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Sep 292017
 

What’s wrong with this sign, found at NZ’s notionally southern-most point? The answer is at the end of the newsletter.

Good morning

Thank you this week to the very kind additional 61 readers who joined this year’s annual fund-raising drive during the last week, bringing us to 186 kind souls to date.

And, of course, very special thanks to our very special supporters, those sending in three figure sums.  This week, mention must happily be made of Jeff K, Hilda W, Pat M, Barbara K, Clayton H, Jim J, Bob G, Clifford L, Andrew C, Robert T, Michael L, Len G, Steve N, Ruth Ann M, Bill M, and Phil S.

We’re ahead of 2016 (172 supporters to this point) but 2015 has us beat with 199 supporters in three weeks.  Our target – our desperate need – is to get all the way to 400 supporters, and our current rate of progress threatens to clutter up many more newsletters with weekly appeals before we can all return back to ‘business as normal’.  Can I ask those of you who have been meaning to help out to perhaps do so, immediately right now, rather than to continue to delay.  If you’re like me, delayed things quickly become forgotten things.  It truly only does take a minute or two, especially if sending in support via credit card, so please think about clicking over to the supporter’s page and joining this worthy cause.

Talking about worthy causes, what are the two aggravations most of us wrestle with on our web browsing journeys these days?  Perhaps they are paywalled sites that demand you pay a fee to access their content, and sites that attack you with impossible-to-stop video and ads that take over your screen.  With a third aggravation being sites with minimal content, but spread over half a dozen pages so as to expose you to even more ads.  And how about the video ‘pre-roll’ ads that force you to watch an impossible-to-skip 30 second ad before you actually watch the feature video, only to discover that the feature video is only 15 seconds long and totally uninteresting, anyway!  Here’s a great article decrying the way the internet is destroying itself with its ever more intrusive advertising.

Now, how many ads do you get in your Travel Insider newsletters?  When have you ever had a video ad assault your senses on a Travel Insider web page?  When have we every split a short article over a dozen pages?  None, not at all, and never!

But there’s a reason why these new types of intrusive advertisements are becoming close to universal.  Ordinary ads no longer work well or pay well.  My Google advertising income has steadily dropped all the way from $6,000 a month (almost ten years ago) down now to a mere $350 a month.  This is also a measure on how much I value protecting your experience and keeping it friendly and positive for you.  But is this valuable to you?  If you value the clean uninterrupted experience, please help keep your Travel Insider reading free of offensive advertising – please become a supporter and send in whatever you feel to be a fair level of assistance.

One of our super supporters wrote in with a helpful suggestion.  John said

David, I entirely agree with everything you say about the value of The Travel Insider, which is why I’m happy to be sending in my support again this year.  Of course it is fair to consider your weekly newsletter as being of much greater value than a taxi tip or a cup of coffee.

But, for many of your readers, the problem might be that while no-one notices a dollar or two a week, when that becomes single lump sums of $50, $100 and more, once a year, it is harder to justify.  Why not suggest they join your monthly or quarterly supporter program?

John has a point, doesn’t he.  I’ve myself chosen to do things like support the local free classical radio station by way of monthly payments, because for sure, it is easier to ‘not notice’ a small sum each month than to digest a three figure sum once a year.

Did you know that instead of a single lump sum, you can choose to have a Paypal/Credit Card automatic transfer of your chosen amount of support – from as little as $5, and up to a still not-too-impactful $25, sent in every month or quarter?  There’s a single button to click to cancel payments at any time too, so you’re not trapped into one of those nightmarish arrangements that are impossible to stop.  Maybe this would be helpful to you (and therefore to me!) too.

Full details of this, and of course, the other ways you can send in your support too, here.

Supporters received an updated version of one of their special reports this week – if you’re a current supporter, you can go back to your special supporter page to get a new version of the Streaming Video Player review.  It has now grown to eight pages and includes more Roku tips and a discussion on the new Apple TV 4K units.

There is a 98% chance that, as you read this, you’ve not yet become a supporter.  Of course, if you have, feel deservedly smug and pat yourself on the back, but if you’ve not yet done so, may I ask you to now please consider doing so.  Whether you choose $5/month, or any other amount, or whether you send in a single payment, also in any amount at all, your help is truly needed and very much appreciated.

———-

I’m hoping we have another couple about to join us on our Danube River Christmas Cruise in December, and there are some more people in the planning stages of expecting to join next year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain too.

There’s still room for you, on both tours, although with us now only just over two months before the Christmas Cruise, it is probably getting fairly close to being a good time to now decide to come join us on that one!

