done.

Young guys without that experience and with the promise of a lot of ready cash, well, they’re off (in some case overruling the direct order of very respected elders).  What can we say?  The money’s huge.

So, what can we do?

Well, support your local Trekking Camp for one, I’m thinking the ones up in Chiang Mai, but in other places too, camps run by families that have, for generations, looked after elephants – be it in the logging or the tourism business – stuck by the eles in the hard times and, yes, made a profit in the good times.  Camps that employ vets, or work with the Government vets, camps that understand elephants, nutrition and workloads, places that know elephants need to rest.

Of course, it would be easier for me to give you the opposite advice – we are not a trekking camp, it would be easy for me to join the rising tide of voices calling for the abandonment of trekking, come ONLY to my camp, we’re the only ones doing it right!

But hey, we actually care about elephants, and that is bad advice.  An unridden elephant is no longer an unemployed elephant, in the current climate the owner or mahout will have no choice but to make an unridden elephant a violently overworked, undernourished elephant.

If you want to visit a camp with a no hooks, no chains message, that’s your right – but believe me every captive elephant/human interaction is a form of control, some camps really do not use hooks and chains but they use other control methods, some better, some worse day to day, all worse when things get out of control; most camps just use different control methods when you’re around and revert to hooks and chains when you’re not.

But do go if that’s what your conscience tells you to do.

However, please do not use your visit there as an excuse to push your opinion on others – I have been watching the “boycott trekking and let the industry collapse” campaigns (the “go only to the camp I went to” campaigns) for ten years now.

I’ve seen one or two informed reports and a thousand campaigning websites come and go for ten years and guess what?  The trekking industry is far, far stronger than I’ve ever seen it, the price to buy an elephant to take it trekking is now almost three times what it was ten years ago (partially thanks to people buying elephants to prevent them from trekking but mostly within the business).

This industry ain’t going to collapse any time soon – it’s growing and mopping up every able bodied elephant – the ONLY result of informed (and ‘informed’ is a funny concept; I’ve been living in elephant land for fifteen years now, have visited camps of all colours and messages by surprise and pre-announced, undercover and overt, spoken with, drunk whisky with, elders, mahouts, campaigners, camp owners, researchers, soul searchers, scientists and conservationists and I’ve seen no evidence of many of the ‘facts’ that turn up on campaigning websites, how folks who’ve spent far less time, traveled to far fewer places and not sat with as many people get their information with enough certainty to feel they can present it as factual is anyone’s guess).

Sorry, start that paragraph again the ONLY result of ‘informed’ guests (even the entire Thai traveling public of a single European nation) boycotting the camps that look after elephants properly is that the elephant owners will have no choice but to take a payrise and join the new camps that do not.

The trekking industry when controlled and limited by people who see their elephants as an asset and who understand the physical, and to a certain extent mental, needs of an elephant may not be perfect but it is neither demonic nor dangerous and it is currently the only sustainable answer for the majority of captive Thai elephants.

Rather than demonise these folks with spurious claims why not work with them as we have, to introduce positive reinforcement training, as the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre do to introduce the mahouts to basic health care and education, as we both do to offer veterinary support? – talk to them, in fact, you’ll probably find they understand these things far better than you gave them credit for and use these techniques far more commonly than you’ve been told.

In the meantime we’ll continue to happily welcome our Chinese guests, give them our points of view and, as we do with all guests, both sides of every argument, we’ll work (as we already do on ivory and conservation education issues) with media from our Northern neighbour and with Chinese language media within Thailand to ensure that a bigger picture is pushed out there – ensure that as many people as possible understand that 15 minutes on the back of an elephant walking in a circle is not the only elephant experience available and that elephants can get tired.

We’ll explain that trekking is not inherently a bad thing and that an informed choice of camp is essential and we’ll keep our attention on the English reading world too to continue to explain the same thing but may add the message that a demonising website based on lies and inaccuracies, or even an informed report based on anti-captivity prejudices (which, again, I share), will do nothing to help even the elephants in question and, if 100% successful, will make the lives of those elephants violently worse.

In short, check it out first and ensure it’s a good one but support your local trekking camp.

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What’s the Main Cause of Airline Deaths?

Posted on Sep 9, 2013 | Comments Off on What’s the Main Cause of Airline Deaths?

From Bloomberg, By Alan Levin – Sep 6, 2013 2:00 PM ET

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Pilots on an Asiana Airlines Inc. Boeing 777 that hit a seawall short of a San Francisco runway on July 6 said they had indications once they reached 500 feet altitude that they weren’t properly set up to land.

An Asian airline’s wide-body slams into a sea wall. A 737 with 150 people aboard hits the runway so hard its nose gear buckles. A cargo plane barely misses houses before plowing into a hillside short of the runway.

