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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

Apr 132017

One of Germany’s many – and all exquisitely beautiful – Christmas markets.

Our Christmas Markets cruises are always popular, and each year I try to improve on the previous year’s experience.  With this being at least the tenth time we have offered the experience, you might think there is little left to change or improve.

We think we can and we think we have indeed improved things.  We completely rejigged the pre and post cruise options to make them more flexible and more comprehensive.  Traditionally, we have offered two or three nights in Prague before the cruise – a wonderful experience for sure, but leaving nothing after the cruise, and a long day of travel from Prague to Budapest.

Come join your fellow Travel Insiders on a wonderful Christmas market cruise this December.

So, this year, we’ve totally changed our pre and post cruise options.  I think the new approach is a huge improvement – and hope you agree!

Before the cruise starts in Budapest, we are suggesting you spend one, two, or even more nights in the city.  We have touring out of Budapest to three lovely towns around the Danube Bend for people staying one or more nights, and if you’re staying two or more nights, we add a lovely day tour to Bratislava, capital of neighboring Slovakia.  If you’re staying three or more nights in Budapest, there is a wealth of other things to see, do, experience and enjoy around Budapest, of course.

Part of Prague’s Old Town Square, just a few minutes from our hotel. The scale of this can be appreciated when you see how tiny the performers are on stage (bottom of picture).

When the one week cruise ends in Nuremberg, we’ve a very different option to tempt you with.  Sure, we will end up in Prague, which is very much a ‘must do’ part of a Christmas cruise, but we get there a totally different way.  First, we go via Bayreuth to Karlovy Vary.  Bayreuth is a lovely town in northern Bavaria and has not one but two extraordinary opera houses, one of which is a world heritage site, and the other of which is the ‘holiest of holies’ to Wagner aficionados (myself included).

Karlovy Vary, across the border and now in the Czech Republic, is a glorious stately town full of imposing buildings and an ultra-grand hotel.  It was one of the most popular European spa towns in the late 19th century, and has maintained its grandeur right through to the present day.  We stay overnight in Karlovy Vary.

The next day is a ‘triple treat’ – three World Heritage sites in a single day.  First we go to Holasovice, a well-preserved traditional village with lots of lovely distinctive buildings.  Then, to beautiful Cesky Krumlov, a beautiful medieval town wrapped around on three sides by the Vltava river, then on to Prague, also a World Heritage site.  Phew.  Three very different experiences, all amazing.  We overnight in Prague.

The next day is half spent with a city tour of Prague, and the other half free time for you to do as you wish, then we all meet up again for a glorious dinner in a characterful cellar restaurant with lots of excellent traditional Czech food (and drink).

If you wish, you can of course extend time still further.  And – what else?  Oh yes, the cruise itself!

A Travel Insider on an earlier Christmas cruise. Do you think she is enjoying herself?

Well, this is something that is getting harder to tweak and perfect any further, but we’re including some of our usual special touches, and or its part, Amawaterways keep improving their ships – making the ships and cabins bigger, increasing the inclusions and food quality, and – best of all for some of us – providing faster and fully free Wi-fi!  Sure, there’s a $1000 per person discount to encourage you in the first place, plus a ‘no single supplement’ offer, then we give you some extra Travel Insider gifts and benefits too, including a free classical concert in a Vienna palace the night we’re in Vienna, an onboard cocktail reception, and some free gifts.

Take advantage of a weak Euro, and some good air fares, and whether it be for the first or the third time, why not come join a small group of your fellow Travel Insiders on this wonderful Christmas experience.  See why it is that it is our most popular tour of all time; or, if you’ve come with us before, come again to remind yourself of how much you enjoyed it last time.

Full details here.

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Apr 062017

Part of the beautiful town of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, a highlight of our touring after this December’s Christmas Markets cruise along the Danube.

Good morning

Amazon came out with a wonderful short-term sale on its tablets.  I’ve reviewed both their entry-level 7″ tablet and their greatly enhanced 8″ tablet before, and so I add a short item after this weekly roundup that basically records the deal and links you to the earlier reviews.

Amazon’s sale drops the 8″ tablet down to $69.99, and at that price, it becomes close to a ‘must have’ item – and it is so much better than the 7″ tablet that even if you bought a 7″ tablet last year, maybe you should think about upgrading.  Details below.

Also, tremendously exciting news.  I’ll offer a Christmas Markets cruise again this year.

The cruise will depart on Monday 11 December from Budapest, and end in Nuremberg, on Monday 18 December.  I’ll arrange a pre-night or two of accommodation in Budapest and arrange touring up to the lovely towns around the Danube Bend prior to the cruise.

After the cruise, I’m doing something slightly different.  Yes, of course there’ll be a Prague option – that is close to an essential part of a Christmas markets experience.  But we’ll get there a different way.  This becomes a two, three, or more night extension.

On Monday 18th, after disembarkation in Nuremberg, we go to a place that I can barely type the name of, because of the excitement of thinking of visiting it – the town of Bayreuth, the sine qua non experience for Wagner lovers the world over.  We’ll visit Wagner’s Festspielhaus, and if it has reopened after a major restoration currently underway, the Margravian Opera House as well, built 100 years earlier and now a World Heritage site.

After visiting this extraordinary town, we then cross into the Czech Republic where we’ll spend the night in the spa town of Karlovy Vary (aka Carlsbad), full of stately buildings.  Although dating back to 1370, it came into its own during the ‘spa craze’ in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the profusion of stately buildings of that time lining its streets give it an enormous character.

Talking of enormous character, our hotel for that night is often featured in movies (eg Casino Royale in 2006), doubling for some of the grandest hotels in the world – the Grand Hotel Pupp (careful how you pronounce it).

Then on Tuesday we travel through the Czech countryside, stopping for a quick break in Pilsen (famous for its beer) then proceeding on to the Holasovice Historic Village – a World Heritage site, before enjoying time in another World Heritage site, the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov.  After our time in Cesky Krumlov, we head up to Prague (our third World Heritage site in a single day!), noting another ‘beer town’ on the way – Ceske Budejovice or Ceske Budvar, of Budweiser fame.

I suggest you consider a two night stay in Prague, giving you a full day to enjoy Prague, but depending on your time commitments, you could stay for one night or for three and more nights.

The timing allows us to visit all the Christmas markets on our itinerary at the best time of the season, and still has you back home in time for Christmas – but if you wanted to stay another week and enjoy a European Christmas, well, why not!

The cruise is currently available at a special price – $1000 off regular pricing, making it the great value that we all like and seek out.  The cruise itself, along the perenially popular Danube, and on the lovely AmaCerto (a ship I’ve enjoyed repeatedly in the past), includes a stop in one of my favorite cities with my absolutely most favorite of all the Christmas markets, Regensburg, and also an excursion to glorious Salzburg on one of the days.

I’ll have the itinerary and booking form up in a few days and will let you know when it goes live; for now, please keep the dates clear in your calendar.  This promises to be a great experience, whether you’re doing it for the first time, or the tenth time (I guess that would be me!).

What else?  A few tid-bits for your Friday fancy :

  • Virgin America – Officially Not Cool
  • Airbus Re-invents the A380, Sort of
  • Something for Elon Musk to Read
  • This Doesn’t Look Like Australia
  • Australia Sues Apple
  • And Lastly This Week….

Virgin America – Officially Not Cool

Virgin America, along with all Sir Richard Branson’s other companies, aggressively and self-consciously pursues an image of being ‘cool’.  But, as everyone knows, if you try too hard to be cool, you’ll fail.

So, notwithstanding the garish colors, purple lighting, and loud discordant music played on Virgin America flights, it turns out the airline has been scored not only as less cool than Southwest (an airline with some remaining traces of coolness, perhaps), but even as less cool than United – which surely has to be about as uncool an airline as is humanly possible.

Google did a recent study into cool brands as seen through the eyes of Millennials and Generation Z.  It is semi-interesting, with the coolest of all brands turning out to be Google’s YouTube service, followed by Netflix and Google itself.  Least cool was the Wall St Journal.  Details here.

Also not cool, at least according to this article, is what it describes as Sir Richard getting ‘pissy’ over Alaska Airlines deciding to discontinue the Virgin name.  And Alaska Airlines disputes his claim that they’ll have to continue to pay royalties to him all the way until 2040.

Least cool of all is stablemate Virgin Atlantic getting fined by the DoT for ‘misclassifying fuel surcharges as taxes’ – the word ‘misclassifying’ sounds so much nicer than ‘deliberately and deceptively’, doesn’t it.  This is far from the first time that airlines have tried to pretend that their own spurious fuel surcharges are actually government taxes.

Perhaps because of the nice phrase, the airline is being given the lightest of gentle slaps on the wrist – $30,000, of which the airline only needs to pay half,  assuming it doesn’t re-offend in the next little while.  Astonishingly, it seems to have taken the DoT 2 1/2 years to rule on the original complaint.  Why so slow, guys?

One wonders how many dollars worth of ‘misclassified fees’ were involved.  One has to suspect it was more than $30,000 worth.  Every dollar so misclassified should now be required to be handed over to the government, plus some additional amount as penalty.

Airbus Re-invents the A380, Sort of

Airbus has lots of unrealized potential with its lovely A380.  Its wing design allows for the plane to grow considerably, and/or to have its range extended.  New engine technologies could see improved fuel burns and economies too.

But in a vicious Catch-22, Airbus is reluctant to invest more money in the plane, due to its current lack of widespread acceptance in the market.  That is an awkward no-win position – ‘our plane isn’t popular, so we won’t spend more money to make it popular’.

However, there is a low-cost way for Airbus, and its airline clients, to make the A380 more appealing in terms of operating costs and returns.  This involves deploying ‘the oldest trick in the book’ – squeezing more seats into the plane.

