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Mar 242017
 

Sophie (my daughter’s dog) is very concerned after reading the dog story, below.

Good morning

What a crazy week it has been, with the TSA managing to set a new low for inanity and insanity.

We’ve seen some terrible things in the past – with the worst perhaps being the global ban on all electronics on all flights, and their extended insistence on subjecting us to potentially dangerous X-rays when screening us, but at least such earlier measures had some semblance of rationality behind them.  Their new partial ban allows no such justification.

But, please, let’s also note one other thing.  Since the TSA was urgently constituted in response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, every past idiocy they’ve inflicted on us, every last indignity, every grope and every long line, has always been described as something the TSA itself is to be blamed for.  Fair enough.

So why is it this week that all the talking heads are now describing this new measure as ‘The Trump Ban’ (see for example, here); or in an effort to pretend to be even-handed, ‘The Trump Administration’s ban’.  Why did we never invoke Presidents Obama and Bush, but now automatically choose to blame the current President?

If it is all about President Trump, why is it the Brits have enacted a similar but also slightly different ban, and on Thursday, it was advised that Canada expects to follow suit, too?  My guess is we’ll see additional countries join in also, and my fear is that the ban will spread to all airports and all destinations, and my ultimate fear is that it will be here to stay.

Think of the limits on liquids and the repeated broken promises that the liquid ban will be lifted.  This all makes me fear about the longevity of the electronics ban.

So, in addition to the emergency heads-up I sent out earlier in the week, here are two more articles on this sorry topic.  One looks at the reason and logic for the ban (executive summary – there isn’t any) and the other suggests some ways to make flying less painful without the comforting presence of all the electronic gadgets we’ve grown to rely upon.

What else?  As always, some nice pieces for your Friday morning tradition.

  • Virgin America Brand to Disappear
  • SST Lurches Forward
  • Electric Airplanes Again
  • The Poor Old A380
  • Apple’s Whisper-Quiet New Product Event
  • When a Dog’s Death Does and Doesn’t Mean Anything
  • Telling it Like it Is
  • And Lastly This Week….

Virgin America Brand to Disappear

These things are so utterly predictable – an airline buys another airline and promises to preserve the bought out carrier, and then it ignominiously disappears without trace in record time.

In this case, Alaska Airlines bought Virgin America, and said at the time that it would look at protecting and preserving the enormously valuable Virgin America brand and its very loyal following of flyers.  (A cynic would comment, as I did at the time, that the enormously valuable brand and very loyal followers were insufficient to enable Virgin America to become a viable self-sustaining airline.)

And now, barely months after the merger has been completed, guess what?

Alaska now says that is will absorb Virgin America into its own (Alaska) brand, with the Virgin America name scheduled to disappear completely in 2019.  But, fear not.  It threatens to keep some of the distinctive elements of the Virgin America brand, including that garish ridiculous purple lighting.  Ugh.  I’d prefer my flying experience to be neutral and discreet, not aggressively ‘hip’, ‘cool’ and annoyingly obtrusive.

Details here.

SST Lurches Forward

I loved the Concorde, and still do, feeling a fresh wave of indignant nostalgia every time I see the one at Seattle’s excellent Museum of Flight.

And anything that could slice the traveling time across the Atlantic or Pacific in half is surely sometime to eagerly support.  But only if it is real.

One of the more real of the slowly churning mix of SST projects is the one being promoted by the amusingly named Boom Tech group.  Noting that the big issue with supersonic flight is its supersonic boom, one would have thought a better name might have been Hush Tech or Whisper Tech or Really-Quiet Tech.

But ‘real’ is a relative term, and they’ve few tangible competitors worthy of note.

The company has just secured an additional $33 million in funding, which they say is ‘all the money we need to go and build an airplane’.  Well, for sure, you could build a Cessna or something for much less than $33 million, but a revolutionary new supersonic jet, with new space-age materials, and engines that don’t yet exist at all?

Their $33 million budget contrasts with Boeing’s cost to get its traditional 787 aloft which ended up as more like $33 billion.

What is Boom’s secret, one wonders?  Meanwhile, I’m not about to rush out and buy a ticket on a Boom jet just yet.  Alas.

Details here.

Electric Airplanes Again

I’m going to have to add the topic of battery-powered electric airlines to my list of vapid ‘will never happen in our lifetime’ stories, because we’re starting to see more of these stories appearing.

