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David Rowell

David Rowell

You can see an extensive mini-bio about me here http://www.thetravelinsider.info/info/about.htm And here's a Google Plus link : Google

Jan 132017
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Hiding from the upcoming Trump presidency?  Or seeking peace and quiet on your next flight?  The Ostrich pillow – see the last item, below.

Good morning

Ugh – a Black Friday.  Let’s hope the superstition (Friday the 13th is held by some to be an unlucky day in general and particularly for travel related activities) doesn’t impact on any of us today.

Our Scotland tour is now two people short of full.  So if you’re thinking about a lovely journey of discovery around the islands and highlands of western Scotland, please do quickly let me know if you’ll choose to join us.

And our New Zealand tour for Oct/Nov has already had six people sign up.  I’ve been seeing some good airfares to New Zealand as of late, so maybe this is the year you either finally get to travel to my lovely home country, or the year you return back again for another visit.

Please read on for :

  • Reader Survey Results – Babies in First Class
  • More on Emirates
  • Europe’s Largest Airline?
  • BA Now Charges for All Food and Drink on Under 5 Hour Flights
  • A New Way of Describing a Cancelled Flight
  • Southwest Airlines – The World’s 12th Most Innovative Company in 2016?
  • Growing Impact on Hotels by Airbnb
  • New Presidential Limos to Debut at Inauguration
  • Responses to and Outcomes of the Florida Airport Shooting
  • One of the Big Benefits of Self-Driving Cars
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results – Babies in First Class

Last week you were asked if babies should be allowed to travel in first class.  There were three possible responses – yes, always; no, never; and ‘only if they are well behaved’.

With the benefit of hindsight, I should have also asked you to describe whether you are someone who regularly flies in first class or not.  Only afterwards did I realize that those who fly in first class might perceive this issue very differently from those in coach class!

The results showed a definite lack of consensus as to the most appropriate way of addressing the challenge of traveling with infants.

Slightly more people said ‘No’ than said ‘Yes’, and noting the conditional nature of the 37% ‘only if good’ responses (and wondering how many of the ‘Yes’ votes are from people in coach class not wanting even more babies in coach class), it might be argued that the ‘No’ vote is slightly more strongly expressed than the unconditional ‘Yes’ vote.

Does that mean that the airlines have yet again misjudged public opinion?  Quite possibly so.

More on Emirates

Last week I expressed surprise and a measure of concern about Emirates’ “stumble” in its last fiscal year, with its first ever decline in gross revenue.  To be fair, that decline in gross revenue was accompanied by a rise in net profit, so it is way too soon to start forecasting the airline’s demise.  Some readers wrote in to point out areas where Emirates is massively better than competitors, even if their routings aren’t quite as convenient – lower fares and better service, and, for some secondary cities, better routings.

The reason for last week’s commentary was building on a couple of articles that had appeared elsewhere; this week there’s another article to consider as well, which is much more sunny and optimistic in its commentary.  I agree with most of its analysis, and the financial data it highlights is very obviously very positive.

But the one thing I stumble over is the writer’s strange assertion that if Emirates does find itself with too many many planes and too few passengers, it would be easy for Emirates to simply park some planes for a while and not use them.  Well, yes, it would certainly be easy to park the planes, but this would not be financially convenient.  Planes still cost money to own (or to lease) whether you fly them or not.

In any event, Emirates is a very long way from needing to do that, and it also seems from the article’s schedule of airplane deliveries and potential airplane retirements that Emirates’ period of most frenetic fleet growth may be ending, better allowing it to adjust to slower passenger growth.

What I found astonishing was this comment in the article :

If one compares the Emirates’ cost per transported tonne kilometer of passengers with that for a major competitor on the worldwide long-haul market, the Emirates cost would be $0.36 per TKM versus $0.70 for British Airways during the 2015/16 period.

That is an almost unbelievable difference in cost.  Sure, it helps to operate modern planes and not be restricted by union work practices, but even so, to enjoy a cost base half that of BA is extraordinary.

What will be very interesting is seeing what happens to the second hand A380 planes that may start appearing in the next year or two from Emirates and possibly Singapore Airlines (the first two airlines to receive the planes, in 2007 and 2008), and/or if either/both airlines choose to keep the planes in service for longer than normal.

Europe’s Largest Airline?

Claims to be the ‘largest’ airline are made by many different airlines, as are more meaningless statements such as the ‘most popular’ or ‘the friendliest’ or whatever other nonsense an airline’s marketing department can dream up.

The devil is in the details of course, and in the case of claiming to be the ‘largest’ airline, the big unexplained asterisk that should appear alongside that claim is how the concept of ‘largest’ is defined and measured.  Does the claimant mean most revenue, most profit, most capitalization, most employees, most destinations, most airplanes, most flights operated, most passengers, most passenger miles flown, most airplane miles flown, or something else?

In the case of Europe (itself a fairly vague concept – are we measuring only flights within Europe, and if we are, which countries comprise Europe?), and in the case of ‘most passengers flown in the last calendar year’, that title has been passed from former leader, Lufthansa, and now has been convincingly claimed by Ryanair.  In 2016, Lufthansa struggled to record a 1.8% increase in passengers (probably would have been better with fewer strikes) and came in with a total of 110 million passengers.  Ryanair had another great year, and with a 15% growth in passenger numbers, streaked on past LH to end the year reporting 117 million passengers flown.

Ryanair has announced plans to start flying from Frankfurt this coming summer, so is definitely taking the battle to Lufthansa’s home turf.

BA Now Charges for All Food and Drink on Under 5 Hour Flights

BA and the rest of its IAG collection of airlines came third on the list of largest European carriers (with 101 million), so perhaps has its eyes set on winning this claim.  But the airline may have misunderstood Ryanair’s formula for success.  While it is true ‘you don’t get nothing for nothing’ on Ryanair, someone should send BA a memo suggesting that by adopting Ryanair’s passenger service model and ceasing to offer any free food and drink on all their flights lasting less than about five hours, this will not actually help BA to grow its passenger numbers or encourage Ryanair passengers to fly BA instead.

Effective this week, even a cup of tea or coffee will cost £2.30 (a bit under $3) on BA, and you’ll need a credit card to pay for it.  Cash is not accepted.

A New Way of Describing a Cancelled Flight

Talking about BA, it had a two day strike this week by some of its cabin crew which fortunately saw only limited flight disruptions.

But instead of referring to cancelled flights, BA came out with a delightful new term.  It was not cancelling flights, oh no.  Instead, it was ‘merging flights’.

Happily, the cabin crew weren’t striking about the need to now collect payment for serving food and drink.  Unlike Aer Lingus, where the airline’s cabin crew are due to shortly hold a ballot to authorize strike action as a result of the airline increasing the number of times the food and drink trolleys would go up and down the aisles, selling food and drinks, on trans-Atlantic flights.

I’ve always wondered – what do the cabin crew do when they’re not in the aisles?  I understand there is a certain amount of time needed to stock/restock their trolleys, but whenever I wander around on a long flight, I invariably see one or two crew members sitting in the galleys and chatting, doing nothing else; and the rest of the crew all vanished away to their private rest areas.

Southwest Airlines – The World’s 12th Most Innovative Company in 2016?

The Boston Consulting Group is one of the world’s most prestigious management consultancy companies.  They’ve been doing an annual survey of senior management to determine each year’s ranking of the world’s most innovative companies since 2005, and have just released their 2016 rankings.

It was a surprising list.  Apple came in at the first place.  But, you know, I bet you can’t name a single innovative thing Apple did in 2016.  Sure, it spends a lot on R&D and sure, in the past, it has delivered some wonderfully innovative products.  But this ranking is an annual ranking of the most innovative companies based on what the companies have done during the previous twelve months, not a lifetime ranking.  How did Apple qualify as the most innovative company – a position it has held every year since the study commenced in 2005?

Google came in second place, where it has consistently been for all but two of the 11 years reported, and Tesla third for the second year in a row.  It is again difficult to think of innovations from either of them in 2016.  What new things did Google give us in 2016?  As for Tesla, it is interesting to contrast its position at number 3 with General Motors at 27th place.  Unlike Tesla, GM truly did innovate by not merely announcing but actually delivering an affordable electric car in 2016.

Microsoft was fourth, and perhaps it deserves some credit, and Amazon came in fifth place (I’d have pushed it higher – particularly its web services are revolutionizing the way more and more companies use computing resources).

Astonishing, the twelfth most innovative company was deemed to be Southwest Airlines, returning to the Top 50 list after seven years of (deserved) absence.  Maybe I missed something, but what acts of innovation did Southwest launch last year?  New planes?  Nope, just the same old, same old, 737s.  New routes?  Probably one or two, but nowhere earth-shattering or innovative.  New fares and customer service policies?  Not that you’d notice.

Southwest not only outscored companies such as Hewlett-Packard, it also outscored Uber (number 17), which has been releasing new tweaks and enhancements to its product/service range on a steady pace all last year, and Airbnb which is revolutionizing accommodation (number 21).  No other airlines made the list at all.

There’s something very strange with this list.

Growing Impact on Hotels by Airbnb

Talking about Airbnb, the “stay in someone’s spare bedroom” internet accommodation booking service is growing in leaps and bounds, and starting to impact on regular hotel occupancy levels.  A recent report suggests that in 2015, 12% (one in eight) travelers were using Airbnb, and in 2016, that number had increased to 18% – almost one in five.

That sounds ridiculously high, even when read as ‘18% of travelers report having used Airbnb at least once in the last 12 months’.  Here is some earlier data for 2015 that certainly doesn’t support the 12% number for 2015.  Of particular interest in this older report is that Airbnb nightly rates are often higher than hotel rates, but they may include ‘extras’ that hotels don’t – free parking, and other home amenities.  But if people are willing to pay a premium to avoid a hotel stay, that would be something that should scare hotel operators.

The funniest part of the first report is the table showing that not only are some people paying premium rates to stay with strangers to avoid hotels, but more than one in three people say that they have chosen to stay at an Airbnb property rather than stay with friends and family!

New Presidential Limos to Debut at Inauguration

The new Air Force One replacement planes are not due out until perhaps 2025 – certainly after the end of the Trump presidency, assuming they proceed as currently scheduled.  But Mr Trump does get something new next week when the Secret Service roll out, for the first time, the new Presidential Limousine.  These are replaced more frequently than the planes, with the current vehicles having first made their appearance for Mr Obama’s inauguration in 2009.  It is thought there might be as many as 12 of the current series of vehicles.

They’re not as expensive as the planes, but that’s not to say they are inexpensive.  As of this time last year, public records show that GM had been paid $15.8 million so far for work on the new series of vehicles, known popularly as ‘The Beast’.

The current vehicles have 5″ thick armor plate windows, 8″ thick doors, run-flat tires, a completely sealed internal environment to protect against gas attack, rocket-propelled grenades, night vision, a tear-gas cannon, and multi-spectrum smoke grenades to foil RPGs, anti-tank missiles, and other heat-seeking IR-sensor equipped devices.  It is thought to have a maximum speed of 60 mph due to its weight which has been guessed to be in the 15,000 – 20,000 lb range, and gets 4 – 8 mpg.

Little or nothing is known of the new model vehicles, but it is thought they will be based on a Cadillac Escalade design.  They have been under development since 2014.

Responses to and Outcomes of the Florida Airport Shooting

You’ve doubtless read about the man who lawfully carried a firearm in his checked baggage from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale.  Upon arriving in FLL and collecting his bag from the carousel, he apparently took it into a toilet, extracted his firearm, loaded it, went out into the baggage claim area and shot a bunch of travelers before being subdued by police, arrested, and placed into custody.

But you probably don’t know the name of the shooter.  He was quickly identified as Esteban Santiago, a mentally-ill Army veteran.  But calling him by this name is surprising, because he changed the name he wished to be known by in 2007, before joining the Army, to Aashiq Hammad.  Yes, he had converted to muslimism; not altogether surprising when one sights a photo of him that was featured without comment in some of the articles, showing him wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh and making an ISIS salute.

However, this is merely an incidental point.

Gun control advocates rushed to use this shooting as a reason to reconsider the concept of screening passengers before they enter airports.  But, can anyone explain how adding more screening at airport entrances would have prevented this tragedy?  The man lawfully took a firearm into the airport, lawfully checked it to FLL, claimed his bag there, and only at that point, while already inside an airport, did he then go off the rails.

As an interesting aside, it is illegal, in FL but not in every other state, to bring firearms into the public non-secure parts of their airports.  There are moves underway in the FL legislature to allow concealed weapon permit holders to carry their firearms with them in airports, the same as is the case in many but not all other airports in the country.

There is an interesting unexpected outcome to the tragedy.  The affected airport areas were of course hastily evacuated by passengers, and apparently with more alacrity than passengers display when evacuating a plane in an emergency.  I say that because most passengers seem to have left their luggage behind – this report says there are 25,000 items waiting to be matched and re-united with passengers as a result.  Quite a few people, in their excitement, even left their ID in the airport.

One of the Big Benefits of Self-Driving Cars

Well, there are so many benefits of self driving cars of course, but one which is often overlooked is mentioned in this article – the ability for cars to follow each other more closely and to drive more ‘rationally’ without those mysterious slowdowns that happen on freeways for no reason (and without rubber-necking when going past interesting activity on the side of the road either).

The article says that self-driving cars could ‘cut road traffic by 40%’ – it is hard to know what that really means, but it goes on to say there would be a 31% reduction in urban journey times during peak hours, and a 4% reduction on freeways and highways.  I’m surprised by the mere 4% reduction on freeways, but delighted at the 31% reduction on surface streets.

Not mentioned in the article but contained in the original research is another equally valuable benefit.  Not only would travel times reduce, but they would become more reliable and predictable.  It is almost as annoying to plan for bad traffic and then get somewhere ‘too early’; making travel times more predictable allows us to more efficiently plan our schedules.

And Lastly This Week….

I’ve been talking a bit about the Amazon Echo product – the gadget that responds to voice commands.  You say ‘Alexa…..’ adding on whatever you wish after the initial command/wake word ‘Alexa’ to activate the unit.  Both my daughter and I are increasingly enjoying our units.

Well, Anna is apparently not the only young lady to have an Amazon Echo, and while Anna has been very imaginative at configuring her Echo to do all sorts of things that I didn’t know about, another young girl has been even more imaginative, and discovered that if she asked Alexa for certain gifts, then a day or two later, they would magically arrive, courtesy of Amazon.

This story was widely reported on television news programs.  But – when the various anchors told the story, in some cases, people watching/listening to the story on their television had an Echo unit in the same room, and when it heard the anchor repeating what the girl had said, the unit obediently did as requested and also ordered the same things.  Ooops.

Reader Doug responded to my comment about a bizarre new type of travel pillow with two others that are also not mainstream – the GoSleep and the Ostrich pillow (pictured above).  Neither he nor I are necessarily recommending either, but in case you’re on the lookout for a travel pillow with a difference, well, there you are.