We never really expected to see the shopping malls, gyms, restaurants and bars that were fancifully originally proposed for A380 layouts, but airlines have – until now – stopped short of cramming in the maximum possible number of seats into the plane.  Airbus is now officially blessing the idea of adding about 78 more seats to a typical four-class layout, which would allow 575 people to be transported at a time – an almost 20% increase in passengers per flight.

Airbus says these changes would be done without any compromise in comfort levels.  Apparently, going from a ten across to an eleven across layout for coach seating does not compromise comfort levels, at least in Airbus’ eyes.  Not sure the guy squeezed into the middle of the block of five seats (formerly a block of four) would see things the same way.

If you think increasing the passengers on the plane to 575 is a lot, keep in mind that some of the two-class Emirates A380s already seat 615, and the plane is certified for a maximum capacity of 853 passengers.  Also keep in mind it is somewhat meaningless to compare airplanes in terms of seats, because a lot depends on how many of each type of seat make up the total.  When you consider that each first class seat could be replaced by three coach class seats (more or less), clearly the total number has to be considered alongside the seating mix.

For us all, no matter which class of service we’re traveling, the key measures are seat width (18″ starts to be good), seat pitch (depending on seat back thickness, 33″ starts to be good), and how readily we can get to an aisle.

Something for Elon Musk to Read

A month or two ago Elon Musk had another of his sudden outbursts of ‘inspiration’ on Twitter (hmmm, who does that remind us of), and announced he was so fed up with traffic congestion that he’d start drilling underground tunnels to relieve the congestion on surface streets.

But unlike his various other endeavors, he wasn’t also promising any new technologies to make tunnel boring suddenly transition from expensive, unreliable and slow, and become overnight something very much better.

So he might like to read this article about the disastrous behind schedule and over-budget experiences suffered by a new tunneling project in the Seattle area.  It took over 3.5 years to go under two miles, with the delays adding about $500 million to the total project cost.  But if that doesn’t alarm him, then good news – Seattle’s tunnel boring machine is now for sale.

With Tesla now being worth $47.3 billion, compared to Ford at $44.9 billion, and GM just slightly above at $50.8 billion, chances are he could afford ‘Bertha’ (as the machine is affectionately called), and even perhaps any cost overruns that might ensue.

This Doesn’t Look Like Australia

A month or so back we discussed/chortled, for several weeks in a row, a spate of people flying to a destination which shared the same name or very similar name as the place they actually wished to travel to.

This week, a Dutch student who clearly isn’t a Geography star was in the news.  When he chose his ticket to Sydney, he noticed that it was much cheaper than other tickets, but failed to notice that it was a ticket to Sydney in Nova Scotia.  Not the one with, you know, the Opera House in Australia.  And instead of a southern hemisphere balmy summer, it was a northern hemisphere blizzard.

Ooops.  Details here.

The story sounds strange.  If you ask any type of flight booking service for flights to Sydney, you get to choose only one such Sydney, so one wonders how he could have been tempted away from real fares to the Australian Sydney with a less costly fare to Nova Scotia.

Australia Sues Apple

Talking about Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is suing Apple, claiming that Apple acted unfairly by deliberately locking up phones which their owners had repaired by companies other than Apple.  Many times it is advantageous to use some other repair service – for example, you’ll sometimes find stalls in malls that will replace a cracked screen, on the spot, and for much less money than Apple charges.

The old canard of ‘you can only get it fixed by us’ is one that has long since been laid to rest and even made illegal, but it refuses to die.  Lots of printer manufacturers, for example, will do all they can to try and force you into using their ink cartridges.  Even something as trivial seeming as a connecting cable between an iPhone and a computer involves some trickery, with Apple doing all it can to make it difficult for third parties to sell cables for a quarter or less the unnaturally high price Apple charges for an official cable.

In the case of the repaired phones, it seems that the iPhones (and iPads) would lock up when connected to iTunes after having had some other company repair them, and Apple was reportedly refusing to resolve such events.

The Australian regulator is seeking fines of up to $1 million for every time this happened. Details here.

And Lastly This Week….


Here’s an interesting article, ostensibly about ‘psychological tricks’ that Uber plays on its drivers, but in reality, it is an interesting insight into how all sorts of companies design their customer experiences to encourage their customers to participate further.

And this is a terrifying sight at the best of times, especially if you’re slightly sensitive to being somewhere high and without a great deal of reassuring terra firma all around.  Astonishingly, a woman fell off a not-so-high part of the bridge, and lived to tell the tale.

So does that mean there’s nothing to be scared about?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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Apr 022017

Amazon’s lovely HD 8 Fire tablet, now on short-term special for only $69.99, comes in four different colors.

Amazon’s 8″ screened tablet has been placed on special, and for a short time is only $69.99 rather than $89.99.

Even if you’ve bought one or two before, at that price, it becomes hard to resist the temptation to buy another one (or two!).

Amazon has also put their 7″ screened tablet on sale, dropping its price from $49.99 to $39.99.  The thought of a fully featured tablet for only $40 is astonishing, but we suggest you spent the extra $30 for the larger tablet.  Furthermore, we’ve seen the 7″ tablet offered at lower prices before, but this is the first time we’ve seen the 8″ tablet discounted.

We’ve written and reviewed this new (released in September 2016) 8″ tablet before, and our comments remain current today.

In particular, note the point in the review article about how the seemingly small difference in screen size actually makes a very big difference to both screen area (36% larger) and also the all-important pixel count (67% more pixels).  These two factors do make a tangible and visible difference.

We love the ability, now offered by both Amazon and Netflix, to record their streaming movies and watch them later (eg on a long flight).  If this is something you too might want to do, you should buy a 128 GB or larger Micro-SD card to go with the unit, too.  And therein lies another of the reasons why you should consider this over an Apple iPad – you can’t add Micro-SD cards to the generally comparable $399 Apple mini-iPad units.  Amazon also lets you store music from their music streams too, but the sound quality is not as high as if you ripped tracks from your CDs and stored them on the Fire in FLAC format.

Maybe for yourself, maybe for someone else as a gift, or maybe just as a household spare, you might wish to consider this excellent value tablet at its current great price.

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Mar 312017

Is it a man? Is it a bird? No – it is ‘Super Building’. See last item.

Good morning

After several weeks of pressing distractions, I’m back this week with the probably final (sixth) part of my series on the future of transportation.

This week, it is time to look at the nonsense and hype surrounding flying cars.  While the abstract concept of a dual purpose vehicle has enormous appeal, the reality is completely different.

However, to close on a positive note, I also look at a more viable approach to personal air transportation.  See the article after the roundup.

This is a very rare newsletter.  I don’t think I’ve ever written a newsletter before that contains praise and defense for both United and the TSA within a single issue.  But, today, here it is.

I was tempted to also try to shift the theme of my piece that refers to Sir Richard Branson into a more positive vein (the incestuous airline industry) but that proved to be a bridge way too far.  But please read on for a generally sunny newsletter this week :

  • Airlines Get Creative with Electronics Ban – But….
  • Don’t Blame United
  • The Incestuous Airline Industry
  • Brexit’s Potential Impact on Airlines
  • Naughty Indian MP Suffers the Consequences
  • TSA PreCheck – a Victim of its Success?
  • More Thoughts on Alexa
  • Free Money – Yes, for You
  • And Lastly This Week….

Airlines Get Creative with Electronics Ban – But….

Now that the dust has settled and the new electronic ban is in force, some airlines are scrambling to respond.  Kudos to Qatar Airways, who will now lend laptops to their business class passengers to use while flying, and double kudos to Etihad, who is lending iPads to all passengers on their affected flights.

Both are well-meant gestures, and Qatar suggests that passengers simply transfer the work they want to do to a USB thumb drive (I’d suggest a 128GB or larger drive that supports USB 3.0 transfer speeds – available for about $30 on Amazon; there are larger capacity drives also available, but they’re either way more expensive or else from no-name suppliers that I’d hesitate to trust) from their own laptop, load it onto the loaner laptop, then transfer it back again at the end of the flight.  That makes sense, but of course assumes the loaner has the same software installed you need, and configured the way you like it, and it exposes you to unknown risks.

Who knows who used the laptop before you?  Maybe they loaded a virus onto the laptop – either deliberately or without realizing they too were already infected, and now you’ve transferred it to your thumb drive, and soon you’ll be passing it on to your own laptop and allowing the virus to spread throughout your network when you get back to the office.  Short of doing a thorough low-level reformat and reinstall between loans, there’s not much Qatar could do to protect against this risk.

The same risk isn’t present with a loaner iPad, but, realistically, what are you going to do with a generic iPad loaded with generic apps?  Your personal apps and accounts won’t be present.  Your music, your videos, your books – none of that will be on the iPad.  Not even your favorite games.

So, two well-meaning gestures, but neither really resolves the problems we’ll be facing.

On the other side of the security fence, I’m not hearing any reassuring noises about this being a temporary measure, nor am I hearing any reassurances that it won’t spread to other departure cities too.

Don’t Blame United

Oh joy.  Fairness forces me to write a piece defending United Airlines.  But after the internet-fueled flash fire of faux ire that raged earlier this week about a couple of girls off-loaded from a United flight for wearing ‘yoga pants’, it is necessary to calmly point out that they were not regular passengers.  They were flying on free staff-travel tickets.

All people who fly on free staff travel tickets know that they come with rules associated, including a stodgy dress code that is admittedly firmly grounded in the fashion styles of a decade or two ago.  It has long been a joke that the only people in first and business class who are wearing suits are airline employees traveling on free passes; and while the airlines have liberalized their dress code somewhat, it is still much less casual than what many people, traveling on paid tickets, choose to adopt, and what the airline in turn accepts.

In addition, any airline employee with any degree of self-awareness has surely heard horror stories of gate agents occasionally switching from being super-friendly to becoming super-hostile, and everyone should know that you don’t try to break the rules with such things.  It is possible these people were not actual employees, but had been given passes by an employee, and so weren’t as aware of the dress code, but, just like when I said ‘oh, sorry officer, I didn’t realize the speed limit had reduced from 45 to 25, I must have missed seeing the sign’; the unsympathetic answer is ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’.