That means three entries now on the list – flying cars, SSTs, and now electric planes, too.

Why will an electric plane never happen?  As I’ve said before, it is all about energy density.  Batteries weigh massively more than jet fuel per unit of energy; worse still, batteries are still at max weight even when discharged, whereas at least, when you burn your jet fuel, it has gone.

Airlines that will sacrifice passenger comforts to save a few tens of pounds of weight per flight aren’t about to suddenly add tens of tons of extra weight for batteries.  I’ll concede it is possible we’ll see some private planes designed for short-range battery-powered flying, but we’ll never see a battery-powered regular passenger plane akin to a current model Boeing or Airbus plane.

Or will we?  Here’s an adulatory and uncritical article that reports on plans for a 737 sized battery-powered plane.  Well, that’s assuming that battery technology improves, if you read the fine print – a rather large assumption.  And whereas the normal range of a 737 is 3000 miles or more, this plane will have an under 300 mile range.

Think about that (although it would seem the developers have not).  Who flies 300 miles in a 737?  That’s right at the point where you have to decide ‘do I fly, do I drive’.  LAX-SFO is 350 miles by air.  NYC-BOS or NYC-WAS would work – they are both about 200 miles.  But where else?  The average stage length for a 737, and it is probably slightly growing, is in the order of (guessing) 850 miles.

No word from the developers as to what the operating costs of the plane would be.  Sure, electricity is cheaper than jet fuel, but a modern 737 can give 50+ passenger miles per gallon, meaning it is costing only 3 or 4 cents a mile in jet fuel.

Plus, think about turnaround time.  The adage is planes should always be fueling, flying, or fixing.  Planes don’t make money at the gate, only in the air.  How long will it take to recharge the plane after each almost 300 mile flight?  With airlines hoping for 30 minute turnarounds, that’s not a lot of time to recharge the plane.

Don’t get us wrong.  We love electric cars and would love electric planes too, but just because we like something doesn’t mean it is going to happen.

A real ‘grand staircase’. Sorry, A-380, but you don’t come close.

The Poor Old A380

Okay, 180° change in perspective now.  From starry-eyed optimism about planes we might never see, to unfair criticism of a plane in the skies today.

Here’s an article that manages to be enormously negative while writing about some future enhancements to the A380.  First it sets up a ‘straw horse’ – it describes one of the two staircases in the double-decker plane as a hallmark of the plane, a ‘grand staircase’, then it knocks its straw horse down by bemoaning that it may be made less grand.

They say the grand staircase echoes the era of cruise ships.  Absolute bunkum.  Folks – it ain’t a grand staircase.  This picture is a true grand staircase on a cruise ship.  The A380 has an ordinary unadorned staircase, as you can see in the illustration in the article and very similar to the staircase on a 747.  Who cares if it gets a few inches narrower – it isn’t really truly a two person wide staircase now.

But the most ridiculous thing in the article is saved as a reward for those who struggle all the way through it.  You’ll be shocked and distressed to learn that another bad thing about the A380 is that there is no second-hand market for the jets.

Ummm, errr.  Perhaps that would be because the plane is so new that currently there are no second-hand ones for sale?

Apple’s Whisper-Quiet New Product Event

Apple’s annual launches of new models of its devices are typically events that register max on the hype scale.

But this week, with nothing more than a press release, the company announced its latest iPad and iPhone models.

The new iPhones are – wait for it – red in color.  That’s it.  They’re red.  Everything else is exactly the same.  And once you’ve quickly wrapped your red iPhone in a protective shell, who knows what color it is.

The new iPads – looking remarkably like the old iPads, and not available in red, were interesting, in the sense that this is, I believe, the first time Apple has ever released a new model iPad (or iPhone or probably iPod) that is cheaper than the model it replaced.  The entry-level iPad has dropped from $399 to $329.  But, alas, to justify in their own mind this price drop, they’ve cheapened the product considerably.  It is bigger (thicker) and slightly heavier than the previous model iPad.  It no longer has an anti-reflective coating on the glass.  And upgrades that were overdue (better cameras, for example, or a pressure sensitive screen like the iPhones) haven’t occurred.    Good analysis here.