I’ll now disclose a small and formerly guilty secret.  On occasion, I’ve been known to enjoy a mid afternoon nap – particularly if I’ve had a ridiculously short amount of sleep the night before.  Well, after reading this article, I no longer feel guilty.  Oh – I sometimes use my travel pillow to just nap at my desk on such occasions.  Perhaps an Ostrich pillow might be a good idea….

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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Jan 062017
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We can’t guarantee making the front page of the local paper again this year, but we can offer you a wonderful tour of NZ.

Good morning

And welcome to 2017, with a nice big ‘meaty’ newsletter to get the year off to a great start.  I’m still getting used to typing a ‘7’ for 2017 rather than a 6 (or 5….).  Time passes ever more quickly – and, for sure, the faster that the rest of winter passes, the better for us all.

I have two exciting and positive things to share.

First, I have managed to get a larger coach for our Scotland tour.  It was a 38 seater, and now will be a 49 seater, with two doors rather than one.  I feel that would allow us to grow our group size to perhaps 30 or so, without overloading ourselves or the coach (Travel Insider tours never have full coaches).  So we can accept another few people for the June Scotland’s Islands and Highlands Tour; a tour that has become astonishingly popular remarkably quickly.  Let me know if you’d like to join a lovely group of 25 Travel Insiders on this great tour.

Second, we now have our New Zealand Epicurean Extravaganza tour for October/November fully published and available for you to join as well.  It has a couple of further ‘tweaks’ from the tour we did just a couple of months back, including a much requested two night stay at the end of the tour, where we stay in enormous and luxurious bungalows in a lovely rural setting, on the fringes of the tiny town of Martinborough.  This tour just keeps getting better every time we do it, and it would be great to welcome you on this tour to my home country, in their glorious spring.

There’s more about the NZ tour at the end of today’s newsletter.

I wrote last week about people abusing the concept of service animals.  On 1 January, it became a crime in Colorado to misrepresent a pet as a service animal.  And a person involved in mental health issues wrote to say that he did a review of bogus accreditation services a while back and found more than 30 online sites selling service animal credentials based on nothing more substantial than receipt of a fee.

I also heard from another reader pointing out that she suffers from dog allergies, but was forced to be next to a person with a dog on a flight – that person’s right to a ‘service animal’ (she says the dog was curiously untrained for service animals) apparently eclipses her right to travel in a harm-free environment.

Colorado’s example should be expanded to the federal stage.  It should be illegal to misrepresent pets as service animals everywhere, and there should be a formal process, similar to what one does to get a disabled parking sticker, to get some sort of license for a specific identified service animal.  The formal process would involve a health care professional confirming the bona fide need for a service animal, and a pet certifier of some sort confirming the pet has a certain amount of training in terms of general behavior in public and in terms of the specific service needs required by the owner.  If you’re close to our incoming President, perhaps you could recommend this to him as part of his first 100 days of achievements!

There is another type of companion for some people which other people sometimes also regard as a nuisance and would seek to control.  I’m referring this time not to service animals but to children.  There was an interesting case this week – far from uncommon – where a couple boarded a plane with their nine month old infant, who shortly thereafter proceeded to not just whimper but to start ‘screaming crying’ (the mother’s own words).  Ugh.

The interesting twist on this scenario was the couple had paid to fly in first class.  Note that there was almost certainly no fee for their young infant, who would have been been allowed to fly for free if not taking up her own seat.  The ‘screaming crying’ apparently upset other first class passengers, who after ten minutes of this complained to a flight attendant who in turn asked the couple and their baby to move down to the back of the plane (in coach class).

The couple refused to move, and instead walked the infant up and down the aisles (spreading the screaming far and wide) and eventually rocked her to sleep.

So, let’s have a reader poll on this delicate social issue.  Should a first class ticket entitle its bearer to a quiet calm and largely adult environment – a bit like adult only cruises, resorts, and condo developments?  Or should a first class ticket entitle its bearer to bring free infants with them, no matter how much ‘screaming crying’ they might do?

Please click the answer that corresponds to your thought on this point.  It will send an empty email to me with your answer coded into the subject line.  I’ll report on the results next week.

First class should be a baby-free zone

Anyone should be allowed in first class, but if babies create a fuss, they should be asked to move out of first class

Babies should be allowed in first class, for free, no matter how they behave or how long and loud they cry

What else this week?  Please continue reading for :

  • Emirates – Vulnerable to a Trump Administration?
  • Who Decides Where to Divert a Flight?
  • The World’s Most Punctual Airlines and Airports
  • ‘For Your Convenience, We’ll Spy On You a Bit More’ on Carnival Cruises
  • Email Address Needed For a Canadian ETA
  • This Year’s CES
  • Tesla Update
  • And Lastly This Week….

Emirates – Vulnerable to a Trump Administration?

Here’s a mildly interesting example of shoe-horning a generic story about Emirates Airline into an attempt to make it seem relevant and topical by overlaying a suggestion that the Trump presidency might impact on Emirates’ ability to keep flying to the US.  Sure, it is easy to suggest that Mr Trump’s “American First” policy might favor US airlines and might even allow for a revival of their specious claim that they are facing unfair competition from Emirates and other similar airlines.  But that is far from Emirates’ biggest future challenge.

The article is also geographically challenged when it suggests that Dubai is the most efficient place on the planet to connect the US with India.  The most effective route between the US and India would be nonstop (it is about 8,500 miles, depending on the cities involved – a long distance but shorter than the longest flights currently operated).  Dubai is far from the best place for connections – it is at least 1,000 miles off the great circle route.

But the article’s claim that two thirds of everyone in the world can be reached within eight hours of flying from Dubai (ie about 4,500 miles) is definitely true because that arc includes all of China, India, Africa and Europe, and most of Indonesia.  However, the implication that Dubai is in the middle of this clustering of population, while semi-true, fails when it is extended by implication to suggest that Dubai is necessarily the most convenient hub for flights between any point in this 2/3 of the world’s population and any other point.

Clearly, no-one in India or China would choose to fly out of their country and over to Dubai before flying back to their country again.  Dubai’s “central point” is more illusory than real, and only comes into play in one increasingly marginal scenario – where people wish to fly between two points that has Dubai more or less sensibly along the flight path.

Why is this an increasingly marginal scenario?  Because airlines are preferring to avoid the hub and spoke model, and instead are preferring ‘long thin’ nonstop routes.  This is at the heart of the sales disappointment of the A380 – instead of airlines using the A380 as a tool to bulk up hub-to-hub routes, they have instead been using 777s and other smaller planes to fly long nonstop routes between secondary cities.

As lovely as the A380 is for its passengers, there is no dispute that when faced with a choice between a two leg flight through Dubai on A380 planes, or a nonstop flight direct to their destination on a 777 or 787 or A350, people will unhesitatingly choose the nonstop flight.  It is probably at least two hours faster, less hassle, and there’s less to potentially go wrong with the risk of missed flights, connection problems, and missing luggage.

Obscured within the very readable article, and which has plenty of fascinating facts and figures about the enormous growth and success of the Emirates phenomenon, is a passing mention of the airline suffering its first ever annual revenue decline in May last year – back at a time when all the ‘smart’ commentators were rolling on the floor with laughter at the possibility of Mr Trump winning the Presidency.

The real story that needs to be written is not one about possible future challenges from the Trump administration (which we guess to be unlikely).  Instead, it is to understand the reasons for the drop in revenue in Emirates’ previous year of operations, and the implications of ever-longer nonstop flights.

For example, one of Emirates’ prime markets is Australia to Europe.  Qantas has now announced plans to operate nonstop service, twice a day, between Perth and London, from March 2018, in a 236 passenger 787-9.  While it is a much longer journey (another 1200 miles or so) to go between Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane and London, there is now the potential for connecting traffic within Australia to hub through Perth rather than through Dubai (or Hong Kong or Singapore as is currently the case).  And while Dubai is reasonably on the way between much of India and much of Europe, the flight lengths are moderate (under 5,000 miles) and the enormous size of India’s cities are such that there is surely little need to funnel flights into/out of a concentrator hub.  All of such routes need to be considered at risk.

And what about China – the ‘wet dream’ of marketers, no matter what the product or service they wish to sell?  Can Emirates hope to endlessly expand into this enormous market?  China-Europe routes are moderately lengthy flights (extending sometimes to almost 6,000 miles) but the best routes go nowhere near Dubai and the major cities in China need no concentration through Dubai.  China-US and China-India goes nowhere near Dubai.

So we understand the question the article opens with – ‘Is Emirates Airline Running Out of Sky?’, but the real reason it may be doing so is nothing to do with our incoming new administration, and in four or eight years time, Emirates will find its problems steadily becoming more severe, no matter who succeeds Mr Trump or their aviation policies.

Who Decides Where to Divert a Flight?

‘The comfort and safety of our passengers is our number one priority’ – how often do you hear that lie trotted out, often in an attempt to excuse acts by airlines and their employees that seem designed to promote neither passenger comfort nor passenger safety?

The reason for pondering this issue is the strange case of a United Airlines flight that decided to divert to Auckland, New Zealand.  The flight was traveling from Sydney to San Francisco when a passenger on board became unruly and allegedly undertook a ‘racist rant’.  Curiously enough, the video of his ‘rant’ suggests to me that he was actually being totally reasonable in objecting to being sandwiched between two passengers who were flying together and therefore talking across him.  It was more a case of being baited by flight attendants who, by their bearing and non-response, decided to escalate the situation rather than defuse it.

But, and no doubt out of concern for – well, certainly not for this hapless passenger’s safety and comfort, United decided to declare an in-flight emergency rather than simply swap the passenger seating, and took the plane to Auckland where the man was escorted off the flight by police.

Peculiarly, the NZ authorities described the man as an American national, but said he was refused entry to New Zealand because he ‘did not meet entry and border requirements’, so he was placed in custody until being ‘deported’ (ie flown on home to the US).  The peculiar thing about this is that Americans are entitled to automatic entry to New Zealand, and if he had just been lawfully in Australia, he would have met any immigration requirements to also qualify him for entry into New Zealand.

My guess is the authorities deemed him to be an undesirable person due to his alleged ‘racist rant’ (based on what evidence, one wonders?).  But apart from an overnight in Immigration Custody, it seems no further charges are being filed against the passenger – which, based on the video evidence that has been published, which shows only a mildly spoken passenger complaining about his seating – certainly seems fair enough.

One has to wonder – if there is video of the passenger acting fairly and calmly, where is the video to support the subsequent accusations of him ‘exploding into a fit of rage 40 minutes into the flight’ (and if that was the case, why did the flight continue on for another five hours before turning around)?  Where is the video of the man allegedly grabbing soda off a beverage cart and demanding beer?  The only other video I’ve seen shows him quietly being escorted off the plane while passengers taunt him.

Due to the diversion, the flight then had to overnight in Auckland before continuing on the next day after a crew rest time.  Passengers made it to the US more than 24 hours late.

Now for the really puzzling thing.  When the pilot felt compelled to divert the plane, it had been flying from Sydney for six or seven hours and was close to Tonga.  While Tonga does not have an airport that could handle the weight of the 787, nearby Fiji does.  Fiji’s Nadi airport was less than one hour’s flying time away from the plane, and wouldn’t have required appreciable backtracking.

Instead, the article suggests the flight took six hours for the flight to go back to Auckland – this seems strangely long, but if correct would also be about the same amount of time it would have taken the plane to fly on and land in Honolulu – and don’t forget the less than one hour to fly to Fiji – here’s the flight’s track.

Who in their right mind turns a plane around and flies half a dozen hours in the wrong direction, in an ’emergency’, when they could take an hour or less to safely land in Fiji, which is continuing more or less in the correct direction, or fly a similar six hours to Honolulu – in the correct direction, and probably then complete the flight the same day, delaying passengers only by an hour or so instead of by a day or more.

If United was so concerned about passenger safety as to divert the flight, why didn’t it land at the closest airport?  And if United was so concerned about passenger comfort, why did it add a gratuitous almost dozen extra hours flying time backtracking to Auckland and then flying on again from there, to say nothing of adding a forced overnight and additional delay the next day to the passengers total travel time?

No part of this makes sense.  Did the pilot merely want to make a stop in Auckland for some reason?  Who makes these decisions – presumably the pilot.  Perhaps the better question is who are they accountable to?

The World’s Most Punctual Airlines and Airports

It is sensible to group the two concepts together, because often, airlines are captives of the airports they serve.  Much as we might wish to do so, you can’t – for example – blame Alaska Airlines when a thin light dusting of snow at Seatac last week caused the airport to grind to a virtual halt, due to the airport lacking sufficient snow removal equipment.  You can’t blame British Airways or Qantas when bad weather causes Heathrow or Sydney airports to close a runway and start backing up flights due to having insufficient capacity to manage normal flights in mildly inclement weather, and so on.

So it is interesting to see which are variously the world’s most punctual airlines and punctual/reliable airports.  This report advises that, for 2016, OAG bestowed the ‘best major airport’ award to Tokyo/Haneda, followed by Sao Paulo (Brazil), and then Detroit, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Seattle, before moving on to Moscow/Sheremetyevo, Singapore, Munich and Phoenix.  The next category of airports is for ‘large’ airports, with the winners being Surabaya, Honolulu, Salt Lake City, Brasilia, and Brisbane.  How nice to see some US airports doing so well.

And what about airlines?  The world’s most punctual airline is – drum roll please – one of my personal favorites – Hawaiian Airlines.  90% of all HA flights arrived and departed on time.  Copa Airlines (from Panama) came second with 89%, then amazingly KLM with 88%, Qantas (88%), JAL (87%), FlyBe (87%) and Alaska Airlines (86%).

‘For Your Convenience, We’ll Spy On You a Bit More’ on Carnival Cruises

Okay, so we’re being a bit unfair here, but it is a valid point to make in response to this interesting story about new technology that allows Carnival to track where its passengers are, every minute they are onboard a Carnival ship, and to observe that the convenience Carnival seeks to create is mainly for itself, not for its cruisers.

Certainly, if the wearable devices cut down on waits in line (one of the ugly secrets of the mega-cruise industry) that has to be a good thing – and particularly so for Carnival, because it means it can serve passengers more quickly with billable drinks and other orders.  As the article says, ‘ease of purchase is [another] big component – cruisers will be able to pay for food, drinks and merchandize simply by having their credit card-connected [device] in their pocket’.  Oh, it will also power a new shipwide gambling platform, too.

An indication of the degree of coverage of the new system is that there will be roughly 7,000 sensors per ship.

Email Address Needed For a Canadian ETA

Other than for Americans or for citizens of countries needing formal visas, Canada has now decided to require ‘Electronic Travel Authorities’ – a sort of instant electronic visa – for all travelers to Canada.

It is a simple couple of minute procedure to enter the minimal amount of information required to obtain one of these ETAs on the Canadian Immigration website, and they are normally instantly issued within seconds of you sending the data off.

So how is it then that an elderly English gentleman flying from Heathrow to Halifax was refused boarding at Heathrow due to not having an ETA?  Why didn’t he or an airline person (or anyone else) help him do the less than five minute process at the airport – as indeed the Canadian Immigration authorities say can be done in such cases?

