Oct 172014
It was airplanes like these Boeing 314s, and airlines like Pan Am (who operated these planes) who made LGA the busiest airport in the world in 1940.  Pictured is the former Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia, in 1940.

It was airplanes like these Boeing 314s, and airlines like Pan Am (who operated the planes) that made LGA the busiest airport in the world in 1940. Pictured is the former Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia, in 1940.

Good morning

This is a smaller than usual newsletter this week, and the next several weeks will probably be similar.  Some unexpected pressing matters have taken my attention this week (albeit in a positive good way, I hope) and next week I’m traveling with a group of Travel Insiders to New Zealand.

I’ve been variously writing, reading and talking nonstop all week and it is hard, particularly with desperate time pressures acting on me, to now ‘relax’ and prepare the usual rather sprawling and lengthy dissertation on the week that was.  So just a few comments and links for you.

Happy birthday to La Guardia Airport, which is turning 75.  Oftentimes, it seems to qualify as another of the airports we love to hate, and so it is perhaps interesting to read this historical perspective (and to enjoy the lovely old pictures) and to realize that no matter what it may be today, it was designed and developed with the best of intentions, and succeeded spectacularly, becoming the busiest airport in the world within a year of opening.

It has been a semi-eventful week for new product releases, although perhaps also semi-disappointing.

Google and Apple Release New Products

On Wednesday, Google released a new Nexus 6 cell phone.  The iPhone 6+ and its 5.5″ screen is no longer ‘state of the art’ – well, in truth, it wasn’t that even when it was released a month ago, because the Nexus 6 has a – yes, you guessed it, a 6″ screen.

Of course, size isn’t everything (we hope!), although Google does put a mouth-wateringly lovely display on its phone, with an extremely high-resolution 1440 x 2560 pixel screen.  This leaves the 1080 x 1920 pixel display of the iPhone 6+ (and the mere 750 x 1334 pixel display on the standard iPhone 6) well behind, but we’re now getting to the point where the need for more pixels is diminishing.

It is not yet even available for pre-order, let alone for delivery, so one wonders exactly what the word ‘release’ means at Google.

Also released was a new large size tablet, the Nexus 9 with an 8.9″ display (smaller than an iPad’s 9.7″ but larger than an iPad Mini’s 7.9″ display.  Does this mean its screen size is the ideal compromise between ‘too big’ and ‘too small’?  These days there is no clear consensus about screen sizes at all, and rather than a clustering of devices around several more or less standard dimensions, there is more a smooth continuum from the blurry points where phones become ‘phablets’ (ie probably over 6″) and to where phablets become mini-screened tablets (probably over 7″) and then a very unclear point where mini-screened tablets become full-sized tablets (about 10″) and maybe also a nascent new category of over-sized screens (perhaps greater than 12″).

One has to remember, but with derision, Steve Jobs’ insistence that there was only one correct ideal size for a tablet – 9.7″.  No other sizes would be appropriate, he claimed.  The ever reduced market share of devices with that general size of screen is silent but effective contradiction of his claim.

Whereas in the past, Nexus devices have been offered at astonishingly good values, this is no longer the case of either unit, with pricing much closer to ‘market’ pricing (whatever that is, these days).  We don’t see either the phone or the tablet as being transformational new factors in their respective markets.

Talking about non-transformational products, the same can be said of Apple’s launch of new iPads on Thursday.  A new iPad Mini and a new iPad Air, but both essentially very similar to the products they replaced.  A little slimmer for the iPad Air (but not for the iPad Mini), and otherwise, nothing much else has changed.  If you already have an iPad Air 2 or an iPad Air, there’s no reason to replace your present unit, and if you don’t yet have either, you might want to consider the now previous generation, which dropped in price $100 as part of the new models coming out.  I don’t see where the newer models offer appreciable improvements for most typical users.

There had been rumors of a new larger screened iPad also being released, but nothing transpired.  This is perhaps the most lack-luster tablet release in Apple’s history to date and will do nothing to halt Apple’s loss of tablet market share.

Airlines Increase Stopover Fees Five-Fold

Airline ‘competition’ is an amazing thing, but the DoT continues to believe all is working perfectly, even when we see things such as this – an unannounced and almost simultaneous change in policies by all major airlines last week as to how much they charge for a stopover on an itinerary from the US to Europe.

It used to be that you would pay $100 if you stopped for much more than the minimum connecting time between flights at an intermediate point on the way to your destination – a fee which was ‘about right’ in terms of reflecting the added value to us we get from visiting two places rather than one.

But now, expect to pay $500 to break your journey en route.

Why the sudden five-fold increase in fee?  And how is it that by incredible coincidence, all airlines copied each other in double-quick time?  Well, the airlines aren’t answering that question, and as for the DoT, hello?  Anyone home?

What else has changed five-fold in your life recently, without warning?  Absolutely nothing.  And the airlines can’t go blaming fuel costs for this – oil prices continue to steadily drop and the easing of pricing we’re seeing at the pump is being enjoyed by the airlines, too.

I guess we still need a couple more mergers to give us ‘better’ competition, right?  Details here.

A Bad Time to Own Airline Stocks

When the SARS crisis occurred, such as it ever was, airlines suffered substantial losses, not so much directly from SARS as they did indirectly from the reduced levels of general travel by fearful passengers seeking to avoid the risk of infection.

It seems very fair to say that there is currently much greater global concern about Ebola, and of course, we have now had three cases in the US, including the extremely alarming transfer of Ebola from the first patient to two of the nurses caring for him.  That was surely not supposed to happen.

So what about the airlines?  Can they look forward to massive curtailments in travel?  Is now a very good time to be shorting airline stocks?  Actually, a week or two ago would have been an even better time to do that.

After a long and reasonably steady upward curve in value over the last five years, 2 September saw the airline index (^XAL) hit a twelve-year high at 88.57.  Since then it has dropped down to 72.59 on 13 October before rallying a bit to close at 76.45 on Thursday.

Will it now continue its recovery or plunge back down?  A lot depends on what happens with the Ebola situation over the next short while.  Let’s just say there’s probably more downside risk than upside action at present.

This Week’s Ebola Update

Talking of Ebola, a quick look at the stats shows an increase in deaths from the 3854 as of 8 October, to 4493 as of 15 October, an increase of 639 in the last week, compared to 554 the previous week, a nasty continuation of the trend of increasing deaths each week.

My sense is that some people are starting to act in irrational ways.  Sure, we now have had three cases in the US, but that’s no reason to severely cut back on your traveling.  Not yet, anyway.

But if it turns out that the nurse who flew domestically on a Frontier flight from Cleveland to Dallas on 13 October, while experiencing the early onset of Ebola symptoms did pass the infection on, then we anticipate a measurable curtailment in travel – already it seems that everyone we talk to (well, almost everyone) is nervously joking about our risk of Ebola when flying to NZ next week, with their ostensible concern about us clearly a proxy for their more immediate concern about their own future travels.

Here is a level-headed article about Ebola and air travel.

The World’s Most Expensive Train Journey Drops its Price

Can you guess the world’s most expensive train journey?  Well, if measured in dollars paid per mile traveled, it is generally believed to be riding the Heathrow Express between London and Heathrow, a 15 or so minute journey covering not quite as many miles, and costing £21 for a one way journey (or £34 for a roundtrip).  So, on the one way ticket, you’re paying just over $2/mile.  If you take their first class option, you pay even more than these standard class fares.

The alternatives have been a terribly slow bus-ride, an uncomfortable and almost as slow tube journey, or a more expensive taxi ride, also probably slower than the Heathrow Express.