But it is still ridiculously overpriced compared to competitors.  If you want a tablet, how about an 8″ Amazon Fire for $90 (and, best of all, it is available in red).  That has to be the value-reference point that all other tablets need to work out from.  Sure, the iPad is bigger and nicer, but is it four times better?  No.  Not close.

The quietest part of Apple’s iPad refresh?  That would be the part that didn’t happen.  The iPad Pro – the lovely (but surprisingly low resolution) 12.9″ tablet launched in November 2015 was omitted from the new series of iPads updated in late 2016 in the annual refresh, and has been passed over again now.  Don’t tell us this is because it is already perfect – it surely isn’t.  If you want a large screen tablet device, I’m astonished to find myself saying that probably your best bet is a Microsoft Surface Pro 4.

All very disappointing.

When a Dog’s Death Does and Doesn’t Mean Anything

Have you ever wondered what a police officer does if confronted by a protective dog while trying to break into someone’s home?  Does he use his Taser?  Does he have a dog net?  Does he call an animal control officer?

Nope.  He shoots it.  No-one is quite sure how many dogs are shot by police officers, because police departments are careful not to keep records.  But estimates run as high as 500 a day (in the US).

Although some aggrieved owners have brought suits against police departments, the courts have noted dogs are private property and so the extent of a police department’s liability is limited, and generally they rule in favor of the police, no matter how egregious the circumstances.  Here is some interesting background.

Now imagine what happens if a bomb detection dog, still in training, slips its leash at an airport, runs around and refuses to come back to its trainer.  The dog gets onto the runway, and all flights are cancelled – for three hours – while a group of ground staff try to catch the dog.

Then, an announcement.  The airport tweeted triumphantly that the dog had “now been caught”.

Except that this announcement, while technically correct, omitted one detail.  A factor in being able to finally catch the dog was that it had been, ahem, shot dead.

On the positive side, the staff at Auckland Airport are clearly very patient.  On the negative side – three hours and no-one thought to get a net or even a nice juicy piece of tranquilized meat or a tranquilizer gun?

New Zealand is in an uproar over the death of this one dog.  I wonder what Kiwis would make of the US, where we perhaps needlessly kill up to 500 dogs a day.  Without three-hour delays.

Telling it Like it Is

For me, as an impressionable youth, the wonder of being in space was formed in my mind by 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  The stunning visuals, combined with the strains of the gorgeous Blue Danube Waltz, and the credible view of the near future that it shared with us in the theaters, was an aspiration and inspiration for an entire generation.

The last bit got a bit esoteric, but up until then, it was ‘hard science’ fiction and credible/consistent with where we saw the world heading – especially the Pan Am shuttle up to the orbiting space station.

Pan Am always seemed a bit more special to me after the 2001 movie.

No wonder that people who can afford it pay $30 million for a chance to visit the Space Station – and we can all pretend that the rather prosaic and uninspiring space station that we do have aloft is almost as good as Kubrick’s vision (see the comparisons here).

No wonder Sir Richard Branson has so many people lining up to sample the slightest tantalizing taste of space.  And how envious we should be of the two people who are now buying a trip to the moon, courtesy of Elon Musk’s rocket program.

Being an astronaut is surely the most amazing job in the world, right?

Ummm, errrr.  Not so much, according to someone who did spend $30 million to play at being an astronaut.  Here’s a gritty ‘telling it like it is’ insight into what it is really like.  It would seem that ‘losing your lunch’ is only the start of it.

Time to watch 2001 again and refresh the magic of it all.  The curious thing about the movie is that while we’re nowhere near its predictions in terms of space travel, the ‘good news’ is that computer AI is alarmingly close to the capabilities depicted in the movie.  And we all know how well that turned out, don’t we.

And Lastly This Week….

Remember the latest snow fall the east coast had?  It was enough to shut down many airports, and in some cases, apparently unnecessarily.  But good old Amtrak ploughed on through the snow.  Quite literally, as it turned out, and to the surprise of some people waiting on the platform.

Do watch this video of what happened next.  Possibly even twice.  Warning – don’t have your mouth full of coffee at the time, for fear of snorting it out through your nose.

And truly lastly this week, how often we reminisce over the good old days, and as it seems that we’re about to transition to yet another new unkind era of air travel, perhaps it is time again for a retrospective.  This one claims to be 16 things we used to be able to do on planes and no longer can.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

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