Here’s a sensible article setting out the situation.

 The Incestuous Airline Industry

Sir Richard Branson was dismayed to learn that Alaska Airlines, the new owner of the airline he helped found – Virgin America – is going to be dropping the Virgin brand, and amalgamating the Virgin America name into its main Alaska Airlines brand.

“It’s baffling and sad” he said, adding that many tears are being shed.  But what might be even more baffling and sad, at least for Alaska Airlines, is Branson’s claim that they’ll have to continue paying licensing fees for the use of his ‘Virgin’ brand, all the way until 2040, whether they use the name or not.  If that is indeed so, one suspects that Sir Richard’s tears are of the crocodile variety.

One wonders how they’ll agree what the applicable gross revenue that attracts the royalty fee will be when the Virgin entity no longer exists.  That sounds like plenty of opportunity for unhappiness for the 21 years between when the Virgin name disappears in 2019 and the royalty agreement ends in 2040.

Before Branson gets too teary eyed about the loss of the airline he was involved in, he might do well to contemplate why it failed and wonder if some of the blame for its disappearance can be placed fairly and squarely at his own feet.  The hype about its loyal passengers and distinctive popular nature needs to be balanced by the ugly blunt reality that the airline failed to achieve sufficient size to be viable on its own.  A loyal passenger is great to have, but I’d rather have five ordinary passengers and bribe them in the time-honored ways to be ‘loyal’ – ie through upgrades and frequent flier benefits.

The incestuous nature of the ever-smaller airline industry was highlighted by Branson’s presence in Seattle this week, to celebrate the start of Virgin Atlantic service between Heathrow and Seattle.  The flights replace earlier flights operated by Delta.  Delta – an increasingly major competitor against Alaska Airlines, is a 49% owner of Virgin Atlantic.

So will Alaska Airlines be paying money which flows through, 49% to its Delta competitor, for not using the Virgin name on domestic flights within the US, all the way to 2040?

And until the Virgin America brand disappears in 2019, does that mean there will at times be Virgin branded planes, maybe even parked alongside each other in Seattle (as well as in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities too), but with the beneficial owners being variously Delta and Alaska, two airlines that are increasingly acrimonious competitors?

Even more interesting would be to see a lineup of Virgin Australia, Virgin America, and Virgin Atlantic planes, which could happen in Los Angeles.  Virgin Australia – far from a positive performer, financially, is primarily owned by Etihad Airways, Singapore Airlines, a Chinese investment company linked to Hainan Airlines, Qingdao Airlines, and a less than 20% share held by Sir Richard’s Virgin group.

So, the list of Branson’s independent airline successes seems fairly short.  Virgin Atlantic sold 49% of itself to Delta, Virgin Australia is struggling with a complexity of owners, and Virgin America has been sold to Alaska Airlines.  As to other Virgin airlines, such as Virgin Nigeria, they seem to have vanished from the Virgin Group’s portfolio listing without a trace.

More details here and here.

Brexit’s Potential Impact on Airlines

Some nine months after Britain voted in a referendum to leave the EU, their Prime Minister has finally gotten around to taking the first step towards doing so – writing a letter to the EU saying ‘we intend to leave in two years time’.  One can only wonder why it took so long to start the two-year leaving process, but that’s a topic for other people to contemplate, and while this first step is a small step, it is at least a step towards the conclusion the country voted for.

Every industry and activity of course are now seeing changes in their future, with a lot of speculation about whether it will be a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit.  A soft type departure from the EU would see almost nothing change except that Britain would have given up its seat at the table and its vote/veto on decision-making, while still being largely bound by most of what the EU decrees.  A hard departure could see everything terminated, and the relationship between Britain and the EU reduced to that between any two other friendly powers, and WTO rules governing the trade between them.

This is far from as doom-ridden as the anti-Brexit factions fear, and a key stabilizing part of the dynamic that many people overlook is that the EU needs the UK in probably at least as equal a measure as the UK needs the EU.  On the other hand, the EU can’t be seen to be ‘going easy’ on Britain for fear that this would encourage other current member nations to also leave the union.

There is one potential impact that has British based airlines concerned, and that is that Britain will no longer be part of the single European airline market.  While the EU is synonymous with over-regulation, for airlines, having the entire EU agglomeration of member states treated as one market made it blissfully simple to add ‘international’ routes between any EU members, any time and any way they wished.

If the UK can’t quickly agree upon some sort of ‘Open Skies’ arrangement with the EU, airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet will find their route networks eviscerated.  Here’s just one example – Easyjet flights from Gatwick, which go just about everywhere imaginable in Europe.

Now add in other Easyjet flights from its other British airports, and do the same thing for much larger Ryanair, British Airways, and assorted other airlines, and you can imagine the potential can of worms this would open up.  It would not be a good thing for the airlines, nor for us, their passengers, and, like so many of the Brexit issues, promises to harm both the EU and UK.

Let’s hope neither side makes airlines into a sacrificial lamb as part of their negotiations and posturing.

Naughty Indian MP Suffers the Consequences

Apparently, even in India, where the long arm of privilege allows some people to get away with outrageous behaviors, there are limits to how extensive such people’s ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ cards may be.

An Indian Member of Parliament was outraged to discover that when he used an open business class ticket to fly between Pune and Delhi (a 2 hour flight), he was on a plane that only had coach class seating.  Sure, his ticket would get him a business class seat on a plane with business class seating, but if the plane was all coach class, his choice was necessarily to take a coach seat or wait for a later flight with business class seats.

Showing a degree of creative thought that thankfully not all politicians display, the MP chose a third option.  He indeed flew from Pune to Delhi, but then refused to get off the plane once it had landed in Delhi – I guess he grew to like his coach class seat so much he was reluctant to leave it.  After verbally berating an airport manager who came to try and persuade him to disembark(off the government-owned Air India plane), apparently in the mistaken belief that it is the airport duty manager who decides what types of planes fly the route, he then escalated to beating the unfortunate manager with his shoe.  Not just once or twice.  It seems he hit the man 25 times.  Details here.

When called upon to apologize, he refused to do so, demanding the manager should apologize first, although he was a bit unclear as to why the manager should apologize for being beaten.

As a result, all airlines in India, except for perhaps Air Asia (which only operates one flight a day between Pune and Delhi), have banned the MP off their flights.

His political party is loyally supporting their member, calling on airlines to rescind the ban.  So far, none have done so.

TSA PreCheck – a Victim of its Success?

The average wait in a TSA PreCheck line to go through security is under five minutes, which is about half the wait to go through a general security line, according to the TSA.

I have a small element of doubt about that, because, at least when I travel, the general line usually looks to be much more than ten minutes, and the TSA line generally proves to be less than five minutes.  But, if we accept the numbers at face value, that is great, right?

Certainly, the program is proving popular, and has doubled the number of people who have signed up for the $85 per five-year program in a single year – up from 2.3 million in March 2016 to 4.6 million now.

But a survey of 2500 travelers by OAG finds that 57% of business travelers feel the wait is still too long.

Put me in the 43% of travelers who are happy with under 5 minute waits.  That’s close to as good as it ever was in the mythical ‘good old days’ pre-9/11, and it is hard to see how it could be compressed much further, assuming the timing is from entering the line prior to showing ID and ends when exiting the screening station with one’s carry-ons.

More Thoughts on Alexa

I’m starting to wonder whether I love or hate my Alexa Echo device, having just struggled with it to set an alarm for 15 minutes.  The first time I said ‘Alexa, set an alarm for 15 minutes’ it did nothing.  The second time, it offered up a truncated response that I didn’t hear/understand.  So I then asked it to list all the alarms that were set, and it told me no alarms were set.  In my fourth command, I asked it, for the third time, to set the 15 minute alarm, and its response was ‘Alarm set for 3pm tomorrow’.  Aaagh!  Another command (#5) to clear that alarm, and a sixth command to finally and successfully set the alarm for 15 minutes.

I wish I could say this was a once-off event, but it is happening more often than it should, even though I’m taking great care to enunciate clearly, and the Echo Dot device is close to me on my desk.

The essential offering of Alexa is for an easy simple voice controlled device.  But on the one hand it suffers from a rigid syntax – you can’t just speak to it in any form you choose, like you can with Google.  If I say ‘Alexa, in 15 minutes I would like an alarm to go off, Alexa just ignores me entirely.  And so on and so on through all sorts of other commands not exactly as Alexa expects them and various frustrating responses back.

For further example, I said ‘Alexa, set an alarm for 15 minutes’ and eventually Alexa accepted, but what Alexa did was set a timer, not an alarm, so when I ask Alexa to then list my alarms, it tells me I have none.  Sure, I asked it to set an alarm, but Alexa considers that a timer, and won’t now tell me about it.

Sometimes when I’m addressing the Echo Dot unit in my daughter’s room, the Echo Dot unit in my office will helpfully respond instead, or as well.  This isn’t supposed to happen, but it surely does.

In other words, the basic premise of the unit – an easy simple device/control service that is easier and simpler than using apps on your phone or other ways of achieving the same outcome – is far from the reality that I often experience.

It also is very limited in what it ‘knows’ and what it can answer.  While you can engage Siri in an interesting conversation, Alexa is much more literal and limited.

Although it seems the Alexa service is being adopted by a growing number of third-party companies, wiring it into their devices, I have to say that it is so much more limited than the Google Assistant and Siri as to be like night and day in difference.

Most puzzling/peculiar is my sense that Alexa is getting stupider, not smarter.  I used to have close on 100% success when talking to it, now I suspect my success rate is about 66%, and it feels subjectively like much lower.  I’ve not moved its location or made any other changes, and in theory it is supposed to learn from its mistakes and get cleverer.

Free Money – Yes, for You

Have you ever visited Harbor Freight?  I love the store, and all their amazingly inexpensive tools and gadgets – things that I never knew I needed before I visited, and better still, affordably priced and often on special.