But apparently the penny has dropped, because the fares have dropped.  If you buy your ticket a week in advance, you now get a one way ticket for ‘only’ £15 and a roundtrip for £29.  That’s a massive – and massively welcome – drop.

Flight Attendants Want to Force Us to Watch their Inane Safety Briefings (but fail)

If I strain, I can maybe faintly remember back, oh so many decades, to when watching and listening to the flight attendants give their safety briefing prior to departure was interesting and informative.  That was when I was young, unaccustomed to air travel, and also when seat belts in cars were uncommon too.  As I said, a long time ago.

But, slow as I am, I get it.  I now know how to unbuckle my seat belt, and I fear with a sad certainty that if there should be a crash and we all have to don our lifejackets, way more than half the passengers on board will colossally fail to do so correctly, and half the ones who succeed will ignore instructions and fully inflate it while still inside the plane.  As has been vividly demonstrated with recent crashes and evacuations, many passengers will also pause on the way out of the plane to collect their belongs from the overheads and take their bulky rollaboard suitcases with them down the slides.

There’s nothing more pointless than these safety briefings, except perhaps, the flight attendants trying to force us to watch them.  The main US flight attendants union filed a lawsuit, trying to compel the FAA to rescind their decision to end their prohibition on the use of in-flight electronics while planes were on the ground and in the early and final stages of flight.

The suit claimed the FAA failed to follow proper procedure and allow public comment prior to its ruling.

There were two main problems with the flight attendants’ claim (other than its basic idiocy to start with).  The first was that the FAA did allow for public comment and in fact received over 1000 responses (including, ahem, from the flight attendants!).  The second is that all the FAA did was allow the airlines the freedom to set their own policies.  The FAA is not forcing the airlines to allow the use of personal electronics at all.

The flight attendants lost their case.  Phew.

What will they try next?  Refusing to give us our packet of nuts or our free soda if we fail to answer questions about the content of the briefing?

Well, that’s it for this week.  Next week I’ll be in Queenstown, New Zealand, am not sure how much newsletter, if any, will emerge.

Until next time, please enjoy safe travels







Oct 092014
This poster is thought to date back to the founding of KLM in 1919.  It says 'The Businessman Travels.... Sends (mails).... Receives.... per (with/via/by) Air Express KLM'.

This poster is thought to date back to the founding of KLM in 1919. It says ‘The Businessman Travels…. Sends (mails)…. Receives…. per (with/via/by) Air Express KLM’.

Good morning

And a very happy birthday to one of our favorite Queens.  Queen Mary.  The lovely old ship, although moored alongside the wharf in Long Beach since 1967.

And an even happier birthday to the world’s ‘oldest airline’ – KLM, turning 95.  The company was formed on 7 Oct, 1919, and claims to be the oldest airline operating under the same name (but not the same ownership – these days KLM is now a part of a merged KLM/Air France).

Next Thursday sees another Apple release event, with the expectation being new iPads will be announced as part of the typically annual iPad refresh.

Rumors had been growing to expect not just another regular iPad and mini iPad, but also a new larger screened iPad as well.  The two present models have 7.9″ and 9.7″ screens; it has been suggested that Apple could be readying a super-sized iPad with perhaps a 12.9″ screen.

One of the possible ‘holy grails’ of a tablet would be to have a screen that mimics a piece of paper – ie 8.5″ x 11″.  A paper sized screen would have a 13.9″ diagonal, so this super-sized iPad would still have a screen smaller than a piece of paper.

Most recently it seems that the strong demand for large-sized iPhone 6+ screens has delayed production of larger screen sized iPads.  Anyway, we’ll know more next Thursday.

Talking about Apple, obscured amongst the new iPhones released a few weeks back was the discontinuance of their venerable iPod Classic line of portable music players.  Although I’ve owned at least three of the sleek little Nano players over the years, when it comes to choosing a good solid workhorse of a music player, the iPod Classic was always my choice to take on my travels, particularly after customizing it with the Rockbox software to replace the Apple interface and limitations.

But its loss, while marking the end of an era, was matched by the release last week of a new high-end audio player – and although a high-end player, it has a delightfully low-end price.  $99.  There’s a reason why we travelers still need some sort of music player as well as online streaming services.  Read why, and more about this new player, and its stablemates, including a new ‘American’ product being released this month, in the article at the end of tonight’s newsletter.

What else?  The last week has been enormously exciting for me, working on the new idea I hinted to you about a month or so back.  I’ve been joined by six enormously capable, experienced and successful business leaders, and we’re burning up the email lines between us all, helping to craft a new internet based service that will – we hope – take the world by storm.

What I particularly like is that we’re all in our 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s.  This isn’t some empty-headed internet nonsense dreamed up by twenty-something-year olds, a hollow venture that soaks up and spends millions of dollars of investment funding before collapsing.  It will be a solid simple service useful to us all, based on old-fashioned concepts of giving good service and good value.

Some of you have already asked to be kept in the loop.  If you too would like to be appraised of what is going on, let me know.

Please keep reading for :

  • It’s A Hub-Closing Feeling of Deja Vu All Over Again
  • Britain’s Extraordinary Hatred of Planes
  • Norwegian Air Shuttle – As Good as Hoped For
  • MH 17 and MH 370 Updates
  • A New Look for London’s Underground – Worth Waiting For, But….
  • Self Driving Cars Move a Little Closer
  • This Week’s Ebola Update
  • And Lastly This Week….

It’s A Hub-Closing Feeling of Deja Vu All Over Again

Whenever two US carriers merge, they predictably undertake to protect and preserve all existing services, and justify their merger, when seeking government approval, on the basis of giving the traveling public more choice and more competition (yes, merging two airlines into one is, they say, a way to give you more choices and competition).

And once they have merged and a polite passage of time passes, what invariably occurs?  A ‘rationalization’ of service, almost always seeing a reduction in routes, flights and hubs.  There are ghostlike empty concourses in airports around the country that bear silent witness to the truth of ‘more choice and more competition’.

It now seems that this growing group of empty airports will be joined by Charlotte, a former US Airways hub (and before that, a hub for Piedmont).  Now that US Airways and American Airlines have merged, there is less value in keeping Charlotte as a hub alongside other major nearby hubs such as New York’s JFK and Chicago’s O’Hare.  So far, all we are seeing a reduction in international flights from CLT, but we’re also seeing the bulking up of domestic flights that could have been sent to Charlotte, but instead going to and coming from another hub, Miami.

Although we’re told that CLT will remain an important domestic hub, we’re not so sure.  CLT is ringed by American’s hubs at JFK, ORD, DFW and MIA.  How long before CLT starts to slowly, flight by flight, lose domestic flights as well, and to be degraded from a hub to a ‘focus city’ and then to a regular city and then to, well, not much at all?  In its favor is a very low operating cost for airlines flying in and out, but against it are all the other factors that might overwhelm the low enplanement fee.

One of the things that seems key for a hub to ‘work’ these days is that it needs ideally to combine both a strategic geographic location and strong local market traffic (ie people flying in and/or out of the local area as well as people hubbing and merely changing flights on the way somewhere else).

We’re not saying CLT is in a bad geographic spot, but it has limited local market traffic and there are plenty of other suitable hubs also available for AA.

This article includes the bold assertion ‘While no one suggests that Charlotte’s role as a domestic hub will lessen…’ I’m not afraid to contradict everyone.  I think it will lessen.

