TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 17

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Is the Taliban’s fracturing a sign of its demise or a possible turn to a more lethal strategy?

By Sundarsan Raghavan in the Washington Post

2. To fight cybercrime, President Obama needs Silicon Valley.

By Katie Benner in Bloomberg View

3. The FDA needs updated systems to review drugs — made from our own cells — that target cancer and more.

By Peter W. Huber in City Journal

4. Our high incarceration rate no longer reduces crime.

By Lauren-Brooke Eisen in USA Today

5. Better than an action movie: Catch a college lecture on your next commercial flight.

By Kim Clark in Money

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Airlines

United Cancels Too-Good-to-Be-True Plane Tickets

Thousands of customers thought they were buying first-class transatlantic seats for less than $100, but United Airlines says otherwise.

MONEY Travel

What Expedia’s Acquisition of Orbitz and Travelocity Means for Travelers

The Expedia and Orbitz websites are seen on a computer screen on Thursday February 12, 2015. Expedia has agreed to purchase, Orbitz for $1.34 billion in a consolidation against competitor Priceline.
Richard B. Levine—Newscom Expedia has agreed to purchase, Orbitz for $1.34 billion in a consolidation against competitor Priceline.

Expedia is buying Orbitz, just weeks after a takeover of Travelocity. Just how worried should consumers be that travel search engines are being gobbled up by a few, increasingly powerful players?

Consumers have good reason to fear consolidation. Many observers trace the past year’s soaring flight prices back to the United-Continental merger, among others, which cut competition and allowed the few existing airlines to scale back routes, raise fares and fees, and achieve sky-high profits.

This week, Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, issued a lengthy manifesto arguing that Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable would be an utter disaster for pay TV and broadband Internet customers—a scenario that would likely mean higher prices and worse customer service for us all. None of this is a surprise to consumers. In a Consumer Reports poll conducted last summer, three-quarters of Americans said they feared that a combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable would result in higher monthly bills.

So naturally, Thursday’s announcement that Expedia is buying Orbitz for $1.3 billion—just a few weeks after it also purchased Travelocity—looks like cause for concern for travelers. After all, when more travel search engines are in the hands of fewer and fewer corporate owners, there’s obviously less true competition. Simply put, less competition = bad for consumers.

And yet, the consensus among industry observers is that competition in travel search remains vibrant, and that Expedia’s flurry of acquisitions will have almost no impact on what the average traveler finds in search results or pays for trips.

Travel search, you see, has been undergoing consolidation for several years. Before the recent high-profile buyouts, another period of rapid acquisitions took place in 2013, most notably with Priceline buying Kayak. As the New York Times then noted, the impact of such consolidation on everyday travelers was presumed to be minimal:

Most travel industry analysts said they did not expect either Priceline, which is buying the airline and hotel search engine Kayak, or Expedia, which last month acquired the German hotel search site Trivago, to tamper with the basic model of search engines: to show the consumer as many options as possible.

A few years back, Google paid $700 million for ITA Software, which is the technology now used for scouring the web to find routes and airfares via Google Flight Search, as well as other search services including Fly.com, Hipmunk, and Kayak.

While the interfaces at various travel search options are different—some people swear one is more intuitive or just plain better than the rest—most travelers understand that the results are almost always the same no matter where you search. And because there have been so many competitors drawing on the same data and providing essentially the same services, more and more consolidation has seemed inevitable. In the struggle to compete, Orbitz Worldwide, which itself owns search brands including ebookers.com and cheaptickets.com, reportedly started exploring a sale in late January, with Google, Priceline, and Expedia among the likely buyers.

Even after all of the Expedia and Orbitz travel sites come under the domain of the same giant company, there will be forces at play compelling search engines to continue retrieving the same options, at the same prices, for travelers. “There are so many ways now to buy travel online— Priceline, AirBnB, Google Flights, buying direct from vendors like AA.com, Hilton.com, and many more to come that there will still be options and competition, and little consumer effect,” George Hobica, founder of the low-price flight specialist AirfareWatchdog (part of Smarter Travel Media, whose sites also include the travel search BookingBuddy.com), said via email.

