Boarding Pass

By David Tykol

Dear Globetrotter:
Welcome to the 358th issue of your monthly overseas travel magazine.

On Oct. 12, about 1,500 people were evacuated from Machu Picchu, Peru, after a mudslide covered a section of the railway line to the mountaintop Incan ruins. No one was hurt, and buses were employed to take the people down.

Snow melting on a nearby peak caused a chunk of Veronica Peak to break off, burying the tracks with seven meters of mud and rocks. Rail service was restored in a few days.

In April 2004 at least six people were killed by mudslides at Machu Picchu.

In South Africa’s central Karoo region, 10 people were hospitalized with serious injuries on the night of Oct. 26 when the luxury Blue Train, which was standing idle because of a signal failure, was hit head-on by the passenger express Trans Karoo, which had been mistakenly diverted onto the loop track.

ITN subscriber Robert Mitchell of Ellensburg, Washington, wrote, “Please make a special effort to keep us up to date on security procedures at airports, both in the U.S. and abroad. As new regulations and practices come in, give us a news flash on these.”

It so happens that there are a couple such items to report.

The new electronic passports that the State Department begins issuing this month will include two security features that address critics’ fears of privacy breaches.

1. The covers and spines of the passports will contain an anti-skimming material that blocks radio waves, preventing outsiders from picking up the data when the passport is closed. (The shield will not set off metal detectors.)

2. The passports will have to be touched physically to unlock the data stored on the microchip embedded within, thus preventing remote “tracking” of individuals.

In addition to the usual information contained in passports (the holder’s name, nationality, birth date, etc.), the microchip stores a “biometric identifier,” a digital photograph.

Citizens of 27 mainly European countries who wish to visit the United States have until October 2006 to obtain biometric passports. The United Kingdom plans to introduce such passports, which include data from a facial scan, early in the year.

Three airlines at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, have begun using RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on luggage to electronically sort and track baggage as well as check for explosives as it moves along conveyors.

In this first of two phases of RFID deployment at the airport, passengers in Terminal 1 checking onto Alaska Airlines, AirTran or Champion Air flights are having their luggage tagged with RFID labels, which do not require line-of-sight reading by optical scanners. Optical scanners have a 15% to 30% error rate, requiring rejected pieces of luggage to be manually read; the RFID readers have an accuracy rate of about 99.5%.

McCarran International expects to expand the RFID system to all terminals and all 30 airlines by the second quarter of 2006. They’re also hoping to use the system with Las Vegas hotels, so that guests can check in for flights at their hotel and have their luggage taken directly to the airport and loaded onto the plane. (I’m guessing by van, not conveyors.)

Late next year, both TAP Air Portugal and the British airline bmi will run a 3-month test allowing passengers to use their own cell phones on flights within Western Europe.

Currently, in the U.S., certain engineers at the FAA believe that cell phones have the potential to interfere with the control and navigation systems of aircraft. They contend that the maximum signal levels that cell phones transmit exceed those which the aircraft equipment is tested against.

One thing the airlines can do is install on each airplane a small base station, called a picocell, so that when a mobile phone is switched on, it will communicate with the onboard picocell rather than max out searching for a base station on the ground. Several airlines, including United and Lufthansa, are planning to install picocells on aircraft. On their trial runs, TAP and bmi will be using technology from the Geneva-based firm OnAir, which has service slated for general release in 2007.

A U.S. study concluded that there have been 86 instances of malfunction on aircraft caused by passengers using electronic devices in the cabin, and over one-fourth of these involved cell phones. I presume these were in planes without picocells.

Delta Airlines admitted canceling some flights which had a low number of passengers a couple of months ago for “economic considerations.” That is, with the high price if fuel, it wasn’t worth running the flights.

Delta said it only did it when “light loads” were projected on both that flight and the following flight. The airline said that it provided passengers two days’ advance notice and accommodated them on other flights.

So, while a sparsely populated plane used to mean more low-fare seats, more room to spread out, more personalized service and faster unloading, now it might mean the flight will be canceled.

It was a chartered jet, not a commercial flight, but on Oct. 5 the pilots of a flight out of Gambia heading to Lima, Peru, told the control tower at Piura, Peru, that they were low on fuel and had to land there, which they did, 550 miles short of Lima.

All 289 passengers then scurried out to find televisions in order to watch a world championship soccer match between Gambia and Qatar. The pilots had fibbed so that their passengers wouldn’t miss the game, which Gambia won 3-1.

The fans had been delayed for a week in Gambia before boarding. Piura citizens welcomed them with open arms, offering performances by local singers and dancers. Authorities were yet to determine what penalty, if any, to levy against the airline.

Dot travel — A new Web domain name was launched on Oct. 3. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN;, an internationally recognized nonprofit group that maintains oversight responsibility for the Internet, has introduced the Internet address suffix “.travel” for travel and tourism businesses such as airlines, tourism offices, restaurants and theme parks. The list may eventually include, for example, luggage retailers.

To avoid confusion, airports and aerospace companies, which currently use the domain “.aero,” will not be allowed to use “.travel.” Nor will those who simply want to post travel stories and photos; to qualify, a company must provide a travel service.

Realize that no credit or criminal-background checks are run on businesses applying for websites with this domain name. Buyer, beware.

In my August and October columns, readers shared what they called “The Most Incongruous Sight Seen in My Travels.” Here’s one from Tracy Ferguson of Houston, Texas:

“While we were traveling from Antigua, Guatemala, to Chichicastenango in 1996, our bus came upon a funeral cortege of 20 to 30 Mayan Indians — on foot, barefoot and dressed in their traditional garb. Several of the men were bearing on their shoulders a lavender anodized-aluminum casket.”

Your special assignment this month (and a fun one) — fill out the “heroes and villains” survey on page 132. Give us your votes for best and worst airline, best and worst tour company, etc. You can send in a photocopy if you wish, rather than tear a page out of your copy of ITN, but please print clearly, and be as accurate as possible (best cruise line, not ship, for instance).

Enjoy your next trip. — David Tykol, Editor