Well, two problems.  The first was that the Air Canada checkin staff refused to help at all, telling him that they were not permitted to help him for ‘security reasons’.  And if you believe that, I’d like to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.  There should be a special place in Hell reserved for lazy passive-aggressive customer non-service personnel that hide behind a ‘security’ excuse and don’t help needy passengers.

The second problem was the man doesn’t have an email address.  You need an email address as part of the ETA application.  News to Canada – only about 40% of the world’s population has internet access.  Indeed, 11.5% of Canadians don’t use the internet, either.

The man’s son also claims that neither he (he booked his father’s flights) nor his father were ever advised about the new need for an ETA (until now, British citizens have been able to enter Canada with a passport and nothing else).

An unfortunate situation every which way, to say nothing of unnecessary.  What does the ETA tell the Canadian authorities that the information in the passenger PNR and passport doesn’t already tell them?  How many terrorists traveling on British passports will the new ETA system detect and prevent from traveling, compared to how many older ordinary passengers who simply don’t have an email address?

This Year’s CES

If it is the first week in January, then it is time for the annual Consumer Electronic Show extravaganza in Las Vegas, this year attended by 165,000 people from 150 different countries.

While never planned to have an annual theme, most years it is possible to discern a grouping of gadgets that are the new ‘hot’ product for the year.  So what would be the winner for this year?

It was, in some ways, more obvious to note losers rather than winners.  ‘Wearables’ seems to be a clear losing category; indeed, Motorola has decided not to release any more smart watch products until such time, if ever, that the category becomes more popular.  Not exactly the most ‘take charge’ way of innovating and developing a new market, is it!  Imagine if Apple said ‘we’re not going to release a phone until smart phones become popular’.  Imagine if Microsoft said ‘we’ll wait until PCs are popular before we develop an operating system’.

Tablets also had another quiet year.  After the hype of tablets for several years subsequent to the iPad launch in 2010, they are no longer promising to replace every other form of computing device, and the iPad itself – even though now in a plethora of different models and with a choice of three different screen sizes – is quietly losing market share.

Larger more capable phones at one end, and ever-lighter and slimmer touch-screen equipped laptops at the other end are squeezing the tablet market space smaller and smaller.  We don’t expect to see tablets disappear, but with phones now having screen sizes up to about 6″ and touch-screen laptops taking over from about 11″, there’s not a lot of sweet spot for tablets any more.

Virtual reality was something that enjoyed a lot of hype in 2015, but the hype has failed to translate to reality in the twelve months subsequently, and the hottest VR product last year, Facebook’s Oculus, didn’t even have a stand at the show this year.

Sure, there were incremental improvements to television screens, but nothing spectacularly new.  I’m going to call the show this year as being dominated by cars – battery electric cars and/or self-driving cars.  In a sea of announcements of future new products coming out in the next few years, there were several standouts.

At the high end, Faraday Futures demonstrated an amazing car that promised to eclipse Tesla in every respect.  Faster acceleration and more power.  Much more battery capacity and range and fast charging – 378 mile range, 130 kWhr battery pack, and a fast charge capability that charges at the rate of 500 miles of range per hour of charging.  The car has all-wheel steering, 13 radars, 12 ultrasonic sensors, 10 high definition cameras and one 3D Lidar sensor for self-driving capabilities.

You can place a $5000 deposit on one of these vehicles today, with production starting in 2018.  Oh – that’s another area in which the car will ‘beat’ Tesla, too.  A top of the line Tesla Model X is priced at about $168,000.  The Faraday Future is anticipated to have pricing starting from about $180,000.  More details here.

We’ve seen both General Motors deliver a great battery electric vehicle (the Bolt) and Ford make various aggressive promises about its future plans for both BEV and self-driving cars.  Now Chrysler is coming to the party too, showing a concept car but with no clear timeline or pathway from the concept to any sort of reality.

Perhaps the most notable of the concept car’s features, other than a fancy design for its sliding doors which, while clever, is hardly high tech, is the ability to take selfie pictures of all the occupants, no matter where in the vehicle they are seated.  Ugh.  Does the gap between GM/Ford, and FCA, seem ever wider?  What a massive disappointment.  Details here.

Also at CES was a bed that automatically adjusts itself to stop the person on either side of it from snoring, plus – in case that isn’t enough – a ‘smart home sleep system’ that ‘plugs into a wall socket and bathes the room in “blankets of ambient sound that mask outside noises, taps dripping and other people snoring’.  There were loads more internet connected devices, even extending to a frying pan and a fridgecam to track what is inside your fridge and when it expires.  Amazon’s Alexa audio assistant is popping up in all sorts of places, including in Ford cars.

And, for the poor gentle souls who feel that a whistle is the best defense against a violent attack, there was a ‘smart whistle’.  Alas, it doesn’t actually necessarily make any special sort of noise, but it sends text messages and emails to your contacts, letting them know that you’re in trouble.  Which of course, brings us back to the same problem of old-fashioned whistles too – ‘when seconds count, the police are just minutes away’.  Details on these delightful devices here.

Tesla Update

Talking about Tesla, and about disappointments, it is time for what is close to an annual tradition, every January.  Tesla announced this week that its total deliveries for 2016 failed to meet its target.  Early in 2016 Tesla was boldly talking about 80,000 – 90,000 cars to be delivered, that was scaled back during the year to 80,000, and they ended up with a total of 76,230.

This number contains within it a steady decline in Model S deliveries – down 21% quarter over quarter, and 26% year over year.  Sure, the Model X is growing in numbers, but the idea of the Model X was not to replace the Model S but to complement it.

Oh – their target for 2018?  Try not to laugh :  500,000.  Yeah, sure, right.  Their target for 2017 is thought to be 200,000 deliveries, and because that probably includes 100,000 Model 3 cars, we’d be astonished to see that number achieved, too.  Some commentators are now suggesting the Model 3 – with deliveries officially promised to start late this year – maybe be as much as two years behind schedule.

To try and leaven the bad news with some good news, Tesla also officially announced the start of battery production at its Reno ‘Gigafactory’.  Bravo.  But I’ve been unable to find any specifics about the quantity of batteries that are now being produced.  Are we talking ‘giga’ quantities, mega quantities, kilo quantities, or perhaps a mere trickle of a few dozen batteries?  No-one is reporting on that, and as far as I can tell, no-one has thought to ask.

And Lastly This Week….

While there were some strange products inevitably featured at CES this year (the website for this product has wonderful fun with its product), as is always the case, they have nothing on items such as this collection of Japanese inventions.  As one always on the lookout for the perfect airplane pillow, I wonder if item #11 on the list might be worth investigating and reviewing.

I’ve sometimes poked fun at the slogans that tourist bodies dream up for their destinations.  Some are unthinkably bland, and others are just plain unthinkable, and many of them are announced with a degree of ill-deserved hype that triggers one’s vomit reflex.

Which brings me to the new slogan for Australia’s Northern Territory.  To state it formally, “See you in the Northern Territory”.  Sure, a boring slogan by any measure, but also utterly bland and inoffensive, right?

Ummm, err, no.  It is being withdrawn as being too rude and offensive – even for the Australians!  Here’s why.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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Jan 052017
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Some of our 2014 tour members enjoying a lovely lunch at a winery before being personally shown around the winery by its owner (and an old school friend of David's).

Some of our 2014 tour members enjoying a lovely lunch at a winery before being personally shown around the winery by its owner (an old school friend of David’s).

Yes, returned by popular request after our very successful and closely similar 2014 and 2016 tours (but, as always, with a couple of tweaks to build on our continued experience of what is most popular among the inclusions and experiences we offer), we now have the details online for our Oct/Nov 2017 tour to New Zealand, with (a popular new bonus first offered in 2016), touring to Australia as a post-tour option.

This tour, in NZ’s glorious springtime, has a mix of the key tourist sights and some ‘off the beaten track’ experiences too – you’d of course expect this in any Travel Insider experience, and doubly so in a tour to David’s home country of New Zealand.

As a centerpiece of the tour, we include attendance at New Zealand’s special Food and Wine Classic Festival in Hawke’s Bay, where you can get to select exactly the events and activities you wish to attend during this wonderful weekend filled with different activities and choices.

Travel with me (David Rowell, on the left) and a friendly ‘Coach Captain’ (Roger on the right) and enjoy a NZ tour that is amusing, entertaining, educational, and wonderful every which way!

Add in the optional pre-tour time in NZ’s tourist mecca of Queenstown, a night in Auckland, and a night in little visited Gisborne, NZ’s hidden gem and the first city in the world to see the sun each morning (see picture on the left), plus two nights in extraordinary Rotorua and a final two night deluxe treat in enormous sized luxury bungalows in the Martinborough wine region and you truly do have what we’re terming an Epicurean Extravaganza.

The same as last time, we’re keeping the numbers down low on this tour, so as to make it more special.  Rather than a generic coach tour, it will be a convivial shared experience with friends.

Please do come join your fellow Travel Insiders and soon-to-be new friends.  Full details here.

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Dec 302016
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Better not ask for the whole can next time you’re given a soda on a Korean Airlines flight. See item, below.

Good morning

Another year prepares to disappear, while 2017 is impatiently waiting to replace it.

What will 2017 bring?  New lower airfares?  Higher airfares?  Or maybe just more of the same?  Will Tesla cars truly become self-driving?  Will their Model 3 truly start deliveries?  And will Mr Trump be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, like his predecessor?

For predictions on some – but not all – of these issues, please see my separate article, appended to the end of this weekly roundup.  My hope – and simultaneously my fear – is that 2017 will be anything but a normal year.

Turning now to the past, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas.  I had to laugh at my 12 year old daughter when she responded, as if she were so much older, upon opening the package that contained, surprise surprise, an Amazon Echo.  ‘Technology is becoming so wonderful these days, isn’t it’ she opined.  Whether one is 12, or many decades older, we can all see, from our very different perspectives, the truth in that statement – a truth that should be viewed in equal parts wonder and terror.

Do you have some new year resolutions lined up?  If traveling some more is one of them, I’ll be officially releasing our 2017 New Zealand Epicurean Extravaganza next week (click the link for details already online), and might possibly be able to squeeze another couple onto our Scotland tour.  I also expect to offer another Christmas cruise, to take place in early December.  So maybe there’s something in that lineup for you.

As a happy aside, the way the exchange rates are moving, both tours might be dropping in price. Gotta love that strong US dollar!

Not a lot this week, but please continue reading for :

  • Emirates’ Airbus A380 Engine Problems
  • How Some People Travel With Their Pets – For Free
  • Korean Airlines to Encourage its Flight Attendants to Readily Use Tasers on Passengers
  • The $11.5 million Welcome Sign
  • And Lastly This Week….

Emirates’ Airbus A380 Engine Problems

Rolls Royce – the company now owned by BMW – makes excellent motorcars, with the name being synonymous with being the ne plus ultra of whatever category of product it refers to.  Rolls Royce, the jet engine maker, has ‘dined out’ on its shared brand name for many years, subsequent to Rolls-Royce splitting itself into the motorcar company and the ‘everything else’ company in 1973.

When one sees the familiar interlinked double-R logo on the side of a jet engine, there’s an automatic warm fuzzy feeling that emanates from the sight.  But is this entirely deserved?

Qantas came perilously close to a disastrous crash when, in November 2010, and four minutes after one of its A380 had taken off from Singapore, the plane suffered an ‘uncontained failure’ of its number two engine – a Trent 900 manufactured by Rolls Royce.  Only the superb flying skill of ‘Australia’s Sully’ – Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny – oh yes, and aided by his co-pilot and three other pilots who also happened to be crowded into the cockpit at the time – managed to avert a potential ‘hull loss’, to say nothing of the 469 passengers and crew on board.  (Unsubstantiated rumor has it that the insurers wanted to write-off the plane but neither Qantas nor Airbus wanted to admit to an event that destroyed an A380, so it was repaired.)

The engine ‘explosion’ uncovered what the Australian Transport Safety Bureau described as a ‘critical safety issue’ with the engines that lead to the grounding of the Rolls-Royce powered A380s, and subsequent repair or replacement of many other of the Trent engines when they were all inspected.  Rolls Royce made some changes to its engine design, and all seemed to be resolved.

Reflecting the engine’s return to grace, in 2015 Emirates announced it would power its new A380s with Rolls Royce Trent 900s.  Prior to that time, it was using GP7000 engines made by an alliance between Pratt &Whitney and General Electric.

But the airline was not happy with the performance the engine appeared to be delivering, particularly in the harsh environment in Dubai (very hot and very sandy), and almost had a public falling out with Rolls Royce prior to both parties kissing and making up three weeks ago.  It appears RR had agreed to make good on all Emirates concerns.

Except that Airbus disclosed this week that it would be forced to now delay the delivery of 12 A380s to Emirates, due to – it seems – engine issues.  This is a problem for everyone involved – Airbus will struggle to find other airlines to take the twelve planes Emirates is delaying, Rolls Royce is clearly not yet out of the woods, and Emirates presumably would like to have and could benefit from the extra planes on the schedule originally requested and planned for.

It must be at moments like these that BMW is wishing that the engine manufacturer would stop using the same name as its cars (although it has to be said that the latest Rolls Royce cars look so very much different to the classic look that BMW itself has also caused plenty of revised perception to the iconic form of the car).

How Some People Travel With Their Pets – For Free

The ultimate ‘Fast Pass’ at Disney theme parks used to be having one of the people you were traveling with claim a disability, thereby entitling that person – and everyone traveling with them – to go to the front of all lines at all rides and attractions.  If you weren’t traveling with a disabled person, that wasn’t a problem – local people would advertise on Craigslist and elsewhere, offering to be your nominally disabled group member for you, in return for an appreciable fee for their day’s ‘work’.

After such practices were repeatedly exposed, and Disney itself started to noticed the unusually large number of disabled people visiting its theme parks, they tightened up on their policies, and the loophole is no longer as wide open as it formerly was.

But a similar type of loophole applies to people who wish to travel with their family pets, and who don’t wish to pay the cost associated with doing so, or (and understandably) don’t wish to subject their pets to the potentially fatal consequences of being transported as cargo, or who find themselves trapped by the ‘we won’t transport any animals in summer because we might mishandle them and cause them to die’ policies of most airlines.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines are required to transport all service and ’emotional support’ animals, although some exceptions to this requirement can be made for creatures such as snakes and spiders.  Additionally, airlines can sometimes exercise discretion and can choose to allow some other animals or not – animals such as miniature horses, for example.

But if you’re a ‘crazy cat woman’ and want to fly with your dozen cats all ranged around you in your coach class seat, the airline is obliged to allow you to do this, as long as it is satisfied they are bona fide support animals.  That is a fairly easy hurdle to surmount for the crazy cat women among us – you can make, or buy online, an official looking vest saying ’emotional support animal’.  You can also buy online an official letter from a ‘mental health professional’ attesting to the bona fide requirement for you to travel with Muffy (and Tuffy and Fluffy and …..).