For now at least, travel search consolidation isn’t a strategy to build up a monopoly and squeeze customers with higher prices. The state of competition simply wouldn’t allow this to happen. Instead, according to Hobica, the scene today in travel search is that of “a free-for-all and a race for survival.”

Still, the acquisition of Travelocity and Orbitz by Expedia will have some impact on the industry. Most likely, “on the hotel side it will give Expedia more clout in bargaining with hotels and other vendors so that might be a good thing, for a while at least,” said Hobica. Likewise, travel-focused sites such as Skift and the View from the Wing blog noted that the acquisitions will give the newly bigger and more powerful Expedia more leverage in terms of negotiating hotel rates and commissions.

Does this mean hotel rates paid by guests will fall? Or perhaps rise? Again, because there is still substantial competition in the travel search space—and because it only takes a traveler seconds to find other options if the first search results are unsatisfactory—in all likelihood the latest round of consolidation will have little to no effect on travelers. “To most consumers [these acquisitions] will be almost meaningless,” the View from the Wing summed up.

TIME Airlines

JetBlue Will Let You Buy Food and Booze With Apple Pay

JetBlue Plane At John F. Kennedy International Airport
Allison Joyce—Getty Images A JetBlue plane is seen at John F. Kennedy International Airport April 27, 2012 in the Queens borough of New York City.

Everything is amazing

Apple and JetBlue want to give you one less reason to complain about the miracle of human flight.

The airline will begin accepting Apple’s new mobile payments service Apple Pay for mid-flight purchases of food, drinks and amenities next week. JetBlue will become the first airline to accept Apple Pay.

To make the new service work, JetBlue is issuing iPad Minis to 3,500 flight crewmembers. Attendants will able to use the devices to interact with customers who have an Apple Pay-equipped iPhone 6. Customers will also be able to pay with the Apple Watch when that device launches in the spring.

For now, Apple Pay is only usable on transcontinental flights from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to airports in San Francisco and Los Angeles. All JetBlue flights will accept Apple Pay by June.

[USA Today]

MONEY Travel

Why You Should Book Your Summer Vacation Now

Rome, Italy
Image Source—Gallery Stock Rome, Italy

Planes are expected to be crowded, so finding low fares will take some work and advance planning.

With snow piling up in much of the United States, it might seem a bit early to start thinking about summer. But if you want to take a vacation on your terms, travel experts say now is the time to get the ball rolling.

Cheaper fuel prices, a strong dollar, and an economy on the upswing mean consumers will have a lot of competition booking airplane seats for summer vacations. “This is the perfect storm,” says Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of FareCompare.com, which analyzes airfares.

While experts say expectations of a booming summer travel season will prompt airlines to add capacity, the companies’ computer models will adjust pricing according to ticket sales. The fewer the seats left, the sharper the price increases.

Expect prices to rise through the spring, says Tom Spagnola, senior vice president for travel service CheapOair.com. Travelers should start booking international flights this month and domestic flights in the next month or two.

Asia- and Latin America-bound vacationers might find some bargains, while the carriers’ sharing alliances that dominate the business will probably limit the availability of deals elsewhere, says airline industry consultant Bob Mann.

How To Gear Up

To shop now, use one or more of the airline pricing websites to get notified of changes. Among those offering free fare alert services are Kayak, Yapta, Airfarewatchdog, CheapOair, and FareCompare.

A flight from New York to Paris on American Airlines on June 25 for one week would cost $1,232 non-stop round-trip if booked now. Trying for another day could reduce the price by $100 or more, so it is best to be flexible about travel dates.

And if you are willing to fly on a no-frills discount airline, you could pay even less. XL Airways France has a flight for $1,097 round-trip.

The day of the week you fly matters, FareCompare’s Seaney says. To get the best prices, try booking a flight for a Tuesday, Wednesday, or a Saturday.

On longer trips, Seaney suggests considering a connecting flight to get further savings. An example: An early summer non-stop from Washington, D.C., to Rome costs about $2,047 round-trip on United, compared with as low as $1,036 if you toss in a stop in Istanbul and fly Turkish Airlines.

