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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

Jun 012017

A suggestion for BA for their next meltdown.

Good morning

Well, the concept of travel chaos over a Memorial Day Weekend is nothing new, but it was unusual to see it coming from outside the US this year, courtesy of BA and some sort of computer glitch they suffered that saw their entire network almost completely close down for the weekend, and then several more days of recovery subsequently.

BA blamed things on a power surge, but the utility companies denied any such thing, and as anyone who has any familiarity with data centers knows, any half-way decent data center has sophisticated power quality management to completely protect against any power supply irregularities.

On the other hand, some people (mainly people with axes to grind) were quick to blame the problem – or, perhaps more to the point, the delays in recovering – to BA’s outsourcing much of their technical resource to India in the last year or so.  But that is unlikely to be the root cause either of the problems or the delays in resolving them.

There were two very sad aspects to the debacle.

The first was the triumph of appearance over substance.  We were first leaked pictures of BA’s ‘crisis room’ – utterly empty and apparently taken as things were in the process of melting down.  Crisis?  What crisis!

Perhaps in response to that, BA’s CEO Alex Cruz sent out a video message about the problem, uttering all the usual generic platitudes.  The very sad part of that?  Someone suggested (and he agreed) that he should put on a hi-viz vest when filming the short clip, presumably to convey an image of dynamic ‘hands-on’ and ‘take-charge’ management of the situation.  But this was quickly ridiculed, because there is no earthly reason why anyone would ever need to wear a hi-viz jacket while working inside a nice clean office inside a computer center, and all the people in the background were seen to be wearing normal regular clothing.

What an insult to our intelligence.  How stupid does he think we are, that we’ll be impressed by his donning a brand new and probably never before worn hi-viz vest?

The second very sad aspect was a newspaper story with the headline that BA would pay compensation to stranded passengers.  Now you might say that surely this is something to celebrate, not to feel sad about!

No.  You see, all that BA agreed to do was to honor its obligations that were already clearly laid out under UK and EU law and affirmed by several landmark court cases.

Since when has it become headline news that any corporation, anywhere, simply agrees to do what is mandatory?  And, sadder still, within the story is some wiggle room – there is ambiguity about BA’s obligation to compensate if passengers booked alternate flights with alternate carriers.  After initially flatly refusing to compensate such people (people who often had no choice with ‘must travel’ obligations and no way to reach BA because their phones and website were all down or overloaded, and, even if they did reach BA, there was no help forthcoming) BA has said it will now consider such requests on a ‘case by case basis’.  Not exactly a very binding commitment to do much at all.

Another aspect of the problems BA had (or, more to the point, the problems its passengers had) were stories that BA was demanding passengers pay upgrade fares if they wished to fly on alternate flights.  That can sometimes be fair and sensible – if there are too many people and not enough seats, why shouldn’t the people who most need the seats and who are most willing to pay a premium for them be given them.  But if there are otherwise empty seats, shouldn’t anyone be allowed to take those seats, particular in view of all the hassles and delays that were being experienced, and the value to BA as well as to the passengers in clearing up as many passengers as possible, as quickly as possible.?  Details here.

An eventful week ahead.  This time next week the British will have held their general election, with current projections suggesting that rather than bouncing back with an enormously increased majority, the reigning Tories (who decided to call the snap election, ostensibly to get a mandate for their Brexit negotiations, but probably heavily influenced by their very strong public support prior to calling the election) will be lucky to even keep their present very thin majority – they’ve gone from being 20% ahead in the polls to barely ahead at all (the latest poll suggesting barely 3% between the two main parties).

And I’ll be in Scotland with a group of Travel Insiders, so don’t expect a newsletter for the next several weeks.

Meantime, please keep reading for :

  • Computers Have Gotten Smaller, but Airplanes to Carry Them…..
  • Not Really All That Big a Plane
  • A Threat to Naughty Children :  18 Hours on a United Plane
  • Thank you, John Travolta
  • Uber Has a Good Quarter
  • Laptops – Will They Need to be Checked or Not?
  • Which Are More Dangerous – Batteries or Explosives
  • More on Security Questions
  • And Lastly This Week….

Computers Have Gotten Smaller, but Airplanes to Carry Them…..

Our various defense forces fly a lot more planes than just the headline grabbing fighters and bombers.  For example, currently there is an Air Force contract for 17 JSTARS planes – these are planes that are used for ground surveillance and targeting.

The current planes are almost 50 years old, and are based on Boeing’s 707 plane, which 50 years ago, was the ‘go to’ plane, and which is only slightly larger than modern 737 planes.  The planes are crammed full of computer gear, and have lots of sensors mounted in a 20 ft long external pod, too.

Fifty years ago, a computer would take up 1,000 sq ft of air-conditioned room, nowadays a more powerful computer resides inside your phone.  There is less need for a large plane to act as a JSTARS platform.

So, for the replacement JSTARS plane, two of the three proposals are based around modest sized business/executive jets, much smaller than the former 707s.  They are planes built to carry less than 20 people, and which, it is said, would be plenty large enough for the personnel and equipment now needed.  The third proposal is from Boeing, and they’re offering a 737 that can carry 135 people.  Boeing says that because the US military is so big, it deserves a big plane.  A cynic would say that Boeing is offering the 737 because it is the smallest plane they have.

The other two planes can fly 10,000 ft higher (so they can see more on the ground) and have more range than the 737 that Boeing is offering.  They are also lighter and more fuel-efficient, and need less runway to takeoff and land on.  So they should win the contract, but Boeing is, well, Boeing….  And, to be fair to Boeing, the 737 has a broader support base all around the world if maintenance is required, and has already been adapted for in-air refueling, so there are fewer unknowns.

More details here.

Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch. The rocket payload will go between the two bodies.

Not Really All That Big a Plane

Talking about big planes, there have been headlines this week about two new aircraft, both hailed as the biggest in the world.

The first, headlined ‘Revealed: Sergey Brin’s secret plans to build the world’s biggest aircraft‘ sounded exciting, even if the words ‘revealed’ and ‘secret’ were somewhat contradictory when so close to each other in the same sentence.

But what was revealed is that Brin (of Google fame) isn’t actually planning to build a plane at all.  He is planning to build an airship.  And while the airship would be big, at ‘almost 200 meters long’ it is shorter than both the USS Macon (240 meters) and the Hindenburg (245 meters).

The other article, headlined ‘Paul Allen’s Colossal Stratolaunch Plane Emerges From Its Lair‘ is about a strange shaped plane that weighs less than an A380, both empty and fully loaded.  In theory it will be part of a system for launching satellites, a bit similar to the new DARPA/Boeing XS-1 I wrote about last week.

Some commentators are observing that a lot has changed since the Stratolaunch went into development six years ago, and wonder if the underlying business model still stands up against the marketplace changes.  Companies no longer want to launch big satellites into high geo-synchronous orbits as much as before; they are preferring to launch multiple smaller satellites into lower orbits, and new deployment systems such as Space-X have appeared, offering lower costs than six years ago.

While Paul Allen has invested into existing companies with some success in the past, his track record for developing new technology has been disappointing, and sadly, there’s currently little to suggest that Stratolaunch will change that.  A bit like the Ford Edsel, if there’s too much delay between market research and product launch, the market may have changed in-between times.

A Threat to Naughty Boys :  18 Hours on a United Plane

Here’s something to threaten as a consequence to naughty children, except for the potential danger of being investigated by your state’s version of ‘Child Protective Services’.  Threaten them with the new United flight between Los Angeles and Singapore, due to start in fall, and which will become the longest flight to and from the US.  Never mind thinking about the legroom crunch for that long journey – did we mention that United squeezes nine seats across in its coach class cabin, although some airlines still offer a more reasonable eight across.  Shoulder room is becoming the new pain point on many planes.

The 8700 mile flight is projected to take 17 hrs 55 minutes, which is longer than the 17 hrs 40 minutes on the 9,032 miles between Auckland and Doha which holds the distance record for flights currently.

The LAX-SIN flight is right at the limits of the range of the 787-9 United will be flying, and indeed United admits that it won’t be able to fly fully loaded.  Whether that means fewer passengers or less freight isn’t yet known.

Details here.

Let’s hope the 787-9 planes have been correctly maintained.  Earlier this week the FAA proposed fining United $435,000 for operating 23 flights of a 787 in 2014 that was in an ‘unairworthy condition’.  To be fair, the unairworthiness was exceedingly minor, but even so…..

The funniest part of this is that the United spokesperson commenting on the proposed fine was unable to deviate from their standard script, and started off by saying ‘The safety of our customers and employees is our top priority….’ – a bit of a non sequitur comment in the context of flying an allegedly unsafe plane 23 times, one would think!  Details here.

John Travolta’s beautiful 707, now generously donated to an Australian airplane museum.

Thank you, John Travolta

John Travolta has a second career as a certified Qantas pilot.  He is an aviation enthusiast, and owns a number of his own planes, including an early Qantas 707 dating back to 1964, which he has done up in the time-appropriate Qantas livery.  Sometimes he does a promotion with Qantas and flies a modern Qantas jet, too.

He announced this past weekend that he is donating his 707 to an airplane museum a bit south of Sydney.  This museum is amassing a lovely collection of planes – it already has one of the most beautiful planes ever built – a Lockheed Super Constellation (also in Qantas livery), and a couple of years ago was given Qantas’ first 747-400 too (would it be unkind and unfair to say that the 747 has become so irrelevant that airlines are giving their old 747s away these days!).  It also has a DC-3 and a DC-4 (much less common).  The 707 will make for a great addition.

Here’s a nice article with some interesting history about John Travolta’s plane and the museum.

Uber Has a Good Quarter

Reminding us all that the word ‘good’ is more relative than absolute, Uber improved (another relative word) its result for Q1 2017 compared to Q4 2016.  It only (relativity again) lost $708 million for the first three months of this year, compared to $991 million for the previous three months of last year.  Revenue increased by almost $520 million to $3.4 billion.  And with some $7 billion in cash still unspent, it is far from being in crisis/meltdown mode.

Maybe there’s no financial crisis, but organizationally, it seems far from calm.  In perhaps unrelated news, their current ‘head of finance’ is leaving.  If you notice that slightly clumsy term, their previous CFO left in 2015 and has yet to be replaced, with the ‘head of finance’ becoming the most senior person but not being made CFO.  Uber says it continues to look for a suitable CFO.  In the last few months, the company has also lost its President, a couple of VPs, and the heads of several departments, while searching for a new COO appointment – someone to ‘keep wunderkind/bad boy CEO Travis Kalanick in line’.

Meanwhile, Uber is thought to remain the world’s most valuable private company.

Talking about most valuable companies and wunderkinds, the US’ most valuable car company is now Tesla, with a $56.9 billion market capitalization (even though it seems that sales of the Model X are disappointing and not growing). GM is now appreciably behind Tesla, at $52.6 billion.  Tesla’s own wunderkind CEO, Elon Musk, announced on Thursday that he was taking his toys home and sulking in the corner.  Apparently he misunderstood what the word ‘advise’ means.

Miffed that President Trump refused to be bullied by Musk’s threats to quit the advisory council he was on, and doubly miffed that President Trump didn’t submit to his demands to accept the Paris treat on global warming, Musk announced he was resigning, something that he strangely said he had no choice but to do.

Laptops – Will They Need to be Checked or Not?

More confusion and ambiguity this week about what might be in store for us and our laptops when flying in the future.

The Europeans are saying that the Americans have agreed not to impose any bans.  But the Americans are denying that, and are talking about maybe banning laptops not just on flight from Europe to the US, but on all flights, to and from, all international destinations.  This article exposes the contradictory stories that are circulating.

If that were to happen, then it becomes almost certain and indeed necessary that a similar ban apply on domestic flights, too.  If a person can smuggle a bomb onto an international flight inside a laptop, one has to believe they could do the same on a domestic flight, too.

There was also a timely incident this last week that showed the complexity of the issue.  A JetBlue flight from JFK to SFO had to make an emergency landing in Grand Rapids after a laptop battery is said to have ‘exploded’ and burst into flames.

The laptop was with the passenger, in the passenger compartment of the plane, and flight attendants were able to safely extinguish the fire.  But what would have happened if the explosion/fire had happened with the laptop inside the passenger’s suitcase, in the luggage compartment?

Until there is some way to safely contain laptops and their batteries in the cargo holds of planes, we risk changing from one sort of bomb (a terrorist device) to another sort of bomb (an exploding battery).  Are we really any the better off in such a case?  Not really, because we still might have the terrorist type bombs in the cargo hold, plus now the battery type bombs too.

Which Are More Dangerous – Batteries or Explosives

We all know that explosives are dangerous.  We’ve seen the movies, with amazing explosions.  On the other hand, generally we all perceive batteries as safe, and ‘the worst that can happen’ is a bit of a fire.

But that ‘bit of a fire’ should not be under estimated.  Modern laptop batteries these days contain an astonishing amount of energy, which is why, if they ‘misbehave’, their fires are very hard to extinguish.  Their ‘fire’ is actually a slow-motion explosion – lots of heat, but not any appreciable shock wave.

A half stick of dynamite (1.25″ in diameter and 4″ long) has about 500,000 Joules of energy within it.  A 100 Watt hour laptop battery has about 360,000 Joules of energy within it.  Batteries already contain almost as much energy as explosives, and as battery technologies improve, will continue to hold more and more energy.

None of us could walk on a plane with a half stick of dynamite.  But my Dell laptop has a 97 Watt hour battery – and that’s about as powerful as 3/8 of a stick of dynamite.  Maybe terrorists don’t need to smuggle explosives into laptops – they just need to know how to trigger ‘runaway thermal events’ in the batteries already in the laptops.

More on Security Questions

I wrote last week about how I was unable to answer any of a set of mandatory security questions in case I needed to recover my Apple password.  Several people wrote in to suggest that the thing to do is to just come up with a ‘standard’ answer, no matter what the question.  Maybe your answer is always ‘Nosemi34!’ to all such security questions, whether they be asking you about friends, family, cars, schools, or anything else.

That is sensible advice, but I came across a situation this week where, when doing exactly that to the three ‘password recover security questions’ that were being presented to me, the system then proved itself to be, alas, ‘too clever’, and told me I couldn’t use the same answer to more than one question.  Aaagh!

This is just the lightest taste of what life will be like when we’re surrounded by artificial (un)intelligence.  Everything will be very helpful, but nothing will be convenient.

And Lastly This Week….

New plane models are taking to the skies in China and Russia, both posing potential (rather than actual) threats to the 737 and A320 families of planes.  This article details the recent first flight of the Russian MS-21.

The tourists vs locals battle has just ratcheted up another notch in Florence, Italy.  The local mayor, annoyed at tourists sitting on the steps up to the entrance of the Basilica of Santa Croce church, burial-place of Michelangelo and Machiavelli, has said that he will have the steps cleaned each lunchtime.  As in, hosed down.  And if there are tourists on the steps at that time, they’ll get wet.  Details here.

Caution – NSFW.  You may have come across videos of strong men pulling a plane by hand, or possibly even, by their teeth.  But pulling a large-sized helicopter by their, ahem, ‘manhood’?  Perhaps a new way of enlarging the afore-mentioned appendage?  Details – and, yes, pictures, here.

For the next few weeks (during which there will be no newsletters while I’m in Scotland), please enjoy safe travels





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May 262017

Impossible to answer security questions = see item, below.

This weekend marks the traditional start of summer.  Here in the Seattle area, summer came a week or more early; and let’s all hope for a lovely Memorial Day weekend.

The AAA are forecasting the most Memorial Day travel since 2005, with an increase of 5.5% in people flying, and 2.4% in people driving.  In total, 39.3 million of us will travel 50 miles or more from home.

Contrarian that I am, that sounds like all the more reason not to travel out of the immediate area.

In other news :

  • Boeing’s Claim Against Bombardier Challenged by Delta
  • Another Tease from Sir Richard
  • Rocketry – New Zealand Joins the Elite Group
  • The Curse of the Olympics
  • Amtrak, Eat Your Heart Out (Australian edition)
  • Suing the Publishers of Lists of Best Restaurants – a Good Start
  • The Latest from the TSA
  • Apple’s Annoying Security
  • RIP MP3
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boeing’s Claim Against Bombardier Challenged by Delta

We expressed our grave doubts as to the validity of Boeing’s claim that Bombardier was guilty of ‘dumping’ its CS100 planes when it sold them to Delta a month ago.

