This weekend we look at how smartphones may help avoid traffic jams, the return of pickpockets (although I don’t think they ever left) and an airline that wants passengers to gamble on changes in jet fuel costs to protect the airline’s bottom line.

Discovering traffic jams with smartphones

New smartphone apps are making it possible to use your phone to learn about coming traffic jams. By using big data collected from thousands of smartphones that are tracked by GPS connections, IT companies can determine the flow of traffic and give directions to get around problems. This link has a fascinating graphic that depicts the future or smartphone traffic reporting.

These apps work by tracking your location through the smartphone’s GPS device and feeding traffic data for that location into a map. Inrix Traffic projects what traffic will be like as much as eight hours into the future, based on historic patterns. The Seattle-based company also feeds sports schedules into its database to predict traffic jams around stadiums.

Among the next steps, traffic-app providers say, will be offering “dynamic routing” — plotting an alternative route to a destination that bypasses a clogged highway artery and tapping data from cars’ onboard safety systems (such as traction control and anti-lock brakes) to feed users information about potentially hazardous conditions ahead like ice or wet roads that could cause hydroplaning.

The return of the pickpocket

I’m not sure where Scott McCartney has been recently, but pickpockets have never left, as far as I am concerned. In any case, his story is a cautionary tale. He describes some creative techniques used by more ingenious pickpockets, but there are plenty of cases of thieves on motorscooters zipping past unsuspecting drivers speaking on cell phones while leaning on their open windows and snatching the cell phone. Other purse snatchers are not so subtle and can quickly cut straps and make off with your goods in a flash.

Thieving techniques include unzipping a strolling victim’s purse to lift a wallet or phone, and creating contact, such as by bumping into a victim or having an accomplice stop suddenly in front of a victim. The other thief behind the victim bumps into the person and removes a wallet from a back pocket. Thieves in Italy are known to use knives to slash open purses and even men’s jacket pockets.

Creating diversions is also a common tactic. A thief may squirt something on victims, drop coins in front of them or show them a map and ask for directions to distract targets.

The simple fact that more people are carrying valuable and easily lifted items such as iPhones explains part of the increase. And today’s more open borders make it easier for organized groups to orchestrate traveling networks of criminals, experts say.

Allegiant wants to have passengers gamble on cost of fuel

I guess it is appropriate for Allegiant Travel — parent of Allegiant, the low-cost carrier based in Las Vegas — wants passengers to gamble on the cost of fuel. We already covered this whacky idea in March, but it is back again in a Bloomberg Businessweek column.

Once airfare is purchased, passengers would be allowed to “gamble on the price of fuel.” If fuel prices drop, passengers win. If they go up the airline wins and collects more money before allowing passengers to board.

Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation (DOT) just announced a rule that does not allow any price changes after airline tickets are purchased. This kind of gamble would have a hard time passing muster with the folk in the enforcement office of DOT.

Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. would let travelers choose whether to lock in a set, higher fare or pay a lower ticket price in exchange for shouldering any changes in fuel prices before their travel date. Those dice-rolling fliers would, based on fuel prices, pay an additional amount or receive money back if energy costs fell in the period between booking and flying.

…Allegiant — which does not hedge any of its fuel purchases — is willing to risk regulatory resistance and consumer confusion with a “variable pricing” mechanism aimed at recovering some of its fuel costs. At Allegiant, 80 percent of an average month’s ticket revenue is sold by the start of that month, Gallagher said. That leaves the discount airline more exposed to fuel price increases than many carriers.