Except that, like so many stores, their ‘specials’ were often not all that special, it seems.  Their ‘normal price’ claims were seldom what the items would ever sell for, and conveyed a false sense of the specials being a better deal than they were.

A class action has now been ruled on, and anyone who bought anything from Harbor Freight between 8 April, 2011 and 15 December, 2016, is now eligible for refunds of up to 30% on the amounts they spent.

What’s that?  You don’t have receipts?  That’s okay, too.  Credit card records showing charges from Harbor Freight will work.  Or, if you don’t have that, either, just affirm that you bought something/anything, and you will simply get a $10 gift card.

Full details here.

And Lastly This Week….

The craziest idea ever?  One has to wonder what it would take to qualify for that soubriquet, but if casting around for fanciful ideas that involve bazillions of dollars and impracticalities/impossibilities galore, one would be hard pressed to do better than to cite a new idea – creating an enormous skyscraper of about 10,000 floors (105,000 ft high), and rather than building it somewhere on the planet, vectoring an asteroid to a specific orbit above the earth and hanging the building below it, at the end of a 31,000 mile cable.

So, where to start with a response to this idea?  The weight of the building would probably pull itself apart.  And even if it didn’t, the weight of the cable would be such that the cable couldn’t possibly support its own weight, let alone the building at the end of it.

What would happen when the building went through a hurricane – or even just the regular jet stream winds?  The torsional forces, with hurricane winds on part of the building, while other parts of the building were in still air, miles higher up, would again destroy the building.  If the building wasn’t destroyed, then imagine the lean it would get when one part was exposed to, say, 200+ mph winds, and other parts were in still air.

And not just a lean.  This is a giant pendulum.  It seems inevitable the building would start to swing from side to side.  It would have a lengthy period of swing, but it might cover a lot of distance from one side to the other, making for a perceptible effect to the building’s residents.

And not just a swing.  It seems probable that the building will also twist around, first one way, then the other way.  The good news – everyone will get to have a turn looking north and south and everywhere else.  The bad news – this is sounding more and more like a nausea-inducing roller coaster ride, and less and less like a stable structure.

And – oh yes, talking about air.  It isn’t clear how close to ground level the bottom of the building would be, but it would have to be high enough to avoid foreseeable obstructions – things like mountains, for example.  Let’s say the bottom of the building is at 10,000 ft.  You can breathe at that altitude, but we then have 105,000 ft of building above that.  After you’ve gone up the first 5,000 ft of building, you’re going to need oxygen.  So the entire building will need to be permanently pressured.

Let’s just think about that for a minute.  Guessing a bit about the size of each floor, but in round figures, the weight of the air in the building, alone, will be in the order of 50 – 100 million pounds.

But that’s nothing compared to the weight of the cable holding the building to the asteroid.  Well, more likely, the building would have three or four cables, for safety.  Let’s just say that each cable is made out of some super new structure that weighs one ounce per foot.  The weight of a 31,000 mile cable therefore comes to about 10 million pounds.  I’ve no idea what the building itself would weigh – perhaps 100 million tons?  But what cable can support 10 million pounds, let alone another 100 million tons?  And still be feather-light and tiny, itself.

How could one travel from floor 1 to floor 10,000?  The fastest high-speed lifts in regular buildings would take 20 minutes nonstop, but we again run into problems – there isn’t a lift rope available that could run 105,000 ft.  And with all the flexing and straining in the building, those elevator shafts are going to have some challenges.

Something else not fully considered is how one could travel to and from the building.  The designers say people would parachute down to earth, but how would they get back up again?  This is probably one of the easier problems to solve, with a helipad or aircraft carrier style runway stuck off to the side.

It isn’t just people who would want to go up and down.  Supplies, food, equipment – all those things too will need to be shipped up, and possibly manufactured goods from any industry in the building will in turn be shipped back down again.  As for waste, who only knows.

Talking about going down, the entire building has a problem.  While there’s no friction or measurable orbit decay for the asteroid at the far end of the line, there’s plenty of friction acting on the building as it shuffles around on its orbital path.  That will of course be transferred to the asteroid, which will slowly reduce speed and therefore slowly lose height.

Its orbital path will gradually shift, meaning the careful plan to have the building flying over the top of New York as part of its daily orbit will likely change, and unless there’s a way to ‘reel in’ some line at either the building or asteroid end, the building will sink lower and lower, and at an ever faster rate of decay.

An early April Fool’s Day joke?  It seems not.  But a serious concept?  Surely – hopefully – not.  Details here and here.

And, truly lastly this week, toilets.  The ever-inventive Chinese have come up with a clever solution to a problem that occurs in some of their public toilets – the theft of toilet paper.  So, in new public toilets at the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, facial recognition scanners will identify visitors and restrict them to an allowance of two feet of toilet paper per nine minutes.

Don’t worry, I won’t take the time to analyze whether two feet of tp is sufficient for most purposes or not.  But some reports are suggesting some people are finding it to be a bit short.  Details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and enjoy your April Fool’s Day tomorrow.





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Mar 302017

Part 6 :  Are Flying Cars the Future or a Folly?

Will personal flying vehicles spare us from congested freeways? Or did The Jetsons get it wrong in the early 1960s cartoon series?

This is a further part in our article series on how we have a new opportunity for the United States to once again take a position of world leadership in transportation.

In part one, we looked back at three previous periods of American greatness, and in part two, we looked at how we allowed ourselves to be blindsided by the extraordinary developments in high-speed rail in Europe and more recently in China.

Part three became more positive again, introducing a new technology – Hyperloops – that promises to give us faster speeds than planes and less cost to develop and operate than high-speed rail.  The best of all worlds.  We then took a bit of a detour and looked at how private car ownership seems destined to become a thing of the past.  We then looked at the happy future of high-speed low-cost transportation and what it may enable.

Which brings us to another futuristic piece :

Flying Cars Are Impossible, But…..

The two perennial transportation topics that keep on keeping on, like the Energizer bunny, and with about as much net achievement, are new supersonic passenger planes and flying cars.  More recently, we’re starting to sense a third meme too – battery powered planes.  Don’t mistake us – we’d love to see all three materialize.  But will any of these eagerly awaited and long heralded technologies eventuate in our lifetimes, those of our children, or of our possibly as-yet unborn grandchildren?

For sure, every few months, there’s a press release by some company boldly promising a new SST or a flying car, ‘real soon now’.  But, notwithstanding working prototypes as long as 50+ years ago (and, of course, the Concorde), ‘real soon’ has yet to arrive for any of the projects.

More recently, not only have we had ‘no name’ companies boast of their flying car projects, but Airbus too has started talking up a flying car project it is apparently working on.

But the biggest problems with flying cars are ones that are almost certainly incapable of solution, and the basic underlying premise is flawed – it makes no more sense to have a vehicle that can be driven or flown than it would to cross a horse with an eagle.  The compromises necessary to create a flying car result in a strange vehicle that does neither task well.

But before consigning the concept to the scrap bin of history, where it probably belongs, let’s understand why it is impractical.

A possibly fanciful concept in the early 1930s, the ‘Ascender’.

Flying Cars – Not a New Idea

The first patent for a flying car was granted on 17 August, 1903, to Romanian inventor and aviation pioneer Trajan Vuia, in Paris.

The surprising part being this was exactly four months before the Wright Brothers first took to the air at Kitty Hawk.  To be fair, his appellation ‘flying car’ did not mean ‘a roadworthy car that can also fly’ but rather ‘a vehicle similar to a car, but which flies through the air rather than is driven on a road’.

But right from these origins, before planes first took to the air, and less than 20 years after Karl Benz created the first automobile in 1885/6, futurists were already dreaming of the ‘logical next step’.  On the other hand, it is also worth noting that when Trajan Vuia first presented his ‘flying car’ concept to the distinguished Académie des Sciences in Paris in February 2003, it was rejected with the curt comment

The problem of flight with a machine which weighs more than air can not be solved and it is only a dream.

History does not record their further comments subsequent to the Wright Brothers proving them spectacularly wrong, a mere ten months later.

While his Model T was still in full production, Henry Ford was already looking ahead, and in 1926 he came up with what he hoped might become the aeronautical equivalent – the plane for everyone, to match the car for everyone.  This was the Ford Flivver, a plane with a tiny 21’9” wing span, but, alas, only a single seat, which doomed the concept from the start, and contrasted with the four or more seat capacity of the Model T.

To be fair, this wasn’t a convertible car/plane.  That idea was however espoused by Ford in 1940, when he predicted ‘Mark my word :  A combination airplane and motorcar is coming.  You may smile, but it will come.’

Not long after, a claim was made in the May 1933 edition of Modern Mechanix & Inventions Magazine that a convertible car/plane prototype had been built and flown, called the ‘Ascender’ (image above).  But there are only artist illustrations, and it is thought the article may be a hoax.

The Aerocar, in the early 1950s, got close to production, but failed to pre-sell in sufficient numbers for production to commence.

Henry Ford’s prescience was hinted at in 1946 when the Aerocar truly appeared on our roads – and in our skies.  This impressively impractical machine failed to take off (literally as well as figuratively, at first), and only six were produced.  Converting from car to plane involved a lot more than just pushing a button and then soaring majestically up from the road and into the air.  The vehicle had to stop and its wings (normally towed behind in a trailer) had to be affixed.

The company obtained 250 provisional orders, but needed 500 in order for manufacturing to commence, and so closed in the mid 1950s.

At the same time, Convair were experimenting with a flying car, the ConvAirCar.  Only two were built before the concept was abandoned.

Alas, Henry Ford died (in 1947) before his prediction progressed much further, but his son oversaw the creation of some scale models of flying cars in the mid 1950s, using ducted fans (and even a design for a nuclear powered car too).  In a press release, the company more cautiously noted ‘the day where there will be an aero-car in every garage is still some time off’.

The Terrafugia Transition actually looks almost graceful in the sky, but….