———-

What else this week?  Two articles, showcasing the two different sides of The Travel Insider, both of which you hopefully enjoy and appreciate.  Although more generic tech than travel tech, the first article shares the surprising discovery I made, and a simple cure to what I’d thought was an incurable limitation of USB connected devices.

And, the other side of my focus is a piece that struggles to politely contain my astonishment at the Dept of Commerce’s decision this week that Bombardier’s CS100 planes should be subjected to a 220% import duty.  From my perspective, there’s not a single good thing about this, and just a slew of losers, all around the world, starting with the US itself, all likely to suffer negative outcomes from the impact of this astonishing decision.

So, another week offering you a valuable tip to improve your experience with your electronics, and another week of fearlessly telling it like it is, plus the assortment of other items below.  Does that have any value to you?  If so, please provide your needed support to that of your fellow Travel Insiders, hurry us to our goal, and keep your Friday newsletters flowing.

And now, hopefully with you feeling particularly pleased with yourself for having become a supporter, please continue reading for :

  • It is Time to Give the 787 a Passing Grade
  • United’s Understatement of the Week
  • Airline Boom?  Or Airline Bust?
  • Airline Wi-Fi, Delta Texting
  • What We’ve Always Suspected – Pilots Leave Us in a Hot Cabin to Save Money
  • A Trio of Supersonic Stories
  • Air Travel Taxes – Shooting at Sitting Ducks
  • The Lie of ‘We’re Helping You to Go Through Immigration Faster’
  • The US Navy Fires Another of Its Admirals
  • Twitter’s Pending Present to President Trump?
  • And Lastly This Week….

It is Time to Give the 787 a Passing Grade

Boeing’s 787 development program is a classic case of a big company doing almost everything possible wrong, of missing every deadline and breaking every promise, with an explosion in costs and delays such as to make it unclear if the company will ever get to the right side of that financial eight-ball (some analysts estimate that even with the 1,278 orders the plane has received to date, the program is still showing an overall loss with development costs not yet recovered).

Of course, the battery fire problems were a terrible example of short-sightedness, and when you added the innovative nature of the materials used for some of the plane’s construction, and the rush to give it the maximum ETOPS certification, I felt it prudent to avoid the plane, something I’ve successfully done for the almost exactly six years since its first flight on 26 October, 2011.

But after the early problems, even I have to accept the plane has flown regularly, reliably, and safely, and Boeing this week announced a new milestone achieved – one million flights, and 2.5 billion miles flown.  They made a jazzy short video to celebrate this achievement.

And – you know what?  Not only is it getting harder to avoid the plane, but I’m no longer going to do so.  I’ll now be pleased to fly a 787.

United’s Understatement of the Week

United is cutting back on where it sells its Basic Economy fares.  These were the lowest fares with the least inclusions.  They didn’t include seat preassignments, you boarded last, and you had actual enforced limits on your cabin baggage.

The only thing worse than airlines ‘sticking it to us’ are the passengers with enormous senses of entitlement who think they can ignore the rules of fares and do whatever they wish, and who think that if confronted, the best response is to bluster and bludgeon rather than to apologize and comply.  It seems United has at least its fair share of such passengers, and when suddenly told at the gate that they can no longer take ridiculous amounts of items on as free carry-ons, things become a bit fraught.  Indeed, this article quotes a United source as describing the boarding process by saying “It’s become a circus”.

The implications of no preassigned seating are, unsurprisingly, that people traveling together quite likely will not be seated together.  Instead, one person gets a middle seat somewhere, and the other person gets another middle seat, somewhere a long way away.

However, it seems that families traveling together, particularly with younger children, feel that as of right they are entitled to be granted an exception to United’s rules.  Yes, they are expecting an airline with compassion.  They have been disappointed.  Which brings me to the understatement :

Couples and families with small children flying Basic Economy are another big problem.  They have not always responded well to the news they may not be able to be seated together….  [my emphasis]

Airline Boom?  Or Airline Bust?

Last week there was a spate of articles talking about the latest airfare war and the negative impacts it would have (was having) on airline earnings, in particular, American Airlines.

This week, we’re being told that American Airlines ‘could be a first-class investment’.

So what changed in a week?  How is it that often extremely highly paid airline industry analysts have such enormously divergent opinions of the exact same airline?

Airline Wi-Fi, Delta Texting

Here’s a short but moderately helpful article giving summaries of the major US carriers’ policies and charges for in-flight Wi-Fi.

And good news for Delta passengers.  As of 1 October, it seems you’ll be able to send free text messages, from anywhere in the world, on Delta flights.