If you’ve ever seen one of these letters, they are interesting to read.  Basically, the letter usually says ‘I’m a mental health expert and in my opinion Tracy Traveler should be allowed to fly with her half dozen emotional support parrots’.  You know, the basic ‘trust me, I’m a doctor and I know best’ letter.  For reasons of patient confidentiality, the letter doesn’t need to describe the emotional support condition, and usually doesn’t explain in what way the animal(s) address that requirement.

Airlines can – but are extremely reluctant to do so – ask the traveler why they need to travel with their menagerie, but they are not allowed to ask the passenger for details of their disability.

The result?  I’ve certainly seen people happily exploiting and abusing this right/privilege, and some really nasty spoiled animals that seem to be much more emotionally needy than their owners.

Here’s an interesting article about this scam.

Korean Airlines to Encourage its Flight Attendants to Readily Use Tasers on Passengers

Perhaps in the hope of taking passengers minds off its current pilots strike, Korean Airlines announced this week that it will allow crew members to ‘readily use stun guns’ to manage violent passengers, and will hire more male flight attendants to ensure a robust response to unruly passengers.

We understand the benefit of Tasers as part of the ‘Continuum of Force’ process employed by police officers, and while there are valid concerns about the danger and sometimes lethality of Tasers, many times when a police officer deploys a Taser to subdue a suspect, he is doing so as a ‘soft option’ where the alternative would either be pepper spray (a vastly more unpleasant experience) or a bullet (an even nastier experience again).  Tasers are good – when pepper spray or gunshots are the alternative.

But, on a plane, do we really want to arm our flight attendants with Tasers?  And, ask yourself, whereas a Taser is a softer less harmful option in a confrontation between a police officer and a suspect, what is a Taser on a plane?  Softer and less harmful?  Or harsher and more potentially lethal?

Will having a Taser on their hip make flight attendants friendly and more eager to find a customer-service driven compromise?  Or will it make some of them more confrontational and more taunting, daring their passengers to make an issue out of something the flight attendant has done wrong?

There’s another interesting issue, too.  Police officers are required to submit to being Tasered as part of their training/qualification in using the device.  Will Flight Attendants also be required to take a dose, too?

Also, as an aside, has anyone done appropriate studies about the effect of Tasers on people in conditions with lower air pressure and less oxygen?

More details (about the KAL Tasers) here.  And here’s an excellent article about the obscured dangers of Tasers, although it uncritically notes the new recommendation that police officers not shoot Tasers into a suspect’s chest.  That is a ridiculous recommendation, because with a not tremendously accurate device such as a Taser, a high stress situation, and quite likely a dynamic environment, a moving target, and a single shot weapon, of course you must aim for center-of-mass or else risk missing the shot.  Oh – and one more thing.  Correct use of a Taser requires there to be some reasonable distance between the shooter and the target so the barbs can separate and not land too close together on the target, whichm when at a greater distance as required by this ‘best practice’, makes it even harder to aim realistically for anywhere other than center-of-mass.

However, please please please don’t suggest that flight attendants should be given pepper spray instead.  Pepper spray goes everywhere, and in a low pressure enclosed airplane cabin, would be even more debilitating than at ground level and would spread more quickly to nearby passengers.

The $11.5 million Welcome Sign

The Denver City Council has decided to spend $11.5 million dollars to create a 1,000 foot long ‘ribbon of moving light’ in a new airport sign for Denver International Airport.  The council wants to have a distinctive sign that will give DIA an iconic identity.

Now, you and I might both think $11.5 million to be a colossally irresponsible amount of money to spend on an airport name sign.  We might even ponder the need for an iconic identity when it is the only airport for many miles around (unlike, for example, Heathrow, which faces real ‘competition’ from other London area airports that are owned by different private companies).

But, we should put this in context and relax.  It is only $11.5 million.  That trifling sum is really is little more than ‘chump change’ for the airport and its Council owners – they are projecting $178 million from airport car parking alone in the next 12 months.  So, next time you wince at the up to $33/day parking fees at DIA, you might feel better knowing that, yes, you actually are being charged ridiculously too much money for your parking, but – hey, look!  It is in a good cause, because you’ve a fancy new sign out the front of the airport.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Do you agree with this list of the world’s most over-rated places?  Can you suggest others that should be added?

It would be cruel to come up with a list of the year’s most over-rated deaths.  But there are a few names on this list that has me puzzled.  I hope the year passed without the loss of anyone close to you.

And truly lastly for the week, month, and year, what better way to end than with, ummm, an uplifting story about toilets.  No, not the one about the diverted BA flight with inoperable toilets, where, surprisingly enough, BA’s spokesman for once didn’t explain the diversion as being due to ‘the convenience of our passengers’.  But instead, the story about China’s proposed new revolution.  This time, though, there’s no Tiananmen Square or Red Guards involved.  It is a toilet revolution, being part of China’s planned boost to its tourism marketing.

Don’t get us wrong – we’re all in favor of tourism and prudent promotion thereof, and we’re also often in favor of nice toilets, with vivid memories of unpleasant ones in China.  But, just like lipstick on a pig, adding nice toilets to boring ugly unappealing industrial cities is not likely to bring about an influx of tourists.  Turning an abandoned coal mine into a park – not something many of us would fly thousands of miles to see.

And that’s it for 2016.  I hope it was a good year for you, and let’s all share a hope that 2017 will be a great year for everyone reading this.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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Dec 292016
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May we wish you a truly happy new year for 2017. Thank you for being a Travel Insider.

On Thursday there was the latest restatement of Norwegian Air’s plans to offer fares between New York and London for $99.

With their application to operate air service via Ireland now finally approved, and with rumblings from other (low(er) cost) carriers looking to expand their presence across the Atlantic, and astonishing claims from dinosaurs all the way to British Airways about creating their own low cost services, does 2017 promise the dawn of a new era in low cost air travel?

With the US dollar at its highest levels in decades, is international travel going to be more affordable and appealing than domestic travel?  What else can we expect, for travel and for ‘life in general’ during 2017 and the waning years of the 2010s?

Norwegian Air’s $99 Fares

A $99 (£60) fare between New York and London?  How incredible is that?  Well, you need to read the fine print before rushing to pack your bags.

First, there is that awful four letter word beginning with the letter ‘F’ that modifies the claim – ‘from’.  So maybe there will be two or three seats at that price, on some flights, and none at all on most flights.

Second, that is a one way fare, requiring roundtrip purchase.  So we’re now looking at ‘from $198 roundtrip’, and with the $99 fares likely to be far and few between, your chances of being able to find seats for $99 on both your outbound and return journeys drops drastically.

Third, all taxes and government fees are almost certainly extra.  Get ready for a shock when you see how much taxes and fees add to the basic airfare cost.  With the British government’s ever more rapacious air passenger duties (ostensibly to ‘save the planet’, no less), and the US government’s steady growth in fees too, you can expect to add another $100 – $200 to the basic airfare.

Fourth, the extra fees that Norwegian will charge you.  Would you like to take some luggage with you?  One suitcase will add $80, two will add $170 to your fare.  Oh – you’d like to have something to eat on your 7 – 9 hour flight?  That will be $5 – and that’s just for one non-alcoholic drink of soda!  Figure on adding $50 or quite likely more for food.  A blanket?  $12 extra.  A reserved seat?  That requires a fare upgrade – at least $150 more (but now including some food and a free checked bag too).

And, when you’ve added all of this up, and are getting ready to pay, there’s one more fee.  A 1.99% charge (can’t we just call it 2%) for using a credit card.

So, even in the extremely unlikely event you can find the $99 each way fare, that’s just the start of what it will actually cost you to fly.

Air Fares in General for 2017

This is harder to predict.  There are some out-of-balance forces and some possible future impacts, all of which might see changes in fares.

There are two out of balance forces.  Both imply that air fares could and should drop.  The first is that many major airlines are reporting record profits at present.  The second is that flight loads are also at record high levels.  This combination of factors would seem to create an ideal environment either for existing airlines to add extra capacity or for new airlines to come in and start flying too.

But the last few years have seen the major dinosaurs being ‘very disciplined’ (the politically correct term being bandied about to describe their price gouging) and preferring to make an unusually large amount of money on fewer tickets sold, than to make smaller sums, per ticket sold, while growing capacity to sell more tickets.  So the temptation for an airline to ‘break ranks’ would seemingly be growing ever stronger – although the fact that we only have essentially four major airlines in the US now is the other limiting factor there.  Free market competition?  Alas, not even remotely free and not at all competitive.  Meet the real reason why airline profits are high and no airlines are bucking the trend towards high fares and few flights – the lack of competition and the remaining carriers’ willingness to tacitly follow each other and not ‘upset the apple cart’ with pricing initiatives.

The only way that airlines are presently willing to break the mold and change things is by introducing new fees, and any such introduction is usually welcomed and matched by the other carriers.

A possible future impact is whatever might happen to jet fuel prices.  At the time of writing, there is a possibility that OPEC, and now with the willing collusion from the other oil producing nations, might be bringing back some control to the formerly free-falling oil prices, and if we see oil prices start to firm up, airlines might see their fuel bills increase by 50% or more.  We don’t expect oil and fuel costs to return back to the sky-high levels of several years ago, thanks to the oil shale revolution; the more that oil prices go up, the more that companies will bring new oil wells on-line and the increased supply will soften the pricing.

Certainly, carriers can absorb some extra fuel cost and still make decent returns (by airline standards) but the flipside of limited capacity and full flights is they currently ‘own’ the market and can increase prices with little downside.  With some carriers persisting in ‘fuel surcharges’ all the way down the collapse in fuel costs, even the slightest uptick in fuel prices will surely see airlines eagerly testing the market for fare increases.

So, while there is every reason, in a free market, to see a ‘free for all’ collapse in pricing and explosion in new routes and flights, modifying that theoretical prediction to reflect the reality of the uncompetitive market we’re in, means we don’t see much chance of reductions in airfares, and plenty of opportunity for increases.

Internationally, the high-profile appearances of new discount carriers and their new flights is all great stuff and to be encouraged; but as the analysis above suggests, the reality of the $99 headline fares is that you’re going to probably be paying $500 for the true total flight experience, roundtrip.

Furthermore, not only are the $99 fares extremely hard to find, so too are the budget airlines and flights they operate.  Most airports in the US either have no budget airlines operating out of them, or have so few flights as to be imperceptible in the market, and the response by the major carriers to a pinprick from a discount carrier can be to simply ignore it entirely.  Why should a major carrier discount its fares on thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of seats a week across one or two dozen flights each week, in response to a discount carrier that has maybe ten $99 seats on maybe one or two flights a week?

So, best case scenario, if you strike it lucky maybe you’ll save $100 or so on an international ticket, and while that is surely to be welcomed, it is hardly a transformational change that gets us all heading to the airport more often than we do currently.

International Travel in General for 2017

We don’t want to plant any negative thoughts in your mind, and of course Travel Insiders tend to be much more sensible than some less worldly-wise segments of the total potential travel market.  But we will observe that there have been measurable impacts on 2016 travel patterns as a result of the new more active level of Muslin terror and Muslim social unrest in Europe.  In case anyone cares or pays attention, there are hypocritical US Department of State cautionary notes – a travel alert posted for Europe, a worldwide travel caution, and indeed a travel warning for Mexico (and other less popular countries).

We call these hypocritical because they are so vague as to be meaningless, remain in place essentially unaltered for years, recommend totally impractical behaviors (keep away from tourist areas – try that while you’re on your tourist vacation!), all the while ignoring the risk of remaining at home.  We in the US are getting our own tastes of terror attacks and crime in general, too.

Most people realize that the most dangerous part of any journey is driving between their home and airport at the start and end of the total travel experience.  But even the slightest degree of terror concern definitely intrudes on the hoped for ‘feel-good’ and ‘happy-making’ experience we seek when indulging in often expensive and always non-essential travel vacations.  Somehow, while we happily ignore much greater (but still totally trivial) risks such as lightning striking us, catching a deadly foreign disease, having a building collapse on our head, and other improbable events, the concern over terror attacks impacting on our travel experience seems to be much harder to ignore.

An ability to guess at European travel patterns for 2017 is therefore very much dependent on what level of terror activities may occur.  The much greater problems in Mexico seem to be ignored/accepted by Americans, and the occasional blips of terror activity in South East Asia also seem to be largely overlooked.  So travel to those regions will likely continue unaltered by anything other than extreme externalities; strangely it is our perception of Europe that is most impacted by occasional acts of terror – perhaps because Europe presents as a ‘friendly safe easy’ place to travel, so there’s more downside to that image.

If the dollar remains strong, international travel costs will be more affordable, although we must sadly observe that we’ve not seen much clear evidence of the strong dollar flowing through to lower international package tour and cruise prices.

It is also our sense that in some areas (both within the US and internationally) hotels are getting close to full, and are eager to increase their prices whenever they can.  We definitely need another cycle of hotel (over)building.

Traveling at Home

Other than our comments on domestic airfares above (unlikely to drop) and hotels (probably going to gently firm), and an unnecessary stating of the obvious (airports are getting close to maxed out making for potentially disruptive delays at peak travel times) we’d also like to touch on one of our other 2016 topics of focus, namely the trends in the automobile industry.

In theory, 2017 should see the introduction of Tesla’s affordable Model 3 car.  We don’t expect to see it delivered in anything other than perhaps token numbers to prove they did indeed meet the promised release in late 2017; more likely is that it won’t start deliveries at all in 2017.

But we do expect to see more of the Chevrolet Bolt – a car reasonably similar to the Tesla Model 3 and already shipping, and we expect the drum-beat heralding an explosion of similar cars from all other car manufacturers to increase during the year.  We don’t expect many major new electric vehicles to be released and start shipping in 2017, but we do expect to see many – both high end and budget, high performance and standard – scheduled for release in 2018.

Tesla will shift from being the ‘only’ manufacturer of ‘real/practical’ battery powered vehicles to instead being just one among many.

With probable continued gentle firming in oil prices (they set an 18 month high on Thursday) we expect to see a return of mainstream focus onto petrol-alternatives, and with probable continued improvements in battery technology and pricing, battery-electric vehicles seem like an inevitable and excellent solution that is increasingly practical (ie long range) and cost-justifiable (both in initial purchase price and ongoing operating costs).

The other automobile trend is towards increasingly automated vehicles with more and more self-driving capabilities.  The ‘sort of/sort of not’ self-driving ability of the Tesla vehicles as was released initially in late 2014 and updated in late 2015 is now being updated again with a much more sophisticated set of sensors and software – what they are terming their Autopilot 2.0.  This is expected to see a stream of new capabilities released during 2017, possibly culminating in full self-driving capabilities by the end of the year.  Uber is currently testing self driving cars in several cities.  Looking further ahead, Ford says it expects to release a completely self-driving car by 2021.

While government regulation is scrambling to keep up with new developments in technological capabilities, and threatens to needlessly slow it down, the reality will increasingly become obvious to all – self driving cars are enormously safer than human-driven cars.