Britain’s Extraordinary Hatred of Planes

Talking about airports, imagine if a political party in this country said ‘We’re going to freeze the roading in this country.  We’re not going to develop any more lanes of freeway or surface streets'; indeed, we’ll make it illegal for anyone in the country to do so.’

Unthinkable, right?  How about a party promising (or should that be, ‘threatening’) to freeze our nation’s airports and not allow a single new runway to be built, anywhere in the country?  Also unthinkable.

Now cross the Atlantic, where the unimaginable is being offered as an election prank plank, presumably in the belief it will win votes and help the Liberal-Democrats gain more seats in Britain’s 2015 General Election.  Yes, the Lib-Dems have said they’ll ban any new runway building, anywhere in Britain.

All three major parties are united in opposition to building more runways at Heathrow – perhaps the world’s most congested major airport presently – and frantically look the other way when confronted by the facts about the harm this is doing to Britain’s economy.  But the Lib-Dems have now said they’d ban all new runways, everywhere.  Details here.

Norwegian Air Shuttle – As Good as Hoped For

Talking about hating things to do with flying, Norwegian Air Shuttle is the airline the US carriers love to hate.  They are terrified that its low-cost service will upset their currently ultra-protected and largely uncompetitive routes across the Atlantic, peacefully shared by the three airline alliances.  Particularly now with Virgin Atlantic obediently being managed by Delta, there are few if any upstart carriers threatening to upset the applecart.

But Norwegian Air Shuttle is keen to bring lots of low-cost flights to the routes between Europe and the US.  Naturally, therefore, the Department of Transportation (you know, the guys who think that allowing airlines to merge increases competition and lowers air fares) is adopting a very negative go-slow approach to approving the airline’s requests to add new routes.

Reader David recently made a point to fly on Norwegian to see what all the fuss was about.  He writes

This note is to comment briefly on Norwegian airlines, which I had never heard of until you mentioned them relating to the 787 situation and then the problems with being certified to fly from the US.  It was enough information for me to look into, and flying with, Norwegian Air in September and early October.

My wife and  I flew  from LAX (on their 787) to Stockholm and then on to Oslo and Longyearbyen, NO; then back to LAX from Bergen via Oslo and Stockholm.  The non Stockholm-LAX segments were on 737’s.  We flew premium economy on the LAX-Stockholm segments.  The cost of the premium economy was equal to or less than coach on other airlines.

The service was superb on all segments at truly discount prices.  The premium economy was very comparable to business class on other airlines.  True, all amenities were extra but the base price was so low we didn’t mind picking and choosing on what extras we paid for, not like the US airlines where extras are added to non-discounted prices (under the guise of not raising prices?).  Their frequent flyer points could be used immediately for discounts on other flights and amenities which reduced the cost of our Bergen to Oslo flight even more.

The other observation I had was the number of young people flying on Norwegian – almost like being in a youth hostel.  These are the people who will be supporting airlines in the future.  I would expect, from my experience, they will be flying Norwegian Air.

I was not sure if you have actually had people comment about flying this airline, so thought I would share my positive impressions and hopefully their routes from the US will expand.

A friendly airline with superb service and discount prices?  No wonder our US carriers and their proxies at the DoT are doing all they can to keep Norwegian out!

MH 17 and MH 370 Updates

An interesting snippet of MH 17 news was apparently inadvertently disclosed by a Dutch politician this week.  In justifying some comments he made about passengers knowing the plane was crashing and looking each other in the eyes for a final unarticulated goodbye, he pointed out that one of the passenger bodies was found with an oxygen mask around his/her neck.

The assumption is that if the plane was opened up by a missile strike, that may have activated the oxygen mask deployment, and if passengers were still alive and capable of responding, they might have donned the masks.

This point has not been revealed in any of the official commentaries of what transpired.  One wonders why not.

Meanwhile, with little press coverage, the search for the ocean-floor remains of MH 370 (it disappeared on 8 March) has resumed off the west Australian coast.  Australian writer Ben Sandilands points out two interesting mysteries of the ‘what did they know and when did they know it’ variety; unfortunately, while he poses pertinent questions, no-one is choosing to answer them.

A New Look for London’s Underground – Worth Waiting For, But….

There are few things more unpleasant on this planet than riding on the ‘Tube’ in London in late summer.  Temperatures soar up above 100º, and there’s no air-conditioning.  The air is filled with dust and dirt and sweat, and people faint from the heat.  Such are the associated downsides with having the world’s first underground transportation system (dating back to 1863).

At last, it seems that something is being done about this, with new trains being announced that will include air conditioning, and which will no longer include drivers.  That will not only give a more comfortable temperature for riders, but will also remove an occasional source of another form of Tube-related discomfort – driver strikes.

Many of the Underground trains have been automated for some time, but the unions have ensured drivers remain on the trains, whether needed or not (a bit like planes and pilots, you might say….).

There’s only one thing about these amazing new trainsets.  The first of them is not expected to enter into service for another eight years.

Still, one should see one’s glass as half full.  At least none of Britain’s political parties are opposed to upgrading London’s Underground.

Details here.

Self Driving Cars Move a Little Closer

Thursday night saw a new product launch by Tesla.  A stunning new high-performance version Tesla that can go 0-60 in 3.2 seconds was announced, as was a package with various almost-self driving capabilities.  According to CEO Elon Musk, one of the constraints on the capabilities of the cars was not technological, but instead what is currently allowed by law.

Amazingly, the 12 new sensors and other capabilities to allow the car some autonomy are already being built into current model Teslas, and to enable them, one simply chooses the Technology package option, which costs a total of $4250 for the almost-self-driving and other things too.

As for the 0-60 in 3.2 seconds, the second drive motor to enable the extra power/acceleration astonishingly results not in reduced economy but in greater economy – about 10 miles more range per charge.  Details here.

So – new trains on London’s Underground = 8 years to wait.  Almost self-driving Teslas?  Available today.

Talking about Elon Musk, the day before launching his new, more intelligent car, he was quoted as worrying about artificial intelligence taking over the world, and possibly choosing to destroy all human life as a result.  Gulp.

And while Elon’s new semi-self driving cars might seem reasonably safe, not everyone agrees, and some people see self-driving cars as opening a whole new vector for cyber-terrorism.  Details here.

This Week’s Ebola Update

This week saw the Ebola death count climb to 3854, as of 8 October, compared to 3300 as of 2 October.  This is an increase of 554, compared to 383 the previous week, and creates a new ‘weekly worst’ – the previous being 483 in early September.

Among the 554 deaths is the Liberian national who lied his way out of Liberia and into the US.  Despite his easy access to the US, and despite experts pointing out that thermal scanning at borders won’t detect people who are infected with Ebola but not yet at the point of displaying symptoms, our authorities continue to insist we are safely insulated from the risk of more Ebola infected people entering the US.

And if you believe that, may I interest you in the Brooklyn Bridge, for sale for a bargain price.  Shipping and handling to be arranged by yourself, please.

Perhaps a more concerning infection occurred in Spain, where a nurse who was part of a Spanish hospital team caring for two Ebola victims, repatriated back to Spain after getting the disease, has now contracted the disease herself.  The CDC had earlier gone to considerable lengths to downplay the risk to healthcare professionals, and also said there was no need for the ‘spacesuit’ type protection such as the media like to show being deployed in West Africa.  Could they have been wrong?

Perhaps it is understandable to see why fear of Ebola is starting to mount, with a recent example being the cabin cleaners at La Guardia who have gone on strike because they have to, ummm, clean airplane cabins that are dirty.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting article, but I think it misses the main story.  While superficially chronicling the worst traffic commutes in the US, it fails to note that while commute times soared between 1982 and 2000, and continued to get worse through to 2005, commute times now are generally back down at 2000 levels.