You may want to vacation during off-peak periods. Seaney notes that the higher summer-season pricing does not start until after the first week in June and typically tapers down after the third week of August.

Also, keep an eye on the total price of a ticket, which can include taxes, surcharges, and fees as well as airfare.

For instance, there is still a $450 fuel surcharge levied on flights to Europe, but Seaney says it is just a matter of time before that is dropped or lowered because energy prices are so low.

Flights into and out of London’s Heathrow Airport carry an extra $70 to $90 tax, so you may want to use a different nearby airport, like Gatwick.

Cruise for Deals

This time every year, the cruise industry dangles its best deals during the so-called wave season—buy now for trips during the rest of the year.

“Now is when people will find some of the best pricing of the year and, more importantly, the best incentives,” says Gabe Saglie, senior editor for discount travel site Travelzoo.

One recent deal promoted on Travelzoo offered free drinks, prepaid gratuities and a $100 shore excursion credit on a 10-day Alaska cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line—about $1,200 in perks. An ocean-view room for a midsummer sailing was going for about $1,800 per person (based on double occupancy) with those bonuses tossed in.

Related: 6 Ways to Be a Savvier Traveler in 2015

MONEY Airlines

These Airlines are Offering In-Flight College Classes

Learning in the skies
Dennis Helmar

Your legroom may be shrinking, but at least you can now expand your mind.

Just because you’re on an airplane doesn’t mean your head has to be in the clouds.

In addition to the usual fare of straight-to-DVD movies that will certainly rot your brain, two airlines have recently begun serving up some smarter in-flight entertainment to their passengers: complimentary audio and video of interesting college lectures.

In December, Jet Blue started streaming recorded lectures from some of the nation’s most elite courses, including marketing classes from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, a Brown University archeology class, and an introduction to guitar and rhythm from the Berklee School of Music. The college lectures are pieces of full courses that are available free through Coursera, a platform for massive open online courses (a.k.a. MOOCs).

Jet Blue also offers video cooking lessons such as “How to brine meats” and “How to read labels on chocolate,” provided by a company called Rouxbe.

On February 1, Virgin America started offering audio and video from the “Great Courses,” a series of recorded lectures from top-shelf professors. Among the talks available: Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium on “The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries” and David Christian, history professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, on “What is Big History?”

Both airlines said they would rotate in new lectures every month or two—about how often some college kids attend class.

Gary Leff, a frequent business traveler who blogs at Viewfromthewing.com, says that while he usually works during flights, the college lectures would be at the top of his list for distractions. And he thinks they may be a pleasant surprise for many travelers: “People seem to like the serendipity” of unexpected audio and videos on long flights, he says.

Of course, the free lectures also allow organizations such as the Great Courses and Rouxbe, both of which charge for their entire courses, to market their content to a very captive audience. On the upside for passengers, that likely means other airlines will announce educational content alliances, Leff predicts.

Unfortunately, you won’t get a degree from attending school in the sky. But at least while you’re onboard you can learn something besides the appropriate way to apply an oxygen mask.

TIME Airlines

East Asia’s Airlines Are Pretty Much No More Dangerous Than American Ones

Taiwan crash
Ashley Pon/Getty Images TAIPEI, TAIWAN - FEBRUARY 04: Rescuers check the wreckage of the TransAsia ATR 72-600 on the Keelung river at New Taipei City on February 4, 2015.

There's a .0001% difference between their safety records

A horrific string of recent plane accidents has rocked airlines across Southeast Asia.

Since 2014, the horrible news has fallen like a drumbeat: Malaysia Airlines Flights 370 and 17, AirAsia Flight 8501, TransAsia Airways Flight 222, and just this Wednesday, the terrifying spectacle of TransAsia Airways Flight 235 clipping a wing on an overpass in Taipei before crash-landing in the Keelung River.

The headlines do seem to point to a regional safety problem. But widen the focus to carriers around the world, and the differences quickly vanish.