This is a stark and simple fact desperately overdue recognition.  When you think of the extraordinary costs and fuss we make over old lead-based paint and asbestos in homes (whether in safe or dangerous form), and contrast that with the almost impossible to measure health consequences, how much longer can we sit back and accept the 35,000 or so people killed in car crashes each year, and the 2+ million people injured?  These numbers are for the US alone, world-wide it is suggested that almost 1.3 million people die each year.  We need to strip away our selective blindness when it comes to motor vehicle dangers.

All these pending revolutionary changes to cars poses a question to the auto industry and its customers :  With new types of power trains and massive advances in automation coming to our cars, plus perhaps a ten-fold increase in safety, why should anyone choose to buy a new car in 2017 when it is likely to be so obsoleted so quickly?

Amazon and Shopping

Talking about driving, there’s one type of driving we’ll continue to do less and less of.  Driving to the shops.  This week saw the publication of a patent filed by Amazon in 2014, anticipating huge airborne warehouses with fleets of drones shuttling between a floating warehouse in the sky and customers’ homes, and larger drones conducting restocking runs up to the warehouse.  The really ‘big idea’ inherent in this is that currently, drones are limited by the power they have available to lift up a package in the first place; when all a drone has to do is gradually descend with the package and without any need to rise at all, smaller drones with less power will have greater payload capacities.

Will this appear in time for Christmas shopping in 2017?  Probably not, although Amazon is already trialing drone deliveries, and something that was first thought to be an April Fool Day joke (automated drone delivery) just a couple of years ago no longer seems outlandish at all.  But the airship type hovering warehouses – there’s still some leadtime required to make those into a reality.

The sooner this happens, the better.  Imagine one of these hovering over any major city.  Forget second day shipping, overnight shipping, even same day shipping.  If we allow say five minutes from placing an order on Amazon’s site to when the item has been picked in the warehouse by a robot and loaded onto a drone, and then ten minutes for a drone to fly, say, up to 15 miles from the floating warehouse and (almost literally) drop the package off, that would allow a mere 15 minutes from placing an order to receiving the items on your door step.  You couldn’t even walk/drive to the closest store, buy something, and get back home in less than that time.

Not only is this unimaginably fast and convenient, but it is also very efficient and affordable for Amazon.  Amazon isn’t having to pay for the inefficient old fashioned method of boxing up product to withstand the stresses of uncaring baggage handlers and the shipping process, nor must it pay for the people and courier delivery drivers and traffic hassles and so on.  Everyone wins.

Talking about not needing to pay delivery drivers, this process would probably be 100% automated, with no part of the ordering and fulfillment/delivery process involving any humans at all.  Which brings me to :

Automation, Robotics, and AI

This is the scariest change of all.  Will 2017 be the tipping point where people stop boasting about and eagerly looking forward to more and more automation?  Will people finally understand that robotics will replace almost every imaginable human physical task, while AI will replace almost every imaginable human mental task?  And will people think through the implications of that to see the dreadful horror such a circumstance will cause for us all?

In this not-too-distant future, when you lose your job due to a computer and/or a robot replacing you, what happens to you?  Don’t think you’ll just go get another job, because you’ll not be alone in this predicament – other people like you will also be losing their jobs.

Some recent studies are suggesting that half – possibly even two thirds – of all jobs are vulnerable to being replaced by new technologies.  These jobs are all across the spectrum from low earning McDonald’s positions to high earning stock analysts and brokers.

(As an interesting aside, in this article McDonald’s astonishingly claims its move towards automation won’t mean fewer employees, it will just mean that employees can spend more time interacting with customers and taking their orders.  That sounds wonderful, but how then to reconcile their’ claim with the more recent news that McDonald’s is deploying fully automated self-ordering kiosks?)

So unemployment rates will go from 6% to 60%, maybe higher.  As a comparison, peak unemployment during the Great Depression briefly touched 25%.  Unlike the Great Depression, this will be permanent unemployment – there just won’t be any more jobs remaining for most people and most skills, and people without jobs will have no hope of ever getting one.  What will that do to our economy – will the entire economy collapse under the disappearance of jobs for most people?  Just as important – what will it do for our society, with probably two thirds of society having no work and no prospect of ever getting work?

The good news is that the full extent of this draconian future is still some years off, but the bad news is that it is almost certainly will come sooner than anyone expects.

So, 2017?

Enough of my comments.  What do others expect in 2017?  Will Mr Trump also be awarded a Nobel Peace prize immediately he takes office (one prediction suggests it might go to Angela Merkel instead)?  Will he create true peace with Russia?  True or trade war with China?  So many imponderables!

Here are some predictions from scientists, from commentators in general, Wall St Analysts, Wall St Journal futurists, Rolling Stone, and techno gurus.

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Dec 232016
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We wish you a Merry Christmas….. hmmm, isn’t there a song for that?

Good morning

Well, just today and tomorrow – two shopping days remaining until the holiday that dares not speak its name.  I hope you’ve bought everything you need for everyone you wish to bestow gifts upon; as for me, I’ve been relying on the Amazon elves to help.

While not exactly reindeer and sleds, reader Jerry reports from his ADS-B air traffic monitoring hub near Denver that he has noticed the Fedex and UPS flights, which normally fly overhead westbound between 7-9pm and return east at 12.30 am, are now flying steadily back and forward all day long – an interesting insight into how the parcel delivery companies can ‘surge’ their capacity for the Christmas rush.

Of course, it isn’t just the planes that have been busy.  I had a USPS delivery person dropping a package at my door at 7.14am on Thursday.  Extraordinary.

It is great to see how, in response to technology taking away a core part of the USPS service (regular mail), the USPS is joining forces with Amazon and creating a new opportunity (package delivery) which it is doing very well.  Who’d have thought to see regular Sunday deliveries by the Postal Service.  How nice that in response to a problem, they added services rather than cut them back.

Come Sunday, we’ll know if the alluring packages under our trees contain hoped for items or the modern day equivalents of lumps of coal.  If you find yourself feeling sadly underwhelmed by the items you’ve received, you might come to realize that you’re missing a gift from someone very central in your life – yourself.  So why not indeed treat yourself to a little something, too.

With that in mind, I’ve been continuing to experiment with my Amazon Echo Dot, and I’m slowly warming to it.  But more than the Echo Dot itself, I’m finding more and more use for remotely controllable switches to manage household appliances and lights.  Sure, there’s nothing particularly new or unique about the idea of remote controlling your lights – I’ve had Radio Shack X-10 type switches in my home for literally decades.  But the new internet connected controls are much more ‘clever’ and can be controlled not just from a controller box at home, but quite literally from anywhere in the world.  Most of them can be controlled by an Echo unit, but they also have their own phone/tablet apps too.

It is more than just remotely turning on and off lights.  There are some excellent and innovative security devices, thermostats, and various other things too.  So please find a further article, after this roundup, about the Echo Dot and the remotely controllable accessories that can be used with it.

Assuming all the deposits come in as promised, our Scotland tour is full.  Wow.  Was that the fastest selling Travel Insider tour ever?  Quite possibly so!  Your next Travel Insider tour opportunity will be Oct/Nov with another wonderful New Zealand Epicurean Extravaganza tour.

What else for this pre-Christmas newsletter?  How about :

  • Air Force One – Even More Than $4 Billion?
  • An Even More Fanciful SST
  • Looking for MH370 In the Wrong Place?
  • New Information on the Egyptair Crash
  • A Job You Probably Don’t Want to Apply For
  • I’m a Doctor!  Says Who?
  • Uber Continues to Amaze
  • Tesla Continues to Disappoint
  • Consumer Alert – Artwork Sales on Cruise Ships
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Force One – Even More Than $4 Billion?

It seems Donald Trump may have been wrong.  When he criticized the new Air Force One replacement program as costing $4 billion, Trump-haters rushed to attack, claiming the cost to be nowhere near that much, and cited it as another example of him ‘shooting from the hip’ and getting his facts wrong.  I wrote about this colossal waste of money, and feared the $4 billion was at risk of further increases.

Well, the latest update does indeed suggest Mr Trump may have got his facts wrong.  But, alas, he under-estimated the possible cost of the two new planes.  This article suggests that the program cost will be at least $4 billion, but – ooops.  That doesn’t include the cost of the two planes (perhaps as much as $850 million extra!).

An Even More Fanciful SST

As you probably know, I simultaneously long for the return of Concorde-speed supersonic travel – and, indeed, see it as a commercially viable concept, just as Concorde itself was also profitable; but also view all the current proposed SST concepts as wildly fanciful and wildly unlikely to ever take to the air.

Here’s the latest one, even more ridiculous than most others.  It would fly at ten times the speed of Concorde, but would hold ten times fewer passengers (ie a mere ten passengers), and would have a range almost four times greater, allowing it to fly from anywhere in the world to anywhere else in the world, in less than an hour.

Not even Sir Richard Branson has held his hand up for this plane.  There are several problems with the concept, which even its ‘designer’ (more like ‘dreamer’) admits is just a concept, ‘designed to provoke conversation and interest in potential technologies’.

For example, there is no engine on earth that could be used to power the plane, and its aerodynamic concept of reverse flow air, while showing some signs of potential in wind tunnel testing, is utterly unproven.  Then there’s the ‘problem’ of such very long range – the plane would have to hold so much fuel, and be burning so much of it merely to carry the rest of it, and the matching ‘problem’ of only ten passengers, and the net result is something far on the wrong side of impractical.

Looking for MH370 In the Wrong Place?

After two and a half years of unsuccessful searching for the remains of the lost MH 370 plane, the Australian searchers have come up with a startling suggestion – maybe they have been searching in the wrong place.  You reckon?  That is an almost inescapable conclusion, isn’t it.

The good news – they think they now, really truly, know where it might be.  The bad news –  Australia says it won’t look for it any more, unless it has been already found (ummm, yes, that’s essentially what they said, even though it seems rather illogical).

With the latest refinement of what seems to be an increasingly likely theory that the plane crashed due to a cockpit windshield fire, and the potential risk of other 777s to the same type of fire and loss, the need to find the crashed plane would seem to remain present, so as to understand what caused the crash and to take such measures as may be necessary to ensure that such crashes don’t reoccur.

New Information on the Egyptair Crash

Remember the Egyptair A320 which crashed into the Mediterranean, back in May?  It has sort of fallen off the radar, to misuse metaphors, but news this week emerged that traces of explosives have been found on the bodies of the crash victims.  Until now it was thought there had been a fire on board, and of course that remains a possibility.  Perhaps the fire was the result of the explosion.

The investigation continues.

A Job You Probably Don’t Want to Apply For

I’ve come across people with all sorts of strange jobs, over the years.  It never ceases to amaze me at how, in our reasonably free market economy, people can uncover opportunities to provide a product or service that is incredibly ultra-niche, but also profitable for the service provider and valuable for their customers.

But here’s a job probably few of us would ever wish.  And, worst of all, it isn’t the sort of job where ‘being kept busy’ is something you look forward to.

I’m a Doctor!  Says Who?

Most physicians I know usually have ID on them that proves they are a doctor.  Airline policies vary as for when they call for a doctor if an in-flight medical emergency occurs.  It seems to me that usually when they call for a doctor, they’re so desperately appreciative when someone responds to the call that they just rush the person to where the emergency is occurring.

But in a recent unfortunate incident on a Delta flight, a young lady who didn’t fit the stereotype of what a doctor should look like was prevented from assisting, ostensibly because she hadn’t shown any ID to prove she was indeed a doctor, as she claimed.  Apparently Delta has a policy of requiring medical professionals to prove their credentials before allowing them to assist, and on this flight, another doctor had already offered to help.

But the lady in question claims the problem was due to her color, not her qualifications, and took to Facebook to complain.  Her commentary sounds credible.  Other doctors have said they have helped on planes and never been asked to prove their qualifications, which also is in line with my perception of how these things usually go down.

Unfortunately, Delta in turn has now over-responded, and says it will no longer require medical professionals to prove they are who/what they claim to be.  There are plenty of stories of bogus doctors, in hospitals, on cruise ships, and generally everywhere (although, intriguingly, many of the bogus doctors seem to have practiced medicine with skill and positive results); and while any help is probably better than no help, is political correctness now going to force Delta flight attendants to never question anyone’s claim to being a doctor?  One would hope that some middle ground could be found.

Uber Continues to Amaze

I think I’ve managed to put my finger on one of the things that makes me really uncomfortable while watching Uber steam-roller its way into more and more cities around the world.  Regular taxi companies stolidly trudge along, and offer some element of predictability and certainty.  They have rostered drivers who commit to working specific shifts, and while at times the wait for a taxi might be high, you know that one will come eventually, and if you book in advance, you are even more certain to get a taxi more or less as requested.

But Uber drivers can work when it suits them and can stop working whenever they wish.  If there’s a mismatch between demand and supply, Uber brings in its infamous ‘surge’ pricing which sees their normally low fares double or triple, or possibly increase even more than that, in an attempt to discourage people from wanting rides, and to encourage drivers to keep working.  If that doesn’t work, the Uber app simply refuses to connect you with a driver – as I found out to my cost, with a message ‘no cars available’ being the only response I could get.

Is it really fair that Uber is forcing taxis out of business, but is replacing taxi service with selectively good and sometimes – when you most need it – dreadful service; service that is sometimes lower cost, but sometimes higher cost?

When you use a taxi in ordinary times, you should consider that part of the fare is a premium to guarantee you the taxi will also be available for you at other times.  When you walk outside the airport arrivals hall, the line of taxis may have been waiting in a holding area for two or three hours, at no cost to you.  Uber has no such guarantee, because it has no control over when its drivers will work and when they won’t work.

Yes, I still use Uber, but I no longer feel as clever or pleased when I do so.  I feel like I’m cheating.

Now, for how Uber is continuing to amaze.  Its amazing accomplishment is its ability to lose money.  This week saw news that it is expected to disclose ‘above the line’ losses of almost $1 billion for the third quarter, and apparently with a bunch of more obscured costs as well making the total loss greater (being a private company, it doesn’t need to disclose financials).

As this item headlines, it lost $800 million (or more) on $1.7 billion of net revenue.  The gross fares processed through the Uber system were $5.4 billion, so Uber is averaging a 31.5% share of fares.

There’s no part of the Uber business model that seems to be working.  The drivers are unhappy at their sometimes possibly even below-minimum-wage level net earnings, the public are unhappy when surge pricing goes into effect or when there are no Uber cars to be had, old fashioned taxi companies hate this competition which truly has to be considered unfair, and Uber’s corporate operation is losing money at an impressive rate of about $10 million every day!

Oh, did we mention the company, while essentially not owning a single car, not directly employing a single driver, and losing money, even in its home US market, is valued at $69 billion?

Lyft, way behind Uber in most measures, says it will keep its quarterly losses below $150 million each quarter.

And if you’d care to invest a few billion in ‘David’s Car Service’ I’ll promise to keep my losses below $100 million every quarter…..

Tesla Continues to Disappoint

Talking about extraordinarily highly valued companies that lose money, Tesla continues to be regularly in the news; more to the point, there is a steady groundswell of stories of ‘better than Tesla’ electric cars due to be released in the next couple of years.  Whether it be similarly priced high end cars that may have better features (and even better performance) or more realistically affordable cars that offer comparable range and similar features, there’s no part of the Tesla product/feature lineup that isn’t under growing threat.