What happened to stall the deterioration in commutes, and indeed to see travel times improve in some areas?

I’ve always loved maps.  New maps, old maps, detailed maps, overview maps.  And, of course, particularly, unusual maps.

Talking unusual, one of the traditional activities when vacationing is to take pictures of oneself while on one’s travels.  Pictures such as, umm, these?

Truly lastly this week, what with increased travel speeds during our commutes, and Teslas that rocket you to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds, you might need to know these 20 ‘insane’ excuses for speeding.  Even more insanely, apparently some of them work.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels








Oct 022014
Airbus celebrated the certification of its new A350 plane by flying five of them in formation.

Airbus celebrated the certification of its new A350 plane by flying five of them in formation.

Good morning

What an awful week it has been with strikes, threats of strikes, and even fires, oh yes, and of course, a bit of weather too, all disrupting our plans and adding an unwanted additional element of uncertainty.  Let’s hope for a better week next week.

More positively, it was an exciting week for Airbus in a good way, with their new A350 airplane receiving official EU certification. FAA certification is still pending, and there is a thought that possibly the FAA may be slower in certifying the plane, after what seems to have been a too-fast certification of the 787.

Apart from a few small delays early on in the A350 development program, Airbus has done a remarkably good job of sticking to its schedule, and proceeding smoothly through the airplane development and testing processes. This is, of course, in enormous contrast to the problems Boeing had with its similar 787 and its many delays.

The first A350 to be commercially operated will be with Qatar Airways, sometime between now and the end of the year.

I wrote last week about a wonderful little ‘USB stick’ Wi-Fi device. At a cost of only $18, it is very easy to recommend it, and it seems a lot of you chose to get one.

I have now received my lovely free Wi-Fi router from T-Mobile. Unlike my earlier routers, it provides both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands, and so I have been able to do a lot more experimentation with both the dual band router and the dual band Wi-Fi stick.  This router is amazing, and has abilities I’ve not yet fully tested (such as using it as a network hard drive resource, or a network printing resource) and allows one to create up to six different networks (not devices, but networks) all operating simultaneously on Wi-Fi, while also connecting to the internet through two different connections.  It has very long range and seems to be much faster than previous routers I’ve used.  It is a wonderful benefit as part of subscribing to T-Mobile service.

I had not realized that it is necessary to connect separately to the 5 GHz and the 2.4 GHz signals (which requires two Wi-Fi connecting devices). This creates another and compelling reason to have two Wi-Fi connections available on your laptop. With two connections, it is possible to connect to both a 2.4 GHz and a 5 GHz signal at the same time; if you only have one, then Murphy’s Law dictates that whichever service you choose will be the more congested and inferior of the two services!

In a hotel, it may be the case that any congestion problems are with the Wi-Fi link within the hotel, rather than the connection on out to the internet as a whole, and so if the hotel offers multiple Wi-Fi connection possibilities, it makes sense to take advantage of them all.

The combination of two Wi-Fi connections and the excellent Connectify Dispatch software makes a huge difference to your Internet connectivity and bandwidth when you are traveling. I repeat my earlier recommendation that you should strongly consider getting one (or possibly two!) of these lovely little devices.

I am continuing to learn more about my new iPhone 6+. My latest discovery is not entirely unexpected.

Not only does the phone have a much larger battery inside it, but it also consumes battery power more quickly. The larger battery (twice the capacity of an iPhone 5S) more than balances the faster power consumption, giving overall longer life per charge, but there is one scenario where this becomes a problem.

It seems that a normal slow rate USB charger is insufficient to simultaneously power the phone – particularly if its GPS service is running – and add to its battery charge.  I have watched, for 30 or more minutes, the battery charge percent stay unchangingly the same while the phone is running in my car and connected to a slow (0.5 Amp) charger.  The new iPhones can accept charge rates of up to 2.1 Amps (older iPhone 5 model phones took approximately a maximum 1.0 Amp charge).

If you have, or are planning to get one of these lovely new iPhones, I recommend you also get the four-port high-speed car charger I reviewed just a month ago. This definitely does get ahead of the ongoing power consumption when you are trying to charge the phone, and at only $20, is another easy financial decision to make.

What else this week?  Please read on for :

  • Happy Birthday, Hawaiian Airlines
  • Cockpit Screens Possibly Affected by Personal Electronics?  And so…..
  • An Expensive Checked Luggage Charge
  • Driverless Cars Continue to Move Forward
  • Tesla Needs Your Help
  • This Week’s Ebola Update
  • Have Our Security Organizations Foiled 54 Terrorist Plots Against the US?
  • New Walk-Through Airport Security Scanner?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Happy Birthday, Hawaiian Airlines

One of the very few airlines I actually like is Hawaiian Airlines, and I’m looking forward to flying them to New Zealand a bit later this month.

To celebrate their 85th birthday (they were founded in 1929) they published some interesting comparative numbers.

In 1929, they offered three roundtrip flights a week to neighboring islands.  Each journey took 1 hr 40 minutes, and the plane they flew (a Sikorsky S-38) weighed 10,480 lbs.

Today, they operate 560 roundtrip island flights a week, with each flight taking 36 minutes, and their larger A-330 planes weigh 507,000 lbs.

In 1929 they had 13,000 passengers in total.  In 2014, they anticipate 9.9 million passengers.

In 1929, it cost $15 for a one way inter-island flight, which is equivalent to about $210 in current dollars.  Today it costs $70 for a one-way flight.  A further measure of the increased value of their service is that in 1929, a barrel of oil cost $1.27 (1/12th of the cost of a ticket).  Today it costs $110 – 1.5 times the cost of a ticket.

And, lastly, for those of you who lament about the disappearance of the ‘golden age’ of airline travel – in 1929, passengers were served with a stick of gum and some cotton wool on their flight (to relieve discomfort from the pressure changes).  Today, Hawaiian is the only US airline to serve complimentary meals on domestic flights.

Yay for Hawaiian.

Cockpit Screens Possibly Affected by Personal Electronics?  And so…..

It is amazing how quickly and how completely the airlines’ attitudes towards our personal electronic devices have changed.

As you’ll recall, until about this time last year, we had to have everything switched off from when the cabin door shut, prior to pushback, and until the plane reached 10,000 ft, and then on the descent, from something usually way above 10,000 ft and until the end of the landing roll.  Even though there was no evidence of any possible danger or harm, and quite the opposite – plenty of anecdotal evidence of electronics left on, deliberately or accidentally, and causing no problems at all, we were told there was an unacceptable level of risk and we were forced to turn everything off, on the ‘better safe than sorry’ principle.

Then all of a sudden, overnight, the truth changed, and now we can have our electronics on all the way through the flight.  Nothing happened to either airplane avionics or to our mobile devices, but what was formerly too dangerous to risk leaving on became, via the stroke of a pen, completely safe.

Now, even more astonishingly, the FAA has discovered that the screens in 1326 of the 737 and 777 planes operating in the US are at risk of being interfered with by mobile electronic devices.  So, guess what?  Instead of re-instituting the ban on personal electronics on those planes, the FAA is requiring the airlines to upgrade and replace the displays (at a cost of about $10,000 per plane).

It is amazing (in a good way) how the ability to use our personal electronics has now been deemed to be essential rather than unnecessary by the FAA.  Details here.