The Present Day

With improvements in every aspect of aviation and engine design, with lighter construction materials, engines with enormously improved power/weight ratios, more reliability, better navigation aids and control systems, it would seem that flying cars are becoming ever more possible and practical.

Add to that the ever longer commute distances and more clogged freeways we all suffer, and the benefit/need for them might also seem to be building.

But while it has always seemed that flying cars are ‘just around the corner’, the underlying constraints and seemingly impossible to optimize compromises remain present.  If one looks at the present prototypes dispassionately, it is hard to think they are a threat to most current cars in terms of practicality on the ground, or to most planes, in the air.  One of the dreams of a flying car – to soar into the air whenever one wishes, speed most of the way to one’s destination, then land and park outside the store one was driving to – remains as elusive as ever.

… on the ground it looks ungainly and ridiculous.

Sure, companies continue to talk up their flying car plans, secure investments and obtain advanced orders.  Most recently, companies such as Terrafugia have developed prototypes that have met some basic proof of concept testing.

Terrafugia was formed in 2006; eleven years later, it has yet to move from prototype to production.  But this slow rate of possible progress is still breathtakingly fast compared to another often cited participant in this industry.  Decades earlier, Moller International first started developing its version of a flying car, and now, after more than apparently 40 years, it is still only at a stage of prototyping.

Even If There Were Flying Cars, They’d Not Be Viable

We’re not saying that building a flying car is impossible.  But we are expressing doubt that building one which would appeal to more than an outlying fringe of people with special interests is almost surely impossible.  Flying cars as they are generally perceived are impossible and impractical.

There are many reasons why they would never work as we might hope them to; we’ll just look at a few.

Plane Style with Wings and Propeller

The biggest problem with this type of flying car is how and where they can take off and land.  Will they be like regular planes – ie, have wings, a propeller, and need a runway to take off and land on, or will they be like a helicopter – ie, have rotor blades and be able to go straight up and down?  (There are also vehicles that straddle the line, requiring only a very short length of runway for taking off and landing, ie STOL – Short Take Off and Landing type craft.)

The problem, if the vehicle is to be plane-like, is what you do with the wings when not in the air, and recognizing that taking off and landing would only be possible at regular airports.  You couldn’t do it in your driveway, down your neighborhood cul-de-sac, or even on the highway into town.  First, in plane-mode, the wing-span would probably be 30’ or wider (the wider, the better, in general terms – a four seater Cessna 172, for example, has a 36’ wing span).

The wingspan doesn’t mean you only need a slightly wider pathway to take off/land on.  You’d want the width to be at least twice the wingspan and ideally three times – up to 100 ft of clear space.  This compares with standard runways at airports, typically 150 ft wide.  A normal vehicle lane is 10 – 12 ft wide, so we’re suggesting enough clear width as would be taken up by at least five lanes of road.

It isn’t just width.  You’ll probably need 0.2 – 0.4 miles of clear and level road to take off or land on, plus no obstacles immediately ahead or behind the runway area, either.

Okay, there aren’t many places, other than airports, that meet those requirements, are there.  It surely isn’t a case of driving normally on the freeway, noticing that traffic is getting clogged, so simply pushing a button and taking to the air, all in a single graceful movement with no impact on the cars ahead, behind, or in the lanes on either side!

When you have to make a special trip/detour to an airport to take off and land, is the flying car actually convenient at all?

The Moller Skycar 400 V/STOL craft.

Helicopter Style with Rotors or Ducted Fans

So, maybe you decide to go the helicopter type vertical take-off and landing approach instead.  The good news?  You pretty much zero out all the bothersome space you need for a regular plane.

The bad news?  Your engine needs to be twice as powerful as a regular plane type engine.  And you’ve now got those rotor blades above you, which will be perhaps 35’ in diameter – similar to the wingspan of a plane.  If you instead go for multiple ducted fans (probably four – one on each corner), you’ve created an even more complex vehicle and propulsion system and still have something too wide to fit on the road as a regular vehicle (the maximum width of a regular street-legal vehicle is 8 ft).

And your fuel economy has nose-dived – you’ll be sucking up at least twice as much gas per mile and per passenger as you would in a plane.  Plus, get ready for some hefty maintenance bills – you’ll probably need to replace the rotors every couple of thousand hours, and you’ll need a lot more than a visit to the Jiffy Lube every some miles.

The good news is maybe you can have your own helipad at home, as long as your neighbors for several houses all around don’t object to the noise of your car/helicopter landing and taking off.

But where will you be able to land at the other end?  You need to be well clear of obstructions – you need 35’ or more for the rotors and at least that much again for a safety zone.  A landing pad represents about a 4,000 sq ft clear area.

But let’s say that is a solvable problem too (and not to wonder why you don’t just buy a real helicopter).  More problems abound.

Licensing Restrictions and Flying Skills

You’re going to need a license to fly your flying car.  Hopefully it will qualify for a moderately easy-to-obtain ‘sport license’ – but this is still enormously more difficult to qualify for than a regular car license, while massively restrictive in terms of what it allows (details here).  For example, it will limit you to planes weighing no more than 1320 lbs (including fuel, passengers and cargo), and limit you to no more than one passenger.  Not quite the 4,000 lb family car, with room and weight capacity for spouse, kids, dog, and a trunk load of stuff.

In addition, you’ll not be allowed to fly at night or in poor visibility, and will have to keep out of most controlled airspace (ie, you’ll not be able to use regular airports).

We all find it difficult to drive our cars in two dimensions – now think about flying in three dimensions, and instead of a nice set of tires ‘biting’ into a good road surface, think instead of bald tires in the rain or ice.  Plus you’ve both a maximum speed and a minimum speed – go too fast or too slow and you’re not just risking a traffic ticket or irate drivers behind; your flying car might fail and crash.

The flying skill required is different from the skill needed to drive a car.  Driving a car is almost instinctive – turn the wheel in the direction you want to travel, turn it more to make a tighter corner, push your foot down more or less to vary the speed, or change pedals and push your foot down more or less to reduce your speed.  There is almost nothing to learn, but still we see, every day, people who can’t parallel park, people who can’t even angle park more or less equally between the lines of their space, people who can’t reverse, people who don’t understand how to merge onto a freeway, or the obligation to keep right except when overtaking.

Flying a plane is not instinctive at all.  To take just one example, turning involves a combination of changes to the plane’s yaw, and roll while maintaining the plane’s attitude which will otherwise wish to change.  Each change needs to be balanced by the other two.  One control combines both attitude and roll, and a second control induces yaw, except that, with more roll, the yaw changes from being influenced by one control to being influenced by a different control.  And all of this is influenced by the speed of the plane and the amount of power being delivered by the propeller (which ideally would change during the turn).

Drive your car poorly and you’ll probably not be risking your life, but fly your plane poorly, and your chances of a fatal consequence grow.  Remember also that there are seldom such things as fender benders with planes.  You can never fly your plane slower than its minimum speed (probably 40 – 50 mph), and you almost always are going so fast and are so high that if things go wrong, death is a likely consequence.

Oh yes – crash statistics for private planes, piloted by more skilled ‘real’ pilots with full rather than sport type licenses, suggest that crash rates are in the order of ten times higher per mile or journey for private planes than for automobiles.  Some analyses suggest as much as a twenty times higher risk per journey.

One of the considerations when designing a plane rather than a car is that events which are nothing more than an inconvenience in an automobile are life threatening in a plane.  Running out of gas?  That’s the difference between waiting by the side of the road for someone to bring you more, and crashing who knows where.  Breakdown?  That’s the difference between being towed to the dealership and, again, crashing who knows where.  And so on – there are very few failures in a car which are truly life threatening, whereas, in a plane, there are very few failures which are not.

Noting also that most of the vehicle crashes and fatalities can be traced to some form of driver error, and noting further the much greater difficulty in flying a plane safely compared to driving a car safely, a flying car, driven by ‘ordinary people’, is a disaster in the making.

Will a society that demands safety belts, air bags, and all manner of other protective devices, both in vehicles and on the roads they drive on, accept a mass move to flying cars that are ten to twenty times more dangerous?

But, let’s be positive.  Let’s say you’ve resolved all these challenges.  Well done, but there are plenty more things to consider.

What an air traffic controller currently sees and has to manage. Imagine increasing the number of planes in the air ten fold.

The Congested Skies

You might think ‘Flying is great; it is the ultimate freedom.  There’s the entire sky, it could never become as congested as a single narrow freeway.’.  But that’s not actually the case.

It is necessary to maintain a safe distance between planes, the same as between cars.  Planes can’t stop as suddenly as cars – indeed, planes can’t stop at all – if they go slower than their ‘stall’ speed, they literally fall out of the sky, and the air is not as positive a ‘surface’ to control a vehicle’s location as a road.  Add to this the greater speeds that planes fly at, and so separation distances are necessarily much greater.  Mandatory minimum separation is probably 500 ft vertically and two or three miles horizontally.  Your flying car probably won’t go much over 10,000 ft (if at all), so while you might be able to ‘stack’ a dozen planes on top of each other vertically, the horizontal separation distance means that you can probably get less than 1,000 planes per hour along a particular route, as compared to up to 1900 vehicles per lane on a freeway.

Plus also, although you can look up and see a huge open sky, with no lanes and no markings, and in some weather conditions, you’ll see a criss-cross of contrails showing planes flying in all directions, the reality is different.  Especially if there are going to start to be appreciable numbers of extra private (car)planes flying, there will be even more restrictions on the directions you can fly, and when you can ascend or descend.

Our current air traffic control system only ‘works’ (and imperfectly at that) because there are very few planes in the air, and most of them are flying predictable paths while being manually routed and coordinated by air traffic controllers.  This type of traffic control could not scale to handle any appreciable number of private planes all trying to share the same space as all the current commercial jets, which would be moving at two to five times the speed, and shooting out dangerous blasts of turbulence behind their engines and wings.