Boeing is now presenting its case to the US International Trade Commission, claiming that this act by Bombardier threatens the entire viability of Boeing and the US aerospace industry in general – no half measures there!

Boeing’s theory is that by Bombardier forcing it to discount the 737-700 to try and match Bombardier’s CS100 price, other airlines will now insist it discounts all its other planes too, no matter whether Bombardier is competing or not.  This is explained (unsympathetically) here.

There is however one interesting aspect to Boeing’s claim.  Well, there are many ‘interesting’ and ‘surprising’ elements to Boeing’s claim, but perhaps the most interesting and surprising of all is Delta’s testimony that Boeing wasn’t actually even trying to sell any of its 737s as an alternative to the Bombardier offer!  Instead, apparently Boeing offered a selection of used 717s and Embraer E-190s it had traded in as part of another deal with another airline.  Delta says that Boeing didn’t offer, because it didn’t want, the 737-700.

That rather makes Boeing’s claim a bit hard to understand, don’t you think.  Details here.

Another Tease from Sir Richard

To be blunt, Virgin America was a disappointment from its start until its end.

It was much delayed in its launch (in 2004 they said they’d start flying by mid-2005; in actual fact, the first flight wasn’t until August 2007), due possibly to Sir Richard Branson not understanding the restrictions on foreign ownership of US airlines.  The high level of hype (and blame) that regularly came from that source was consistently contradicted by an underperforming (it didn’t make a profit until 2013) and largely ignored airline that failed to gain sufficient traction in the marketplace to go it alone.  Apparently it takes more than purple lighting, loud pop music, and Sir Richard to make an airline successful.

But now he is hinting that he might be back again, starting another US carrier.  Or is this just Sir Richard doing an imitation of Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair?  Whenever O’Leary felt he needed more publicity for Ryanair, he’d mention a plan to take all the toilets off his planes, and/or to charge for access to them.  And the headlines would dutifully light up, and the traveling public would be reminded again that Ryanair was the ultimate low/no frills airline with the lowest fares.  Exactly what he wanted.

So perhaps Sir Richard’s plan is to occasionally talk about new ventures he is considering (supersonic planes, space flights, and so on) so as to bring more attention to himself?

But, whatever the reason, here he is, half hinting, in a deniable form, that he might choose to start another US carrier.  Doesn’t that beg the question – if he wants part of a US carrier, why did he allow his last airline to be sold (although we believe he probably made a tidy penny on his initial investment when the airline was bought by Alaska Airlines)?

Rocketry – New Zealand Joins the Elite Group

On Wednesday New Zealand became the 11th nation to display the capability to launch satellites into orbit, when a joint US/NZ company sent a rocket aloft.  The rocket is regrettably misunderstood by some to be ‘battery powered’ – an ambiguous nonsense that some are taking to imply it uses battery propulsion.  It uses batteries to control some things, but definitely uses regular rocket fuel to propel the rocket.

The company (and its rockets) are small but ambitious, saying they plan to launch at least 50 rockets a year when they get into full production.  This compares with 22 rocket launches from all companies in the US during 2016 and 82 internationally.  Details here.

We of course wish the company the best of success, but we’re wondering if they’re getting into the market just as it is about to massively change.  It seems there is a bewildering profusion of private companies now developing rockets, and also on Wednesday, there was an announcement about Boeing winning a DARPA contract to built the XS-1 – a hybrid concept that has a ‘space plane’ fly traditionally from a runway up into the high atmosphere, at which point it then launches a rocket that travels the remaining distance to orbital altitudes and releases its payload.

Boeing predicts this will reduce the cost of getting a 1,500 – 3,000 lb satellite aloft from $350 million at present down to $5 million (ie about $2250/lb), and has a goal to be able to launch ten satellites in ten days by 2021.  Details here.

Let’s hope they get closer to achieving these realities than NASA did with the colossal disappointment of the space shuttle program.  The Space Shuttle was originally  promised/projected to have a cost of $657 per pound in 2013 dollars to get satellites into orbit and weekly launches.  Its actual cost, depending on how much of the program overhead was amortized, came in at figures of up to $27,000 per pound (in 2013 dollars).  See this article.

To add encouragement to the various aerospace companies, NASA has announced accelerated plans to send a spaceship to an asteroid that is in the belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.  The asteroid is believed to be almost entirely iron and nickel, and is almost 150 miles in diameter.  The significance of this is that if its iron and nickel were somehow transported to Earth, and at present day prices, it would have a value estimated at $10,000 quadrillion.  How much is that?  Well, the entire global economy is about $75 trillion, so it is 133,000 greater.

The article reporting this is silent about what it would cost to bring the asteroid back, and of course, if we were to suddenly get that much metal, one has to believe that the value of iron and nickel would drop!  Although the drop in price would be moderate rather than spectacular, because so much of the cost of the bar of steel that is used to manufacturer something is in the processing from ore to iron and on to steel, and then in the further processing and transportation to the place where it is finally used.

I estimate the asteroid could weigh in the order of 64 trillion tons.  The amount of energy needed to shift an asteroid of that weight from an orbit beyond Mars and to land it carefully on Earth is unthinkably enormous, and as for the cost to somehow get the needed fuel to the asteroid….. well, let’s just say that the ‘free’ iron would no longer be quite such a bargain.

The real value of minerals on asteroids is to allow for construction of things there – on the asteroid – using the materials present, rather than needing to expensively transport them from Earth.  But this asteroid is way too far away to be a sensible place for any sort of off-Earth base.  The moon, a ‘nearby’ 240,000 miles – maybe.  But the asteroid belt, which at its closest is 125 million miles from us (further away than the sun) and at its furthest point is almost 400 million miles away, is way too far away.  Even Mars is much closer (34 million miles at closest point, 250 million miles furthest away).

The Curse of the Olympics

The curse of the Olympics has struck again, as it tends to invariably do.

Nation after nation excitedly bids for and ‘wins’ the rights to host the Olympics, and upon winning, erupts into paroxysms of delight, promising all who care to listen that the event will transform their country, its economy, and the wealth of its people.  The value in ‘free publicity’ (which can only be considered free if one conveniently ignores the billions of dollars it costs to host the Olympics) will be enormous, they say, and the lasting benefits from the ‘Olympic Village’ housing and the new sports stadiums will transform the regional economy.  And so on and so on.

The truth is usually something very different.  Do you remember who hosted the last few Olympics?  Were they places you’d never heard of before, and to which you’ve subsequently chosen to go visit as a result of them hosting the Olympics?  For example, the most expensive Olympics ever, just a few years ago in Sochi – did that make you go visit Sochi?  Can you even point to Sochi on a map?  Some readers might not even be sure which country Sochi is in.

Astonishingly, the city that hosted the 2008 Olympics reported lower hotel occupancies before, during, and after the Olympics than would normally have been the case without the Olympics.

For the 2000 Olympics, my travel company was outlooking a terrible year for general travel to both Australia and New Zealand (the Olympics were in Sydney) because almost all the hotel rooms in Sydney were taken over by the Olympic Committee and their official travel partner, making it impossible for ‘normal’ visitors to Australia to get a room in Sydney, meaning many of them stayed away from Australia entirely.

But still countries persist in making outrageously expensive bids to host the Olympics, most recently Buenos Aires and the 2016 Olympics.  Actually – that was a test.  Although not quite a year ago, have you already forgotten they weren’t in BA, Argentina, but in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil?  Anyway, you may recall another part of the Olympic tradition – the panic and struggle to get all the infrastructure ready for the Olympics.  And now that it is all over, what about the permanent lasting benefits the city will get for what reportedly was a cost of somewhere between $5 billion and $20 billion?

Ummm – not so much, as this article tragically points out.  And the really great tragedy?  It isn’t just Rio.  The same thing seems to happen with almost every modern Olympic site, as this article details.  When will we learn, and demand the Olympics return to their modest roots and celebration of true amateur sport?

Amtrak, Eat Your Heart Out (Australian edition)

We are told that Amtrak has no hope of matching the type of service offered in Europe because the distances are much longer between cities in the US than in Europe.  That is certainly true in the mid-west, but east of the Mississippi, it seems there are reasonable similarities.

If we then look at a country closer in size to the US – ie China, we are told that Amtrak has no hope of matching the type of service offered in China, because the costs of building railroad track and the bureaucratic red tape is so much lower in China.  Well, that is maybe so, although the cost of a yard of iron/steel rail is the same the world over, and if we have too much bureaucratic red tape, should we give in to the red tape or eliminate it?

What about Australia, then?  A country not tremendously different in size to the US, but the US has almost 15 times as many people.  That would seem to make rail 15 times less practical in Australia than the US.

The Australian government has just announced an A$20 billion (US$15 billion) program of investment in rail services.  Details here.  Allowing for the larger population in the US, that would translate to about US$225 billion here.

We know the excuse for why the US can’t equal Europe’s rail network, and we know the excuse for why the US can’t equal China’s.  But what now is our excuse for why the US can’t at least struggle to keep up with the Australians?

Although the new Trump administration was initially making noises in support of US rail services (accurately considered to be part of making America great again), the budget they presented a few days ago drastically slashes the government’s present inadequate drip-feed life-support to Amtrak down to almost nil.  Amtrak would probably be required to eliminate all its long-distance services.

As for Amtrak’s one profitable route – the Northeastern Corridor – it needs $28 billion for repairs to the corridor’s infrastructure – infrastructure that is sometimes over 100 years old.  Details here.

Suing the Publishers of Lists of Best Restaurants – a Good Start

It is no secret that many internet publications are forced to come up with ‘click bait’ articles.  These are stories that will generate lots of page views, and therefore advertising revenue, but which cost little or nothing to write and which are generally of little intrinsic value.  They are designed to be on subjects that people might choose to be looking for information on, even if the ‘click bait’ stories don’t really contain the answers the visitors to the site are hoping for.

You’ve probably noticed the trend – a story that would formerly be on a single internet page is now split onto two or three or more pages, each with lots of advertisements and very few words of actual content.  In an extreme form are the photo-stories, usually on topics such as ‘You Won’t Believe ……’ or ‘Never Before Seen Pictures of ……’ and so on, which take you to sets of tens of photos, most of which you’ve seen many times before, all of which you can believe and all of which have been seen before.

One form of click bait is to come up with ‘top ten’ lists.  Or maybe more generic lists of ‘the best …..’.  Chances are you too sometimes search for ‘the best restaurant in (a city name)’ or ‘the fastest (car/truck/plane/whatever)’ or ‘the best hotel’ or whatever else.

So, many internet sites with various degrees of credentials and credibility publish these types of lists.  Some of them have become quite influential, in a self-referential cycle whereby the more that people unthinkingly cite them, the more credible they seem and the more that more people cite them.

One such example is in New Zealand, where a widely read magazine publishes an annual list of the top 50 best restaurants in New Zealand.  For restaurants, making it onto that list can profoundly boost their business, and of course, the converse, if you subsequently get dropped off the list again, there is a tangible drop in business.  But how is the list created?  How are restaurants measured and rated and ranked?

A diner has now laid a complaint about the magazine’s list with NZ’s Advertising Standards Authority, claiming that its list and the advertising in support of it is ‘offensive, misleading and deceptive’.  One restaurant owner says that one of his restaurants made it onto the list when it shouldn’t have qualified, but that other restaurants he has, that are better, have been overlooked.  Another restaurant owner with a generally highly regarded restaurant that didn’t make it onto the list says that the judges never even visited his restaurant.

Details here.

I’ve always felt the same way about the dozens of lists ranking airlines from best to worst, maybe grouping them into five, four, three, etc star categories.

The classic example of the nonsense behind these rankings is when Air Koryo, the national airline of North Korea, gets ranked worst airline in the world, a ranking most people accept without thinking.  As one who has flown on Air Koryo – and on their old not new planes – I’ve found their service to be good and comparable to any American airline.  They even serve free food, and in no way deserve to be rated the worst airline in the world.

The Latest from the TSA

The US says it has no plans to require electronics to be placed in checked bags on flights from the US to Europe or anywhere else.  This is good news, but also surprising.

How is it that terrorists have come up with a new way of sneaking bombs into laptops, in a way that can’t be detected in foreign airports, but which can be detected in US airports?  All airports use the same X-ray machines.  And I don’t for a minute believe that TSA staff are very much better than security staff in European airports.

There has also been a great deal of push-back by airlines, countries, and travelers, so that, for now, plans to require laptops to be checked on flights in to the US from Europe have been placed on hold.

Now, as you know, I detest stupid security as much as anyone else.  But I am surprised at how the entire world have appointed themselves as security risk experts and have decided they’d rather risk being blown up by smuggled bombs than be challenged by the hassle of checking their laptops.  (Of course, and as previously discussed, unfortunately the choices aren’t quite that simple.  Checking laptops creates a different risk vector – the possibility of lithium-ion battery fires in the cargo hold.)  I’m also surprised that the TSA and other security services have acquiesced.  It seems the balance point between convenience and security has shifted substantially.

It would be interesting to see what would (will?) happen if/when a terrorist bomb in a laptop does blow up a plane.

Meantime, we might have a new challenge to confront when flying this summer – possibly related to this same threat.  Moves are afoot (in the US) to require passengers taking carry-on bags stuffed full of a miscellany of items that create a dense visually confusing mess of shapes and images on an X-ray machine monitor to unpack much of their stuff so it is easier for the security people to understand what is going past them.

It is hard to disagree with this.  I always try to look at the X-ray machine monitors if they are angled so we can see them, and often (and with my bags, full of electronic items, batteries, wires, and all sorts of other stuff) I’m astonished that no-one requires me to open them up, because all I can see on the monitor is successively darker blobs of stuff overlaid over each other.

So get ready for not only having to remove your laptop and your liquids.  Maybe soon you’ll have to remove other items from your carry-ons too, or so this article suggests.

The good news?  It is probable that TSA PreCheck members won’t have to do this.

Apple’s Annoying Security

In a fairly obvious segue from one sort of annoying security to another, Apple recently introduced new ‘two factor’ security so that, sometimes, when you enter your iTunes password, you also have to enter a code that it sends to your other Apple devices.  If you don’t happen to have any other Apple devices, or if they are not close to you, I’m not sure how well that works.  But it is all ‘for our protection’, whether we want it or not.  Apple knows best.

Somehow, Apple ‘forgot’ about one of my iPads, and so when trying to use it earlier this week, I triggered the two-factor security thing.  Annoyingly, the two factors weren’t working (I’ve no idea why not), and as part of a deep dive into trying to understand how to solve the problem, I came across a way to turn it off.  I could instead replace it with a set of three security questions.

The first of these three security questions gave me a choice of common questions like ‘what was the name of your first pet’.  So I chose a question and provided an answer for it.  The second set of questions had harder questions, like ‘what was your first car’.  How do you answer that in a way that you’ll be sure to exactly answer the same way next time?  For example, say your first car was a 1965 Ford Mustang Hardback GT.  Now, you can provide any answer you like – maybe you say ‘Mustang’ or ‘Ford Mustang’ or whatever else.  But how can you be sure to remember to answer the question the same way if you’re ever presented with the question again.  Did you include the ‘GT’ or not?  Did you include the model year?  If you did, did you say 65 or 1965?  And so on.

And now, for the piece de resistance.  Their third set of questions, pictured at the top of the newsletter.  I truly can’t answer any of these questions in a way that I’d be sure to remember and answer the same way in three or however many years time – can you?  The street you grew up on – I went to school in three different cities – which to choose?  How to name the first album I bought (which I’m far from sure I remember) in a way I’d use again some years later?  Was my first boss the guy I worked for after school for a while, or the other guy I did holiday work for in summer, or ???  Indeed, I don’t even remember the first name of them all.  The first beach I visited, when I was probably one or two years old?  How would I know that, particularly living in a city with many dozens of beaches all around.

And so on with problems for all six questions offered.

Just think.  Some twenty-something-year old is probably being paid a quarter million dollars a year to dream up this ‘user interface experience’.  Sure, he is in his early 20s and all these questions and answers are fresh in his memory.  But what about some of us who are, ahem, slightly older!?

There was a time when Apple’s customer experience was impeccably excellent.  No longer.


Talking about Apple, they are the company that, more than any other, contributed to the rise of the MP3 format as a way to digitally store music files, thanks to the popularity of their iPod (remember them – how quickly they’ve vanished).

The MP3 format never deserved the popularity it enjoyed.  It was a ‘lossy’ type of music compression.  It saved on space, at a time when space was limited and expensive, but the trade-off was a loss in music quality.  As space has become less and less a constraint, better ways of saving digital music have come along – ones that are ‘lossless’ but which require more space while preserving the quality of the music.  This is discussed in detail in my series on digital music, and in particular, in this article.