An Expensive Checked Luggage Charge

We all cringe at the cost of checking our bags these days, and it is true that sometimes we pay more for our bags than we do for ourselves to travel somewhere – for example, this article mentions how on some routes, you can pay as much as $600 roundtrip to take a bag with you on Delta.

But for a dose of shock therapy that will have you craving to be allowed to transport a bag for ‘only’ $600, what about the woman who discovered that while her fee to take a bag with her on the flight to her destination was a moderate £17.50, the cost to bring it back with her was going to be £23,659,381,921.73.  Ooops!

Details here.

Driverless Cars Continue to Move Forward

You may recall I’m predicting that driverless cars will be commonplace by the turn of this decade.

How revolutionary is that?  To put it into context, the average American drives a car that is 11.4 years old.  Maybe your car is only half that age – 6 years old.  Whatever its age, the technology in it, compared to today’s new cars, is probably almost completely unchanged.  But we’re predicting that if you now look instead of six years back, if you look six years forward, new cars at that time will be profoundly altered.

You should keep this in mind.  If I’m close to correct, when self-driving cars become available, there is likely to be an enormous hit in the value of second-hand non-driverless cars.  It would be a terrible shame to invest heavily in a very expensive brand new car in a couple of years time, only to see its value plunge when a new self-driving model replaces it a couple of years later.

Two further steps towards driverless cars were announced this week.  The first sees the cost of a key component of a self-driving car – its  main sensor – drop in price from about $75,000 down to $8,000.  That is still an enormously expensive item, but there’s no reason not to expect another zero to drop off – the underlying components are not unduly expensive, most of the cost is in the form of recouping R&D and low volume assembly.  Indeed, even an application of Moore’s Law, to anticipate a halving in price every just-under-two years, would see the $8,000 drop down to $2,000 by 2020.  See here for details.

The other piece of news is that Tesla expects to be releasing a new semi-self driving car by the end of next year, which will probably be capable of 90% auto-piloting.  Exactly what that means is unclear, but there’s a big new Tesla reveal scheduled for next week (including a new model vehicle), and hopefully more will become known then.

Tesla Needs Your Help

Talking about Tesla (the motor vehicle company) there’s another Tesla that needs your help.  Nikola Tesla is a person who people simultaneously know of – and also know almost nothing about.

A Serbian American, he can credibly be considered to have pioneered radio transmission and AC power.  He also did some preliminary work on wireless transmission of electrical power, and high energy particle beam weapons, as well as theoretical explorations into all manner of other esoteric concepts that remain puzzles to this very day (he died in 1943).

Rumors persist of some of his futuristic inventions and ideas having been seized by the US government, and even today, the almost 300 patents he is known to have obtained often appear when inventors are researching ‘prior art’ for their own patent applications, much to their astonishment upon discovering what they thought to be a revolutionary new concept had been patented perhaps 100 years earlier.

Although some of Tesla’s inventions were commercially successful, he gave away or sold his rights for very little money, and spent most of the latter part of his life desperately short of money and relying on charity, mainly from the Westinghouse Corp.  The lack of money hampered his ability to continue building prototypes and developing his theories into practical working devices, and it is a matter of enormous regret that he wasn’t able to develop some of his more amazing ideas into reality.

Here’s a reasonably good biography, if you are interested.

Now – how does a dead man need your help?  Well, to be more accurate, the Nikola Tesla Museum in Shoreham, NY, needs your help.  A donation from Elon Musk (of Tesla Motors fame) enabled them to buy the Long Island site where Tesla’s final laboratory was located, and now they are seeking further support to build a museum to showcase the man’s life and works.

Details of their fundraising appeal are here.  If you can’t afford a brick, you can also contribute any other amount you choose.  It is a very worthy cause.

This Week’s Ebola Update

Last week I wrote how the World Bank President assured us that Ebola won’t strike the US.  This week, news has broken of an Ebola victim discovered in Dallas, Texas, and there is the possibility that the victim may have infected other people in the US prior to being hospitalized.  Ooops.

The Liberian national lied on a departure questionnaire when leaving Liberia, denying he had come in contact with any Ebola infected people prior to commencing his travel.  Who’d have thought that people would lie, when presented with an opportunity to urgently fly to the US and be given VIP access to the very best healthcare our country can offer?  I’m shocked!

To make matters apparently even worse, the UN’s Ebola Response Chief is warning that the virus could mutate and become able to be transmitted via airborne pathways, greatly increasing the risk of infection to us all.  Of course, also on the list of things that could happen this week are such things as you winning the lottery, the sun exploding, and President Obama admitting prior knowledge of and personal responsibility for, well, just about anything.  So while we acknowledge the possible risk of this, we’re not yet rushing to dig a disease-proof bunker in our back yard.

Airborne transmission or not, none of us, anywhere in the US, are now any more than a flight and a short drive to/from the airport away from Ebola.  Some people are apparently already taking their children out of school, and before long, you’ll probably find that face masks, gloves, and other similar things can’t be purchased, anywhere in the country.

Meanwhile, overall, the CDC website is counting total deaths, as of 2 October, of 3300, an increase of 383 from last week’s 2917, and an increase in weekly mortality from 287 the previous weeks (but still less than a couple of weeks prior to that with 483 deaths.

So – should we panic?  Not yet would seem to be the answer, but it would be appropriate, in the form of some ‘pre-match training’ to become more aware about and conscious of simple hygiene.  We recommend you (re)read our article about Ebola and how to avoid it.

And here’s an interesting article about what it would take to contain the disease.  The bad news?  It is very difficult to achieve in Africa.  The good news?  It would be much more readily achievable here in the US.

Have Our Security Organizations Foiled 54 Terrorist Plots Against the US?

According to this article, we have 17 major intelligence organizations in the US, and we spend about $68 billion a year between them all.  This count of 17 agencies is actually low, and probably depends in part on some definitional hair-splitting as to what makes up an intelligence agency or not.  For example, the Secret Service isn’t included, but it would be laughable to suggest that the Secret Service doesn’t have intelligence gathering and analyzing capabilities and a budget for such activities.  Then there are all the agencies that are ‘agencies within agencies’ that we can only guess about.

But, anyway, let’s accept the 17 as a number to work with for now.  The article reports that the NSA alone claims to have foiled 54 different terrorist attacks in the years subsequent to 9/11/01 – just over four every year on average, or, if you prefer, one for every $16.4 billion spent, plus or minus a few pennies.  Admittedly, only 13 of those 54 foiled attacks had a US focus, but even so, it is at least some sort of valuable return on our money, right?

Well, actually, wrong.  The article goes on to point out that a panel appointed by President Obama examined the NSA claims and found not a single one had merit.

So, we’ve spent close on a trillion dollars since 9/11/2001, and have exactly what to show for it?  Meanwhile, our leadership claims it has been blindsided by the growth of new virulent international terrorist organizations like ISIS/ISIL, while simultaneously seeking ever closer access to every part of our personal information.

New Walk-Through Airport Security Scanner?

Ostensibly, this may be good news – a new type of security scanner where we simply walk through a passage way, without stopping.  This CNN article suggests that it could handle up to 400 people an hour and would see the end of lines/delays at airports.

Well, yes, but – the CNN brains trust neglected to consider the other parts of the process – the bits which really slow things down.  You know – taking off your jacket, shoes and belt, emptying your pockets, taking your computer out of your carry-on, putting your liquids separately, and then putting everything back together again.  When you think about it, most of the delay when we go through security is nothing to do with our personal screening, it is all the other stuff related to our clothing and carryon, isn’t it.