So there’s every possibility that unless there is a revolution in air traffic control, you’ll simply be swapping freeway congestion for airway congestion.  Except that, in the air, you can’t slow down in congested space or stop; you have to keep flying at a minimum speed, no matter what.


To summarize, a flying car will never work as well as a car, and will never work as well as a plane.  The design compromises are too great.  That isn’t to say flying cars are an impossibility – of course they can be built, and with sufficient money spent on addressing some of the design compromises, they might even end up being semi-satisfactory, albeit at a cost of probably $1 million and more per vehicle.

Which brings us to the last problem.  Well, not the totally last problem, but the last one we’ll consider here.  The cost.

It is bad enough paying $50,000 and up for a car – are you now going to pay $500,000 and up for a flying car?  Are you going to pay more for your car than your house?  For something that at best will only hold two people and very little shopping, and which can only fly during the day, in good weather?

At least with a ridiculously expensive car, you can pretend to yourself that you’re getting more in return – more comfortable ride, more features, more safety, whatever.  With a flying car, you’d be getting much less of everything, for much more cost.

Even if you can see your way clear to the cost of the flying car, what about the ongoing maintenance costs – it isn’t like your Toyota that visits the dealership once every six months for a 30 minute oil and lube and nothing else.

More Problems

If you’d like to see a more technical discussion on some other of the problems related to designing a flying car – issues like center of gravity location – this set of seven pages lists 12 problems.

An example of the type of future vehicle that might truly become possible.

The ‘Flying Car’ Concept That Could Work

We suggest the earlier flying car concept, little changed from Henry Ford’s vision through to the present prototypes, needs to cast off its historical evolution and be redesigned anew.

The first thing we need to do is abandon the concept of a dual purpose vehicle.  Let’s not try to cross a horse with an eagle.  Let’s instead seek a vehicle that is fully independent of our roads.  It is better to fully incorporate all the latest design and control capabilities to give us a ‘go anywhere’ vehicle that gets where it is going, completely without requiring roading at all.

So, let’s bring the design into the 21st century, and in particular, get rid of one woefully obsolete and obstructive component.  The need for a human pilot.  Let’s instead consider a self-piloted flying vehicle, a bit like the concept of ‘drone’ – a concept that ambiguously blurs the lines between autonomous self-piloted planes and remotely piloted planes.  Perhaps something like the craft described in this article and illustrated above.

For our purposes, we’re talking about vehicles that will do it all themselves.  You will tell the vehicle where you want to go, and they will semi-autonomously take care of all the details.  We say semi-autonomously because the vehicle will be linked in to a central computerized air traffic control system and to all other nearby vehicles.  It is ridiculous that we still have people – air traffic controllers – doing a job that is simultaneously complex and demanding, but also very much a ‘by the numbers’ routine task that nowadays can be done so much better by computers.

This total 100% linked control network will have each ‘flying car’ all the time communicating with all the adjacent flying cars and a central coordination facility.  Probably even the central coordination facility concept is outdated – each separate vehicle can have enough on-board intelligence to be able to perform all ‘negotiation’ with all other vehicles in the air, all in a computer chip smaller than the memory card in your camera.

This total awareness/total control will allow for a tremendous reduction in separation distances between craft, thereby increasing the traffic carrying capacity per cubic mile of sky, and eliminating the need for ‘lanes’ in the sky.  Just like in a movie stunt where someone runs across ten lanes of busy freeway without getting hit, the onboard computers in each vehicle will enable complex and crossing paths to be plotted safely, and the sensor systems each craft will have (similar to what is already appearing on self-driving cars) combined with GPS and other navigation aids will ensure that each craft knows its own position and the position of all other craft to within a few inches.  Best of all, not only does every craft know where all other craft are, every craft also knows what every other craft will be doing in the future, too.  There will be no sudden unexpected changes of direction.

Congestion will necessarily become a thing of the past, too.  This is not only because there’ll be a huge increase in how many craft can be in the air simultaneously, but also because, in a super-sophisticated version of today’s ‘ground holds’ for passenger planes, your ‘flying car’ won’t take off until it has a clear path plotted all the way to its destination.

Less congestion, faster air speeds, and more direct routes.  Instead of perhaps a 15 mile 40 minute drive, you might have a 10 mile 7 minute flight.  That even means less gas is burned.

Oh – there’s still more.  That $1 million or more cost?  Needless to say, mass production will see the price drop down to a more sensible level.  But, you’ll never know what the vehicle costs, because you’ll never own it yourself.  When you need to go somewhere, you’ll use an Uber type app to summon one.  It will take you where you need to go, and then will go away and on to help someone else.  If you only need a single-seater, that’s what you’ll get.  If you need a craft with capacity for four people and some packages, you’ll get that instead.  The very efficient utilization of these craft mean that the capital cost of them is spread over more hours of operation and over more people benefiting from them, so even after allowing for a fair profit to the future Uber type operators, your transportation costs will be lower than they are now.  You won’t need to worry about where you’ll park your car plane, either, because when you’re not using it, it will be elsewhere, transporting other people to other places.

We expect that the type of craft will necessarily have some type of vertical or very short take off/landing capability rather than requiring runways.  Runways?  That’s another old-fashioned concept that might only now be occasionally seen at trans-oceanic airports.  Most of the time, we’ll travel either by ‘flying car’ for short distances, or by hyperloop for longer distances.

Imagine the new potential this offers in terms of urban and city design.  All the roads we’ve come to accept as essential and unavoidable now become unnecessary.  Ground transportation becomes merely a recreational activity, and a novelty.

The future truly can be transformational, if we stop planning it based on the past.

For more articles in our series about the future of transportation, please see :

Part 1 :  Our Three Previous Periods of World Transportation Leadership

Part 2 :  High Speed Rail – Our Missed Opportunity

Part 3 :  Hyperloop – the Benefit of Having Done Nothing for Too Long

Part 4 :  Is Private Car Ownership Becoming Obsolete

Part 5 :  The Totally Transformational Possibilities Offered by Hyperloop Technology

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Mar 242017

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

Good morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virgin America Brand to Disappear

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

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

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

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

Details here.

SST Lurches Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Details here.

Electric Airplanes Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poor Old A380

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

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

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

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

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

Apple’s Whisper-Quiet New Product Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

All very disappointing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telling it Like it Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Lastly This Week….

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

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

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

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels




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Mar 232017

This 737 lost a huge section of its fuselage – due to metal fatigue, not a bomb – and still landed safely.

The TSA has banned passenger flying from ten specific airports to the US from taking any electronic items larger than a cell phone into the cabin with them.  The airports are in Cairo, Istanbul, Kuwait City, Doha, Casablanca, Amman, Riyadh, Jeddah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The UK followed with a similar but not identical ban.  They have imposed the restriction on Cairo, Istanbul, Amman and Jeddah, and also added Tunis and Beirut.  On the other hand, they exempted Kuwait City, Doha, Casablanca, Riyadh, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Canada is now considering a similar ban.

Not a single part of this ban makes sense.

The Timing of Its Implementation

First, let’s look at how it was introduced.  It was introduced with advance warning – first secretly to the airlines, then publicly to everyone – us, and terrorists too.  Are we to believe that this new risk is a future risk that won’t start for a few more days?  If you were a terrorist and read that your new super-method for smuggling bombs on planes was about to be curtailed, would you just give up, or would you quickly make use of the security flaw in the almost week of remaining time before the new measures came into effect?

Like so many TSA measures, they only work if the terrorists are stupider than the TSA.  Are you willing to bet your life on that?

The Target Airports

We are told there are security weaknesses at ten airports,  Not eleven, and not nine.  Only these ten airports have security vulnerabilities.

If that is true, why not simply require security to be improved at those ten airports?  And look at the airports in question – some of them might be a bit suspect, but two in particular are far from being third world airports with third world security.

Dubai – one of the largest and most sophisticated airports in the world.

Abu Dhabi – one of the most elite airports, anywhere, due to it having a forward screening/security service that allows people to be screened by both US Immigration and US Customs before they fly from Abu Dhabi, making their long flight to the US into what is in effect a domestic US flight, with no further security checks upon arrival.

If Abu Dhabi has been given this extraordinary endorsement, how can it simultaneously be one of the ten most insecure airports in the entire world?  Truly – stop and consider this for a minute.  You can not reconcile these two facts.

It isn’t just the airports that provide security, the airlines have a watching brief, too.  Do you really think that Emirates or Etihad would allow any type of lax security at their home hubs that might endanger their airplanes and their international reputation for safe travel?

What is the strange risk factor at these ten airports that is missing at other airports?  Is it the brand of metal detectors and X-ray machines?  All airports, the world over, seem to use similar equipment from a small handful of suppliers.

Perhaps the implication is the terrorists have infiltrated the airport security staff at these ten locations.  But if the problem is untrustworthy staff, why is the risk limited to electronic items only?  If security screeners will look the other way, why not just stick a bomb in your carry-on bag with no need to disguise it at all?

Why are the US and UK unable to agree on which airports are the risky ones?

Why Only to the US (and UK) (and Canada)

As we are increasingly seeing, the ‘good news’ (for us in the US) is that these days, terrorists no longer only hate the US.  They really seriously hate France, and Belgium and Germany are far from popular too.  Then there’s Russia, another country they hate with a demonstrable fury.

Why aren’t these other countries also considered to be at risk?

As for our own degree of risk, why doesn’t the US issue a ‘travel advisory’ warning US citizens about all travel, everywhere, on all airlines?  The State Department is very quick to issue global travel advisories for general levels of ordinary risk, but why no new travel advisory about this?

Emirates’ Response

The airlines are scrambling to respond to something that will definitely impact on their passenger numbers.  Emirates has said they will let passengers keep their larger electronics until boarding the plane, at which point they will all be collected, stored in a special hold in the freight area of the plane, and returned direct to the passengers at the US destination.