Well, at least until now Tesla has had one unique feature that promised to differentiate itself from other car manufacturers.  Its free fast charging network of ‘Superchargers’ across the country (and world).

But Tesla continues to marginalize this, too.  Its original promise was simple – unlimited charging at its chargers.  Period.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Unlimited.

Tesla started to squirm and seek to get out of that simple and strong product offer by telling people who were charging their cars at local charging stations that they were supposed to only use charging stations when out of their local area.  Tesla also makes it as hard as possible for local drivers to get free charging by, much of the time, simply locating their Superchargers away from major population centers.  For example, in the Seattle area, the nearest Superchargers, from downtown Seattle, are 67 miles north, 83 miles south, or 105 miles east.  That’s a long way to do just to get $5 – $10 worth of free electricity!

Then it said that for new cars purchased from 1 Jan 2017, they will only come with 1,000 miles worth of free electricity.  How much will additional electricity cost?  Tesla says it will “cost less than the price of filling up a comparable gas car”.    That’s a rather vague statement isn’t it, particularly with gas prices now embarked on a steady rise upwards once more.

If we look at the current cost, a Tesla uses about 350 watt hours to drive a mile.  Let’s say that if it was a petrol driven car, it would get 25 mpg.  With electricity at perhaps 11c/kWhr and petrol at say $3/gallon, that means a cost of 3.85c to drive a mile on electricity or 12c to drive a mile on gas.  So, what exactly does “cost less than a comparable gas car” mean?  Does it mean 4c/mile?  6c?  8c?  10c?  11.5c?

Why won’t Tesla tell us?  They promised details ‘later this year’ when making the announcement on 7 Nov, but as of 23 December, that announcement – like so much else to do with Tesla – is already late.

This week, Tesla made another change to its charging policies.  Although it used to try to make lemonade from lemons, and happily say that while your car was charging for 20 – 30 minutes (long enough to add another 120 – 150 miles of range to the car), that would give you time to go and use the restrooms, grab a bite to eat, have a cup of coffee, etc.  But now Tesla says that if you don’t move your car away from the charging stand within five minutes of the charge being completed, they’ll start charging you 40c a minute for blocking the charger.

There’s a measure of fairness about this, particularly at the rare locations where there is sometimes a line of cars waiting to access a charger.  But couldn’t Tesla simply make their charging cables longer, and redesign the station layouts, so that one charger could service any of perhaps four or even more cars parked around the charging unit?

At what point does a fair cost recovery become an outrageous rip-off?  At what point do Tesla’s growing raft of fees and restrictive policies for its Superchargers upset the economics of ownership to encourage people to return back to gas powered cars?  Or, if not that, at least cause Tesla to lose one of its few remaining competitive advantages, just at the point where competitors are poised to start pressuring it (the GM Bolt has already started shipping, albeit in very limited quantities so far, and interestingly, the consistent theme in generally positive reviews is the need for a nationwide fast charging network).

Consumer Alert – Artwork Sales on Cruise Ships

An excellent article appeared last week ‘exposing’ the – well, let’s be carefully polite and call it ‘over-valued hype’ that seems to be associated with the common practice of selling artwork on cruises.

The story the article tells is far from new, and it should be obvious to anyone that you’re unlikely to get any sort of bargains for anything while on a cruise.  However, the art company seems to consistently ring up big sales, and so it is a tale worth retelling, and a story worth reading.

The real core of the problem is that the cruise lines, getting doubtless rich slices of the action from the art house selling the pictures, has no motivation to intercede in some of the more questionable actions.  And, to be fair, no-one is pointing a gun at any passenger’s head, forcing them to bid and buy on overpriced art.  But, please, make sure you are aware of these challenges before attending an art auction yourself.

You know the saying – look around the room, and if you don’t see the sucker, that is because the sucker is you.

And Lastly This Week….

Not only has the denaturing of our Christmas celebration seen the eliding of the word ‘Christmas’ from phrases where it seems essential, such as Christmas Cards and Christmas Trees, but I’ve noticed this year many fewer Christmas carols on the radio, being replaced instead with more safely generic ‘holiday music’.  Plenty of Snoopy’s Christmas and Rudolph, but not so many choirs singing Christmas carols.

Oh – apologies to my many Jewish friends.  In talking about Christmas, it is absolutely not intended to overlook or denigrate the important Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – the eight day and night ‘Festival of Lights’ commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem and the miraculous longevity of some candle oil, either.  I have to say that in turn, while Jews of course don’t celebrate Christmas, and while we of both faiths occasionally get exasperated by the overly commercial and pervasive nature of something that was originally a religious holiday and nothing more, I’ve never met a single Jew who has been offended by the underlying religious concept of Christmas.

So, may I close this week with a link to, not so much a Christmas carol, but to a piece from an extraordinary larger work that deserves to be played in full, repeatedly (plenty of links to the full work, often associated with either/both Christmas and Easter, when you click over to the excerpt).  This – and this other excerpt – are two of the pieces most likely to drive Christmas-haters crazy.  In response to which, there’s really only one thing to say.

Until next week, please enjoy a wonderful Christmas (or Hannukah which this year also starts this weekend) and, always, safe travels





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Dec 222016
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Voice-controlling home automation units is a great use for the Echo units.

I wrote, three weeks ago, about Amazon’s futuristic Echo and Echo Dot devices.  At the time I had only been using my Echo Dot for about a week, and I was underwhelmed by the overall experience, and disappointed at the shortfall between the science-fiction style potential of units and the real world actuality.

But, after three more weeks, I have to say the unit is growing on me.  And, talking about ‘growing’, so too is my investment in Echo devices.  I now have two of the Echo Dots, and three four (just added another one!) remote controllable switches.  They allow me to turn lights and other devices on and off simply by talking to the Echo unit, or remotely from anywhere in the world via my phone.  For example, I have a video home security system and sometimes it needs rebooting – that’s a frustration that can’t be solved when I’m away from home for several weeks, but now, no matter where I am, if the cameras go offline, I can reboot them just by remotely turning their power supply on and off.

Before going upstairs, I can say ‘Alexa, please turn the upstairs lights on’.  Well, all I need to say is ‘Alexa upstairs lights on’, but somehow it feels better with the please and as a proper sentence.  When I’m going to bed, I simply say ‘Alexa, turn all lights off’ – and if something startled me in the night, I could also say ‘Alexa, turn all lights on’.

I find the ability to ask Alexa for weather information is quicker and easier than checking my phone or computer.  ‘Alexa, weather’ is all it takes.  Or, ‘Alexa, what is the forecast for tomorrow?’ or ‘Alexa, will it snow this week?’.  And so on.  It is – sort of – fun discovering how one can phrase weather related questions and what answers will be forthcoming.

It is also great to have Alexa play music on command.  ‘Alexa, please play some Christmas music’ seems to work very well currently.

I like to be able to set alarms to remind me to do things, but as noted in the earlier review, it is frustrating there is no way to label such alarms.  More than once Alexa has sounded the alarm tone, and I’ve blanked out for a minute while trying to remember what I wanted the alarm to remind me to do.

If the Echo was a phone, there would be ‘an app for that’.  In the case of Echo, apps are called ‘Skills’.  But, even though there are something more than 4000 such skills (here’s Amazon’s list of skills), there is no skill that allows you to set reminders or timers or alarms and have a custom spoken advice provided when the alarm sounds to remind you of what the alarm is for.

The Unresolved Interface/Screen Challenge

This strikes at the heart of the issue I touched on in the earlier review – the need for a screen to supplement the voice interface.  Certainly, in this case, the need for the screen could be prevented by a simple bit of extra programming – why not just have the ‘skill’ record a sound clip of you saying what the event/alarm is for and play that back when the alarm is sounded.

So the largely needless frustrations of the Echo and its voice only interface still hover closely in the background.  Using it reminds me a bit of the brave early adopters a couple of years ago who forced themselves to pretend that their smart watch is truly useful and a net productivity boost.  I feel most smart watches remain gimmicky drains on productivity, and of little value because they don’t replace or combine other functions, they just add one more gadget to the list of ‘stuff’ you already have.  (See my recent article on smart watches.)

There are also cooking/recipe/drink mixing type skills, but these also seem to be more gimmicks that practical.  When you’re following a recipe, the ability to see the recipe, all at once, on a screen or piece of paper, really helps.  Having to listen to it being recited, and then replay it regularly, or perhaps, even more counter-intuitively, choosing to then write down a summary of the recipe on a piece of paper – why go to all this bother when one can just refer to the recipe directly on one’s phone or tablet?

Sure, asking about the weather is a good use, as is remotely controlling lights and other household appliances.  But when you have to go through a laborious ‘conversation’ complete with one or more misrecognized words that you have to correct in the process, just to do something you could do in half or quarter the time on your phone or computer, that’s not sensible at all.  Too many of the skills currently seem to be ‘proof of concept’ gimmicks rather than real world useful apps that are better/more convenient than similar apps on one’s phone, tablet, or computer.

But, on balance, my thinking now leans more to agreeing that there’s enough of use and value to support the small $40 – $50 investment in buying an Echo Dot.

Remote Controlled Plugs, Light Switches, etc

These new smart devices are starting to be truly useful, and make a great accompaniment to an Echo.  Sure, you can also control them through their own smart phone and tablet apps, but the indolent ease of just calling out ‘Alexa, turn on the bedroom light’ beats finding your phone, unlocking it, finding the lighting app, opening it, clicking the icon for the bedroom lights, and then putting the phone down again.

What sort of remote controlled devices might you want to get?

Light Switches

Note that there are plenty of different types of remote/wireless light switches available.  Some are regular on/off (ie single pole, single throw – SPST) switches, good for replacing single switch controlled lights.  Installing these is half simple but potentially half difficult.  Sure, you just unscrew the switch plate and then pull out the old light switch and install the new smart switch, but there are two potential challenges.

The first is that the switch needs to be able to power itself so it can be ‘listening’ for your commands, so you need not just the main ‘Phase’ line that a normal light switch has, but you also need to have a tap from the Neutral line too.  Hopefully your switch box has a neutral line running through it too.

The second challenge is the size of the smart switch.  Sure, it will fit perfectly into a regular box, but that assumes there isn’t a great big mass of wires all stuffed into the back of the box.  If there is, it becomes quite a tight fit.

In addition to regular on/off switches, you might have some lights in your house that have two switches controlling them – one at each end of the hallway, or at the top and bottom of a flight of stairs.  Such switches need to be ‘single pole double throw’; I’m not aware of SPDT remote light switch units, but I’m sure they’ll turn up soon enough.

The other type of light switch commonly found is a dimmer switch (SPST type).  There are some remote control dimmer light switches now available.

General Power Outlets

The easiest way of making a regular power outlet remotely switchable is simply to get an ‘extension plug’ unit that plugs into the socket, and which in turn other devices plug into.  That way there is no rewiring or replacement required, and it is easy to move the plugs around depending on what and where you wish to remotely control.

Unfortunately, increasingly we have smart devices that can’t be simply controlled by turning on and off the mains power to them.  Sure, turning off their power will always turn the device off, but many times, turning the power back on again won’t also turn the device back on too.  You need to see if such devices remember their ‘state’ such that, if they are on and running, then if the power is remotely turned off, not by their own on/off switch, but by in effect ‘unplugging’ them from the wall, will they restart again when they are ‘plugged back in again’ or will they need to then be restarted by pressing their switch.

Happily, it is easy enough to test that simply by unplugging, pausing, then replugging the switched on device and see if it turns on again.  If it does, it can be appropriately remotely controlled by one of these smart plugs.

Some of these remotely controlled plugs will also report information on how much power is being used through them, but much as we love meaningless data, we’ve resisted the lure of getting them.

Whether it is by voice through an Echo, or using your phone or tablet anywhere in the world, you can control your home’s thermostat.


The Nest is the best known smart thermostat, but there are many others, including ones that seem to be every bit as useful and functional as the Nest, but much less expensive.

Imagine if you go away for a week or two over winter.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to turn up the temperature a few hours before arriving home so you get back to a warm house rather than a freezingly cold one.  Or, in summer, you can start cooling the house down before your return, the same way.

Or simply, when at home, if you want to nudge the temperature up or down, you don’t have to get up and go to wherever the unit is.  Just call out to your Echo ‘Alexa, turn the temperature up two degrees’ (or whatever you wish).

Security Devices

There is nothing new about security cameras that wirelessly stream video and sound to you.  That is good, but it is only a one-way stream.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to remotely control the camera – to swivel around and zoom in, etc.  And, wouldn’t it be really good to be able to not only receive audio, but to send back your own voice if necessary, too.  (I use this with my dog – being able to watch her remotely and tell her ‘No!’ when she starts to think naughty thoughts has been tremendously valuable.

The other tremendously useful application is with a front door ‘bell’/intercom/video.  Imagine, when someone rings your doorbell, you can see them through a video camera and speak to them through an intercom – from anywhere in the world, not just the other side of the door.  This completely obscures where you are yourself.  It is a common tactic for house burglars to go from door to door; they’ll ring the doorbell.  If someone answers, they pretend to be selling something or looking for someone at the ‘wrong address’; but if no-one answers, they know the coast is clear and they can burgle the house.  Now you can give the impression of being at home – you can even turn lights on and off as part of ‘answering the door’ remotely.

Even better, if the person is an authorized person who you wish to allow to access your home, you can remotely unlock the door and allow them in, while monitoring them on internal security cameras and being available to answer questions.  Now you no longer need to destroy an entire day while waiting for a workman who, you are told, will arrive ‘some time between 9am and 5pm’; go to work, and spend your day as your normally do, and interact with the person remotely when they arrive.

Amazon have a large line-up of such devices at all price points and with a huge range of functionality.


You definitely want to start thinking about adding some ‘smart home’ remotely controllable devices to your residence.  Most of these can be controlled through an Echo unit too, making these fascinating and fun units even more useful.

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Dec 092016
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The last of the 'magnificent seven'. RIP, John Glenn. See last item.

The last of the ‘magnificent seven’. RIP, John Glenn. See last item.

Good morning

Wow.  What a week it has been.

I wrote, last Friday, that we had ten people who had chosen to join our Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour next June – already a high level of participation, this early.  I don’t know what created the spark, but we’ve had another ten people join this week, bringing us now to a wonderful twenty people on the tour.  The increase in numbers has seen the tour price (which is based on the number participating) drop three times, and we’re now very close to being full.

I’ve also rejigged the itinerary a bit, swapping two single night stays for one two night stay (the fewer the hotel changes, the better!), and now enabling us to include a new stop at Glencoe; a place with an overwhelming aura (or at least, so I sense) due to what happened there 324 years ago.  Definitely a great new inclusion in the itinerary.

So if you’ve been thinking ‘maybe I’ll come’ please do quickly confirm your interest in joining what is becoming a wonderful group of fellow Travel Insiders.