Somewhat surprisingly, the company with the patents on the MP3 process has announced a decision to withdraw their licensing agreements, because they wish to abandon the MP3 product.  I’m not sure why they are going to effectively ‘kill’ MP3 rather than turn the licenses over to the public domain, but the writing is now on the wall.

This article recommends AAC encoding, but I disagree.  AAC, while better than MP3, is still a form of lossy compression.  These days there is no need for lossy compression; with faster internet connections and larger disk/memory storage, who cares about taking up some extra space.  Use FLAC – it gives you 100% the identical music as was on the CD to start with.

And if you want external validation for my recommendation, here’s a good article.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting article about the ever-increasing horsepower in automobiles – something I’d sort of sensed, but had never seen so vividly illustrated prior to this article.  And if you – like me – are eagerly awaiting a good and affordable electric car, this article says that as soon as next year, there’ll no longer be any price penalty for electric compared to internal combustion.

Something you probably never think about is the colors of crayons.  I certainly never do.  But here’s an interesting story about how a new color has recently been discovered/invented – the first new shade of blue in 200 years.  In this digital age of 16.7 million colors that one can ‘dial’ in to one’s onscreen paint program, who knew that there were limits on the seemingly limitless range of crayon colors.

Truly lastly this week, at a time when the whole world seems murderously crazy, perhaps it is time to think back to a kinder gentler time when even hijackers weren’t quite so unpleasant.

Until next week and summer, please enjoy safe travels





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May 122017

This can be what happens if a lithium battery catches fire on an airplane. See opening comments.

Good morning

An interesting week this week, and a rather portentous one.  While, for once, there were no leaks prior to Mr Comey’s firing, we’re being subjected to what seems to be a deliberately orchestrated series of leaks to prepare us for what increasingly seems like will become an unavoidable new reality – electronic bans on flights from all European cities, and probably continuing to extend before too long to cover all flights from everywhere.

I realized this is as likely to occur while we are in the middle of a journey somewhere as it is likely to happen while we’re conveniently at home and planning our future travels.  So you should prudently start preparing for this impactful new security measure now.

The most astonishing part of this process, which has already attracted a great deal of criticism (including from yours truly) is that it seems the authorities are delaying introducing the new restrictions due to the airlines worrying about causing inconvenience to their passengers – see, for example, this story.  Since when did airlines ever care about inconvenience?  This worry is of course a code phrase that when decoded means ‘we’re worried that this will discourage people from flying as much’.

Equally surprising though is noting that the TSA are considering our convenience as well as our safety.  When did that start happening – is this the new standard for security – security only as long as it is convenient?

The more likely reasons for delay are not so prominently cited, but they are almost surely to do with concerns over the likely escalation in luggage pilfering, and the measurable danger that if you put 100 laptops into the cargo hold, if one of them suffers a battery explosion, then the fire from the first explosion might cause a second battery to explode in another suitcase, and so on until eventually you’ve got a fire you can’t contain (and can’t even access while in flight) and the plane crashing.  This is not just conjecture, as this and this UPS airplane crash indicate (both thought to be caused by battery fires/explosions in the cargo the planes were carrying – see picture above for one of them).

Lithium ion batteries burn with an extreme heat – as hot as 1000°F, a temperature that could in turn initiate the airplane aluminum starting to burn, too.

Might this be a case of the cure being worse than the problem?  My guess, as I mention in the article below, is that the airlines are scrambling to come up with some sort of special container to hold all the ‘at risk’ electronics in that would withstand the effects of a fire breaking out.  This might be easier said than done, though.  Because now, instead of needing the first battery failure to ‘reach out’ to another battery in another device in another suitcase somewhere else, you’ve concentrated all the devices and their batteries in one single confined space, making a runaway chain reaction much more possible.

At the end of the week’s roundup is an article on the several easy things you should be doing.

I also had an interesting dialog with a reader about cruises.  My rule of thumb is that if one person writes about a topic, 100 (or maybe even 1000) are thinking something similar.  So I’ll write about that immediately, below.

And what else?  A barrage of stories of airline outrages and injustices – they seem to be tumbling out of the woodwork wherever one turns, at present.  So many that I’m not even going to attempt to catalog them all – fights on planes, fights in terminals, perverted customs officers, perverted passengers, passengers refused boarding for the most capricious of reasons; you name it, it is happening somewhere at present.  But there is one story in particular that struck a chord with me, so that is also included below, along with :

  • Possible Misperceptions of Travel Insider Tours and Cruises
  • Class Action Lawsuit on Airline Baggage Fees Moves Forward
  • Airbus vs Boeing – Is it Better to be First or Second?
  • The Appalling Tyranny of Uncaring Pilots
  • How Much Would You Pay for a Five Day Tour of London?
  • Amazon Releases Yet Another Echo Device
  • Overnight?  Maybe.  But Two Weeks????
  • This Week’s Amtrak Contrast
  • And Lastly This Week….

Possible Misperceptions of Travel Insider Tours and Cruises

I received an interesting email in reply to the note I sent earlier this week about our two current cruises (repeated below if you missed it) from a reader.  He said

We are not cruise people, ever. It’s just not who we are, anywhere anytime.

I understand the comment, and I’ve seen it before.  I’ve also seen a similar comment, many times, ‘we are not tour people, ever’ from people who say they abhor tour groups and prefer to do their own thing, their own way.  Both descriptions formerly applied to me, in full force.  Until I variously tried the cruises and also created my own better versions of tours for you to share, too.

If you’ve never tried a river cruise before, you really should.  They aren’t the typical mega-thousand person ‘floating city’ type deals with ersatz glitz and rip-off pricing every which way you turn.  For example, Wi-Fi is free.  There are no ‘art auctions’, there are no port talks where you’re almost forced to go to specific shops that pay generous kickbacks to the cruise lines.  You’re not lost in a sea of fellow cruisers, with neither the crew nor the other cruisers knowing who you are in an environment that is borderline institutional.

River cruises, with usually all or nearly all shore touring included, with no over-priced ‘feature’ restaurants on board, and even with free drinks at lunch and dinner (and no restrictions if you wish to bring your own bottles on board), typically have under 150 passengers per cruise.  That means you’re an individual, the crew get to know who you are and what you like, and you get to meet and talk with the other people sharing the cruise with you.  When you’re part of a Travel Insider group, your sense of belonging and camaraderie is increased still further, because you’re part of an elite ‘inner circle’ of cruisers.

Talking about Travel Insider groups, they are as different as regular tour groups as chalk and cheese too.  For example, I’ve just finished cajoling the finest restaurant on one of the islands our Scottish tour is visiting to allow us to order off the menu rather than be forced into a fixed table d’hote menu.  The same with another of my pet hates – forced group dining times for breakfasts in hotels.  The individuals in our groups can turn up for breakfast whenever they wish.  With a small group – invariably under 30, sometimes even under 20 – we can mix and match our days to suit what the people in the group wish to do.  We’ve sometimes detoured to see things not on the day’s itinerary, and sometimes we’ve scrubbed things off because people decided they’d rather do something else.  Apart from the days when the tour coach is also providing transportation between overnight stops, nothing is mandatory.  People can (and do) join and leave our tours on any days.

That’s why we call our groups ‘groupless groups’ – they are collections of individuals, not groups of sheeple.  Indeed, your fellow tour members are invariably one of the highlights of a Travel Insider experience – usually they are similarly well-traveled, well-educated, successful and sensible.

And that’s why, when people agree to try a Travel Insider tour, they almost always find their expectations exceeded, and end up as repeat travelers.  Very few of the people in our groups consider themselves timid travelers who ‘need’ the protective cover of a tour; instead, they enjoy the added experiences offered in our tours, the empowerments rather than the constraints, and the high quality company and interactions they enjoy along the way.

Try it for yourself!  I’ll hold both our current cruise/tours open for a few more days – Paris/Normandy in August, and the Danube Christmas Markets in December.  Details at the bottom.

Class Action Lawsuit on Airline Baggage Fees Moves Forward

A woman is seeking to have her $15 checked bag fee refunded because the airline lost her bag.  She seems to think that if they didn’t actually fly her bag to meet her at her destination, the very least they can do is give back her $15.

The airline (then known as US Airways, now American Airlines), quite naturally disagrees.  A district court judge sided with the airline, saying that all it had to do was make a ‘best effort’ to deliver the bag, and having done so but failed (a classic airline definition of ‘best effort’!) it should be allowed to keep the $15.

The woman (or, more to the point, her attorneys) appealed to the San Francisco Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who sided with the woman and said that her class-action suit could move forward, sending the case back to the lower court for further review and potential certification as a class action.

Yes, this is about a great deal more than $15.  We wish her well.  Details here.

Talking about bag fees, guess how much US carriers collected in bag fees last year?  $4.2 billion.

Airbus vs Boeing – Is it Better to be First or Second?

It is an interesting thing.  The US is down to three mainstream international airlines, and the result is generally seen to be a massive reduction in competition between them.  But the entire world is more or less down to only two mainstream airplane manufacturers, and the situation is intense rivalry between them.  However, is ‘rivalry’ the same as ‘competition’?

The rivalry is a bit akin to that between the US and USSR at the height of the cold war – the MAD doctrine keeping both great powers relatively calm and cautious in their dealings with each other.  Battles were fought via proxy states rather than directly.

And so it is with Airbus and Boeing, too.  There is a very clear understanding by both companies that, no matter how much they want to take some market share from the other, there are some actions that can be win-win for them both, and other actions that are more likely to create a lose-lose scenario.

Sadly for us, one of the clearly understood lose-lose scenarios that both companies scrupulously seek to avoid is that associated with releasing too many new model planes, too quickly.  Both sides are fixated on what the other side’s response would be.  ‘If we make too much of a change to our 737 family, that will cause Airbus to completely develop a new generation of single aisle planes, then we’ll be saddled with having just spent money on a new 737-derivative and having to spend money a second time on an all-new plane’ – logic like that.  On the other hand, ‘If we don’t update our 737, Airbus will beat us to the punch by updating their A320 first’.  (And of course, the same considerations, with the names reversed, for Airbus.)

This was what saw the glacial pace of progress towards the A380 and the 747-8, including a period where the two competitors toyed with the idea of jointly developing a large plane.  This is what has seen the extraordinary longevity of the 737 series, a plane that has now been flying for 52 years.  Sure, totally better planes could be developed, but at the cost of tens of billions of dollars, and who knows what response would then come from the other company, and how many more billions of dollars would then need to be spent responding to the response, and so on.

Timing is also essential.  We saw the importance of timing with the 737 MAX and A320neo latest incarnations of the two narrow-body jet families.  After much dithering and what seemed to be a reverse race to be last to announce an update to their respective families of narrow-body planes, Airbus eventually announced plans for some minor tweaks to their A320 family, but then Boeing did nothing for many long months while struggling to decide if they could wring some more life out of the 737 or if they finally had to step up to the plate and design a successor.  By the time they eventually took the easy way out and decided to create another generation of 737s, Airbus had stolen hundreds – no, over a thousand – orders from airlines, and Boeing lost its historic leadership in the narrowbody jet category.

The next example is playing out in front of us in slow motion at present.  Boeing has a product gap between its largest 737 and the next biggest plane after that, which these days is the 787-8.  Airbus is exploiting that with its new model A321 (which is outselling Boeing’s current similar planes by four to one), so Boeing really needs to do something to stop the loss of market share in this ‘middle of the market’ airplane sector.  But will it merely create yet another derivative of the 737 (dubbed the 737-10), or will it create a new plane, very similar to the former 767 series, and already suggested as being likely to be numbered as the 797?

But if Boeing announces an all new plane, with a longer development time (seven, eight, probably nine years) than merely another variation on the 737, there is the danger that Airbus will respond with what it has already hinted it could release, an upgraded version of its more modern A321, and have that being delivered to airlines two years before the Boeing plane rolls out of the factory.

And if Boeing does announce a new plane, Airbus will then know how to design a competing plane that is ‘slightly better’.  But if Airbus announces its next plane first, that would allow Boeing to tweak its proposed new plane design to respond to the strengths and weaknesses of the Airbus product.  But while Boeing dithers and delays, Airbus is outselling it, 4:1.

What a crazy situation.  The rivalry (I hesitate to say ‘competition’) between the two airplane manufacturers actually inhibits rather than encourages the speed of developing new model planes!  Here’s a good analysis.

The Appalling Tyranny of Uncaring Pilots

You don’t have to be a very long-time reader to already know that I have difficulty with the unthinking authority wielded by pilots.  They are the absolute unchallenged dictators of their planes – except for, of course, when they’re not.  I’m reminded of the pilots’ union famously trying to ensure that the pilot of the (not)United flight on which the doctor was dragged off, a month ago, didn’t get blamed for any part of what was happening, even to the point of suggesting the pilot didn’t even know what was going on.  Because, as they would like to think, the pilots are responsible  for everything on their plane only when they wish to be.

One of the pilots’ god-like powers is the ability to imprison us, for any reason, and usually for no reason.  How much of how many flights have you been commanded to stay in your seat because the fasten seatbelt sign is illuminated, while the plane drones on endlessly through totally calm skies?  If you’re on any foreign operated airline, you’ll know that the fasten seatbelt sign is very rarely switched on, but any American flight treats us like spastic babies, unable to walk during the slightest of turbulence or incline, and sure to do serious harm to ourselves were we to foolishly attempt to do so.  So, ‘for our own comfort and safety’ we’re kept imprisoned in our seats, unable to do anything except admire the heroic bravery of the flight attendants who show such amazing ability to walk normally up and down the stable aisles without hurting themselves.

Urban legend suggests that pilots regularly collude with flight attendants and will turn the fasten seatbelt sign on merely to get people out of the aisles and to make the flight attendants’ jobs easier.  And for sure, it seems that pilots consistently forget to turn the seatbelt sign off again after turning it on.

Sometimes, on some flights, everyone learns to ignore the steady glow of the fasten seatbelt sign and move around as it suits them.  But on other times, on other flights, the mindless idiocy of the pilot is doubled down on by the tyranny of flight attendants who demand that the needless seatbelt sign restriction be religiously observed.

These thoughts are evoked by the story of a passenger – a lady nurse – with a bladder disorder who needed to make an urgent visit to the toilet while the fasten seat belt sign was on.  The flight attendants, on her ‘UA’ flight (operated by Mesa Airlines this time), although freely roaming the cabin, refused to allow her out of her seat, and instead gave her a cup to pee in, at her seat, surrounded by other passengers.  Truly.

With no choice at all, she did so, whereupon the flight attendants then told her she’d have to speak to the pilot after landing and they would need to call a hazmat team to clean the entire row of seats she was seated within.

Is this really how we want to be treated?  Prisoners could sue for cruel and unusual punishment, and infringements of their basic rights.  But as airline passengers, cruel and unusual punishment is the norm, and we have no rights.

Details here.

How Much Would You Pay for a Five Day Tour of London?

So, excluding the airfare to get to and from London, how much would you pay for a five night group tour of London, including hotel, breakfasts, one lunch and two dinners, with some touring – mainly walking around – and a couple of presentations by out of touch self-appointed ‘experts’ on current political affairs and issues about which they ended up being on the wrong side of?

It is easy to see that as coming to maybe $2500, and at a bit of a push, to $3000 (our Scotland tour is for ten nights with extensive touring and was priced just below $3000).  Well, if you’d like to go on the New York Times sponsored tour that claims to explain to you all about Brexit by showing you around London, be prepared to pay twice the cost of our Scotland tour for half as long in Britain – $5995 per person.  Details here if you’d like to join.

The tour has attracted a fair amount of derision, (astonishingly, that critical article is by ‘fellow traveler’ newspaper, the Guardian, and here’s a much more ascerbic commentary by the Daily Mail) and now there is a competing tour being offered, offering a more comprehensive exposition of Brexit related issues, albeit at a slightly higher price.

Amazon Releases Yet Another Echo Device

In my initial review of the Echo voice controlled Amazon device, I observed that it really needed a screen to better show complicated results to requests.  Even something as seemingly simple as ‘tell me the weather forecast’ is better answered with a couple of charts and a paragraph of description, instead of several minutes of narrative.

As I anticipated back in December, Amazon has now released a new Echo device, the Echo Show.  Basically it is a regular Echo with one of their 7″ screened tablets stuck to the front of it, so the device can now display information as well as speak it.  Definitely an enormous improvement in capabilities, but it is rather aggressively priced at $230.  They optimistically offer a $100 savings if you buy two at once.