That is commendable, but from a security point of view, it is utterly unrealistic.  How can they rely on passengers to hand in all their devices?  Or what would stop a passenger from, once they are in the secure part of the airport, removing some explosive device from their large portable electronic device, hiding it in their carry on, then surrendering the electronic device to Emirates while boarding their flight and with the actual explosive still in their carry-on?

Or will they require all passengers to go through another complete security screening prior to boarding the plane (please say this isn’t the case!).

The Connecting Flight Loophole

So, there you are in Dubai.  Imagine you are a terrorist wishing to smuggle your bomb onto the next flight DXB-NYC.  Happily, this new security measure has prevented you from doing so.

Okay, certainly you could simply take the Emirates flight that goes to Rome or wherever and then on to New York, thereby avoiding this new airport problem at Dubai.  But maybe you don’t want to do that.  There’s another solution for you, too.

Get on the plane at the airport it flew from to arrive into Dubai, prior to flying on to New York.  When the flight lands in Dubai, simply hide your device in the seat back pocket in front of you.  If you’re in a business or first class seat, you’ll have all sorts of other nooks and crannies to hide things in, too.

And now, get off the plane, then get back on again, and meet up with your bomb once more.  Unless we’re going to have extremely thorough cabin searches between flights, this is – and always has been – a loophole just waiting to be exploited.

From the Frying Pan – Into the Fire?

Okay, let’s assume (huge big assumption) that this new ‘security’ measure will confound the terrorists.  Bravo.

But there’s another sort of danger we’ve now created.  Our laptops, and all our electronic devices, have moderate to large-sized Li-ion battery packs inside them.  And now they’re in our suitcases, in the cargo hold, which is ‘safely’ inaccessible during flight.  But is being inaccessible the same as being safe?  Let’s think some more about that.

And, as you also know, these things sometimes explode, and burn with an intense heat, for an extended period.  Just like an explosive, but in slow motion (in simple terms, an explosive is merely a ‘fast’ fire).

If this happens in the passenger cabin, someone notices.  People can respond, and can contain and control the conflagration, with special ‘burn bags’ and fire extinguishers.  But if it happens in the cargo hold, three hours away from everywhere over the ocean?  What do you do then?

One of the things that can encourage a battery explosion is heating it up.  That isn’t likely to happen when a device is off (but other risks like vibration still exist) but how many times have you thought you turned your laptop off, only to discover, when you pull it out of your carry-on bag an hour later, that everything is quite warm?  I’ll confess to doing that, occasionally.  Not often, but now multiply ‘not often’ by ‘200 passengers’ and your risk has just escalated greatly.

Plus, when packed in a suitcase, you are surrounding the laptop with insulation, leaving nowhere for a heat buildup to go than back into the laptop itself.

Let’s also consider what if there truly is a real bomb, but now in the cargo hold instead of the passenger cabin.  It is true that if it is in the middle of the middle suitcase in the middle of the cargo hold, tightly packed in with other suitcases just waiting to absorb the force of an explosion, well, that sort of sounds safe, doesn’t it.

Except that, remember Pan Am 103 – the 747 that blew up over Scotland in 1988 due to a bomb hidden inside a radio, inside a suitcase, inside the cargo hold.  Ooops.

Now some people would have us believe that our suitcases are more thoroughly inspected than our carry-on bags.  I’ll call BS on that.  Just think, for example, we are not allowed to have our laptop inside our carry-on bag (sometimes I’ve had to remove iPads too) because they block x-rays and ‘hide’ whatever is behind them.  Now think about a suitcase, with a jumble of electronics, and much more visual ‘noise’ from everything inside it – are you going to tell me that the person somewhere out of sight in the airport is going to be more carefully checking every single suitcase than is the case for the person on public display at the security point, checking carry-on bags?

Let’s put that into the ‘unlikely’ category, shall we.

A classic ‘brick’ type cell phone. Probably too big for the new ban,

How Big is Dangerous?

The US has decided that anything larger than a cell phone is dangerous.  But how big is a cell phone?  Even if we ignore the old ‘brick’ style phones of yester-year, there is a wide variation in size between the largest phablets with 5.7″ and even larger screens, and the tiniest little pocket compact phones with 3″ screens.

At least, if you have a phone, it is a phone.  But now for the equivalent size of other devices.  What does ‘no bigger than a phone’ mean?

The UK have specified the maximum dimensions they’ll allow.  6.3″ x 3.7″ x 0.6″.  That at least adds a measure of clarity to their side of things; why can’t they and the US agree on a consistent definition?

Also, what happens if a device is smaller in two dimensions but fractionally larger in the third dimension?  Its total volume would be less than the maximum, so in theory it should be safe, but our guess is the rule is ‘all three dimensions must each be less than the stated measures’.  I have devices that are much shorter and narrower, but their thickness slightly exceeds the UK maximum.  So although there is less total space inside to fit anything, they would probably not be accepted (because who is going to have the time to figure out internal volumetric capacities while being screened!)?

One does have to wonder, though, what is the magic of this set of dimensions that allows items smaller to be safe but items even a fraction larger to suddenly become deadly?  Surely a terrorist could travel with two or three or four ‘cell phone sized’ devices and simply combine them for one large explosion?

Of course that is possible, and could readily be done given a few minutes privacy in an onboard toilet.

So is this a totally useless ban?  Probably, yes.  Here next is an interesting related question.

Are Small Bombs Really Dangerous?

Now for an interesting point.  How small a bomb is ‘safe’ and how large a bomb is ‘dangerous’?  Sure, a small bomb alongside a plane’s hull could blow a similarly small hole in the plane, but would that automatically lead to the plane ‘exploding’, crashing, and burning?

Actually, no.  There have been a number of cases where passenger jets have suffered some sort of hull damage and survived.  The most spectacular of these is the Aloha 737, pictured above.  On 1988, on an interisland flight, metal fatigue caused a huge forward section of the fuselage to rip off the plane entirely.  The plane landed safely.

Another example is the United Airlines 747 in 1989.  This had a cargo door and a section of associated fuselage rip off, but the plane again landed safely.

That’s not to say there is no risk, and for sure, you’d not want to be seated next to a terrorist and their iPad sized bomb.  And there are reports that some plane crashes may have been caused by bombs that were only slightly larger – filling a typical Coke can, for example.

We definitely should protect against such risks any which way we can.

So, Will it Work?

Is a ban on everything other than small cell phone sized electronics the best way to do so?  Although indeed very inconvenient to honest passengers, will it impede terrorists who are determined to bring destruction to a plane?  Almost certainly not.

Please read our matching article for information and suggestions on what to do if you’re on a flight that forbids electronics larger than a phone.

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Mar 232017

New restrictions on electronic carry-ons threaten chaos at security points.

At first, the new and utterly nonsensical ban on any electronics bigger than a phone on some flights seemed like it was something most of us would happily avoid.

But by essentially including all flights from Dubai to the US (ie Emirates), from Abu Dhabi (ie Etihad flights) and Istanbul (ie Turkish Airlines) it has shifted from something that might only inconvenience ‘other people’ and now threatens all of us who might be returning to the US through these (and the other seven) hubs.  Expect a new round of airport chaos, and if we’re planning travel through an affected airport, clearly we can’t afford to ignore it.

We discuss the abject lunacy and dysfunctional nature of this ‘security’ restriction here.

The purpose of this article is to help you respond to the problems this ban will cause you.  Furthermore, the ban is open-ended rather than temporary, and if it really truly is a bona fide response to a real new threat, it seems possible the ban might extend to cover all airports at some time in the future.

As you probably now know, the ban prohibits taking electronic items larger than a cell phone into the airplane cabin – all such items need to be checked instead.

So how big is too big?  What is the maximum size of item you can now take on board these flights?  Alas, even that obvious question is hard to answer (did I say this is a beyond idiotic piece of regulation?).

A simple device for less than $10 allows you to check if your items will fit the new size limits.

Problem/Solution 1 :  Measuring Your Electronics

For the record, the US version of the ban says ‘you can’t take things larger than a phone’ onto the plane.  How big is that?  No-one really knows, and that is an ambiguity that will surely never be resolved in your favor.  Let’s just say that when security officers prohibit plastic miniature replicas of pistols on charm bracelets, your chances of talking your way onboard with a possibly oversized electronic item are less than zero.

You could try traveling with an old ‘brick’ sized cell phone and claim that allows you to have any other electronics of the same size, but we doubt this would work.

The similar but not identical UK ban helpfully specifies the maximum size allowed on flights in to Britain.  This is 16cm x 9.3cm x 1.5cm, or if you prefer inches, 6.3″ x 3.65″ x 0.6″.  It means that the largest screened phones are probably going to be within the dimensions (an iPhone 7+ with a 5.5″ screen measures 6.2″ x 3.1″ x 0.3″), but even a small 6″ screen Kindle will be too large (the smallest Kindle is too wide).

What say you have an item which has two dimensions smaller than the maximum and one that is larger?  In theory, the risk is actually related to the volume of the object, but we suspect that the officers at security are not going to be willing to calculate relative volumes and make exceptions.  It is generally expected that sizing templates will be created, and our guess would be that a failure of any one of the three dimensions will mean a refusal to allow the item on board.

These templates will also be unforgiving.  For example, my lovely Fiio X3 music player, while much shorter and narrower than the size limits, is 0.63″ thick – as close to 0.6″ as any ruler could ever determine.  But if it is facing a template that can’t/won’t stretch, the extra 3/100ths of an inch is enough to change it from being accepted to being banned.  (Happily, within every problem lies a desirable solution – is it finally time to upgrade to a newer, better, and smaller Fiio X5, I wonder!?).

So, the first suggestion is that you need some way of accurately measuring items at home – a set of calipers, not just a ruler to hold things against.  Happily, these are easy to use and inexpensive.  You can get (on Amazon, of course) a ridiculously accurate electronic caliper set for as little as $9, or an ‘old fashioned’ and (and only slightly less accurate) mechanical set for about the same price.

