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Update: Travel News Roundup

National Park Shutdown

Bad news for travelers planning a visit to one of our 385 national parks and historical sites: on December 5, a U.S. district court ordered the Department of the Interior to block public access to ParkNet (www.nps.gov), the National Park Service's on-line information resource, as well as other affiliated sites. Why?Because the NPS shares a building with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose database manages a multimillion-dollar trust fund for Native Americans. A federal judge determined that the database was vulnerable to hackers, and ruled that any Internet servers with access to it must be unplugged. At press time, ParkNet's vast storehouse of information on activities, accommodations, road and backcountry conditions, and the environment was still unavailable. And it's worse news for the staff at NPS offices. "The Web site gets 700,000 hits a day, half for travel planning," says David Barna, NPS director of communications. "Now all those people are calling us." The NPS public inquiries line is 202/208-4747. - Bonnie Tsui

Faster Than a Fighter Jet?

As if the Japanese didn't have enough to keep them amused- what with the recently opened Tokyo DisneySea and a 95 mph roller coaster near Osaka with a drop of 306 feet- December saw the debut of yet another thrill machine. Sixty miles west of Tokyo, Fujikyu Highland's Dodonpa is the world's fastest coaster, powered by a unique air-launch system. Dodonpa's four trains rocket at speeds of up to 107 mph, nose-diving down a 74-degree, 170-foot drop in just under two seconds. According to physics experts, though, velocity is beside the point. It's the ride's gravitational acceleration that makes the difference; Dodonpa's acceleration averages 4.3 G's, a force F-16 pilots face on a daily basis, says Major Jim Less of Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. "If you're not trained to deal with a force that multiplies your body weight by four," Less says, "you'll find your chin in your chest and your arms pinned to your sides as you plummet." And that's fun, right?- Adam Baer

Frequent Fliers: Testing Your Loyalty

These are turbulent times for the airline industry. What does that mean for frequent-flier programs?Here are five things you should know about your mileage:

Mileage rewards now
Aviation may be in turmoil, but for loyalty programs it's business as usual. "I see no major changes in awards schedules for 2002 or even 2003," says Randy Petersen, editor of Inside Flyer magazine. In fact, many airlines are currying favor with their best customers by making it easier for them to retain their elite status this year, even if they're presently flying less often. Also, consider cashing in your miles now. "This is a good time to use them," says Dale Morris, a spokesman for American, which has reduced the number of miles needed to earn an award in certain markets. Others have followed suit. On the flip side, schedule cutbacks mean fuller planes and fewer free seats.

Shifting airline alliances
Some may be in flux soon: US Airways continues to flirt with the Star Alliance; KLM and Continental may form a new international group; and the domestic Delta-United confederation could break up. Whatever happens, miles are linked to the carrier on which they were earned, not the alliance with which they can be used. You won't lose miles if allegiances change, but you may need to rethink whom you're flying with.

Elite status benefits
American, Delta, United, and Northwest have introduced special lines at certain airports so that gold and platinum members don't have to wait as long at security checkpoints. Eventually, the airlines may share a national database of "known" frequent passengers, who'll be waved through.

From one airline to another
If an airline goes bust, customers may not be able to salvage their miles. When Pan Am collapsed in 1991, Delta picked up its loyalists, but times have changed. "I don't believe the government will loan money to any airline that would use it to buy the assets of another airline," Petersen says.

The future of loyalty programs
Airlines may be shedding routes, meals, and employees, but your miles are safe- probably. "When things get bad in the industry, people assume the airlines are going to cut back frequent-flier programs," says Petersen. But major airlines still make money from those programs, by encouraging repeat customers and selling affinity miles. Smaller airlines, however, may drop them, as Vanguard has already done. - Stephen Whitlock

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