The International Air Transport Association keeps a running tally of “significant” accidents around the world — “significant” in this case refers to accidents that cause injuries or at least $1 million in damage. Carriers based in Southeast Asia and the Pacific averaged roughly 2.7 accidents for every 1 million flights between 2009 and 2013, according to the IATA. North American carriers, by comparison, averaged 1.32 accidents. The world map below breaks down accident rates for each region’s carriers for 2014 (dark blue numbers) and across five years (light blue numbers):

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 3.50.13 PM

At first glance, the figures might capture slight variations in safety records, but that word slight is an understatement. These numbers tally accidents per million flights, which means the differences amount to a fraction of 1%. To be precise, Asian Pacific carriers had a .0001% higher accident rate than North American carriers. Maybe that’s a risk not worth taking, but by that same logic, north Asian carriers would be the safest option in the world.

An alternative takeaway is that picking flights by regional carrier is a pretty ineffective way of managing risk, since the risk is so rare and hard to predict — and so easily mistaken for a trend.

TIME Transportation

JetBlue Flight Narrowly Avoids Midair Collision

JetBlue Planes
Seth Wenig—AP

One passenger said she saw the plane coming closer through the window

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has launched an investigation after two planes nearly collided during a JetBlue flight from Orlando to Westchester County Airport in New York last week.

According to the Lower Hudson Valley-based Journal News, air traffic controllers told the pilot aboard JetBlue Airways Flight 94 that another smaller plane was about two miles away, the FAA said in a statement.

After receiving word, the JetBlue pilot then adjusted the flight path and landed, the airline said in a separate statement. The incident occurred around 1:45 p.m. on Jan. 25.

One passenger on board, Megan Sikorski, told WABC-TV that she could see the other plane approaching through her window, when she buried herself in her mother’s lap grabbed onto the other passenger sitting next to her. “Our plane went up, and you could hear the whoosh of the other airplane underneath us,” she said.

Both planes landed safely, the FAA said.

[USA Today]

 

TIME Innovation

This Airline Is Giving Passengers Virtual Reality Headsets

Virtual Reality
Patrick T. Fallon—Patrick T. Fallon An attendee during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015.

Some Qantas passengers will get Samsung's Gear VR headset

Your next in-flight movie could be a lot more immersive.

Australian airline Qantas is partnering with Samsung to bring the electronics company’s virtual reality headsets to some of its passengers. First-class fliers will soon be able to use Samsung’s Gear VR headset during flights to explore virtual reality worlds. The headsets will let customers digitally explore the Qantas airport, visit the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and travel through the Australian wilderness.

In addition to in-flight VR, Qantas fliers will be able to use the headsets in first-class airport lounges in Sydney and Melbourne.

In a press release, a Qantas executive also promised that passengers will be able to access “the virtual worlds of their favorite Hollywood blockbusters,” though there are currently very few films release in a VR format. For now, the headsets are being offered in a limited three-month trial.

TIME Transportation

Fake Twitter Bomb Threats to Airlines On the Rise

An American Airlines plane is seen at the Miami International Airport in Miami in 2013.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Tweeted threats have disrupted at least sixteen flights in the past five days

Airline bomb threats on Twitter have disrupted at least sixteen flights in the past five days, prompting new concerns about aviation security — and the way pranksters can cause serious trouble with social media.

Most recently, an American Airlines flight landed in Chicago safely Tuesday after a tweet claiming to be from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) claimed there was a bomb on board, USA Today reports.

That same day, another (now suspended) Twitter account called @RansomTheThug also claimed there was a bomb aboard a United Airlines flight that had already been canceled days earlier due to blizzard concerns. “In terms of the quantity of threats we’re seeing now, you just haven’t seen it,” Glen Winn, former head of security at United Airlines and Northwest Airlines, said.

But as was the case with the 14-year-old Dutch girl who threatened American Airlines as a joke last year, not every tweet is serious. “In the history of aviation sabotage, I don’t believe there’s ever been a threat called in where there’s actually been a bomb,” Douglas Laird, a former security director at Northwest Airlines, said.

Still, all threats are taken seriously and evaluated by airline security according to confidential criteria. Airlines are also required to report threats to Transportation Security Administration.

[USA Today]

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