What We’ve Always Suspected – Pilots Leave Us in a Hot Cabin to Save Money

How often have you found yourself in an appallingly hot and stuffy airplane cabin, sometimes for half an hour or more.  If you’re very lucky, there might be a trickle of air coming out of the overhead vents, but it is ambient temperature air, changing neither the temperature nor humidity.

Maybe you even ask to have some air conditioning turned on, and maybe you’ll be given a story about how it is not possible due to <insert any made up reason at random here>.

But the truth of the matter?  The airline and its pilots are probably just choosing to save money.  It costs money to have an a/c tender truck brought to the plane, and it costs money to run the plane’s Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) to generate the power to operate the plane’s own a/c units.

The airlines don’t like to admit this, but as part of the ugly arguments between Ryanair and its pilots, a pilot deliberately leaked the part of their flight manual that tells them not to run the a/c unless temperatures become very hot indeed.

Actually, it seems Ryanair is more merciful than many US carriers.  I’ve guessed temperatures to be the wrong side of 90° at times in US planes, with nothing being done to start the a/c, just more lies about why it can’t be done, or fragile promises that it will be started really soon now, just as soon as the door closes.

A Trio of Supersonic Stories

For some people, the glory days of travel were back in the 1950s or 1960s.  We wore suits, enjoyed spacious seating, great food and friendly service.

For others, the glory days of travel were from 1976 – 2003, this being the 27 years during which the Concordes flew.  While the planes were cramped inside, and the windows tiny, no amount of spacious ‘first class suite’ in an A380 can compensate for shooting through the sky at just over twice the speed of sound, Mach 2.02/1340 mph, and at 55,000 ft – so high up you can see the curvature of the earth below, and the dark of space above.

Ever since the tragic and unnecessary withdrawal of the highly profitable planes in 2003, there have been a steady stream of stories of new supersonic planes under development, but almost 15 years later, none of them have come anywhere close to reality.  Naysayers claim it is impossible to ever return to supersonic travel, because the planes are impractically expensive and unavoidably noisy.  They’re wrong on both points.

There have been tantalizing glimpses of new plane designs with amazing reductions in sonic booms, and of new planes promising enormous improvements in fuel economy.  But, nothing yet you can go to your local airport and catch a ride on.

At the same time, the US Air Force’s amazing SR-71 plane, which entered service in 1966, also was retired, back in 1999.  It is believed to have been the fastest plane, ever, with an officially stated maximum speed of 2200 mph, but many of us believe its true maximum speed was appreciably faster.  (As an aside, the well-known U-2 ‘spy plane’, introduced in 1957 and still in service today, is a relatively slow-moving plane, incapable of even exceeding 500 mph, slower than most passenger jets.)

Rumors have long existed of a replacement to the SR-71, but nothing has ever been officially acknowledged.

So, with that as background, three supersonic themed articles :

A look at the Soviet equivalent of the Concorde, the TU-144 :  Stories persist that the reason for the very close similarity between the TU-144 and the Concorde is due to the Soviets stealing the Concorde plans.  And more stories suggest that the British and French knew about the espionage, and arranged for deliberately faulty plans to be stolen, therefore ensuring the TU-144 would not be a success, and leading to at least one of its two crashes.  (There are more rumors about other factors that may have contributed to the Paris crash, too….)  Never mind the rumors, this article is a fascinating look at the TU-144, including some details I never knew before – in particular, a suggestion that the airplane interior was so noisy passengers had to communicate by writing notes on paper to each other!

Progress on a Mini-Concorde Successor :  The original Concorde was small and only seated 100 passengers, in rows of seats two either side of a single aisle, and with a fairly tight seat pitch (38″).  One of the many potential successors to Concorde promises to be even smaller, with seating for only 22 passengers.  Yes, there’s sure to be quite a premium attached to the cost of tickets on that plane!  This story simply reports that the company developing the ‘Spike’ plane is planning to start tests of scale models of their proposed plane, which will fly at subsonic speeds.  I’ve no idea how testing a scale model at subsonic speeds is actually an achievement or step closer to a full-sized supersonic jet, but the company itself seems pleased and proud with its ‘progress’.  Deliveries of the final plane are expected from 2023.  Anyone care to take a wager with me on that – I’ve a dollar that says ‘no way’!

Some SR-71 Replacement Rumors :  For a long time, there were rumors of an SR-71 successor called the Aurora.  Now there are rumors of a successor called the SR-72.  To me, the most interesting part of this article, which is necessarily light on facts, is the apparent acknowledgement that if such a plane is in some stage of development or deployment, it is probably a type of plane in which pilots are optional rather than essential.  It is suggested the new plane would be ‘hypersonic’ which requires a different type of jet engine technology, and would travel very much faster than even the SR-71 – perhaps 3500 mph, ie more than Mach 5.