But wait – there’s more.  As you may know, we have operated two extremely successful tours to the annual Food and Wine festival in Hawke’s Bay, NZ – one just now finished, and one a couple of years before.  The locals were first curious and bemused that people would travel all the way from the US to attend their festival, and now appreciative and eager to see more – our group was even featured on the front page of the local newspaper this time.

After discussions with the Hawke’s Bay Tourism people, they have appointed The Travel Insider as their international marketing partner for this festival.  So our people will have even more of a VIP special status next time, and – oh yes.  We’ll offer the tour again next year, with a slight itinerary tweak too as a result of suggestions this year (two nights in Martinborough).

So, here’s another pre-Christmas tempting treat for you – not just our Scotland tour in June, but our New Zealand tour in Oct/Nov.  Whether one appeals or the other (or both!), why not check them out and consider joining us.  They are what I consider ‘mature’ tours – I’ve done them repeatedly before, and we’ve pretty much got them as fully optimized as is possible, with the result being a wonderful shared experience for all who come.

And now, to someone who is, sadly, very controversial.  A politician dared to question the outrageous costs of the new Air Force One program earlier this week.  In doing so, he said nothing new that I’ve not already earlier said here – this is an astonishingly over-priced program to replace planes that don’t need replacing.

A rare example of a politician actually complaining about government waste.  But rather than win praise from all quarters, he was lambasted and ridiculed.  Not because of what he said, but who he is – our President-Elect, Mr Trump.  Whether it is persuading Ford and Carrier to staunch the flow of workers offshore, or encouraging Softbank to invest $50 billion and create 50,000 new jobs, whether it is the soaring stock markets, or the statement by US Steel that it might restore 10,000 jobs, it seems that nothing Mr Trump gets involved in is appreciated.

But let’s ignore the politician and simply look at what he said about the Air Force One program.  Which is what I do in a lengthy attached article.  It had been going to simply be a short piece in the roundup, but the more carefully I looked at the issues, the longer it became, until it is now a 4200 word free-standing piece.

What else this week?  Please continue reading for

  • Norwegian Finally Granted Approval
  • Does Europe Really Need Another Low Cost Airline?
  • Alaska/Virgin America Merger Approved
  • Australia and NZ Disagree on Tourist Fees
  • NZ Passports – Usually Good, But Sometimes Unexpectedly Bad
  • Is There a Monorail in Your Future?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Norwegian Finally Granted Approval

At last.  After three disgraceful years of delay, Norwegian’s application to add extra flights between the US and Ireland – an application that should have taken three days or, at the most, three weeks to approve, has finally been given the okay by the DoT.

The DoT didn’t have a legal leg to stand on to deny the application, but seemed to allow itself to be browbeaten and bullied by the US airlines and their unions, and the considerable political pressure these influential groups could muster.  So in a shameful example of ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ they simply did nothing at all.  They didn’t approve the application and they didn’t deny it, they just did nothing.  For three years.

But now, finally, and after sorrowfully conceding there was no way they could refuse the application, it has now been granted.  I wrote in support of the airline during the call for public submissions in the last round of DoT vacillating.

It will take a while for Norwegian to start growing a new generation of low cost air services between multiple US cities and Ireland, and of course, with connecting service on to other European cities (pity poor Aer Lingus).  But, give them time, and as fast as they can get new planes, expect new low cost flights appearing.  Amazingly, many of the routes will be operated by 737 planes.  I remember when a 737 was viewed as nothing more than a short haul regional jet, and international flights always implied a ‘special’ and invariably much bigger plane.  But now the common humble 737 has become even a trans-Atlantic capable airplane.  Progress?

Does Europe Really Need Another Low Cost Airline?

If this question asked about the need here in the US for another low cost airline, the answer would be emphatically yes.  But, astonishing, Europe – you know, the overly protective, rule-bound, bureaucratic nightmare of an agglomeration of countries and national carriers and regulations, is also an unlikely home to a thriving collection of low cost airlines, offering extraordinarily bargain priced fares to fliers while managing to make money for the airlines and their shareholders.

Ryanair is merely the best known of these, and more recently, Norwegian is becoming a factor, along with plenty of others.

News this week comes of a new airline, with its unlikely parents being Etihad and the TUI travel group.  They will be recycling elements of, and planes from, TUI, Air Berlin, and Fly Niki.

It is hard to see what the new airline will offer that isn’t already abundantly provided by other low cost carriers.  Maybe they could think of setting up in the US, instead.  Well – bad joke.  Our restrictions on the foreign ownership of airlines make that impossible, absent a majority US shareholding and control of the company.  Which brings us to the next point.

Alaska/Virgin America Merger Approved

Sadly, the last time off-shore airline investors tried to start a new US airline, it didn’t work so well for them or us.  The airline in question was Virgin America, which struggled to get off the ground, due to the restrictions on how the airline could be funded and how it could be managed.

The net result was a smugly self-conscious airline that prided itself on having purple lighting on its planes, loud ugly pop music playing, and, well – nothing much else.  The airline struggled due to never being generously capitalized, so that it was always lacking the capital to grow, and it failed to create a substantial marketplace presence or awareness, made worse by a conspicuous lack of partnerships with other airlines.  There ended up as being too few reasons to choose to fly them, and the airline struggled for years while never making good on the promise, potential, and hope many of us had.

After Virgin America put itself up for sale, Alaska Airlines ended up agreeing to pay quite a generous sum for the carrier back in April, and now, eight months later, has finally been granted approval to merge by the Department of Justice.

As a salutary fop to the concepts of anti-trust and competition, the DoJ issed a trivial requirement that Alaska Airlines curtail some code share services with AA.

Alaska Airlines previously was the sixth largest US airline, and Virgin America the eighth.  Combined, they become the fifth largest.

So, it could be argued that they have created a gap for a new discount carrier – although in reality, Virgin America was never a discount carrier.  It was really a nothing.  It wasn’t a strong regional carrier, it definitely wasn’t a national carrier, it wasn’t a discount carrier.  And now it is no more, other than an Alaska Airlines brand that probably will be quietly de-emphasized and retired.

As for a new discount carrier, who would choose to launch one?

Australia and NZ Disagree on Tourist Fees

Australia and NZ disagree?  Not really news, that one!

But the topic of the disagreement is of interest to us.  I was writing, delightedly, a couple of weeks ago about how the Australian tourist industry used an infographic to explain and persuade their politicians about the ill-advisedness of increasing the levy it charges all international visitors.

This week, the NZ government is considering raising its levy on international visitors, and is being encouraged to do so by the NZ tourism operators.

Why the totally opposite perspective on things?  My take :  The Australian tourism operators (who I’ve always viewed as excellent businessmen and a pleasure to deal with) see the issue as potentially reducing the number of visitors who enter Australia.  The NZ tourism operators (who, sadly, I’ve had my share of disagreements with in the past) instead see it as the government raising money to promote their businesses for them, saving them money in the process.

The NZ fee is also designed to hit foreigners more than local NZers, which is always a safe strategy, politically speaking.  But will the increased costs such a fee presents end up reducing the number of visitors and therefore creating a fall-off in tourist numbers and a net reduction in net tourist revenues generated?  My guess is that it will indeed end up harming the industry as a whole, the same as Australia feared it would in their country, and the same as it does in most other countries.

A bad tax and hopefully one that doesn’t get imposed.  Details here.

NZ Passports – Usually Good, But Sometimes Unexpectedly Bad

Here’s a fairly formulistic self-congratulatory note in a NZ newspaper about how great it is to have a NZ passport.  Visas are often not needed when traveling, or, if they are, countries charge less for a visa to a NZ passport holder than they do to citizens of other countries.  Big deal.

But here’s an interesting second article, which points out a possible problem with a NZ passport.  Perhaps, in some countries, the border/immigration people don’t know where NZ is, and their wall map fails to show the country at all.  That caused problems for this hapless NZer, who doubtless now wishes he had traveled on any other sort of passport at all.


Is There a Monorail in Your Future?

For many of us, it is easy to like monorails, because they evoke memories of Disneyland, and of course, for us all at a young age, the smooth silent monorails gliding futuristically around the park grounds are amazing to behold (and to ride in).

But somehow they never really made it to ‘prime time’ in most urban public/mass transport settings.  Apart from a few special operations, like the ‘back of the buildings’ monorail in Las Vegas that is carefully hidden from obvious public view, and which has consistently underachieved and disappointed, there are no high profile successes in the ‘real world’.  Some critics saw them as ugly (especially people with office views now blocked by monorail construction!) and there are some operational challenges with monorail systems in more complex transportation networks.

So it is surprising, but encouraging, to read about how – at least in China – monorails would cost only one-sixth the cost of underground subway lines, and could be built three times faster.

Does that mean there’s a monorail coming soon to your neighborhood?  Certainly not in Seattle where a monorail project was voted down after a series of cost overruns and controversial decisions.  But if they really are six times cheaper to construct, and three times faster to get built, why aren’t we focusing on them more?  Sadly, none of the cities mentioned in the article linked above are in the US.

And Lastly This Week….

John Glenn, the nation’s oldest astronaut, died this week, aged 95.  The first man to orbit the earth, on Feb 20, 1962, his skyrocketing to fame as the nation’s darling hero made him too valuable to risk going into space a second time.  He subsequently entered politics, served four terms as a Democrat senator from OH, and in 1984 unsuccessfully tried to win the Democrat nomination for President.

In 1998, aged 77, he returned to space on the space shuttle Discovery, in what was gently criticized as a PR gimmick.  Here’s a nice obituary.

Is the doomed hotel in Pyongyang finally to open?  That’s what this article teases, but we’ll be very surprised if/when it does.  Note also that the video claiming to be of the Ryugyong Hotel is actually of the Yanggakdo Hotel, as members of our Travel Insider Tour to North Korea will assuredly recognize and remember.

And truly lastly this week, what about a toilet story – a photo pictorial of some of the most distinctive toilets around the world.

We can’t promise amazing toilets on either our Scotland or NZ Tours next year, but we can promise sufficient toilets, and of an acceptably high standard.  And we provide lots of other reasons to come on either (or both!) tours, too.

Until next week, please stay warm and enjoy safe travels






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Dec 082016
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Air Force One flies over the Statue of Liberty.

Air Force One flies over the Statue of Liberty.

President-Elect Trump managed to garner still more hate this week by daring to criticize the probably $4 billion cost associated with replacing the current two 747-200 jets that do duty as Air Force One.

Snide and snarky comments erupted every which way, and even normally mild mannered aviation industry commentators found themselves unable to contain their sarcasm.  I mean to say – the impertinence of the man, for daring to suggest that $4 billion was too much to pay for two new 747-8 planes!  What does he know about such things?

Other people, never bothered by the facts, suggested that perhaps President-Elect Trump would prefer to fly in his own 757, already dubbed ‘Trump Force One’, rather than in a new 747-8 – a risible suggestion because the new planes aren’t expected to be delivered until after the end of the second term of his presidency.

And then, perhaps unkindest of all, were the folks who said ‘It is only $4 billion, there are much more important things to focus on’.  Newsflash to such people – you can never have the word “only” next to the number four billion.  Four billion is unthinkably huge.  The classic illustration is the man on the street corner, giving away $5 bills (the classic example involves $1 bills, but let’s think big here) to everyone who walks past.  Assume he gives out a $5 bill every second, and lets have him doing this every minute, nonstop, all day and all night, 24/7/365.  How long does it take to give away the entire $4 billion?  The answer is 25 years and some change left over.  Except that, if the money was invested at even as little as 4%, he’d never stop, because the interest being earned is the same as (or more than) the rate at which he is giving the money away.

Still not convinced?  Say he had all the $5 bills in a bundle alongside him, to make it easy to hand them out.  The bills would weigh about as much as two 747-8s, and if stacked up, would make a pile a bit over 50 miles high.  Four billion is an enormous number.

Mr Trump and I are of like mind when it comes to the outrageous projected cost of the two new Air Force Ones – and note that the total program cost for their replacement is unknown at this stage, because the disclosed projections to date do not extend all the way to the actual day the planes are delivered and the final check handed over.

How Much Will the Two New Planes Actually Cost?

Some commentators have sneered at Mr Trump (well, almost all have!) and said that he can’t even get his facts straight, and is exaggerating the true cost of the two planes.  Is he?

It is true that the disclosed costs to date seem to vary from between about $2.8 and $3.1 billion, and it is true that this number is less than $4 billion.  But – these are only for program costs through 2021.  The planes are not expected to be delivered until perhaps 2025.  Those additional four years are not going to happen for free.  One could also wonder – why is it taking ten years, from the decision in 2015 until the receipt of the planes in 2025?  But that is perhaps a topic for Mr Trump to tweet about, another time!

So the people who call Mr Trump a fool and for exaggerating the total cost of the planes are probably more likely to be themselves fools.  If we’re all still here in 2025, or whenever the planes actually are delivered, let’s see what the total cost comes in at – and let’s also concede that some of the costs are likely to be ‘buried’ in all sorts of unusual and unexpected budget line items, particularly the costs for some of the planes’ more secret features and capabilities.

Indeed, the costs have already almost doubled.  This article reports the initial budgeted cost was $1.65 million and it has now grown to about $3 billion (through 2021) and says it thinks the cost of the planes (which it assesses at $800 million) would be in addition to the $3 billion budget for their modifications.

Perhaps part of the answer for ‘why so long’ and ‘why so expensive’ is that Boeing is charging a tidy $170 million just to do initial research and development into the concept of modifying the 747s to act as Air Force One.  That’s an unthinkable cost that probably will result in nothing other than Boeing announcing ‘okay, we’ve spent the $170 million, and we’ve determined that we can indeed modify the 747s to make them into Air Force Ones’, and the provision of some pretty ‘artist impression’ sketches of what the planes will look like.

Now, remember when I said that $4 billion is an unthinkably enormous amount of money?  Well, so too is $170 million.  Let’s say Boeing pays its engineers and scientists $120,000 a year, and has associated other costs of employment of $50,000 a year per person.  $170 million would pay for 1,000 of these very expensive man years of work.  One can only ponder how it costs Boeing $170 million to determine that a new 747-8 could be adapted to Air Force One specifications, very similar to how their earlier 747-200 previously had been already.

Do We Need to Replace the Current 747-200 Planes?

There are plenty of facile comments referring to the 747-200s as nearing the end of their life.  But what actually is their life?  By what measure are these two planes nearing the end of that life?

The Air Force’s main bomber (the Boeing B-52) was designed in the late 1940s, and the planes still in active duty service today first flew in the late 1950s/early 1960s – about sixty years ago.  Some sources suggest the plane will continue in active service for a total life span of 100 years.  Maybe we should convert a B-52 and make that Air Force One?

Most of the Air Force’s fighters are also older than the 747-200s (the two current AF1 planes entered service in 1990).  Clearly the concept of life span is subjective.

Furthermore, the AF1 planes have fewer flight hours and fewer takeoff/landing cycles on them than is typical for most commercial 747s, so simply applying commercial life concepts isn’t accurate.

So, do we need to replace the currrent 747-200 planes?  No, we definitely don’t.  Certainly, modern electronics have changed tremendously, but the solution to that is simply to refit the planes, not to totally replace them.