I have both, and find that most of the time I use the mechanical one – it is simpler and easier to use.  In the unusual and rare situation that I need to know something to a higher degree of accuracy, I’ll bring out the electronic one (and hope the battery hasn’t died in the year since I last touched it!), but most of the time, the mechanical one is fine.

This type of luggage lock makes your bag much less tempting a target.

Problem/Solution 2 :  The Danger of Having Electronics Stolen Out of Your Checked Bags

Luggage thefts are not just something that happens to other people.  They can happen to you too, and for all you know, your bags may have been opened by thieves in the past, but passed over simply because there was nothing obviously/sufficiently valuable inside.

Don’t think that locking your suitcase will deter thieves.  This Youtube video (and many others like it) show how easy it is to untraceably open a suitcase in seconds, go through it, and then lock it up again afterwards.

The ‘solution’ in that video is ridiculous, and one of the things you should never do is make your suitcase look unusual as if it is protecting items of high value.  Better to have it blend in with the others.  The one partial solution that can help is to have zips that don’t just lock against each other, but which lock against a part of the suitcase.  If they can’t then be slid out-of-the-way, it makes it harder to then open the suitcase, and also makes it impossible to conceal that the suitcase was opened.  Another reason to like the excellent Briggs & Riley suitcases with the lock feature depicted.

Luggage thieves will now know that bags on flights from the ten affected airports are much more likely to have valuable electronics in them, and will definitely focus on those bags.  While the odds are still in your favor that you’ll be okay, can you really afford to risk that.  Do you want to risk losing all your vacation photos on your camera, all your video footage on your camcorder, and – most of all – all your data on your laptop?

Insurance will probably reimburse you for lost items, but it can’t and won’t reimburse you for the lost data on them, and in the case of laptops, potentially the loss of business that arises if you lose work related records and data (unless you have additional specialized business insurance coverages).

The problem of luggage thefts was one of the factors that encouraged the airlines/security officials to walk back from their earlier total ban on all electronics on all flights.  Too much was being stolen.  So the problem is very real.

There are two things you should do.  Before traveling, take the memory cards out of cameras and camcorders and keep them in your carry-on.  You might not be allowed to have your camera with you any more, but you are definitely still allowed to keep your memory cards with you.  Cameras are replaceable, their photos and videos, not so much.

Secondly, back up your computer’s data onto an external hard drive that is appropriately sized to avoid the size limits of the new electronic ban and carry the external hard drive with you.  We also recommend, on the hard drive, you should keep master copies of all your software so that if you lose the laptop while traveling (or if it breaks/fails/needs replacement) you have everything you need to restore your laptop to full functionality, even if you need to urgently buy a new hard drive or laptop entirely.

While most external hard drives are about the size of a hardback book (ie too big), you can also get small light weight units that are powered by the laptop, so they don’t even need an external power supply, and which are smaller than the size limits of the new electronics ban.

Suitably small and light and easy to use, this portable hard drive could be a life saver.

When considering an external hard drive, clearly its dimensions are a critical factor.  We also suggest you choose a name brand drive – the last thing you want is your backup drive to fail.  And get one that supports USB 3.0 – it is appreciably faster than USB 2.0 when making backups or doing a subsequent recovery.  Don’t skimp on capacity – get one that is at least as big as the hard drive in your various computers; and because a larger one probably only costs another $20 or so, why not get a larger one to ‘future proof’ the drive and your use of it.  You can use it to back up your photos and video too.

Sure, you might think you could back everything up to the cloud, but are you sure you’ll have good fast access to the internet everywhere you’ll be?  Or, maybe even if you do, it might be a ‘metered’ service that charges per MB/GB of data.

Plus, while small-sized cloud storage is available, free or cheaply, from many services, when you’re looking at 1TB or more of online storage, the cost becomes appreciable.  A 2TB Dropbox account is currently $12.50/month, whereas a 2TB external drive is about $80 – little more than the cost of six months of Dropbox and very much more accessible.

The Seagate Backup Plus Slim ($80 for 2TB, other sizes also available) and Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Slim (same price) are good choices and fit within the allowable carry-on size.  Most others (including the Western Digital My Passport Ultra Portable and the Toshiba Canvio drives) are too thick.

Related (Bonus) Problem :  Identity Theft

These days, having electronics stolen not only means you’ve lost the item, but it can also mean you might be exposing yourself to identity theft.

Make sure that all the devices you own are password protected – phones, tablets, laptops.  If you want to be more fully protected, enable encrypted storage on your hard drive, too.  In theory this means that someone else can’t simply take the hard drive out of your laptop and plug it in to another laptop as a non-boot drive and read the data on it.

For less than $20, a small external battery ends any battery life anxiety you might otherwise now suffer.

Problem/Solution 3 :  Phone Battery Life

If the only device you can take with you onto your flight is a phone, you might find yourself using it for entertainment purposes more than you expected.  Reading books, listening to music, and even watching video.

Years ago, we were told that we should enjoy watching video on tiny 3″ and 3.5″ screened devices.  I always thought that was ridiculous, but now with 5.5″ screens, the experience is acceptable.  Not as good as on an 8″ or larger screen, but if you’re stuck on a long flight with no interesting entertainment provided by the airline, then it is surely better than nothing.

Another possibility – you find yourself on an airplane where the airline has decided to do away with seat back screens, because ‘everyone brings their own devices these days’ – a statement that will have to be modified if the flight is leaving from one of the ten affected airports.

Now, sure, in theory your phone is probably good for somewhere between 10 – 15 hours of video or e-book reading, and more of simple music playing.  Maybe you think ‘I only have an 8 hour flight, so I’ll be fine’.  But that assumes that your battery is fully charged at the beginning of the flight, and that it has its full rated life, and further assumes you don’t mind walking off the plane with a potentially dead phone.

Many planes now have USB charging ports, but these don’t necessarily work all the time.  Fortunately, there’s no reason to stress over battery life these days because an external battery pack is inexpensive, small-sized, and gives a huge boost to battery life.  Even relatively small external batteries will at least double your phone’s battery life and ensure you have plenty of spare power, no matter how long your flight.

On Amazon, here is a 10 Ahr external battery for $14, a 12Ahr unit for $20 and a 20 Ahr unit for $12 or $20.  All of them conform with the new size limitations.

This is one of those things that is so useful, small/light/convenient, and inexpensive, that it should be considered an essential part of your travel kit, all the time, no matter where you go.

Talking about power, charging, and low-cost solutions, here’s another bonus tip.

A wonderful $5 solution to ‘plug congestion’.

Tip :  The $5 Solution You Should Always Travel With

How many times have you been desperate to recharge a device while in an airport gate area (or anywhere else) but all the outlets are taken by other people charging their devices.

There’s a $5 solution for that.  Well, it might be a few dollars less, and maybe a few dollars more.  Simply get a double or triple plug adapter, so that one wall outlet can host two or three chargers simultaneously.  That means you can confidently ask someone to share ‘their’ outlet without inconveniencing them at all.

$130 for a really good second phone to use as a new size-legal media player.

Yet Another Bonus Solution

With big screened smart phones so inexpensive these days, it might make sense to but one with a 5.5″ drive, 1080 x 1920 pixel screen, and removable Micro-SD card storage as a portable media device, in addition to your ‘real’ phone with whatever sized screen.

This gives you a legally sized unit with unlimited potential storage (due to the swappable memory cards) and a good screen that will show full resolution HD video.

The current best value example of this is probably the Motorola G4, available on Amazon for a net $130.  It lists for $180, and gives you a $50 gift card if you sign up for Prime.  If you already have Prime, then it is $130 to start with.  There are plenty of other phones, including some with slightly larger 5.7″ screens, but this is an unbeatable value and probably your best current choice.

You can even use it as a phone, too (of course).  For example, if traveling out of the country, you can keep your regular phone and then put a local SIM in this phone, too.

Just one thing.  If you buy a protective case for it (and any other phone, too), you might need to remove the case at security.  With the case, it might be deemed dangerously thick; but without the case, it will be safely thin.


We’ve grown used to the luxury of surrounding ourselves with electronic distractions (and productivity tools) to while away the hours on our long flights.  With some care and ingenuity, we can continue to surround ourselves with much of what we’ve come to rely upon.

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Mar 202017

A secret new TSA ban, affecting some airlines, seems to restrict the electronics we can take on board with us.

The craziness of TSA security has reached a new height (or depth) with word leaking out about their promulgating a secret ban, prohibiting any electronics larger than a cell phone, on some airlines.

Now, you’re probably wondering ‘How does a secret ban work?’.  That’s a very good question, and for sure, the word ‘chaos’ has to figure somewhere in the answer.

Here’s what we know, courtesy of the English Guardian newspaper.

It seems that over the weekend, the TSA sent out a new notice to airlines from 13 countries (all non-US) requiring them to forbid passengers from taking any electronics larger than a cell phone as carry-on (presumably only on flights to/from the US, but who knows).  Everything else must be placed in checked baggage.

This means no cameras, no tablets, no Kindles, perhaps no MP3 players, maybe even no noise-cancelling headphones.  Well, who really knows for sure if noise-cancelling headphones are included or not.  And with cell phones sometimes almost as large as a tablet, who really knows what the size limits exactly might be.

To make things even better worse, it is apparently an optional (but mandatory) ban.  It is a ‘circular’, not a public regulation, but airlines are expected to comply.

So, there it is.  A secret optional ban, applying to some airlines (we don’t know which ones) and on some/most/all electronics, on some flights.

Truly, I’m not making this stuff up.  Yes, it is beyond lunacy, but it is also the reality we live in these days.  The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

The only bit of good news is that after some airlines deliberately leaked news of the almost secret almost ban, the TSA are now promising to go public with it on Tuesday.  But if you – or anyone you know – is planning on traveling in the next day or two, you need to be aware of this, just in case you (or they) might be affected.

Why only airlines from 13 countries?  If there is a security risk, won’t a terrorist choose to fly on a non-affected airline instead?

More details, but not answers to the questions which normal reasonable people might have, here.

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