We also regularly read ridiculous articles about hypersonic speed passenger jets, but there’s only one use for that type of technology, and that’s getting bombs very quickly from Point A to far-away Point B.

Air Travel Taxes – Shooting at Sitting Ducks

Much as we might find the airlines generally unsympathetic and ill-deserving of sympathy, and much as they feel exactly the same of us, there are times when our purposes are conjoined.  Like, for example, the rapacious nature of governments the world over to charge more and more and more to people for the simple act of traveling.

One example is the appalling greed of the British government.  Their Air Passenger Duty (APD) fee started off seemingly acceptably with a £5 charge on shorter flights and £10 on longer ones, back in 1994.  Interesting, air fares have more or less stayed the same between then and now, but not so the APD fee.  Now, on flights over 2,000 miles, you can find yourself paying £73 if you’re in coach class and a staggering £146 if you’re in business or first class ($98.50 or $197).  What do passengers get in return for that fee?  Ummm, nothing at all.

So, think of this.  Air fares have stayed more or less the same, passenger numbers, in round figures have doubled, and this gratuitous government fee has increased 7.3 times.  With the doubling of passenger numbers too, the British government is collecting about 15 times more in fees than it did in 1994, while still providing exactly the same services in return to travelers – utterly absolutely nothing.

Or, think of this.  An airline might charge $500 – 750 for a coach fare to/from Britain that is over 2,000 miles of travel.  The airline probably makes a net profit of perhaps 5% on that fare – say somewhere in the $20 – 40 range.  But the British government makes a net profit of $98.50 – two to five times as much as the airline.

The airline has to do all the ‘heavy lifting’ of arranging the flights and everything that goes on with that, and has to accept the risk of a loss as well as hope for the possibility of a profit.  The British government does nothing (the airlines even do the fee collecting/remitting for them), risks nothing, and only ever profits.  Is that fair?

Or, yet another thought.  Airlines hate the fee.  Airports hate the fee.  Passengers hate the fee.  But the only change that happens is the fee continues to soar, ever higher.  Details here.

This is not to suggest that other governments are not also guilty of extorting money from people who wish to fly in, out, or around their countries.  Looking more broadly at Europe in general, and for the ten-year period 2006 – 2016, the portion of an airline ticket that goes to passenger taxes has doubled, and airport fees have also increased, both as a portion of the average ticket price and in absolute terms.  Details here.

The perplexing truth is that governments seem to have identified airline passengers as a never-ending source of new revenue; a source of revenue that often comes from non-voters, and which entails no matching obligations to provide associated services or benefits.

Politicians love to campaign on the promise of lowering taxes for whichever group it is they’re speaking to.  But when have you ever heard any politician offer to lower air travel taxes?  Isn’t it about time that we ask our politicians to stop charging us fees when there are not fairly matching services alongside those fees.

The Lie of ‘We’re Helping You to Go Through Immigration Faster’

Talking about fees we get no benefit from, the same people who regularly tell us they’re from the government and here to help us, have been boasting of a new phone app that will ‘streamline’ our arrival process when we return to the US.  It will reduce wait times without compromising border security, we are told.

Well, that’s all wonderful.  It is perhaps also true.  But it obscures other issues and realities.

First, why are there shameful delays to go through US Immigration and Customs in the first place?  We – as American citizens or permanent residents – never get to experience the extended delays which other visitors are subjected to upon arriving in the US, and noting also this phone app is only available to US and Canadian citizens, we’re actually not the people who will benefit the most from it.

The reason there are shameful delays is two-fold.  First, and obviously apparent to every arriving passenger who faces a sea of empty unmanned booths in the immigration hall, because there are insufficient Customs & Border Patrol officers on duty to provide decent service to arriving visitors.  Keep in mind that every US arriving passenger pays dearly for the privilege of their ‘inspection’ upon arrival, with fees added to their airline ticket.  There’s a regularly increased ‘international arrival tax’ currently of $18 (and a twin international departure tax, also of $18, even though you’ll probably not see a single CBP person when you leave).  There’s a federal security segment tax of  $5.60 per sector flown, including flights departing the US.  There’s a $5.50 Customs fee, a $7 immigration fee, and a $5 Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service fee.

So the government is directly collecting $35 and up from every arriving passenger, and another $23.60 and up from every departing passenger.  Shouldn’t that buy us, in return, a decent experience and minimal wait times?  The government admits it makes a profit from these fees, which is surely not what government fees are expected to do.  How about simply spending the money they collect from us on the things for which it is claimed to be collected for.