These recent accidents, marking the deadliest period for airlines in the U.S. since 2009, have something in common: had the pilots aborted their landings at the first sign of trouble – – a move known as a go-around — they might have avoided tragedy.

“They’d all be walking, talking and alive if they went around,” Patrick Veillette, a pilot who teaches and writes about aviation safety, said in an interview.

The three U.S. air crashes since July 6, which killed five people, spotlight the difficulty in getting pilots to abort touchdowns if they haven’t made safe approaches to the runway. It’s “the largest, lowest hanging piece of safety fruit” to make flying less hazardous, according to research sponsored by the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.

Crashes that occur during approach or touchdown are the world’s leading category of aviation mishaps and deaths, according to data compiled by Chicago-based manufacturer Boeing Co. (BA) The biggest risk factor for such accidents is failing to approach a runway at the proper speed, altitude and heading, known as an unstabilized approach.

If safety regulators can persuade pilots to conduct more go-arounds, lives may be saved and costs to airlines in damaged equipment and liability may be lowered.

Non-Compliant Pilots

Computerized flight-track records and a survey of 2,340 pilots sponsored by the safety foundation found that crews have a long way to go to comply with airline requirements to abort landings if their approaches were unstable. Almost all pilots, or 97 percent, continued to land in spite of the rules that they climb away from the runway and circle around to try again, according to the research.

“That’s a risk factor that we really need to work on,” Rudy Quevedo, director of global programs at the foundation, said in an interview.

The issue isn’t simple or new, Quevedo and Veillette said.

“There isn’t a commercial pilot who can say, ‘Shame on you. You should have gone around,’” Veillette said. “We’ve all been in situations where in retrospect, we should have gone around and didn’t.”

In some cases, rules may be overly rigid, akin to imposing a highway speed limit that is so low drivers routinely exceed it, Quevedo said. Violating the rules has become so ingrained that airlines don’t enforce them and pilots don’t recognize when they are taking unnecessary risks, he said.

Safety Critical

Setting up a proper approach to a landing is critical to safety, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the aviation industry, and the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization.

“It’s really all physics,” Quevedo said. “You want to be centered on the runway on the correct trajectory, the correct descent rate and the right speed.”

If that happens, a plane will almost always cross the start of the runway at a height of about 50 feet (15 meters), which is optimal for a safe landing, he said.

Airlines typically require that a plane be stabilized at 1,000 feet above the runway in poor visibility and at 500 feet in clear weather. Pilots must also have performed required checklists, extended landing gear and configured the plane for landing, according to the foundation.

“If not — GO AROUND!” an FAA advisory to pilots and airlines says.

Low, Slow

While the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board hasn’t said what caused the three recent crashes, information it has released shows evidence of the aircraft being unstable at points within a mile (1.6 kilometers) or two from the runway or of pilots perceiving they were off course.

Pilots on an Asiana Airlines Inc. (020560) Boeing 777 that hit a seawall short of a San Francisco runway on July 6 said they had indications once they reached 500 feet altitude that they weren’t properly set up to land, according to NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. The crash killed three passengers and injured dozens as the plane broke apart and slid to a stop.

One pilot told investigators the Asiana plane was below its optimal glide path at 500 feet, Hersman said July 9. Shortly after, the plane veered off the runway centerline, Hersman said.

The pilots told investigators they failed to notice other warning signs, including that their speed had slowed so much that the wings were in danger of losing lift. When they recognized what was happening, they attempted a go-around, adding power too late to avoid the accident, Hersman said.

Crash Landing

Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) plane landed nose-first at New York’s LaGuardia Airport on July 22, breaking the landing gear and skidding across the runway.

The NTSB hasn’t said whether the Boeing 737-700 was on a stable approach. The captain took control of the plane from the first officer below 400 feet altitude, according to the NTSB. In previous NTSB cases, such shifts in control occurred after an emergency or because the captain thought the approach needed correcting.

Nine people suffered minor injuries, according to the NTSB.

The pilots of a United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) freighter that crashed in Birmingham, Alabama, on Aug. 14 received a cockpit warning that they were descending too rapidly 7 seconds before they hit trees, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said last month.

Whether the pilots also knew they were too low for their approach, which should have triggered a go-around, hasn’t been released. The Airbus SAS A300-600F hit a dark hillside before dawn and broke apart, killing both pilots.

Dulled Sense

The NTSB has investigated at least 21 cases since 1999 in which pilots could have prevented accidents or incidents if they had aborted landings that ran afoul of airline rules, according to the agency’s case files.