Let’s see – they sell their basic Echo Dot units for $50 or less, and their 7″ tablets for $50 or less.  But stick them together, and the price becomes $230.  Interesting math.

This is a wonderful idea, but a dreadful price.  Leave well alone and wait for the price to plunge.  However, maybe it is time to have another think about the basic Echo Dot.  Amazon is making lots of new developments and adding new functionalities to this – clearly one of their most important/strategic products for the next year or two.  Just over a couple of weeks ago they released the Echo Look (takes pictures of you and comments on your clothing choices), this week they added messaging capabilities to all Echo devices, and now they’ve announced the Echo Show.  A $50 or less basic Echo Dot might be something worth getting to see if you can get use from it.

I did notice one good thing on Amazon this week, though.  An external second screen that can connect to your laptop through a USB port. It is 15.6″ in size and offers standard 1920×1080 resolution – I have one of these already and it is great, because both my laptop screen and the external screen are the same size and resolution, making it easy for windows to spill over from one screen to the other without changing their shape or size.

But my Acer screen has a very clumsy mounting/stand system that takes up too much space in hotel rooms with tiny amounts of desk space.  This new AOC product has a much better stand, and is also a bit less expensive.  $150.  If you don’t already have two screens – whether at work, at home, or on the road, you really should add a second one.  Be prepared for astonishing increases in convenience and productivity.  It truly is the best thing I’ve ever done to my computers – adding extra screens.

Overnight?  Maybe.  But Two Weeks????

Last week I explained how it was that an Australian was arrested and locked up for overstaying his US visa by 90 minutes.  Usually these stories flare into life, then disappear, leaving us wondering whatever happened to resolve the situation.

Happily, a New Zealand newspaper has now disclosed the outcome.  The hapless Australian ended up spending two weeks locked up by the Immigration people, refused bail, while the legal procedures enacted themselves in their usual pitiful slow-motion.  Really – imagine if you ended up being locked up over a victimless technicality that millions of other people are getting away with blatantly, every day.  And imagine further, if you can, that you are denied bail and forced to spend two weeks in jail.  How would you feel about that?

Surely that sort of treatment is unthinkable in a first world country with an honest competent and fair justice system?

I had little sympathy for the guy last week, because he was clearly trying to game the system and deserved a measure of comeuppance.  But to discover now that he ended up incarcerated for two weeks before finally getting to stand before a judge – a judge who promptly released him on his own recognizance and on the strength of a promise to leave the country within 120 – not minutes, not hours, but days – that beggars belief and is beyond comeuppance of any type.

How is it that our country has millions of illegal aliens, everywhere we turn, and indeed even supports them, and has a ‘catch and release’ attitude when law enforcement encounters them.  But one middle class Australian youth overstays his visa by 90 minutes and spends two weeks in jail.

Details here.

This Week’s Amtrak Contrast

I really dislike getting emails, usually at least once a day, from Quora – the website where people answer other people’s questions.

I dislike it because many of the questions are fascinating, and the answers are compellingly readable, and anytime I click on a linked article, I end up spending 30 or maybe many more minutes reading through the answers and going off on hyperlinked tangents.

So, click the following link with caution.  It contains answers to the question ‘How advanced are Chinese high-speed trains’.  The short answer – amazingly so.  The longer answers – here.

And Lastly This Week….

I mentioned at the beginning the bad week the airlines have had, with all manner of disgraceful acts.  So is it any wonder, perhaps, that this happened to Qantas’ CEO.

And in a sad reminder of how far we’ve progressed regressed, here’s a nice set of pictures in a very strangely written article (I suspect it was written in probably Russian and then auto-translated).  But the pictures still make sense, even if the text is a bit ‘out there’.  One also wonders how many flights, back then, were delayed due to scorpions on the loose (alas, United yet again).

Truly lastly this week, with the way things are getting in the air, it is easy to understand the appeal and probable success of this new airport service.

Until next week, please (try to) enjoy safe travels




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May 102017

Is having a laptop in an aircraft cabin about to become as universally banned as in-cabin smoking?  Increasingly, it seems the answer may be yes.

In late March, the US government banned passengers who were flying to the US from ten specific airports from taking any electronics larger than a cell phone into the passenger cabin with them.  The UK followed suit with a similar but not identical ban, adding four additional airports but exempting six of the original ten on the US list.  We wrote about it, here and elsewhere.

The strange nature of the ban, the similarly strange way it was introduced, and its timing, juxtaposed alongside President Trump’s attempts to restrict visitors to the US and the pressure from the ‘Big Three’ US airlines to sanction their Gulf carrier competitors caused some commentators to suggest this was not a true ban based on valid security fears, but rather it was nothing more than a way of giving the US airlines what they wanted.

We feared that the ban was for real reasons, just maladroitly introduced, and we’ve been waiting subsequently for ‘the other shoe to drop’ – ie an extension of the ban, eventually to every airport in the world.  A couple of weeks ago, we noticed a ‘trial balloon’ announcement that the US was considering extending the ban, and there have been two more examples this week – first on CBS, then Time, and then on the not quite so unimpeachable Daily Beast, with the Daily Beast headline being particularly alarming – ‘US to Ban Laptops in All Cabins of Flights from Europe, Officials Say’.

Fortunately, the actual story wasn’t quite so definite, but as we’ve observed all along, if there truly is a new vulnerability that terrorists could exploit (and, yes, there definitely is), then limiting the electronics ban to only ten airports is a farcical act which assumes terrorists wouldn’t respond by first traveling to an airport with no such electronics ban in place before flying on to the US with their hidden bomb-in-a-battery.

The stories so far are focused on the ban extending to all flights from Europe (including the UK), but if/when that happens, it surely is only a matter of short time before people realize that terrorists could simply fly first to another airport in Asia or Africa or anywhere else.  So we expect to see the ban extend until it covers all flights, and both to and from the US.

We’d been thinking we’d wait until an extension of the ban was formally announced before saying anything further, but then realized that, when such a ban does get expanded, for some of us, we’ll already be on our travels somewhere, and it will not be so practical to try and respond to a ban at that point.  So we probably all need to start planning for this to happen, possibly without warning, any time now.

Will the ban only be on laptops, or on all portable electronics larger than a cell-phone.  The latest various articles talk only about laptop bans, but they also refer to the earlier bans primarily as laptop bans, too.  There’s a huge difference between ‘only’ being deprives of our laptop and also missing out on our Kindle readers and tablets, too.  So that’s a detail we’ll have to anxiously wait and see about.

If we have to put our laptops into the plane’s cargo hold, we have two risk factors requiring three responses.  The first risk is that the laptop will be stolen.  The second is it will be damaged and rendered non-functional (at least until after it has been repaired).  If you’re like many of us, with your entire personal and professional life sitting on your laptop, the thought of losing access to all this essential material, either temporarily or permanently, is terrifying, and the thought that someone else might end up possessing it all is only slightly less terrifying.

Our sense however is that the airlines (and Department of Transportation) are very worried about having an unknown number of laptops all randomly inside passenger suitcases, for fear that a battery in one of them might explode, and even if that battery explosion/fire isn’t enough to bring the plane down, it might then spread to another and another battery in other laptops in other suitcases, adding to the blaze in a nasty chain reaction, and before you know where you are, the plane has fallen out of the sky.

Plus the realists recognize that if the chances of finding a laptop in a suitcase start to rise steeply, so too will luggage pilfering and thefts.

So we’d not be surprised if some sort of system of special laptop checking in might not happen where everyone’s laptops are given something like a ‘gate to gate’ service, and kept in a special fireproof container on board.

But whether they end up in our suitcases or somewhere else, there are three things you can do now that are inexpensive, easy, and prudent.

1.  Security

No, there’s not really any practical security to prevent your laptop being stolen, but you can take measures to minimize the negative outcomes if it is stolen.

Make sure that your computer’s log-in requires you to enter a password, and strengthen your password by making it a few characters longer than it currently is, including digits and a mix of upper and lower case letters.  That will make it very difficult for people to hack into your laptop if they steal it, while hopefully still easy for you to quickly enter.

Now for an important second step.  Encrypt your hard drive.  An identity-thief could take your unencrypted hard drive, and connect it to a second computer.  He logs into the second computer, then can access your hard drive from that computer, bypassing your Windows login.

But if the hard drive is encrypted, it is totally useless unless the thief has the encryption key, and assuming you didn’t write its password on the top of your keyboard, he almost surely doesn’t have that, making your data strongly secure against all but the most determined attempts to access it.

There are potential downsides to encrypting your data – possibly a very slight hit on the speed your computer reads and writes data, and some complications if you have a hard disk crash – you’ll need to have a ‘recovery disk’ (usually something the encryption software helps you to create when setting up the software) available to re-access your hard drive.  You don’t want to end up locking yourself out of your own data!

Veracrypt seems to be a well-respected and well supported encryption program that runs on both PC and Mac hardware.  And it is free.

2.  Protection

Of course the first thing you’ll do is try to surround your laptop with clothing and other protective items in your checked bag.

But as a shortcut, and as an extra layer of protection, you can also get an inexpensive and reasonably thin computer sleeve.  They weigh next to nothing and don’t bulk up your laptop too much either.  Amazon has thousands of laptop sleeves available, ranging in price generally from slightly under $10 to $20 (although if you’ve just won the lottery, they also have some priced at $1800!).  We suggest you simply select the screen size of your laptop to narrow down their choices, then choose a plain ordinary functional one (skip the leather) because it isn’t something you’ll be proudly displaying to the world.  It is simply something to protect your laptop while it is inside your suitcase, or inside whatever other type of laptop transport arrangement the airlines come up with.

3.  Backup

The third part of this triad is to back up your data so that if the laptop is lost, you still have your data.

Sure, you can backup ‘to the cloud’.  That probably works well at home and in your normal office, but we really don’t recommend that when traveling.  When you’re traveling, there’s every chance you’re connecting to the internet through insecure Wi-Fi, and a real-time backup program is streaming all sorts of private and personal data to and from the cloud, non-stop.  If over an insecure Wi-Fi network, this possibly might be something hackers could tap into.

Plus you can’t guarantee you’ll have access to reliable fast internet while traveling.

We suggest you either get a small USB thumb drive or a small-sized external hard drive.  We are slightly concerned that the electronics ban might extend beyond laptops to other electronics that are ‘larger than cell phones’ too, so if you choose an external hard drive, make sure it is smaller than a cell phone, otherwise you might end up with both your laptop and your backup in the same bag and both stolen (or maybe even just routed to the wrong airport or mysteriously lost for some days, maybe forever) simultaneously.

The Seagate Backup Plus Slim ($74 for 2TB, other sizes also available) and Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Slim ($90 for 2TB) are good choices and fit within the allowable carry-on size for the current electronics ban.  Most others (including the Western Digital My Passport Ultra Portable and the Toshiba Canvio drives) are too thick.

A thumb drive is very much smaller and unlikely to ever be banned, but it will hold less data and cost more.  You should probably get a 256GB thumb drive at the minimum, and those seem to be about $50 – $80 on Amazon.  512GB thumb drives are also available, but at considerably greater cost.  If buying a thumb drive, you should be willing to pay a little more so as to get a ‘name brand’ drive.  They tend to accept data faster, and be slightly more reliable.

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May 092017

I want to be sure you don’t miss out on the two great deal cruise tours we are currently offering.  Our August Paris to Normandy cruise, and our December Christmas Markets cruise.

Both offer $1000 per person discounts off the regular cruise fares, or if you’re traveling alone, will waive the single supplement for a happy change (usually these are +50%).  Plus we add some extra Travel Insider touches (and gifts) to lift your experience from good to great.

Rouen, capital of Normandy, has been important since Roman times, and is one of the places we’ll visit.

The French summer cruise is a great itinerary, ranging from the gardens made famous in Monet’s various paintings to the landing beaches made famous by our brave troops in 1944.  Add in a wonderful selection of lovely historic towns and villages that encapsulate the best of rural France, a château or two to remind us of France’s extravagant past grandeur, and wonderful warm summer weather.

Now share it all with a group of like-minded fellow Travel Insiders, and you’ve got yourself a lovely one week cruise – either by itself, or with as much additional time and touring during Europe’s summer season as you wish.

Full details of the French cruise here.

The town hall Christmas Market in Vienna, one of the many we’ll visit on our December cruise along the Danube.

Our Danube Christmas Markets cruise is a perennial favorite that we’re delighted to offer again this year, traveling between Budapest and Nuremberg.  As always, there are tons of inclusions, including a Travel Insider special concert in one of Vienna’s glorious palaces.  Another sure to please side-trip off the boat is to Salzburg, and the itinerary includes what we consider to be clearly the best of all Europe’s many different Christmas markets – the Thurn und Taxis Palace market in Regensburg.

Yes, it is December weather, not summer weather, but nothing that can’t be solved by a warm coat, hat, and gloves, and we even give you some handwarmers to ensure you stay comfortable for the off-the-ship excursions.

Full details of the Christmas cruise here.

One of Amawaterways’ wonderful ships, passing through Passau on the Danube.

Both cruises are on Amawaterways’ modern river cruise ships.  We consider Amawaterways, our preferred river cruise partner for over ten years now, to be the best of the river cruise lines, an opinion mirrored by the regular awards they earn for best cruise line, best ship, and so on.

The special pricing on both cruises is expiring very soon.  So please register your interest in joining either (or both!) cruises as quickly as possible so as to be sure of being able to participate and at the best possible value.

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May 042017

We have a chance to visit the gardens at Giverny, made famous in Money’s paintings, as part of our Paris-Normandy cruise.

Good morning

In just over a month, 26 Travel Insiders and I will be heading off to Scotland for our lovely Islands and Highlands tour.  We’re all looking forward to it immensely, and although it is the fourth time I’ve done the tour, it remains one of my favorites.

No, this isn’t a precursor to advising of a last-minute cancellation and a sudden super discount, as sometimes happens.  Everyone is proving very resolute in their plans to come along!  But it is an introduction to the two other tours we’re offering this year – you might have missed out on the Scotland tour, but you’ve a full fair chance to join the other two, if you quickly respond :

Paris-Normandy Cruise, August :  The middle of summer.  The middle of France.  No matter who wins the French Presidential election on Sunday, this will be a wonderful experience of France, old and not-so-old.  See the Normandy Beaches where our troops landed in 1944.  See medieval towns, villages and chateaus.  See how many of the somewhere between 630 and 1500 different types of cheese made in France you can eat, and how many of the even more varieties of French wine you can pair with the cheeses!

This is a wonderful tour through a beautiful part of France, with bicycles for the more active (ie my daughter), and beautiful countryside and relaxation for those choosing a more relaxing pace of touring (ie me).  And it is also with a $1000 per person discount, or, if traveling alone, with no single supplement.  A great price for a great tour.

Full details here.

December Danube Christmas Markets :  Our trusty favorite tour, the Danube cruise from Budapest to Nuremberg, with options in Slovakia, Germany and the Czech Republic before and after the cruise to round out the experience.

Enjoy the true spirit of Christmas, far away from congested malls and harried shoppers back home, while touring along the Danube, seeing such places as Vienna and Salzburg (we include a free concert in Vienna) and my favorite of all the Christmas Markets, the private market at the Thurn und Taxis Palace in Regensburg.

This is our most popular of all the different tours we offer, and it too is offered with a $1000 per person discount or no single supplement.  Another great price, for another great tour.

Full details here.

And, one more point – one person asked about a discount if they did both cruises.  Yes, absolutely.  Twist my arm.  Deals are to be had!  So come for one or come for both, and enjoy some wonderful European experiences with a great group of fellow Travel Insiders.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • This Week’s United Story
  • Another Alitalia Bankruptcy
  • AA’s New Slogan?  “Less Room Throughout Coach”
  • WestJet Hints at International Aspirations
  • World’s Airlines by Winners and Losers
  • Australian Arrested for Overstaying US Visa by 90 Minutes
  • Trains Unlike Amtrak
  • And Lastly This Week….

This Week’s United Story

Not long ago, we had a series of articles, week after week, of people going to the wrong destination.  But the mistake was an obscure mistake – they’d go to Melbourne, FL, instead of Melbourne Australia, for example.  They booked their travel to the wrong city with the same name.  You can’t really blame the airline for transporting them to the destination on their ticket.