What Plane Should Replace the Current 747-200 Planes?

When (or if) we replace the two 747-200s, what sort of plane should be used as a replacement?

Even if we agree that the planes should be built by Boeing rather than Airbus, why does it make sense to choose a plane that is, today, almost obsolete – the 747?  A plane which costs more to buy and more per hour to operate than any other Boeing plane?

Is there any reason other than because it is the biggest American passenger plane, to choose it over a newer design and style of plane, in an early/mature part of its life cycle, such as a 777 or 787?  Some models of these newer planes could save $100 million each over the comparable purchase costs of a 747.  Or why not a 767, in line with the Air Force’s purchase of 767s as in-flight refuelling tankers – that would mean there is an efficient spares and maintenance network already in place.  A 767 would be the least expensive of all the options.

Historically, the reason for choosing the 747 was the need for the plane to have four engines for greater safety.  But these days, every commercial plane, except for the 747 and A380 (neither of which are selling in any appreciable quantity) has two engines, and most are rated as safe enough to fly five hours or more away from the nearest runway.  How safe do we need AF1 to be?

If the concept of ‘more engines are better’ is one that the nameless authorities who make these decisions refuse to budge from, well, isn’t that another reason to choose an eight-engined B-52?

If the twin engined planes are – as they have convincingly shown themselves to be – so amazingly safe and acceptable for ‘ordinary people’ surely they are safe enough for the President?  Or, if normal planes are too dangerous for the President, why do we accept the risk of flying in them ourselves?  From my selfish perspective, while there are thousands of people, all of whom could be and would love to be President, there’s only one of me, of my daughter, and of other people closest to me – I want their lives to be valued at least as highly as a politician’s life!

Some people might say that the President needs to have the biggest plane possible.  But I challenge them to explain why that is.  The Prime Minister of Britain travels around the world on normal commercial airplanes.  Okay, so he is seated in first class, and maybe even is allowed to check an extra bag for free.  But look who is behind him in business and coach class – there is a plane load of ordinary passengers also on board.  The same goes for most other heads of state.

We are told the US President has to have special communications in case he decides to initiate World War 3 in the middle of a flight.  This, and various other somewhat specious claims would suggest our President is a virtual dictator, and unable to delegate any Presidential power, even for a few hours while on a plane.  Maybe that is so, but does he need an enormous 747-8 for this?  All he needs are a couple of fancy radios, surely, and with modern electronics being so amazing, they probably weigh only 20 lbs a piece and are each no larger than the size of a regular carry-on bag.  After all, when he is driving around, there is just the one briefcase sized ‘football’ that carries all the authorization gadgetry and release codes needed; why is it when he chooses to fly, he then needs the largest plane the US makes?  For that matter, with most planes now having internet, isn’t all he needs a computer with a secure VPN connection?

We also again note that the heads of government for other nuclear powers (such as Britain) seem able to come up with some arrangement for while they’re enjoying an ordinary flight on an ordinary plane.

Another reason for the big plane is a claim the President needs to travel with a large staff.  But, does he really?  How large?  Perhaps a case could be made for a dozen other people as part of a traveling delegation, half a dozen aides, some secretaries, assistants, and of course, some cabin crew and extra pilots, a dozen Secret Service agents, and surely that is enough – less than 50 in total.  Try it yourself – make a list of all the people who the President couldn’t manage without having personally present for 12 hours, or a list of all the people he needs to travel with for whatever reason.

A 747-8 can hold 410 passengers in a mix of coach, business and first classes, and is rated to have up to 605 passengers in total.  Isn’t that overkill?

Do we really need to provide free travel to a horde of hangers-on and journalists, and, if we do, must they be given first class type seating?  Wouldn’t premium economy or business class seating be acceptable?

Okay, we get the concept of the President having an office for private meetings on board, and we don’t even begrudge him a private suite for sleeping/showering/changing in either, and perhaps a couple of other private offices too for other people.  And even if we allow for 50 other people traveling, on a 777 or 787 with say seven business or high-end premium economy seats across, that is only six or seven rows of seats that need to be placed at the back.  Allow for a generous 44″ seat pitch, and seven rows, each of say seven seats, and you need only 25 linear feet of space on the plane for 49 people in business class seating.

Have there been any suggestions the 747-200 planes were too small?  For that matter, how did presidents ever manage on the earlier, very much smaller, 707 planes?  Why does a modern president need so much more space?  As best I’m aware, the 747-200 has always been considered generously spacious.  The 747-8 is massively larger than the 747-200.  It is 20 ft longer, has a much larger upper deck, and weighs 485,300 lbs instead of  375,100 lbs.

So – does our President need the biggest 747 ever built?  We’ll agree he probably should have a plane.  And a spare.  But a 747-8?  No way.  Surely a 777 or 787 would be more than sufficient.  Or a B-52.  🙂

How Much Do Normal 747-8 Planes Cost ?

Many commentators have also uncritically quoted the cost of a 747-8 as part of the overall program cost.  Boeing lists the plane for $378.5 million, and this has been more or less the cost quoted.

But unless you are the kind of person who always happily pays the ‘second sticker’ price on a car, you’ll know that Boeing has probably never sold a plane, in its entire corporate life, at full sticker price.  While the real prices it sells planes for are subject to some guesswork, 40% discounts are far from uncommon, and with Boeing being desperate to get any orders it can for the 747-8, it is reasonable to expect that the actual selling price of a 747-8 is no more than $200 million and – in the unlikely event the government drove a hard bargain – potentially could be less than $190 million each.

About the $4 billion

Okay, we’ve no idea how much a super-fancy radio costs, or what it costs to add an air-to-air refueling capability, or to stick some IR jammers onto the tail of the plane.  But we can make some guesses about some of the costs of a new Air Force One, and we’ll aim way high on the costs for other things.  Walk through this with us, and see if you can see where the $4 billion will go.

Buying the planes

First, if AF1 is to be a 747-8, the cost of buying the planes – before customization – should not exceed $200 million each.  We could save $50 – 100 million each on purchase costs, and who knows how much on operational costs, if we chose a smaller 777 or 787.

Deluxe/executive custom fit-out

Second, a deluxe luxury/executive package to turn a 747-8 into a private jet generally is sometimes quoted at costing around the $100 million mark.

In truth, our President doesn’t need ultra-extravagant luxury and gold plated bathroom fittings; but at the same time, it is fair and reasonable to have it well fitted out, and with perhaps slightly less plastic than is normally to be found in a modern passenger jet.

So we expect that the $100 million might be able to be reduced somewhat, and indeed, it should then be reduced substantially further because of a ‘quantity discount’ for two.  The custom costs for outfitting a luxury/private plane in part reflect the one-off bespoke nature of everything and the up-front design/development costs; if two planes are to be done at the same time, the second plane should be much less expensive than the first.  But we’ll keep to the $100 million figure, while noting how extravagantly ‘over the top’ this number is.

 Air to air refueling

We admit.  We’ve no idea how much it costs to add an air to air refueling option to a plane – it isn’t a standard option offered by Boeing!  But on the other hand, it is plain simple ordinary and boring stuff, not rocket science.  We’re talking about a bit of hose and pipe, a few valves and fittings and other assorted plumbing.  There are so many different variations on air to air refueling equipment already in use in the Air Force – including on the current 747-200s, that we’d expect there is something off the shelf that could be added with little drama or undue cost.

Now, remember my earlier point that even $1 million is a lot of money?  How much pipe and hose and fitting do you think you could buy for that?  An incredible amount!  But let’s allow $10 million per plane, just for the air to air refueling.

Air stairs

For security reasons the plane has to have a set of air stairs built into it, so if something goes wrong, the President can still get on or off the plane without any ground support resources.  Many planes have air stairs already – there’s nothing very special about them, and they are easy to add; the current 747-200s have them from a lower cargo hold level door so as to make them shorter and simpler.  $100,000 to add air stairs?  Let’s call it $1 million.  No, let’s be even more profligate and call it $5 million – and if you can explain/rationalize/justify spending $5 million on a simple bit of aluminum unfolding stairs, then please call Boeing – they’ll be sure to add you on staff immediately!

Special and secure communications

This is one of the things that ‘experts’ say as if it is a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.  They put on a meaningful tone of voice and adopt a superior expression that implies ‘you couldn’t possibly second guess us on this’ and then tell us that this is essential, vital, and – of course – expensive.

Those three claims, in the order just listed, are true, true, and nonsense.  All the secure communications equipment needed on the Air Force One planes is already in existence, in use, in other places already.  We just need two more sets of the current secure comms equipment that is widely used through all our Defense Forces.  Some $10,000 radios – well, let’s allow for a military ‘non-discount’ and allow them to puzzlingly increase in cost to $100,000 radios.  A scrambled fax machine, perhaps.  And, exactly, what else?  Nothing else.  That’s all that is needed.  What else would a plane need that isn’t already contained within each of the probably dozen different copies of the presidential limousine?  If it can be squeezed into the limo, surely it doesn’t need an entire 747-8 to hold it.

Let’s now go wild and crazy, and allow not just for $100,000 per plane, and not just $1 million, but let’s allow for unthinkable extra costs and make it $10 million per plane for whatever fancy comms gear might be required.

Electronically hardening the plane

A modern day form of vulnerability is an EMP – a blast of electromagnetic energy when a nuclear device detonates, and which can fry electronics for potentially a thousand miles in every direction.  The military assure us that they’ve already ‘hardened’ their equipment to protect it from such EMP attacks.  Fortunately, a plane is 95% protected from EMP effects to start with because it creates most of what is called a ‘Faraday cage’ – a way of blocking the EMP effects.

We’ll assume there are some remaining EMP vulnerabilities in the 747-8 to start with, and so we’ll allow a reasonable sum to do the necessary testing and then to harden both planes.  A few million dollars for testing (there are EMP test facilities already available) and then some millions of dollars to resolve any vulnerabilities.  What do you think – $5 million per plane?  Let’s double that, and call it $10 million, then double it again and call it $20 million.

Physically hardening the plane

How about protecting the plane if people are shooting at it?  What about if a fighter plane (from where, exactly?) suddenly attacks it with machine guns/cannon?  (We’ll talk about missiles separately.)  Or maybe a bomb goes off close to the plane?

We are proudly told that the present Air Force One planes can continue flying even if a nuclear weapon explodes on the ground beneath them.  That’s actually not as amazingly impressive as you might think (and almost certainly has a disclaimer about how large a device it is that explodes beneath them, too).  The plane at altitude can have as much as eight miles of vertical distance between the ground and itself.  This page tells us that a 1 megaton device has a 1 psi overpressure blast radius of 7.4 miles – 1 psi is described as ‘residences are moderately damaged, commercial buildings sustain minimal damage’.  Even normal planes may be able to withstand that with little more effect than flying through a thunderstorm.

As you know, if you’ve ever looked at the ‘skin’ of a plane while boarding, it is surprisingly thin, and made out of an aluminum alloy (or composite plastic even).  That’s not going to stop any sort of ‘kinetic attack’ – ie bullets, or explosions.  There’s an easy solution.  Simply add armor plating.

By way of example, the Presidential limousine has 8″ thick doors, and is said to weigh in the order of 15,000 – 20,000 lbs.  That’s probably 10,000 – 15,000 lbs more than a regular car of similar dimensions would weigh.

Which points to a problem.  The 747-8 weighs 485,300 lbs empty, with a maximum landing weight of 763,000 lbs (in its freighter form) and a maximum take-off weight of 987,000 lbs.  So we could add about 180,000 lbs of extra material to the empty plane.  But if it takes two or three times extra for the weight of a steel vehicle to make it reasonably secure, how many more times than 485,300 lbs would we have to add to the aluminum/composite plane to give it a similar high degree of armor?

Clearly, this is totally not possible.  But some selective hardening of some selected parts of the plane would certainly happen.  However, this is no big deal – it is low tech type work, and is not likely to add more than a few million dollars to the plane.  Each of the presidential limos are suggested to cost somewhere between $300k and $1.5 million, which suggests armor plating isn’t ridiculously expensive.  But let’s allow $10 million per plane for this type of strengthening.

Presidential escape pod

Every source always maintains there is no such thing as a presidential escape pod on the Air Force One planes.  I don’t believe that.  And if there isn’t, I’d say ‘Why not?’ and suggest there should be.

In its simplest form it wouldn’t need to be anything more sophisticated than a simple zero/zero ejection seat.  Half a million dollars perhaps for a pair of those.

In a more sophisticated form, all it needs to be is something that falls out of the bottom of the plane and then pops a parachute to fall gently to the ground.  Sure, it would be necessary to pre-cut a trap-door for the pod to fall through, and probably move some load bearing beams around, and reroute some wiring.  Let’s call that a $10 million item.  Oh, okay.  Let’s double it  $20 million per plane for some sort of ejection/survival device (and remember that we’re allowing for the cost of something we’re told doesn’t exist!).

Defensive measures

How about the risk of attack from a missile – either launched from the ground or from a plane?  That’s definitely something to consider.  But these days even ordinary commercial airplanes are starting to include anti-missile defenses – detectors that spot incoming missiles by their heat flares,  with matching laser jammers to burn out/blind the heat seeking ‘eye’ of the missile.  Add some lower tech flares and chaff dispensers as well – all of this being ordinary ‘off the shelf’ type stuff such as you’d find in most other Air Force planes and military transports.  How much for that?  A couple of million?  Shall we call it $10 million per plane?

Active counter-measures

This is ultra speculative; we don’t know if there are plans to enhance the plane’s ability from beyond being able to defend itself to being able to mount a counter attack against enemy threats.  Might it have a ‘pod’, similar to what new stealth-designed planes have, that can pop out of the bottom of the plane and then launch various ‘fun stuff’ towards air and land threats?

We’ll guess this might be the case, and we’ll go wild and crazy and allow $50 million for these capabilities (there’ll need to be fuselage modifications and strengthening, perhaps rerouting some of the internal wiring and other systems).

A fancy paint job

Oh yes, we need to paint the plane in Air Force One colors.  Let’s toss in another $100,000 for that, in case Boeing doesn’t do it already, for free.

Adding It All Up

Okay, so how much have we spent?  Adding up all the items above shows a total cost of about $435 million per plane.  $870 million for two.  Let’s now allow for waste, management oversight, and other sundry overhead, and call it a total project for $1 billion.

Now, your turn.  See if you can fairly add another $3 billion to the costs above.  And, as motivation, if you can’t, you have to agree to say in public, ‘Donald Trump is right’.

Of course, the real issue is nothing to do with our President-Elect, although we have to thank him for raising it publicly.  I’m happy to even agree to double the costs (which in many cases I’ve doubled once or twice already beyond what seems reasonable).  If we leave the plane purchase costs the same and double the development costs, that brings us up to $1.34 billion.  Which is still only one third the probable costs, as seems likely (but which still may increase between now and 2025).

Which exposes the really big question.  If this single, simple, project, can be reduced two thirds in cost, and potentially reduced still further if we switch from a 747 to a smaller plane, how many other government programs out there can also be halved, without losing any of their effectiveness?

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