The second reason for the delays?  Because the entry process into the US is more complicated than most other countries.  Most countries in the world don’t require us to fill out a landing/arrival card, and most won’t ask us any questions and simply wave us through (this includes countries such as China, Russia and even North Korea); many European countries don’t even bother to stamp our passports.

It should be demonstrably obvious to all that the US is no more under threat from muslim terrorism these days than many other countries.  And similarly, the ‘interview’ given to arriving visitors coming into the US seems more designed just to make people feel unwanted and unwelcome rather than to effectively root out any terrorists.

Why do we have to be the rudest and most unwelcoming country of all?

But, back to the ‘benefit’ of this new phone app.  All it does is shift more of the work from them to us.  It requires us to key in an-impossible-to-understand set of duplicate data that seems to serve no purpose at all.  They already know our name, address, date of birth, travel itinerary, and more other details than we’d ever suspect, from the information the airlines have given them, the information from our passports and our passport applications, other ‘shared’ information from other government services, and possibly also ‘data mining’ through external commercial data collection agencies.

We’re supposed to be appreciative that we now have to tap away at our phone screens to provide the CBP people with information they already have from multiple sources?  Apparently, yes we are.  Just keep reminding yourself – they’re from the government and they’re here to help us.

The US Navy Fires Another of Its Admirals

Okay, so four ship collisions in a short period of time – in any period of time – is a bad thing.  But just how much ritual debasement must the US Navy engage in before enough is enough?

I’d half joked last week that the people doing the firing better be careful, or else the firing might creep up to their own levels too.  Many a true word spoken in jest, and now this week we learn of a four star Admiral who has decided to take retirement after being advised that his expected promotion will not now be forthcoming.

It is commendable to see accountability and consequences.  But ‘the buck stops here’ concept seems to be totally misunderstood.  The buck isn’t stopping anywhere, merely briefly pausing before bouncing on and on.  Who will be next to go?

How can so many senior commanders all be deemed so culpable as to be either summarily fired or gently let go?  Is the US Navy confessing that rather than some isolated ship-level shortcomings, there is a massive problem throughout their entire Pacific Fleet?  Does it really need to continue this gratuitous ritual embarrassment in public?  Details here.

Twitter’s Pending Present to President Trump?

One of Twitter’s distinctive features has been its 140 character limit on how much text can be sent as a ‘tweet’.  There’s never been any underlying genuine reason for its existence, and similarly it has always been a limit that could be changed at any time if the company chose to do so.

It has already made various changes to how it ‘counts’ the 140 characters to liberalize the amount of text, but the traditionalists in particular have vociferously objected to suggestions the 140 character limit should be greatly increased.

I’ve always suspected that some of the most hyper-active users of Twitter secretly like the 140 character limit.  While it is impossible to say anything profound, moving, or particularly sensible in 140 characters, it is also difficult, although, as is sometimes vividly demonstrated, not impossible to say anything too stupid either.  Ideal for politicians – they can have an annoying presence without having to actually say anything.

Twitter has now announced it is trialing an extension of the size limit from 140 characters to 280 characters.  It will allow a selected group of users to make use of the new feature before deciding if it should be more broadly enabled or not.

No word on whether our President will be one of the favored early test users.  Details here.

And to put those limits into perspective, this newsletter is right around 28,000 characters.

And Lastly This Week….

The problem with the sign depicted at the top of the newsletter?  The sign, well-known in New Zealand, is to be found just south of Bluff, at the foot of New Zealand’s South Island, and has been there for decades, occasionally being updated/replaced.  But only recently has an observant tourist noticed that some of the indicator boards are pointing in the wrong directions – for example, the wide variation in angle between the signs to Cape Reinga (on the left) and Wellington (on the right) should actually be very narrow.  Some of the distances are wrong, too.  Ooops.  Details here.

Here’s an example of an article that takes 24 web pages to tell you what could be contained in one.  But, in truth, the UK Daily Telegraph website is far from the worst site out there, and it is an interesting topic – “24 fascinating things you didn’t know about your passport“.

So, have you enjoyed the newsletter again this week – and keep in mind there are still two more feature articles to follow.

If you feel you’ve received some pleasure, some amusement, some knowledge, and/or some value, please would you too ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and join the current 186 of your fellow Travel Insiders and help support us in our efforts to give you some Friday morning enlightenment, information, advice, and amusement.

And truly lastly this week, as a final desperate attempt to curry favor with you and to encourage you to help out in this year’s fundraising drive, here’s a slightly strange story of how owls like me.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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