But how to explain this week’s United story?  It flew a woman from Newark to San Francisco instead of to Paris.  The woman, who speaks no English, made it correctly to the gate where the Paris flight was departing from, waited until boarding commenced, then boarded the plane.

But, unbeknownst to her, United swapped gates, and the flight at her gate was no longer going to Paris, it was going to San Francisco.  This is understandable – the most helpless experience I ever have when traveling in a country where I don’t speak the language is while waiting for a plane or train and suddenly there’s an unintelligible announcement over the public address system.  What did they say?  Was it just a routine reminder ‘no smoking inside the passenger terminal and don’t leave luggage unattended’ or was it something relevant to the journey?  Had it been cancelled, delayed, or the gate/platform changed?

Now, for the three points of inexplicable failure.  When the lady went to go down the jetway, her boarding pass was scanned, the same as happens for us all.  The machine happily beeped, and she was waved on through.  How did the boarding computer system allow a person on a flight to Paris to board the flight to San Francisco?

Secondly, when boarding the plane, she was presumably required to show her ticket again.  But if that was the case, no-one gave it more than a perfunctory glance, and again she was allowed to continue.

Thirdly, when she got to her seat, someone else was in it.  Unsurprising, of course, because it wasn’t her seat on her flight at all.  A flight attendant came to help, looked at her ticket, and still failed to note the lady was on the wrong flight, and simply directed her to an empty seat.

So, off she went to San Francisco.  Ooops.  United says it is sorry and is working with their team in Newark to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Details here.

Another Alitalia Bankruptcy

There’s something Sisyphean about Alitalia’s journeys to the bankruptcy court and back again.  This is its third bankruptcy filing, coming after earlier filings in 2008 and 2014.

The most recent bankruptcy resulted in Etihad buying into the airline, taking the maximum 49% share that it was allowed to as a non-European entity.  All the usual platitudes about Alitalia’s proud and assured future were ritualistically offered up to the world’s press.

Perhaps the airline’s biggest problem is that it has greedy employees.  This latest bankruptcy was the outcome of a vote by its 12,500 employees not to accept a re-organization plan that would see them taking pay cuts.  As foolish as this death-wish is, two comments in reply.

First, in Europe, it seems far from impossible that the government will continue to help preserve an airline which, if one dispassionately analyzes its business fundamentals, probably deserves to die.  The Italian government has already given €400 million to keep the airline running for the next six months.  The unions are simply playing a game of chicken with the airline, its management, and the Italian government.  So far, they’re winning.

Second, we’ve seen airlines in the US too killed off by unions who refused to compromise, preferring to see their airline destroyed (and their jobs along with it).  Eastern Airlines in particular suffered fatal blows as a result of strikes by its union employees.  As you may or may not recall, part of its system was eventually sold to a NY real estate developer, who operated it very briefly from June 1989 until September 1990 when the airline defaulted on loans and the banks took it over.  But this short-lived airline hasn’t been completely forgotten, unlike so many others that have started and stopped almost as quickly.  Its name?  Trump Shuttle.

Details (about Alitalia, that is) here.

AA’s New Slogan?  “Less Room Throughout Coach”

Do you remember, back in 2000, American Airlines proudly announced it was taking two rows of seats out of the coach cabins of all its planes, resulting in a 34″ seat pitch.  They estimated this reduced their total fleet capacity by 6.4% (7,200 seats) but said that tight seating was the most frequent complaint they received from their passengers.

They hoped this would have encouraged more people to preferentially choose to fly with them rather than other airlines.  It was a clever move, because at that time, their average flight loadings were low and so the seats they took out were almost guaranteed not to be needed.  They promoted this with the slogan ‘More Room Throughout Coach’.

But, three years later, they reversed themselves and said they were putting the seats back in again.  They’d discovered that no matter how hard they promoted the fact that their coach cabin was more spacious than any other airline’s, no-one cared (even though the extra space was being offered at the same price).  It didn’t win them any measurable increase in passenger numbers at all, indeed, for the three months prior to their decision to put the seats back, their planes, even with fewer seats, had lower passenger loads than the other major carriers.  Here’s the article I wrote, way back in May 2003.

This was a stunning example of how, no matter how much we complain about things like cramped seating, when a leading carrier offers us better seating at no extra cost, we refuse to change airlines.  One can only blame ourselves for AA’s decision to add the seats back into the plane.

But now, AA have decided to go the other way, and they will be adding extra seats to their new 737s, due to start arriving later this year.  The result will be seat pitches of 29″ and 30″, making them some of the tightest in the industry.  Only Spirit is worse.  Details here.

American Airlines is clearly betting that if we won’t shift to fly with them when they gave us extra seat space, we won’t now shift to leave them when they give us less seat space.  Suggestion – why not prove them wrong and avoid AA – even if it involves flying United, instead.

The worry of course, in our not even slightly competitive airline marketplace, is that the other two major airlines will now copy AA and squeeze more seats into their planes, too.  One thing I can’t help noticing when I look at my 2003 article – back then I listed six major airlines.  Three have now vanished.

WestJet Hints at International Aspirations

WestJet is an excellent Canadian airline that flies extensively in Canada, plus to/from the US, a bit around Central America and the Caribbean, and to Ireland and the UK.

It has just announced an order for ten 787 planes, plus options for ten more, creating some excited speculation at what the airline’s plans might be for future long-haul international routes.  WestJet has mentioned the possibility of Europe, South America and Asia – which really only leaves Africa and the South Pacific unmentioned (and some commentators in Australia are already expressing hopes WestJet will fly there).  So we don’t yet have any idea at all where the flights will go.  The planes will start being delivered from the first quarter of 2019.

We wish them well, and encourage you to use them the next time you’re flying somewhere they operate.  Details here.

World’s Airlines by Winners and Losers

Here’s an article ostensibly about Turkish Airlines, an airline I’ve never had much interest in.  What I find fascinating though is its first table, which shows global market share changes over a 15 year time series for a large collection of airlines.  During that time three airlines saw their market shares plunge, some airlines stayed more or less the same, and a few sharply increased.

Guess which the three airlines with the steady year after year drops in global market share are.  Answers in the linked article.

Australian Arrested for Overstaying US Visa by 90 Minutes

The newspaper headlines sound outrageous, but the details are actually slightly different.

When the US gives a foreigner a visa, they place a visa travel permit in their passport that typically says ‘This visa is good for one (or multiple) visits to the US.  You can stay for up to 6 months per visit.  This visa expires in xx years.’

It is important to understand the difference between the visa form’s expiry date in the passport, which probably allows multiple visits over many years, and the maximum length per each visit to the US.  When you actually arrive into the US, the Immigration officer decides how long your actual stay can be – usually he automatically gives most people a six month stay.

So the Australian guy came to the US, and was granted a six month stay.  Reading between the lines, it seems he had no intention of leaving after six months, and instead was enjoying an open-ended stay with his US girlfriend.

There are two ways to extend a visitor visa type stay (as well as, of course, applying for a fiance visa).  The correct way is to apply for an extension of the stay granted.  You fill out a form shortly before your approved stay expires, probably pay a fee, mail it off to the Immigration Service, and wait to hear back.  Usually you’ll get a notice of an approved extension, some months later.  Easy, simple, and straightforward.

Urban legend says there’s another easier way to do the same thing.  Simply leave the country and then come back the next day, and, hey presto, you automatically get another six months.

That probably used to be the case, particularly if you had a passport full of entry/exit stamps from all around the world, and the Immigration Officer didn’t want to try and hunt through the stamps to work out when you last visited the US.  These days, of course, it is all on their computer screen in front of them, and if they see someone who spent the full six months in the US, then left the country to go to Mexico or Canada for a day, and now is back again, they’re going to wonder about the bona fides of the 26-year-old man in front of them and how it is he can enjoy a 6+ month non-working holiday in the US.  Is he really a temporary visitor?  How can he afford so long off work?

So this Australian decides to bounce across the border in and out of Canada for the purpose of getting a new six month stay in the US.  Except that these days, the Canadians are aware about such things, too.  They ended up refusing to admit him, because they felt that the US would refuse to allow him back into the US a day or two later.  The ‘clever’ Australian (some Kiwis might consider that an oxymoron!) had left it until late on his last day in the US to do his run across the border, and by the time the Canadians had decided to not admit him, it was after midnight, his visa had expired, and when he went back to the US entry point, they refused to give him a new visa.  They couldn’t leave him in ‘no man’s land’ between the Canadian and US Immigration points, so they took him into custody prior to deporting him back to Australia.

It isn’t quite as extreme as the headline suggests.  Details here.

Trains Unlike Amtrak

A couple of ‘Amtrak, eat your heart out’ stories.  First is the journey completion of the first train to travel all the way from London to Yiwu in Eastern China, a 7,500 mile journey.  This is now the second longest train route in the world – the longest being about 8150 miles, from Yiwu to Madrid.

It is scheduled to be an 18 day journey, which suggests a slow 18 mph average speed, but when you consider the assortment of borders the train has to stop at, and indeed, even a need to change bogeys twice due to different width train tracks, it isn’t too terribly slow and most of all, it is said to be 30 days faster than by sea, the previous way of conveying goods.

On the other hand, even a long train carries at best 100 or so containers, and a ship carries up to 20,000 – the same as 200 trains!

Details here.

This was a freight train.  For news of a different type of train, how about the new ultra-luxury tourist train in Japan.  Tickets for the four-day journey?  $10,000 a piece.  You might think that expensive, but the train is fully booked for the next twelve months.  Details here.

Talking about expensive things, here’s a fascinating sneak peek at a ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ element – the private VIP terminal at LAX.  Something for us all to aspire to – the terminal, and of course, the private plane awaiting us on the other side of it.

And Lastly This Week….

Chicken Little has been busy worrying about the sky falling this week.  The State Dept has issued another travel advisory, warning that it is dangerous to travel to anywhere/everywhere in Europe for the entire summer season through September.  Seasonal terrorism?  Apparently so.

This would all be slightly alarming if things were so safe back at home, but alas, that’s not the case either.  The TSA has realized that, all around the world, terrorists are using cars and trucks to drive into crowds of people.  After considering the matter carefully, they’ve evaluated that the same thing could happen here, too.  Hmmm – would that be like the car ramming attack back in last November, in Columbus, OH?

So is it really measurably more dangerous to go to Europe than to stay at home?

Truly lastly this week, you’ve all heard of the Mile High Club, no doubt.  Indeed, statistically, at least one in 12 of you belong to it – maybe more than one in 12, because we tend to fly more often than most (but I’m not sure if being a frequently flier directly increases one’s eligibility for membership).

However, did you know there’s a less exclusive and more popular club?  The ‘I did it in the terminal’ club, which apparently one in ten of us unashamedly belong to?  Details here.

To close as I opened, please do consider joining us; in France in August, or along the Danube in December.  Or both.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and remember Groucho Marx’s admonition that he’d never join any club that would accept him as a member





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Apr 282017

The medieval Chateau Gaillard on the Seine, built by Richard the Lionheart, simultaneously King of England and Duke of Normandy. We have a chance to visit it on the sixth day of our August Paris-Normandy cruise.

Good morning

Our lovely December Christmas Cruise continues to attract plenty of comment and interest, but not many firm bookings.  If you are thinking you’ll come, please don’t delay confirming your participation.  The best value cabins are disappearing, and the pre and post ground options are getting steadily tighter to confirm.

One person suggested there is a switch to more people preferring to book closer to departure, what with all the seeming uncertainty in the world around us at present.  That may well be so, and when I’m planning my personal travels I seldom make plans far into the future, even in the most certain of times (whenever that might fleetingly be!).

So, I’m trying something new and different – how would you like to come join my daughter, Anna, and myself, for a cruise/tour in France (between Paris and Normandy) this August – little more than three months from now?

I’m making this really easy to plan, and really tempting to take advantage of.  You can have a $1000 per person discount off the published price if you’re traveling with a second person, and if you’re traveling alone, the single supplement (usually 50%) is waived.  This means this 2017 summer French cruise is actually less than the 2016 summer French cruise we did last year!  Plus if you’ve cruised on Amawaterways before, there’s another $100 discount to be had, too.  And a few extra ‘bits and pieces’ from me to make the cruise even more enjoyable.

And although you could of course extend your time in Europe before or after the cruise, if you just wanted to come for the cruise alone, it would only take a week and a day out of your schedule to do so (leave home on/before Wednesday 9 August, return home on/after Thursday 17 August).

Full details here.

My attempts to balance last week’s all-United newsletter with a no-United newsletter this week have rather failed, but at least it isn’t exclusively United, this week; indeed there’s a glorious 4600 words of content here to (overly?) fill your Friday morning :

  • Dr Dao Secretly Settles With United
  • United’s Weasel Words
  • United’s Improved Compensation
  • Delta Still Eagerly Offloads Passengers
  • American’s Flight Attendant/Stroller Fight – An Alternate Perspective
  • To Recline or Not To Recline, That is The Question
  • Boeing Accuses Bombardier of Dumping Planes with Delta, but…..
  • Electronics Ban to be Extended?
  • Amazon Offers to Answer ‘Does This Dress Make My Butt Look Big?’ Questions
  • US Might Have Asked that New Zealand’s Foreign Minister be Searched Prior to Flight
  • And Lastly This Week….

Dr Dao Secretly Settles With United

For all the excitement and angst over the events surrounding the forcible eviction of Dr Dao off a Republic Airways flight, there is more than a sliver of doubt as to how much of the blame – currently being directed 100% at United – actually should be laid at their feet.

The role of the airport security guards was definitely a contributing factor, and so too were the actions of Dr Dao himself.  Plus there is the additional salient point that none of the people involved were United employees – all worked for Republic, not United.  It wasn’t even a United plane – that too belonged to Republic.  I’ve discussed these points in the last two weeks’ newsletters.

Surprisingly, the person quickest to blame United has been none other than United’s CEO.  After initially daring to suggest that maybe it wasn’t all United’s fault, he was vociferously shouted down, and now has reversed his view and enthusiastically accepted every morsel of blame, without sharing any of it with other parties involved.  Some people think that credible, but I’m not sure I’d agree, and I wonder how the rank and file of United feel at being told it was all their company’s fault, even though no-one working for United was involved.

To no-one’s surprise, Dr Dao lawyered up with not just one but two separate firms of attorneys jointly representing him.  But rather than a lengthy trial, and lots of embarrassing discovery and revelations – potentially on both sides, it seems the parties have speedily agreed to a confidential settlement.

So, just how guilty and culpable did United decide it actually was?  Did it agree to a $1 settlement or a $1 million settlement?  Surely this is the ultimate measure of United’s contrition – the cash it forked over?  So why will United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, say in public that it was everyone’s fault at United (and therefore no-one will be fired), and express his profound sorry and regret, but why won’t he then reveal (indeed, even boast of) the tangible depth and detail of his mea culpa by revealing the extent of the settlement.

About the only thing we do know is the settlement also included a release of all liability that might otherwise have attached to Republic Airways and the City of Chicago – United insists on keeping all the blame completely to itself.

Sure, confidential settlements are a dime a dozen.  But when an event becomes such a public matter of concern and focus, when Congress talks about becoming involved, shouldn’t the outcome be as public as the incident itself?

Almost certainly, the only reason that Dao has received what seems to most likely be a very generous settlement is due to the publicity surrounding the event.  If the event itself was a secret, United is unlikely to have done anything other than blame others and dare Dao to bring a lawsuit.

When a case becomes massively public, shouldn’t its resolution be similarly public, so as to formally record exactly who was in the wrong and by how much?  Otherwise, isn’t it a bit like someone accused of a serious crime being given both a secret verdict and then a secret sentence – justice, both criminal and civil, is best served in full public view.

And, while I suspect that Dr Dao – and his attorneys – are all now a millionaire several times over; for all we know, the settlement might have been for only $1.  Or possibly for nothing at all.  Which party is the one embarrassed by the settlement, and if they are embarrassed by it, why did they agree to it?

An unsatisfactory end to an unsatisfactory event.

United’s Weasel Words

United sent out a note to all their frequent fliers on Thursday as part of its non-secret acts of contrition, and included in that note was a formal statement of their new policy about not removing passengers from planes.  They said

… as CEO, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we learn from this experience and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.

That’s why we announced that we will no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.

Sounds great, doesn’t it.  But the extent of the promise (and promises are not legally binding to start with) is belied by the ‘fine print’ at the end of the sentence – ‘except in matters of safety or security’.