In an attempt to discover why such accidents continue to occur, the Flight Safety Foundation hired Martin Smith, a former pilot and psychologist who operates Presage Group Inc. in Mississauga, Canada. Smith oversaw the survey of pilots that found many weren’t following airline rules.

The pilots who didn’t go-around after an unstable approach tended to have a dulled sense of the risks and didn’t communicate as much with fellow crew members, Smith said the survey showed. They also believed they wouldn’t be reprimanded for attempting to land in those cases. A similar survey of airline managers is under way to determine why the rule is so widely overlooked, he said.

Unrealistic Criteria

At the same time, some pilots said the criteria for a stabilized approach weren’t realistic, Smith said in an interview.

Researchers are attempting to design new standards that require aborting landings only in dangerous situations, improving safety without unnecessarily boosting go-arounds, which can create their own dangers, Quevedo said.

“We should expect that if we have a policy, the people should follow the policy,” he said. “But that being said, we need to make sure that the policy is good before we make people follow it. I don’t think we’re there yet.”


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Flight by Flight Upgrade Auctions

Posted on Sep 9, 2013 | Comments Off on Flight by Flight Upgrade Auctions

How much would you pay for the lie-flat bed and quilted duvet?

The good news is that getting bumped up to Business Class just got more affordable. Last month, Iberia became the latest carrier to roll out an online auction scheme that allows customers to bid for seating upgrades.

“Everyone knows that if no one is sitting in seat 2a when the plane takes off from London to New York, it’s a loss for the airline. But everyone in economy wants that seat,” explains Ken Harris, the founder and CEO of Plusgrade, the software company that developed the system. “The idea was to help correct that, and do it intelligently.”

The setup works differently for each airline, depending on their specifications. Some carriers offer upgrades to First Class as well.

Who is allowed to participate in the bidding process also varies. Often, the selection process is determined by the route and the number of leftover premium seats. On occasion, a customer’s frequent flyer status might also come into play.

Auctioning off flight upgrades

Furthermore, bidding is blind; customers enter how much they’re willing to pay, and if that number exceeds other bids (and the airlines keep that information top secret), they win. The cost of an upgrade is extremely variable, depending on the airline, season and route.

Carriers are shy to reveal how much is necessary in securing a winning bid, though it’s fair to say the price is less than a full-fare, Business Class ticket.

The idea that you can simply smile at a ticket agent and get gifted a free upgrade is a romantic notion that simply doesn’t happen.
Ken Harris, Plusgrade

The concept has gained traction with the airline community. A dozen carriers have already introduced upgrade auctions to their websites with the help of Plusgrade and he expects to double that number before the year is out.

Still, one can’t help but wonder if the airlines risk eating into their premium revenues.

Jamie Baker, an airline analyst at JP Morgan, says it’s a possibility.


“If airlines make it too easy to pay for an upgrade, it might dilute what the traveler would initially be willing to pay for that ticket,” he notes. “As a result, airlines tend to control the capacity of award seats. There’s a certain amount of experimentation in the process that is required.”

Harris, however, seems confident the bidding system will not impact premium-seating sales.

“There’s no guarantee that simply because you’ve requested an upgrade, you’ll receive it,” he says.

“If you want to sit in Business Class and your budget allows you to do so, you should buy that seat. It’s the only guarantee you won’t be sitting in the back of the plane on your next trip across the ocean.”

This service is for the passenger that just wants to treat himself for a little extra, and can live with the uncertainty.
Stephanie Kunath, Austrian Airlines

Austrian Airlines has one of the more democratic approaches to the process. Everyone, regardless of frequent flyer status, can bid on an upgrade, assuming any are available on the flight in question.

The airline isn’t worried about hurting their profits, because they view the full-fare seats and auction upgrades as two different products, even though passengers who win an upgrade receive the exact same benefits as someone who paid up front, including access to premium lounges and extra baggage allowances.


“This product is for a completely different type of group,” explains Stephanie Kunath, Austrian’s director of revenue management and business development.

“It’s not for the business traveler who really wants to fly Business Class and needs a 100% guarantee that he can. It’s for the passenger that just wants to treat himself for a little extra, and can live with the uncertainty.”

While bidding for seats might not hurt an airline’s bottom line, the advent of these auctions will likely eat away at the number of free upgrades awarded passengers.

“It probably will erode the complimentary upgrade process to a certain degree, and airlines do run the risk of offending their elite traveler, who has become accustomed to complimentary upgrades,” says Baker.

Harris, however, argues that free bump-ups are the stuff of fantasy.

“Free upgrades are really only given by necessity in operational situations or given to frequent flyers,” he says. “The idea that you can simply smile at a ticket agent and get gifted a free upgrade is a romantic notion. It simply doesn’t happen.”

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