That’s not to say that, if it does work as mooted, it wouldn’t be a good idea, but will it see the end of airport delays?  We very much doubt it.  Delays have become institutionalized, and if the lines shriveled down to nothing, the TSA would simply reduce their staffing levels to bring the lines back up to ‘acceptable’ levels, and redirect their staff to other places where they’re so visibly keen to get involved – you know, bus stations, ball parks, and anywhere else they can establish a beach-head.

One final point about this.  A ‘walk through’ scanner.  That’s not actually as futuristic a concept as you might think.  Isn’t it just a fancier (and much more expensive) version of a traditional metal detector, such as are still doing sterling duty in some security lanes at all airports around the country at present?

So tell me again how this new device will actually be any faster than a regular metal detector?

And Lastly This Week….

We often see lists of ‘Top Ten Most Popular Destinations’ of one form or another.  But how about a ‘Bottom Ten’ list of the least visited tourist attractions in England?

The softening of Ryanair’s image continues, with the latest casualty apparently being their annual staff calendar.  The calendar, published since 2008, with staff members volunteering to be featured, has always been slightly controversial, even though all profits from it go to charity, and even though there are much racier calendars available at Barnes & Noble and probably displayed on the walls of your local car repair shop.

Why the fuss?  Who could object to a charity calendar?  Details (and pictures) here.

Truly lastly this week, see if you can guess the access code to this airport security door.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Sep 252014
An impression of a possible new supersonic jet.  We can hope....

An impression of a possible new supersonic jet. We can hope….

Good morning

There’s no fool like an old fool, or so the saying goes.  I was reminded of this last Friday afternoon; I spent the entire afternoon (and much of the evening) on the phone with T-Mobile, struggling to straighten out billing issues to do with the new iPhones I received that day.  I also worry I’ve lost at least 10 IQ points from being subjected to so much offensively ugly awful ‘in your face’ music on hold.

Of course, it was probably the worst day of the year to seek any type of help from any wireless co, due to the iPhone 6 phones hitting the marketplace on that day.  Nonetheless, it was a curious circumstance to see that it took less time to get an AT&T phone number transferred from AT&T and onto my new iPhone than it did to also switch one of my existing T-Mobile numbers over to the other new iPhone.

Apple triumphantly reported 10 million phones sold over the first three days, up from 9 million for the first three days of last year’s launch of the iPhone 5S and 5C, and CEO Tim Cook claimed this their best product launch ever.

But is this really a triumph?  We suggest not.  First, there has been considerable pent-up demand for the new larger screened iPhones – many people (including me) sat out the woefully inadequate 5S/5C generation of phones, waiting for a larger screened phone, and the 5S/5C phones have been selling only moderately well.  There should have been a massively much larger surge as people (again like me) then went to get the phone they’ve been impatiently waiting for.

Furthermore, the smartphone marketplace as a whole has increased very much more than 11% over the last year.  The second quarter this year saw total shipments up 25.3% compared to the second quarter last year.  So, to merely maintain market share, if Apple sold 9 million phones on last year’s release weekend, it should have sold 11.3 million phones this year, rather than the ‘only’ 10 million it did sell.

I say this not to criticize the new phones – I think they truly are a positive step forward and now are more or less as good as competing Android phones, unlike last year’s two phones which were essentially the same as the iPhone 5 released two years ago.  Instead, I say this to express surprise and because it needs to be said.  Most other market commentators have mindlessly limited their comments to saying ‘iPhone sales up’ when really they should be saying ‘iPhone market share down’.

My first impression of the new iPhones is one of shock and awe, and I don’t mean that in a very positive sense.  The standard sized iPhone 6, with a 4.7″ screen, is almost the exact same size as my Nexus 5 with a 5.0″ screen.  That indicates a very inefficient use of bezel/surround space in addition to the screen itself on the iPhone – a surprising situation for a company that once prided itself on sleek elegant efficient design.  And as for the 5.5″ screened iPhone 6 Plus, it is enormous – the Nexus 5 is 5.4″ in length, the iPhone 6 Plus is 6.2″ in size – almost another entire inch in length, and the phone really does start to dangerously hang out of pockets (I’ve dropped mine twice already in less than a week – thank goodness I rushed out on Saturday morning and bought a protective case to place around the phone).

Sure, it is massively better than the iPhones it preceded.  But it is so gratuitously big, unlike the several Android type phones with large 5.5″ screens which are smaller.  This is an important difference, because all these phones are truly starting to reach the limit of acceptable size for standard pocket phones, and each extra 0.1″ starts to make a big impact on overall usability.  Buyer’s remorse?  Possibly!

I also find I’m seldom using the ‘fingerprint’ gimmick to unlock the phone.  But it will become more useful next month, I guess, when Apple expects to release its e-Payments service.

Something I don’t have buyer’s remorse over is a tiny $18 USB Wi-Fi modem, indeed, it is the best $18 I’ve spent on a computing gadget in a long time.  Read the article at the end of the newsletter to find out why you too should get one of these, even if you already have a Wi-Fi modem built-in to your laptop.

Also this week, please keep reading for :

  • Reader Survey Results :  Airfares vs Amenities
  • A Supersonic Jet – From Airbus, Sort Of
  • Some Good Coach Classes
  • Mythbusters Explores Airplane Boarding Policies
  • A New Way to Go Into Space
  • Trump to Make JFK TWA Terminal into a Hotel?
  • How Much Should You Tip the Robot?
  • Free Android Apps from Amazon
  • This Week’s Ebola Update
  • Careful What You Doodle on a Flight
  • Careful What You Have on Your Suitcases
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results :  Airfares vs Amenities

We asked you last week to share your preferences as to which you’d prefer – a $10 or $20 saving in airfare, or a particular amenity included in the (higher) fare.  There were two ‘logic bugs’ in the survey, one which shut the survey off after the first 100 people had responded, and the other which limited some of your responses.  I fixed them quickly, and apologies to those of you inconvenienced.  Fortunately, we still ended up with lots of valid responses.

The most valued amenities, on a 2.5 hour flight, were legroom, bathroom privileges and carry-on bags.  More than 95% of you valued these as being worth more than a $20 saving in fare.

The least valued amenities, also on a 2.5 hour flight, were in-flight entertainment and pillows/blankets.  54% wouldn’t even pay $10 for IFE, and  77% wouldn’t pay $20.  For the pillows/blankets, 70% wouldn’t pay $10 (but 30% would.  Note to those people – you can buy travel pillows from $10 and up, and blankets for about $9) and 87% wouldn’t pay $20.

Snacks and beverages were the third least essential item, followed by early boarding.

It is interesting to compare what you think with the results of an Expedia poll in Europe.  I’ve averaged the $10/20 answers to compare with the non-value specified ‘save money’ aspect of the Expedia poll, and show, below, the percentage of you compared to the percentage of Expedia’s poll who would be willing to sacrifice each amenity in order to save money.

Item Expedia   Travel Insider
In-Flight Entertainment 65% 65%
Pillows and blankets 63% 79%
Snacks and beverages 51% 40%
Advance seat selection 45% 11%
Free checked luggage 17% 13%
Legroom 16% 4%
Bathroom privileges 14% 3%
Carry-on bag 12% 3%
Frequent flier miles not asked 20%


Many thanks to everyone who participated, and for the interesting results now shared.

A Supersonic Jet – From Airbus, Sort Of

Every few months, there is a story from somewhere about someone promising a Concorde replacement, ‘real soon’.

This time the story seems almost to have a shred of credibility attached to it, because it tells of Airbus joining forces with a US development company, Aerion, and to jointly complete Aerion’s already longstanding development of a small supersonic business jet, the AS2.