When you consider that 99% or more of all forcible passenger removals are due to allegations (whether they be real or farcically removed from reality) related to safety or security, this new promise essentially means ‘we’ll continue to take people off our flights whenever we choose’.

United’s Improved Compensation

United is now moving to respond to Delta’s initiative – as advised last week, Delta will now pay up to $9,950 in compensation to bumped passengers (up from a previous limit of $1350).

In their email to frequent fliers, United advised that it will slightly raise Delta’s offer, plus also offered a new sweetener, an automatic acceptance of claims up to $1,500 per lost bag.  They wrote :

We will increase incentives for voluntary rebooking up to $10,000 and will be eliminating the red tape on permanently lost bags with a new “no-questions-asked” $1,500 reimbursement policy.

We will also be rolling out a new app for our employees that will enable them to provide on-the-spot goodwill gestures in the form of miles, travel credit and other amenities when your experience with us misses the mark. You can learn more about these commitments and many other changes at hub.united.com.

Both these points are excellent.  But whereas paying up to $10,000 exceeds their federal obligations to bumped passengers (capped at $1,350), paying up to $1,500 without question for lost luggage does not exceed their obligation if they lose your bag(s).  The Department of Transportation currently obliges the airlines to pay up to $3,500 per passenger for lost or damaged luggage, and it is very easy to have a claim go over $1,500.

A good suitcase from Briggs & Riley represents as much as $650 right from the get-go; and if you’ve been forced to load your laptop into your checked bag, or if you’ve a good suit or dress packed, you’ll quickly have more than $1,500 claimed, to say nothing of any temporary costs incurred while waiting and hoping your bag might be found.

So United seems to be saying ‘We agree to follow our obligations up to $1,500, but expect us to push back if you ask us to continue to meet our obligations up to the full $3,500’.

If your claim is greater than $3,500, you could always seek additional reimbursement via a small claims court – you might get lucky, especially if United doesn’t send a representative to contest your claim.  On the other hand, your insurance policy should cover you, so it is probably not worth the bother.  And the airlines know this full well.

Delta Still Eagerly Offloads Passengers

One wonders if United’s new policy about not offloading passengers unless safety or security is at risk would apply to this story of Delta offloading a passenger who couldn’t wait any longer to use a bathroom on a flight that was delayed taking off, and, in briefly doing so, resulted in the plane returning to the gate to offload him.

The ridiculous thing is that by returning to the gate and offloading the passenger, Delta’s ostensible concern – that he delayed the flight by going to the bathroom – caused the delay to be massively magnified, by their own actions.

But, in case anyone thinks that United would not now be so fast to do the same, note that Delta is invoking the ‘safety and security’ excuse for its actions.  While ostensibly it might seem that he was offloaded for allegedly causing the plane to miss perhaps one place in the line of planes waiting to depart, the official reason is, of course, the ‘Hail Mary’ claim of ‘security and safety’.   No matter what.

American’s Flight Attendant/Stroller Fight – An Alternate Perspective

News erupted earlier this week, alleging an AA flight attendant had got in an altercation with a woman passenger who was struggling to put her stroller in an overhead bin while keeping two young children in tow.  He ended up striking the woman with her own stroller, and this caused another passenger, outraged, to get up and add to the conflict whereupon the flight attendant got aggressive with him, too.  Or so we were told.  Video from passengers’ phones of the event was being widely circulated.

I watched the video, and found myself unexcited by the story, or the video.  The video did not show the flight attendant striking the woman, and the other passenger seemed to gratuitously meddle in and escalate a matter that absolutely did not need his participation.  He was fortunate not to be offloaded.

But American, just like United with Dr Dao, rushed to express their horror at the situation with various carefully worded statements of regret.  Unlike UA, they have removed the flight attendant from duty.

However, there’s a point that few people consider when rushing to judgment.  These videos never start at the beginning, and never show the full story, or even clearly show the part they ostensibly do show (this sounds like a ridiculous statement to make, but there have been detailed studies done, particularly in the context of police cameras, that uncover the enormous difference in perception that observers get from different viewpoints).  Sound is often poor and visibility limited, and restricted to just one point of view, which is very different from that seen by the participants.

Here’s a rather overly long commentary that reads what a passenger who did see the actuality of the altercation says.  It tells a totally different story, and it is relevant to note the altercation occurred at the back of the plane, not up front at the door, and is a story which deserves to be heard.  Rather than a put-upon passenger, it seems more like an exploitive passenger, taking two over-sized strollers on board, and refusing to have them gate checked.

The only thing I disagree with in the commentary is the prediction/suggestion that passenger videotaping should be and will be made illegal.  The solution is not to have less videotaping, but rather to have more.  Let’s get official video cameras into the passenger cabins for our safety and our protection, so there is a full and fair record of all our interactions with the flight crew.

To Recline or Not To Recline, That is The Question

It is true that with seats so close together, choosing to recline one’s seat does cause its seat back to get ever closer to the person behind one.  But it is also true that “what goes ’round, comes ’round” – meaning that if everyone reclines their seats, there’s no more of a problem than if no-one reclined their seat.

For sure, most of the time, it is vastly more comfortable to enjoy the meager amount of recline afforded us these days in coach, with the exception to that being at meal times when one wishes to minimize the potential for spilled food to spoil one’s white shirt.

But some precious souls, raised to believe the world owes them a living, choose to blame the person in front of them for reclining their seat, rather than simply accepting it, blaming the airline for insufficient space, or simplest of all, reclining their own seat in turn.  These people invariable get stridently militant and insist that the person in front of them not recline their seat at all, somehow believing that they can dictate to the rest of the plane how they choose to sit.  Passive flight attendants do little to disabuse such passengers of their notions of primacy, alas.

A recent survey shows that arguments about seat reclining have become the most common source of problems on flights.

A commentator is quoted in the linked article enabling such seat-nazis, by suggesting that passengers should seek the permission of the person behind them before reclining their seat.  And what does this person suggest we should do when the person behind us, lying comfortably back in their reclined seat, refuses to allow us to recline at all?  He is silent on that point, of course.

The situation is simple to all but this commentator and the seat-nazis he seeks to empower.  Everyone can recline their seat to the extend the airlines allow the seat to move.  If you don’t like the person in front of you reclining, you have several choices :

  • Recline your own seat to match
  • Travel in a class of service with more space between seats (although note that such cabins often allow the seats in front to recline back further)
  • Complain to the airlines and insist they reconfigure their cabins with either (or both) more space between seats and/or non-reclinable seats
  • Book seats in the rows behind non-reclinable seats (some exit row seats won’t recline)
  • Stop traveling by air

Your choices do not extend to dictating to the person in front of you what they can and can’t do.

Boeing Accuses Bombardier of Dumping Planes with Delta, but…..

It seems someone at Boeing is a bit behind in reading their weekly Travel Insider newsletters.  I noted, exactly a year ago, that Bombardier appeared to have sold 75 of its lovely new C-series jets to Delta at a price that was probably below cost.

News emerged on Thursday that Boeing has now filed a complaint with the US Department of Commerce and the US International Trade Commission, alleging that Bombardier sold the 75 CS100 planes to Delta for less than $20 million each, whereas they cost Bombardier about $33 million each to produce.  On the face of it, that would indeed be dumping.

But there is a lot of difference between classic dumping and what Bombardier did.  With classic dumping, you are selling a product below its ‘best’ or its ‘variable’ cost price, perhaps to get rid of excess stock and/or perhaps to harm competitors and force them out of business.

Bombardier had several sensible and commercial reasons to sell these planes below cost, primarily so as to generate some marketplace action and to give some credibility to their plane, in the hope of encouraging other airlines to start to treat it as a serious viable competitor to its established rivals – companies primarily like Embraer.  At a stretch, Boeing too is a competitor, although in reality, the CS100 with 108-133 seats is slightly smaller than Boeing’s smallest 737-600s (which ceased to be offered for sale four years earlier, in 2012) and definitely smaller than the smallest current model 737, the 737-700.  The larger CS300, with 130-160 seats, is starting to more clearly tread on the 737-700’s toes.

There is a lot of ambiguity with any product, and particularly airplanes, that have a very large element of amortized capital costs and a much lower element of variable costs, in terms of deciding when a price is an unfair dumping price rather than a justifiable ‘marketing initiative’.  If an airplane costs $10 billion to design and create, and then $15 million per plane that rolls off the assembly line, and if the manufacturer expects to sell 500 of the planes, then it would view its costs per plane as being $15 million for the variable costs and 1/500th of the fixed costs, ie $20 million, for amortized capital costs, and so it should sell the planes for something above $35 million.

But if the manufacturer sees a chance to sell some more planes, it can instead decide to skip the amortized fixed costs and look only at the variable costs; and even the variable costs are a mix of variable and semi-variable costs, such that it might even be ‘profitable’ by some measures to sell the plane even for less than $15 million.  And definitely, if it could credibly say ‘if we sell ten planes at $10 million each, that will open up future orders of hundreds of planes at full price’, then that is a very sensible business decision to make.  We feel that Bombardier’s actions were more a case of this latter motivation, edged with the desperation of ‘if we don’t get some sales at any price, we risk having to abandon this plane entirely’.

The best example of selling at discounted marginal pricing is, oooops, Boeing itself.  It is believed that in an earlier competition with Bombardier, to sell planes to United Airlines, Boeing was selling 737-700s for about $24 million each.  Its list price in 2016 was about $74.8 million and now is $80 million, depending on configuration, and while it is common to see that list price reduced by 30% – 40%, it is extraordinary to see Boeing offering the plane for less than one-third of its list price.  And, unlike Bombardier’s struggle to break into a new market, Boeing had no such justification in its sale to United, which was indeed all about preventing a new competitor (Bombardier) from securing a strategic toe-hold in the US airline market.

So, did Boeing dump 737-700s when it won the United deal against Bombardier?  If Boeing chooses to sell 737-700s for one-third of their list price to United, isn’t what Bombardier subsequently did in negotiating the deal with Delta merely responding to the price pressure Boeing itself created?

Our feeling is that the deal Bombardier did with Delta was an essential business decision to boost the marketplace present of their new C-series planes, and an action forced on it by Boeing (and possibly by Delta).  Sure, it almost definitely is a deal that Bombardier will lose money on, but not all loss-making deals are dumping deals.

Electronics Ban to be Extended?

They call it a ‘trial balloon’ – a situation where an ‘anonymous official’ deliberately leaks a possible and sure to be controversial new policy initiative so they can see how the public reacts to it.  If the reaction is acceptable, they’ll then proceed, and if the reaction is overwhelmingly negative, they can cancel their plans without ever being publicly committed to them.

Of course, with something like security, public reaction shouldn’t be a factor.  Something either is or isn’t essential/unavoidable/necessary/prudent, no matter whether it also be convenient or not.  But it seems very likely that an anonymous leak to The Guardian newspaper was indeed a trial balloon.  The leak suggests that the US is considering extending its ‘no electronics bigger than a cell phone in an airplane cabin’ ban to all airports in Europe and the UK.

Details here.

I’m totally unsurprised about this proposed extension, and have been fearing such a move ever since the original ban was announced.  The original ban makes no sense at all, because either there should be a blanket global ban, or else, why bother with any ban at all.  Terrorists can readily fly from a banned city to an unbanned city before then smuggling their new ‘impossible to detect’ bombs onto a flight.

I am surprised though that the next extension is to UK/EU rather than the rest of Asia and Africa, but I guess ‘they know best’ about such things, and if we are to see the ban extend to Europe, I’m sure the rest of the world would quickly follow, and then, a similar ban would be imposed on all domestic flights too.

About the only good thing about such a move is it would shut up the critics who continue to claim that the original ban was a thinly disguised plot against Emirates, Etihad and Qatar – even though the ban was copied, and extended, by the UK, adding more airports that affected BA and other airlines as well as the airlines affected by the US selective ban.

As I wrote before, our response has to be to travel with a backup battery and a large screened cell phone (possibly being a second cell phone in addition to our regular one).

Amazon Offers to Answer ‘Does This Dress Make My Butt Look Big?’ Questions

Many of us feel anxious about the rise of artificial intelligence, and for most of us, our occasional interactions with such systems at present seem to show more unintelligence than intelligence.  Here now is an unexpected new application of AI.

Earlier this week, Amazon announced the latest member of its Echo family of semi-intelligent voice controlled devices.  The new addition is called the Echo Look, and will be priced at $200 (compared to $50 for the basic Echo Dot).

So what more do you get for your extra $150?  The Look has a built-in camera and offers a ‘Style Assistant’ that will comment and advise on your fashion choices.  Does this jacket go with those trousers?  Is your clothing fashionable (ugh)?

But, really, the question we should all be asking is are we taking leave of our senses by asking a computer to advise us on our clothing choices?  And, if we are to seek computerized advice, should it be sourced from an Amazon computer – the world’s largest online retailer with, ahem, a vested interest in encouraging us to buy more clothing?

Talking about Amazon’s size, I was reading an item earlier this week about a new would-be Amazon competitor, Boxed.  They don’t aim to be as broad focused as Amazon, and sell about 1,500 products through their site – more of a Costco approach, with limited products and selling in bulk.

Okay, nothing too special about that, but can you guess how many products Amazon sells these days?  I’ll show the answer in the last item.

US Might Have Asked that New Zealand’s Foreign Minister be Searched Prior to Flight

Here’s a strange story.  New Zealand’s long serving and very vanilla/uncontroversial Foreign Minister, Murray McCully (I think I went to school with him, but truly he is so unforgettable, I’m not exactly sure) was about to fly from NZ to an anti-ISIS meeting in Washington DC.

He went to board his flight from Auckland to the US, and was told that – even thought he was traveling on a diplomatic passport and therefore normally exempt from such things, apparently the US had requested he be selected for secondary screening.  Being a polite gentleman, he submitted to the search.

When I first saw the story in NZ’s main newspaper of record, the NZ Herald, I remember it saying this was at the request of the US, but when I look at it now, the same story makes no mention of the US involvement and merely says it was due to an administrative error (whatever that means).

I would normally think I must have imagined the earlier version, but I see the independent Otago Daily Times still carries a story that ascribes the reason for the search as being a request from the US.  Most interesting of all, the ODT attributes its story to the NZ Herald.

Needless to say, such a request would be a grave breach of protocol, particularly with NZ being one of the US’s four closest and most trusted allies (a member of the ‘Five Eyes’ security group).

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a moderately interesting story about electric cars; what I find fascinating however is its chart showing how electric car prices are and will continue to decline due to lower battery costs.  A bit further down is another interesting graph that shows improving energy density for batteries – the point here being that the weight of an, eg, 80 kWh battery pack, currently shown to be in the order of 725 kg/1600 lbs, will drop to 500kg/1100lbs in the next five years and continue to drop.

Both things are obviously good – lower priced batteries and lighter weight batteries.  The sooner that both happen, the better for us all.

As promised, here is the answer to the question, ‘how many different items does Amazon sell?’.  Apparently, 350 million different products.  That astonishes me every possible way – I didn’t realize there were that many different items available for sale, in the US, in total.  Here’s the article citing that number.

A recent survey ranked the things people dislike the most about long-haul flights.  The least liked was uncomfortable seating, followed by lack of space (pretty much the same concept, restated) and then annoying passengers.  The fourth item was another seating issue – not enough leg room, and so was the fifth, not being able to sleep.

Tenth on the list was bad food.

So Air New Zealand decided to address that tenth point, politely ignoring the nine items considered more annoying, and created a temporary ‘pop up’ restaurant in London, serving only airline food.  Apparently they didn’t expect it to be very successful, because it was planning to only be open a couple of days.

Details here.

Truly last week, New Zealand’s great living comedian died a couple of weeks ago.  In memory of John Clarke, here’s a YouTube clip of him parodying an Australian politician who is being quizzed about an oil tanker disaster off the Australian coast.  The deadpan humor of this is universal – you don’t need to know anything about the incident, or Australia, to enjoy it.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and please choose to join our Christmas Markets cruise and our August Paris-Normandy cruise.





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Apr 212017

Cold? Not really, not when bundled up, and with a warming mug of gluhwein in hand.  Me at my favorite market in Regensburg.

Good morning

Are you thinking about joining us on our Christmas Markets cruise this December?  Several people have written to say they love the concept, but are turned away by the thought of the cold.  That is understandable, but needn’t become an obstacle to enjoying the experience.

Certainly, as we emerge from our winter and start to enjoy hints of the summer ahead, the thought of ‘more of the same’ holds little appeal.  But we’re only outdoors for limited amounts of time while touring, and only when we choose to be.

It could be said that the cooler outside weather makes the ship all the more appealing and warm and cozy, and that is certainly so.  Plus, temperatures in early/mid December in Europe are no cooler, and perhaps even a bit warmer, than in much of the US at the same time of year (although, yes, not so much for Florida!).

And, when we are outside, what better excuse for grabbing a nice warm mug of gluhwein and sipping it appreciatively!  With modern fabrics and materials, it is easy to dress up very snugly to keep out the cold, and I even provide some handwarmers, too.

So, please don’t be turned away by weather thoughts.  Most people, when they are on the cruise, find themselves wishing for some snow (a wish only seldom fulfilled – most of the time, everything is clear and dry), and we all can turn up the heat in our cabins to as toasty a setting as we wish.

What else this week.  I somewhat unwillingly return to the awkward story of United dragging a man off a flight, and the United theme flows through three more articles too, at which point, the newsletter was already longer than it is most weeks with more varied content.  So here’s your ‘all United’ newsletter.  I’ll try not to mention the airline at all next week, but I fear that may be difficult to avoid – even if only because there are so few airlines in the US to write about these days.

  • More Thoughts on the UA Debacle
  • No-one to be Fired at UA
  • Another United Unfortunate Incident
  • When the Only Thing Left to Do is Laugh

More Thoughts on the UA Debacle

My comments on the UA passenger being dragged off his flight last week engendered quite a range of responses, ranging from quiet thanks and gentle correction to misplaced outrage and demands that I immediately deify the passenger involved.

I know we all automatically hate and blame the airlines, just like they in turn automatically hate and blame us.  But some of the reasons offered up for why Dr Dao should be excused for his actions really were strange.  Nonetheless, some clarifications/corrections seem appropriate, and most of all, it is necessary to appreciate that there are so many things wrong with this story, that it is difficult not to stop after the first one or two things and overlook other failings and factors that are also relevant.

The first of the points I raise below is most clearly a case where there are multiple issues, and few commentators have looked beyond the first of the issues.

The requirement to get off the flight both was and was not legal :  Let’s consider this point first, because it is really the key issue.  Probably, the requirement that Dr Dao leave the flight – although now universally hailed as being morally wrong – was simultaneously both legal and illegal.  How so?

It is likely that United’s Contract of Carriage doesn’t allow for passengers who have already boarded the plane and sat down in their assigned seats to subsequently be offloaded so as to make room for airline staff members wishing or ‘needing’ to fly but not having confirmed seats.

But that isn’t really relevant, leastways, not when you’re at ground zero, and being told to get off the plane by a crew member and having that demand backed up by someone calling themselves ‘the authorities’ (whatever that actually means – see the next point) and threatening to offload you by force if necessary, and threatening to arrest you.

There are conflicting sources of authority for what the airline and its employees can do.  Sure, the contract of carriage sets out some obligations, but it also has some large areas of discretion, and it isn’t the only source of what the airline can and can’t do from a civil perspective.

There is also federal criminal law that states passengers must obey the lawful commands of uniformed airline staff.  In this case, ‘lawful’ doesn’t mean ‘allowable and in conformity with the contract of carriage’.  It means ‘any command to do any action which is not illegal’.

It is lawful to ask a passenger to get off a plane, even if the reason for deciding to ask the passenger to get off the plane is not lawful (that’s a nice distinction, but a real one).  It may create a breach of the civil contract between the passenger and United, but it is a lawful command from a federal perspective.  If you are asked to do just about anything that is not obviously inappropriate, dangerous, offensive, or stupid, then you pretty much have to do so.  ‘Put your seat backs up’.  ‘Don’t get up and go to the bathroom’.  And so on.

Plus, there’s a lovely ‘get out of jail free’ card for United and its staff.  If a passenger refuses to do something, then the staff just say ‘the passenger was hostile, we don’t feel comfortable with him on the flight, he is a security risk’ and all the other stock standard phrases, which automatically validates their actions and creates at least the semblance of a lawful reason to now demand the passenger leave the plane.  This happens way too regularly and I often write about it.

This is exactly the same as with the police.  A police officer may unlawfully ask you to do something that you lawfully may indeed do (for example, to stop taking pictures/video of what he is doing).  You may quite rightly refuse, advising the officer that there is no law forbidding you from filming him, and an enormous number of court cases have clearly affirmed your right.  He then turns around and arrests you, not for filming him, but for ‘interfering with police business’ or ‘disorderly conduct’ or any one of a dozen other charges.  Maybe even the charges are subsequently dropped – but only after you’ve been cuffed and carted off to jail for some uncertain period of time.

This is what the issue was all about.  Sure, United started off by making a mistake – deciding to offload paying passengers for a bad reason.  But having made that mistake, the offloadees were bound and obliged to comply with the command, valid under federal law even if not a part of their contract for carriage with United, to leave the plane.  Their appropriate recourse would be to subsequently sue United for a breach of their contract.  It is not to refuse to comply with the order to deplane, which is now a different issue entirely.

The people who took Dr Dao off the plane were not police :  Although wearing ‘police’ patches, the three men were not sworn and badged officers of any official police force.  Instead, they are Chicago Department of Aviation security officers, and apparently ‘real’ police forces have quite correctly complained as to how the officers in this department have created ambiguity as to if they are ‘rent a cop’ type employees or sworn police officers.  This ambiguity flowed through the first few days of narrative, with most accounts referring to them as police rather than rent a cops.

I’m not sure this changes things much – would ‘real police’ have acted any differently?  One friend says yes, real police would have simply Tasered the guy so as to make it easier to extract him from his seat and ensure his compliance!

Inasmuch as the three men were there merely to secure the compliance of the passenger to the lawful order to deplane, their status as security officers or badged/sworn police officers doesn’t really seem to make a lot of difference.  Certainly, the regular police have always shown themselves eager to do whatever airline staff ask them to do in all other cases prior to this one.

Dr Dao was beat up by the security officers :  I don’t know about this, but as best I can tell from looking at the video, any injuries Dr Dao suffered were not a result of the security officers beating him up, but an entirely foreseeable outcome as a result of his struggling not to be dislodged from his seat.

Beating someone up is never acceptable and I’m not condoning that for an instant.  I just don’t think he was beaten up.

The flight wasn’t a United flight :  This is true, but it is also a point that United hasn’t raised in its own defense.  It was a contracted flight, and operating under a United flight number, but the company operating the flight and employing the gate staff, the flight attendants and pilots, and also the four staff members needing to get on the flight, was not United (it was Republic Airlines, operating as United Express).

I’m very surprised this point hasn’t been offered up more prominently by United, even as a moral excuse if not a legal excuse (not too sure about the doctrine of respondeat superior in the US, but it probably will make United legally liable for the acts of Republic, although in turn, Republic has almost certainly entered into undertakings to indemnify United for any such acts).

Does Dr Dao’s criminal past have any relevance?  Does mentioning the fact that Dr Dao lost his medical license for some 15 years, and was found to have committed crimes of dishonesty, have any relevance to what happened, or is it an outrageous uncalled for ad hominem attack on the man? Certainly, if his past runs-in with the law were for unrelated things like embezzlement, that would probably not be something relevant to cite.

But surely it is relevant to note how he has been assessed as ‘lacked the foundation to navigate difficult situations, both interpersonally and in a complex profession’ and has ‘poor decision-making despite his overall level of ability.  His choices have resulted in significant consequences over the years yet he continues to function in this manner.  He is generally not forthright regarding details of events unless challenged and at times he will tell different version of a story to different interviewers.’?

Does that not suggest that he is someone who may not act the same way that most other people would act (like for example, when he was subsequently filmed after reboarding the plane, pacing up and down and calling out ‘Just kill me now!’ – what sort of person does that!)?  Does that not suggest that maybe his experience and behaviour was an outlier event that you and I run no risk of also encountering when we fly somewhere?  Sure, we have the same risk of being off-loaded, but might it be fair to say that if we were ordered off a flight, we’d comply rather than force the authorities to drag us off against our will?

They should have gone easy on Dr Dao because he is an immigrant :  Really?  As an immigrant myself, I totally reject any suggestion that any immigrant ever deserves more rights and special rights over and above those of regular US citizens.

In any event, how was anyone to know that he was not American born?  Sure, he has oriental features, but so too do a lot of US-born Asian-Americans.  Should United’s ‘random selection’ of who was to be offloaded in the future be filtered so that only White Anglo-Saxon Protestant males be offloaded?

They should have gone easy on Dr Dao because he was 69 :  Really?  Are we to have a scale of behaviors/actions/expectations based on age?  How finely calibrated should this be?  At what point do ‘mature adults’ regress to becoming less mature beings and deserving of greater tolerance?

If Dr Dao is allowed to practice medicine, surely he can be expected to conform to normal adult norms.

I’m not a doctor so shouldn’t comment on the extent or nature of Dr Dao’s injuries :  True.  I have no idea what Dr Dao’s injuries were and didn’t try to describe or analyze them, I merely expressed surprise at the length of his subsequent hospitalization.  We have now been told by his attorney that he suffered sinus injuries, a broken nose, missing teeth, and concussion.

I’ve been discharged from hospitals, unable to walk (and with no crutches supplied), groggy from anesthetics and in considerable pain, 12 – 15 hours after admission.  I’ve seen people emerge from hospital within a week of major heart surgery.  I’ve also had a broken nose and sinus injuries, as a result of getting into fights (albeit not with airport security guards!).  But I didn’t spend more than a few hours in A&E, not four days as an in-patient.  And – here’s the thing.  If Dr Dao had just complied with the order to get off the plane, he could have completely spared himself all his injuries.

The captain (and flight attendants) didn’t authorize the security guards to remove Dr Dao :  This is a hard one to swallow.  But the United Airlines pilots union says the pilot isn’t to blame for what happened.  In a statement they say ‘….at this point, without direction and outside the control of United Airlines or the Republic crew, the Chicago Dept of Aviation forcibly removed the passenger.’

So the pilot was unaware of this?  None of the flight attendants noticed three security officers march down the plane aisle, argue for some minutes with the passenger, then haul him off?  Puh-leeze…..

This wasn’t a case of three security officers sneaking on the plane when no-one was looking, instantly/immediately assaulting an unsuspecting passenger without warning, and before any flight crew members had a chance to intercede.  This was a staged process extending over some time.  So I find this claim hard to understand.

And how about after they had pulled Dao out of his seat and was dragging him along the aisle, to a chorus of expressions of horror from the passengers.  The flight crew still didn’t notice?

And, if it wasn’t the fault of the pilots or flight crew or apparently any United staff at all, why is United’s CEO so busy apologizing every which way and saying that everything is everyone’s fault?  Why isn’t he saying ‘sorry, it was a terrible thing, but nothing to do with us’?

Dr Dao’s actions were akin to those of Rosa Parks and should be venerated not denigrated :  Clearly some people don’t know who Rosa Parks was or what she did.  She was an African-American who objected to segregation on buses and refused to give up her seat, in the colored section of a bus, for a white person because the white section of the bus was full.

Dr Dao was randomly selected to give up his seat.  No racial element surrounded either who was selected, or who he was being required to sacrifice his seat for.  And I’m sure that Dr Dao hopes that there will be no continued comparison with Rosa Parks – as best I can see, the outcome of her actions did not bring her a big fat payout in a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

Instead, it resulted in her being fired from her job, suffering death threats, and perforce moving to another part of the country, although happily, it also seems that the court case against her (something else Dao should hope to avoid) got bogged down in the courts, and in time she has become widely admired as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement.

Oh – one other thing on this point.  At least Dr Dao didn’t experience the same fate as Fletcher Melvin, an earlier civil rights protester.

Or maybe his actions are akin to Rosa Parks?  Here’s the thing that has me most conflicted about this case, which truly defies easy categorization.  While I think Dao acted unwisely and equally created the situation that lead to his own injuries, the other side of the coin is that if he’d just meekly got up and off the plane, there’d be no outrage now.  The actions of the security officers and the video showing a bleeding passive Dao being dragged up the aisle does have an impact that has caused major debate and even some consequence.

United says it will never use police to remove seated passengers in the future (a promise that I don’t see lasting); but more positively, Delta has responded by upping its game, creating an escalating series of inducements to encourage volunteers in any type of overbooking situation that could now rise as high as almost $10,000 (apparently United only offered $800 before resorting to force).

Or, yet again, probably not.  On the other hand, apart from the Delta thing, will anything really change?  The key thing about Rosa Parks is possibly that she was the spark that lit a fire that was all set and ready to burst into a powerful blaze.  But is Dao really the catalyst for a similar revolution in airline customer service?  Yes, there are mutterings from Congress that ‘there oughtta be a law against that’ – although whether that should delight us or not is anyone’s guess.

There were laughable efforts by United’s competitors to try and translate what happened into an act of bias and prejudice against people of Chinese origin, but that has yet to materialize into any impact on United’s strength in the Chinese market (Dr Dao being a Chinese-Vietnamese-American).

Some doomsayers have predicted massive harm to United’s share price, but – now ten days past the event – there’s precious little sign of that.  Yes, the stock has slightly underperformed the composite airline index since the event, but when viewed more broadly, in terms of the last month, it has outperformed the airlines as a whole, or, if viewed more narrowly, in terms of the last two days, it is pulling ahead again.  Furthermore, the drop in its share price may also be as much a response to its recently announced disappointing first quarter result.

Other people with loud internet voices have proclaimed that either they, or someone they know, will never ever fly on United again, no matter what.  But, at least up until a day or so ago, there’s been no disclosed measurable impact on United’s forward bookings, and the airline is pressing ahead with an ambitious expansion plan.

The ugliest part of all of this is that the airlines are reflections of their customers.  Airlines would much prefer to compete on quality – you can make profit from selling ‘quality’, but you will always struggle to successfully compete on price alone.  But we – their customers – consistently and without exception show that we don’t value quality.  We spurn airlines that offer more seating room (remember American Airlines’ “More Room in Coach” program), we actively avoid high quality airlines because we think they are more expensive, even if they aren’t (this was a problem Alaska Airlines had), and we ignore airlines that offer more generous free bag policies (when did you last factor in the cost of checking your bags into your choice of airline?).

Sure, the airlines have made it more difficult for us to become activists, by merging and merging themselves into now only three dominant carriers, and then creating sets of travel experiences, terms, conditions, and fares that are almost indistinguishable.

But every part of this is something that we’ve either passively allowed to happen or encouraged.  We can’t blame the airlines for rationally responding to the clearly demonstrated preferences of the market.

So, what choice is there?  None.  Look at the last airline that tried to do something different – Virgin America (RIP).  It ended up that the only differences were purple decor and lighting, and loud ugly music.  Otherwise, the seats, the fares, and even the service were all insufficiently different from the dinosaurs as to allow it to succeed.

Look at the last airline that has succeeded – JetBlue.  Sure, it is still in business, but it is a very small fish, and doesn’t show many signs of growing to match the big boys in size, while becoming more like them in terms of travel experiences.  The same with Southwest – definitely a success story, but is it really much different from the other airlines these days?

No-one to be Fired at UA

Despite apologizing prolifically, United’s CEO has now announced that no-one will lose their job as a result of the Dr Dao incident.  Indeed, he said there was never a consideration that anyone would be fired – something we all suspected, of course.

This is because it was, he explained, a total failure of the entire system, with no one person to blame.  Uh – you could have fired two or three people, you know.

But for those of us hoping that this would indeed be a Rosa Parks turning point and cause United to confront its ugliness and change, the lack of any tangible consequences shows that the same old same old remains in place.  No-one is accountable – everyone’s fault means that it is no-one’s fault.

Another United Unfortunate Incident

As one who enjoys traveling with my 12 yr old daughter, I’ve noted with alarm the growing hypersensitivity to seeing adult men with young girls in tow.

A hotel in the UK called the police, a couple of weeks ago, on what turned out to be a normal situation with a man and his daughter traveling together; and this week we learn of United grilling a man and his daughter on an international flight – a strange thing for the airline to do, because you’d think their pnr data would already hint at the familial relationship between the two.

And, without a doubt, one can be certain that in both cases, the people perpetrating these indignities explained ‘we’re only doing this for your protection’.  Lucky us.

When the Only Thing Left to Do is Laugh

It seems we’ve gone through the entire cycle of responses to the United incident – disbelief, outrage, despair, and now we’ve nothing left to do but laugh about it.

Some of these jokes are cruelly accurate.  Many of them are also wickedly funny – a collection of suggested new slogans for United.