The jet would be supersonic, but slower than Concorde, and also very much smaller.  Concorde flew at just over Mach 2.05, the AS2 would fly at ‘up to’ Mach 1.6 (in reality, its most efficient cruising speed will be Mach 1.4), and whereas Concorde held 100 passengers, this jet would hold 8 – 12 passengers.  The jet would have a range of about 5750 miles (Concorde was about 4,500 miles depending on load).  It would cost about $100 million, and Aerion claims to have letters of intent for 50 aircraft sales.

Excitingly, the company is projecting the plane’s first flight in 2019 – although this is its first test flight, not its first commercial flight, which hopefully might follow perhaps two years later.

One wonders what the cost of operating the AS2 would be.  While supersonic travel isn’t necessarily as cost-prohibitive as urban legend claims it to be, the big challenge seems to be the tiny payload – only 8-12 passengers.  That’s not a lot of people to share the ownership and operating costs of each flight, and then matched against that is the issue of what type of surcharge passengers would pay for something that is both a luxury experience and also a faster journey time than normal subsonic travel.

The traditional airlines have claimed, for decades, that the public won’t pay a premium for a shorter journey time.  It is an interesting duality – the airlines willingly encourage people to pay as much as a thousand dollars per hour more to fly in first class rather than coach class, but assert that these same people wouldn’t pay any sort of premium to shorten their total journey time.

As nice as first class occasionally is, the only time I’ve ever wished the journey would have lasted longer was when I stepped off a Concorde.  On all regular planes, it is always a relief to get off the plane.

So I suggest their assumption is wrong.  People will pay a premium for a shorter journey time.  Whether the premium will be sufficient to pay for the extra cost of operating an AS2, however, remains to be seen.  But Aerion claim there is a market for 600 of these planes, sold over a 20 year period.

Faster travel time also opens up new opportunities – as Concorde famously demonstrated with businessmen leaving home in the morning, jetting across the Atlantic, spending a day at the other end, and then flying home in time for dinner.  Well, almost in time for dinner, but the concept of a day trip to New York was practical, albeit expensive.

The plane would be confronted with the existing prohibition on supersonic travel over the US mainland, although the prohibition apparently doesn’t apply everywhere else in the world.  However, there are tiny benefits even over the US – the plane’s subsonic ideal cruise speed is about Mach 0.95, compared to about Mach 0.85 for traditional jets, so there’s a slight speed/time improvement there too.

More details here.

Some Good Coach Classes

Switching from the sublime of supersonic travel in a spacious luxury business jet, to regular cattle class on a regular plane, we know that while there is no such thing as nice coach class, some airlines have less-bad implementations of coach class than do others.

Here’s an interesting article with recommendations for some of the better coach class cabins available to us.

But, like most commentaries these days, it omits a vital consideration in its measurements of seat pitch.  It fails to consider that these days there can be an inch or two difference in the thickness of seat back padding, and so while you might be looking at statistics where one airline offers 32″ pitch seats and the other offers 31″ seats, and you therefore assume that the 32″ pitch seats are better, maybe you sacrifice two inches of space with those seats compared to the 31″ seats, so possibly 31″ is actually a roomer pitch.

Mythbusters Explores Airplane Boarding Policies

You might already know that the traditional way we board planes – by row numbers – is the least efficient way of filling a plane as quickly as possible.  It is also one of the least popular methods, which probably explains why the airlines persist in using it.

Mythbusters did some experimentation and surveying to see how long different boarding systems took.  The Southwest ‘open seating’ was fastest – taking 14 minutes compared to 24 minutes for the typical approach, while the most popular methods were almost as fast, taking about 15 minutes.  Details here.

So why do airlines persist in a method that no-one likes and which costs them ten extra minutes on every plane movement?

A New Way to Go Into Space

We wrote last week about how the US hopes to restore limited space flight capabilities in about three years, with private spacecraft capable of flying up to the ISS, 255 miles above the planet.  We also pointed out the perpetually-delayed promises of ‘spaceflights’ by Virgin Galactic, with brief flights up to about 110 miles high.

Noisy expensive rockets aren’t the only way to get into space, however.  A concept first proposed back in 1895 is both very simple and very complex – a space elevator.  Basically, think of spinning around and holding out a length of rope – your spinning throws the rope out away from you.  A similar concept applies to a space elevator, with the earth’s rotation providing the spinning, and a very long line with a weight on the other end sufficient to counterbalance the gravitational pull of the earth, making up the elevator track.

The problem to date has simply been that the long wire/rope/rod would not be strong enough.  The length of the structure would probably need to be 50,000 miles or more in length, and that makes for terrific stresses and tension on the material, such as to make it impossible using any known material.

Until recently.  New materials using carbon nanotechnology will be 100 times stronger than steel cable, making this feasible.  Currently the longest length of this material is just over one inch, and the target length of the space elevator would be 60,000 miles, so there’s a way to go yet before taking the longest elevator ride in your life.  But it is expected that by 2030 the material challenges will be resolved, and by 2050 a working space elevator will be in place.

The goal?  To replace rocket technology, which costs about $10,000/lb to stressfully lift materials into orbit, with the space elevator, which would cost about $90/lb.  In other words, $20,000 to go into deep space, instead of $250,000 to graze the start of space?  Branson better hurry with his space flights, because possibly they only have a few decades before they are obsoleted.

Details here.

Trump to Make JFK TWA Terminal into a Hotel?

The former TWA terminal at JFK has been empty and unused since 2001 – an extraordinary almost 13 year waste of resource and opportunity by the Port Authority.

Tenders are now coming due in October for companies interested in ‘re-purposing’ the terminal, and rumors are circulating that Donald Trump, fresh from closing his hotel and casino in Atlantic City just a couple of weeks ago, is again interested in the terminal.  Other hoteliers are also said to be interested, although with the terminal listed as a historic place, and with airport related height restrictions in place too, it is unclear how easy or practical it would be to transform the terminal into a functional and profitable hotel.  More details here.

It would be lovely to see this iconic terminal re-opened in a sympathetic treatment that shows it to best advantage.

How Much Should You Tip the Robot?

We were writing last week about hotels trying to shift more of their wage bill onto their guests by now providing tip envelopes in rooms to encourage guests to tip housemaids.

We now read about a hotel trialing a robot for providing room service to guests (which fits nicely into our recent interest in robots, too).  We’ve nothing against the concept, but can someone give us guidance as to how much we should tip the robot?

Meanwhile, in other robot news, here’s an interesting story of a robot designed to fly a plane.  We can’t help thinking it would be easier to bypass the mechanical moving parts and just enhance the intelligence of the auto-pilot, but as another ‘proof of concept’ evidence of the advancing presence of robots into more parts of our lives, it is interesting.

Free Android Apps from Amazon

Did you know, if you have an Android smartphone or tablet, you can buy new apps not only through Google’s Play Store, but through other types of app stores as well?

Amazon offers an alternative marketplace to buy apps through, albeit often the same apps as are sold through the Google store.  Obviously this was initially intended for its own Kindle products, but it is also now available to anyone with any type of Android device, and Amazon of course would love you to buy your apps from it rather than from Google (typically there is a 30% margin in app sales for the store selling them).

The Amazon Appstore is not pre-installed on Android phones, but can be installed in a reasonably simple way by following these instructions.

So as to promote its alternative source of apps and encourage you to load their alternative store, Amazon gives good apps away for free, and at present there is over $135 worth of apps being given away, including a great dictionary, an Office suite of apps, and an alternative keyboard (Swype), all of which are well worth installing.