  • “Drag and Drop”
  • “We put the hospital in hospitality”
  • “Board as a doctor, leave as a patient”
  • “Our prices can’t be beaten, but our passengers can”
  • “We have First Class, Business Class and No Class”
  • “Not enough seating, prepare for a beating”
  • “We treat you like we treat your luggage”
  • “We beat the customer.  Not the competition”
  • “And you thought leg room was an issue”
  • “Where voluntary is mandatory”
  • “Fight or flight.  We decide”
  • “Now offering one free carry off”
  • “Beating random customers since 2017”
  • “If our staff needs a seat, we’ll drag you out by your feet”
  • “A bloody good airline”
  • “We’re not happy ’til you’re not happy.”
  • “First airline to offer Chinese Take-Out.”

Until next week and perhaps a no-United newsletter, please enjoy safe travels





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Apr 142017

Prague – always one of the highlights of any Christmas Markets tour. Our lovely historic hotel is five minutes walk from this central Christmas Market.

Good morning

Yes!  I’ve now published the full details for this year’s Christmas Markets cruise along the Danube.  It promises to be the best cruise yet – both the cruise itself, and the pre and post touring, too.  Unlike airlines, Amawaterways keeps improving their ships and service, and I do my best to build on each year’s experiences to tweak each future year’s itinerary.

Although this year is at least the tenth year I’ve been offering Christmas cruises, there are still some new things to excite you with, including places we’ve never been to before, and totally changed pre and post cruise options.

Oh – and did I mention the $1000 per person discount?  Plus if you’re one of the many Travel Insiders who travel alone, this year we’ve a special deal for you, too.  And, no matter if you’re traveling alone or with a dozen other people, there are a range of other special Travel Insider exclusive benefits, including a concert in one of Vienna’s palaces the evening we’re in Vienna, and plenty more, too.

Full details are here, as is the joining form.  Currently there are cabins available in all cabin types, but some categories are close to sold out, so please hurry to make your choice and to advise your desire to join us in December (leave the US on/before 10 Dec, arrive back home on/after 18 Dec) for this lovely pre-Christmas treat.

What else this week?  I guess I must join in the clamor arising from the United incident on Sunday, but yet again, I sort of almost find myself defending United – an act even more difficult this time because they switched their story a couple of days ago from saying ‘it wasn’t our fault’ to now saying ‘it is all our fault, we’re very sorry’.  So which statement am I defending?  Keep reading, please :

  • United Makes a Bad Situation Worse
  • Business Travel is Bad For Your (Mental) Health
  • How to Win at the Being Bumped Game
  • What is the Maximum Length a Flight Could Ever Be?
  • Battling Agencies
  • Another Tunnel Story for Elon Musk
  • Watch Out, Sir Richard.  Here Comes Jeff.
  • And Lastly This Week….

United Makes a Bad Situation Worse

You probably are familiar with some of the details.  United called airport police, who forcibly removed a passenger from a flight who refused to leave when he was advised that he was being involuntarily denied boarding – being bumped off the flight, in other words.

The passenger screamed loudly and resisted.  Plenty of people on the flight whipped out their cameras, filmed the incident, and uploaded it to the internet.

Additional details made the situation murkier.  It turned out that United’s “overbooking” situation wasn’t as we’d normally understand overbooking to be.  It was, instead, a case where four United staff members had presumably been vacationing in Chicago that weekend, and now needed to fly back home to Louisville on Sunday night so as to report to work on Monday morning.  They were on staff tickets, which only allowed for standby rather than confirmed space travel.

My guess is the United gate staff at ORD decided to do their coworkers a favor and offload regular fare paying passengers so their friends could fly back home on their space available tickets.  This was very wrong, and is a part of the ‘what went wrong’ issue that few people have touched upon.

However, we now come to the circumstances on the plane itself.  After offering to bribe passengers to volunteer off the flight, and with some people accepting up to apparently $800 as an inducement to stay overnight and take an early morning flight, no-one else would volunteer, even though maybe the gate staff raised the bribe to $1000 per person.  (One has to wonder how United’s management feels about its staff spending hundreds/thousands of airline dollars so that other staff with standby tickets can displace paying passengers in a manner totally at odds with the simple concept of standby travel.)

So the gate agents went through some process, be it ‘scientific’ or random, to select two more people who would be offloaded – bumped – off the flight.  The two people selected were the man in question and his wife.  This is a lawful and proper process, and something airlines can do and indeed regularly do do.

But, unlike all other people with similar experiences being bumped, this passenger refused to leave, speciously claiming that because he was a doctor and allegedly had patients expecting to see him the next morning, normal bumping rules should not apply to him.

Just to make one thing clear.  A ‘confirmed’ seat and a ‘confirmed’ reservation are not ‘confirmed’ in the way that normal people would ordinarily understand the word ‘confirmed’ to mean.  Sure, your ticket shows a date, a time, a flight number, a destination, and maybe even a seat, plus perhaps the magic word ‘confirmed’ or some synonym.  But airlines do not promise to fly you where you want to go, or when you wish to go there.

They will grudgingly say that maybe they might try to do so, but they reserve the right to cancel the flight, or cancel your reservation, or change your seat assignment, or in any and every other way, change or eliminate your flight arrangements, and they can do so with very little negative consequent to themselves.  We agree to all of that every time we buy a ticket, which requires us to accept the associated ‘conditions of carriage’ – none of which we ever read, and little of which is readily available, and all of which is non-negotiable.

Back to the Sunday situation.  After some unsuccessful cajoling, the gate staff called the airport police, and three police officers came on board and also tried to persuade the man to leave.  He refused.  The police threatened him with arrest, and he still refused.  So one of the police officers pulled him out of his seat, and dragged him off the plane.

We are told that this action injured the man so severely that he was still in a Chicago area hospital on Thursday, recovering from his injuries.  As you may have the misfortune to know, major surgeries can see a patient discharged within one or two days, so one can only guess at the enormity of this guy’s injuries if he was still in hospital four days later.  And one can only wonder how such extremely severe injuries are possible.

Now for the crux of the matter.  What should have happened once the chips were down, the police came on the scene, and demanded the man either leave the plane voluntarily or be arrested and forcibly removed?  Who was in the right at that point?

It is important to realize that we’re not now considering the rights or wrongs and morality of United’s decision to offload the passenger.  That is now irrelevant.  The passenger has been given a lawful order to get off the plane, first by uniformed United staff members, and secondly by law enforcement officers.  By refusing to comply with that order, the passenger committed a federal offense (and probably several such offenses).

Anyone with any sense knows that when things get tense, you comply with whatever a police officer is ordering you to do, and argue the facts and fairness of the matter subsequently, in a court, or with other officials.  If you don’t, you’re up for a world of hurt – literally and legally.  Resisting arrest, obstructing a police officer, being disorderly, and plenty more charges start appearing out of nowhere, and they’re all charges where you have no chance of prevailing.  To say nothing of possibly being Tasered, and maybe even shot.

The passenger in question should know this better than most.  You see, he is a convicted criminal who lost his medical license for over a decade, someone with documented anger management issues, drug abuse, and problems with the truth.  Ooops.  This makes interesting reading.

I’m a bit skeptical that the passenger really does need four days of hospitalization, but even if he truly does, who is to blame for this?  The police officer didn’t suddenly attack the passenger without warning.  The passenger had massive amounts of opportunity to cooperate at any point prior to being pulled from his seat, but voluntarily chose to aggravate the situation and the likely consequences at every point, all the way through to struggling against the police officer and possibly therefore directly causing his own injury as an outcome of his illegal/unlawful acts.

The passenger must accept responsibility for the clearly foreseeable consequences of his bad choices.

At first, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, defended the actions of his staff and the airport police.  But now he has changed his mind, and caved in to ill-informed and short-sighted public opinion, saying that United staff (or, presumably, police acting on the request of UA staff) will never force a passenger to leave a flight again.

But that’s like the police saying ‘We’ll never arrest a person who doesn’t agree to come with us voluntarily’.  How is order maintained if passengers, whether right or wrong, get to decide what they’ll do without any overarching constraint or framework or consequence?

Here’s a simple example.  A person comes on board and sits in your assigned seat.  You explain you have that seat.  He concedes that it was assigned to you, but says that his seat is a nasty middle seat, he is bigger than you, and he much prefers your exit row aisle seat.  He refuses to go to his seat, and suggests you go there instead – he got to your seat first, you can better fit in the middle seat, and first in, first served.

According to Mr Munoz, we’ll all have to just let such misbehavior proceed apace.

Or what about a passenger who refuses to stop talking on his cell phone after the flight has finished loading and is getting ready to push-back?  What will happen to that person now?

And so on, through all sorts of other situations such as sometimes arise.  Mr Munoz seems to be advocating a new form of anarchy on his planes.  Yes, United makes a bad situation worse.

Business Travel is Bad For Your (Mental) Health

In an obvious segue, perhaps the doctor in the United story has been flying too much on business?

A recent study has shown that while some frequent business travelers are of the ‘flourishing hypermobile’ type, others are deemed to be of a ‘floundering hypermobile’ type, with the burden of their travel making them less happy and endangering their health.

The study suggests that businesses might need to create new policies to protect their employees from the consequences of too much travel.

More information here, including an interesting twist in their last sentence.

How to Win at the Being Bumped Game

Well, the biggest winner in the United Sunday situation are probably going to be attorneys.  The doctor has already lawyered up with two different firms of lawyers, and we wouldn’t be surprised if United quickly settled for millions of dollars, rather than choosing a long ongoing series of negative headlines as a case goes through pre-trial motions, discovery, and so on.  Of course, we’re sure this was not part of the doctor’s motivation for refusing to get off the plane, and causing himself to suffer injuries in the process, although some reports of the incident suggest that he may have been already threatening law suits before he was dragged off.

A more modest way of winning is to actually do what United asked the doctor to do.  To volunteer, to talk up the compensation you’ll receive, and to do so with good grace.  Here’s a story about how a family made $11,000 in compensation by being repeatedly bumped by Delta last weekend.

I’ve occasionally been double bumped as well, and I’ve also been bumped when flying on free/award type tickets, meaning I not only had a free trip slightly interrupted, but ended up with tickets for a seconde free trip and some spending money, too.

The key thing is to make sure that when you volunteer, you are getting as generous a compensation as possible, and to agree that if the airline starts offering more to get more volunteers, your compensation will also be increased to the new level.

What is the Maximum Length a Flight Could Ever Be?

We now have planes claiming a commercial range of up to 11,100 miles (the new A350-900ULR).  At what point does a plane’s range become unnecessarily long?

Well, one consideration is the circumference of the earth.  With a 24,900 mile circumference, that means that in theory, nowhere on the planet is more than 12,450 miles from anywhere else.  But even though in theory a plane can fly a direct line from anywhere to anywhere else, in reality, it seldom does, due to overflight permissions, air traffic control routings, weather diversions, and assorted sundry other issues.  In the past, ETOPS considerations also restricted the routings planes could fly, but that is almost never a consideration any more.   In addition, if you’re flying at 550 mph and find yourself flying into 200 mph headwinds in the jetstream, you’re going to be flying a lot slower and burning a lot more fuel per mile covered.  So, the maximum actual effective flying distance could in theory exceed 12,450 miles.

But on the other hand, there are very few important routes where the two cities being served are exactly opposite each other.  As best I can quickly ascertain, the longest ‘almost important’ route might be Auckland-London (about 11,400 miles), with a much more important route being the slightly shorter Sydney-London route (10,600 miles – both Melbourne and Brisbane are closer to London than Sydney).

The commercial reality is there’s little sense for either Airbus or Boeing to design a plane that can fly between London and Auckland, because a plane that could fly that distance would not be as economical on shorter distances.  But the so-called ‘Kangaroo Route’ between London and Sydney is an interesting one, which Qantas and some but not all other airlines would love to be able to do nonstop.

It would have huge implications on the Gulf carriers that currently are very much the beneficiaries of a need for flights to refuel, and being in a position that is more or less on the path, and more or less halfway.  (Hong Kong is in a much better location, but the Gulf carriers have done an excellent job in compensating for this by providing better service, etc.)

If flights could now operate nonstop between Australia and UK/Europe, there would be reduced need for a half-way hub such as offered by Emirates in partnership with Qantas.

The other part of the problem though is the vicious spiral that the further you fly, the more fuel you are burning just to carry more fuel.  A stop half way can actually save the airline money, by reducing the need for a heavier plane with bigger fuel tanks and more fuel (and less cargo carrying).  So some commentators see ultra-long range planes as being a concept that is only viable when jet fuel prices are low.  On the other hand, it is also thought that some passengers will pay a premium for a shorter nonstop flight, and we all know that any time there is a stop on the itinerary, the chances of something going wrong appreciably increase.

Twenty plus hours in first class?  Sure, sounds great.  But 20+ hours in a coach class middle seat?  Umm, not so much, thanks.

Here’s an interesting article about the prospects for nonstop ultra-long range flights.

Battling Agencies

The TSA says it is dangerous to have larger sized battery-powered electronics on flights from certain countries, and requires such items to now be placed in the checked luggage hold of the plane.

But the FAA responded to that pronouncement with one of its own.  It says it is dangerous to have a concentration of Li-ion batteries in the checked luggage hold where battery fires can’t be manually controlled.

But you’ve probably not heard this, because the FAA official safety bulletin was issued in secret.

So – which would you prefer?  To have your plane crash due to a bomb going off in the passenger cabin, or due to batteries catching fire in the cargo compartment?

Details here.

Another Tunnel Story for Elon Musk

I’ve commented, last week and before, about Elon Musk’s new-found fascination for digging tunnels as a way to beat the traffic.  But why limit yourself to tunnels for ‘only’ cars and other road vehicles, Elon?

How about a tunnel for ships?  We’re familiar with canals, of course, which work well when the land to be covered is reasonably flat.  But what about through mountainous regions?

Well, Norway has addressed that issue, as a way of addressing one of the things that the brochures encouraging you to do an idyllic Norwegian fiord cruise seldom touch upon.  The weather out in the open sea, off the Norwegian coast, can be dramatically dreadful.  So it is building the world’s first sea tunnel, which will run one mile between two fiords, saving ships from needing to go out to the rough open sea.

Details here.

Watch Out, Sir Richard.  Here Comes Jeff.

I’ve actually no idea what the current timetable for Virgin Galactic’s commencement of near-space flights is at present, and don’t really care.  Even without its tragic accident/failure, Sir Richard Branson’s past promises of when they will start operating flights have been consistently more aspirational than factual (the first date promised was 2009).

Meanwhile, however, the Virgin Galactic concept is no longer the only game in town.  Jeff Bezos is developing a somewhat similar concept, under the name of ‘Blue Origin’ and says that his ‘New Shepard’ space craft might start taking tourists into space as soon as next year.  But, unlike Sir Richard, he isn’t making any promises, and neither is he collecting any hefty deposits.  He also says he doesn’t know how much the flights will cost and he’ll let the market sort that out when he has a feeling for what the demand will be.  Virgin Galactic are currently charging $250,000, and require the full amount to be paid upfront.

The Amazon inspired flight experiences will be very much shorter – instead of possibly 2+ hours with Virgin Galactic, they will be eleven minutes.  And whereas one of the causes of the Virgin Galactic disaster was pilot error, the New Shepard space craft will not have any such risks.  The six passengers will travel without a pilot – the craft will be fully-automatic/remote-controlled from the ground.

A feature of the flight will be approximately four minutes of weightlessness.  Many people become ‘seasick’ and vomit when experiencing weightlessness, but Bezos says this won’t be a problem.  He claims it takes up to 30 minutes before a person actually starts vomiting, so with only four minutes of weightlessness and an 11 minute flight, people will be back on earth before they have time to vomit.

Call me skeptical on that point.  I’ve seen people get seasick or airsick very quickly indeed, and anyone who has worked an amusement park ride knows that a one or two minute roller coaster will sometimes have people being sick on it.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Happy 50th birthday to the Boeing 737.  Its first flight occurred on 9 April, 1967.  As of last month, Boeing has delivered 9,448 of the 737 model family, with another 4,506 units still on order, and with new versions of the 737 still being developed.  The original 737 is now part of the Seattle Museum of Flight’s excellent collection of planes.

Looking forward to the future, this article rather gloomily predicts that only one-quarter of all miles driven in 2030 will be in driverless vehicles.  My guess – it will be more than this.  Let’s hope we’re all around in 2030 to see who was correct!

Until next week, and no matter who is driving, please enjoy safe travels





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