This Week’s Ebola Update

The past week has seen the Ebola death count increase from 2630 (on 18 Sept per CDC) to 2917 on 25 Sept, an increase of 287.  This is slightly up on an apparent 244 deaths the previous week, but greatly down on the week before (with 483 deaths).

It is now six months since the latest outbreak started.  Claims about its apocalyptical nature remain happily still unrelated to the reality of what is happening, but now we’re told to expect an explosion in cases, from 5,923 in September to 21,000 in October.  Have a look at this chart, and ponder the mystery of how such an explosion might occur – and note also the suggestion that in January, we’ll be looking at 1.4 million cases.

The good news, such as it is, is that the World Bank President assures us that Ebola won’t strike the US.  You might be wondering how it is that the World Bank’s President is also an expert on epidemiology, but apparently, he actually is indeed that.  Details here.

Many people are concerned about catching Ebola during their travels – just because you’re not going anywhere near Africa doesn’t mean the person next to you at the airport or on the plane isn’t on their way back from Africa.  Perhaps people who are truly worried about this might find a new jacket of help – the Germinator.

Careful What You Doodle on a Flight

A passenger on a flight within Australia was taken off the plane before it departed Melbourne, after he was observed doodling in a notebook, including writing the word ‘Terrorism’ on a page.

Not only was he taken off the plane and interviewed by Australian Federal Police (who released him – as they should, because he had committed no offense) he has apparently now been blacklisted by the airline and can not fly on them in the future.

The airline – Tiger Air – said the aircrew were responding to a ‘disruptive passenger’.  Clearly, at least on Tiger Air flights in Australia, the pen is mightier than the sword.

More details here.

Careful What You Have on Your Suitcases

A different flight, airline, and country, but almost identically stupid scenario.  This time it was at JFK, and the problem was due to a travel agency giving out free bags to a group.  The passenger bags had the agency logo printed on it, a logo which some bright spark at TSA decided looked alarmingly similar to the word ISIS.

And because, apparently, ISIS terrorists are renowned for traveling the world with logoed luggage proudly labeling their affiliation, this caused a 90 minute delay while all luggage was offloaded and checked for bombs, etc etc.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a fascinating bit of trivia – have you ever stopped to ponder the origins of the omnipresent traffic light?  It is one of those things that is nearly universal everywhere in the world, but it is not that long ago that they were new novelties, and appearing in many different shapes and sizes and colors.  Two light devices, four light devices, Go on the top or bottom, different rules for amber, even semaphore signals.

Here’s a fascinating article and 1937 video clip.

And truly lastly this week, the US has a reputation for having the sourest flight attendants of any country in the world.  So you can probably guess that these two flight attendants do not work for a US carrier.  Alas.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Sep 182014

Good morning

Have you joined the rush of people ordering a new iPhone?  They became available for pre-order at midnight last Thursday/Friday, and will be in the stores today.  I (and, by all accounts, millions of other people too) spent a very frustrating 90 minutes failing to order a phone, either through the Apple or T-Mobile sites, before giving up at 1.30am, going briefly to bed, and getting up again at 7am to continue my attempts.  With some challenges I successfully completed an order through T-Mobile, but was unable until this Wednesday to ascertain when my phone would ship.  The larger screened iPhone 6 Plus quickly sold out, hence my anxiety, but as good luck would have it, I’m told that a man in a big brown truck will be delivering one to me sometime today.

As I said last week, and it bears repeating, T-Mobile’s complete ‘bundle of benefits’ is awesomely compelling these days, making them head and shoulders above the other wireless companies in terms of both features and value, and they promise to continue innovating on features and packages.  If you’re considering buying an iPhone 6, then perhaps you too should buy yours from T-Mobile.

The next Apple excitement is now projected for 21 October, which is expected to see new iPads announced, and a new version of its Mac OS.  With a current generation iPad Air, I’ll probably sit this one out, but it will still be interesting to see if there are any new ‘must have’ features.

This has been a very exciting week, at least for me.  Scotland held its referendum on seceding from the UK on Thursday (and in what can only be described as a triumph for the losing side, seems to have clearly voted in favor of remaining in the union – the concessions being granted to Scotland now truly give it the best of both worlds), and on Saturday, there’s a general election in New Zealand.

Closer to home, not only is the new iPhone 6 now released, but on Wednesday the new iOS version 8 came out (it seems almost indistinguishable from the previous version in most respects) and also on Wednesday, Amazon announced three new models of its black and white screened Kindle eBook reader.

I’ve been delightedly buying Kindles since the first one came out in November 2007.  If you don’t already have a Kindle Paperwhite, and instead either have no Kindle at all or an older model Kindle, it is probably time to take the plunge and get one of these lovely new Kindles.  I’ve written up an analysis of the three new models of Kindle (priced at $79, $119 and $199) and it is at the bottom of the newsletter.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Reader Survey :  Air Fares vs Amenities
  • JetBlue Ousts Another CEO
  • It is Not Only Younger Policemen that Make Us Feel Old
  • Sir Richard Branson’s Amazing Media Pass
  • US to Re-Acquire Manned Spaceflight Capability
  • Another Hotel Fee
  • More Rapid Robot and Car Development
  • Alternative ‘Taxi’ Companies Having Massive Impact in San Francisco
  • Ebola Update – and How to Stay Healthy on a Plane
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey :  Air Fares vs Amenities

It is a classic trade-off that we and the airlines balance every day.  Would we prefer a ‘nicer’ flying experience, or a cheaper airfare?  We like to blame the airlines for cheapening the product they provide, but in many cases, the surprising truth is the airlines would actually prefer to provide a better quality product, at a higher price point.  This would give them happier passengers (and crew) and more profits.

Instead, they are responding to what we want – it is their view that while we of course would like many different included features on our flights, we are unwilling to pay for such benefits, and so the airlines have zeroed out many of the inclusions in their race to the bottom.

I noticed a survey that was recently held in Europe on this point, and thought it would be interesting to see what Travel Insiders think, so have come up with a list of ten different amenities, and am posing the question to you – which amenities would you sacrifice in order to save money on the airfare?

Please click here for the two question quick survey (offering you the same question for both a $20 and a $10 fare saving per amenity eliminated).  I’ll publish the answers next week.

JetBlue Ousts Another CEO

JetBlue was founded in 1999 by high profile airline executive David Neeleman, who served as CEO until 2007, at which point he was replaced by Dave Barger in a move largely interpreted as being fired as punishment for an operational screwup in bad weather earlier that year.

During Barger’s lower profile tenure, the airline has generally under-performed, and its star has faded somewhat from its exciting startup days under Neeleman.

It now seems that JetBlue’s board have decided the grass is still greener elsewhere, and it was announced on Thursday that Barger would not have his contract renewed when it expires in February next year.

Amongst other grievous wrongs, Barger was accused of championing a ‘destructive’ refund policy that ‘put the shareholder last’.  Translation – unlike other airlines with their no-refund policies, JetBlue had fair refund policies.  Those policies were abandoned very recently, but it was too little to save Barger.

Now viewed at risk is JetBlue’s one free checked bag policy.  Apparently JetBlue has decided that seeing as how it is no longer able to beat the major dinosaur airlines, it will instead join them and slavishly copy their policies as closely as possible.

It is Not Only Younger Policemen that Make Us Feel Old

You know what they say – you know you are getting old when the policemen start looking young.  For most of us, that’s been something we’ve been noticing for quite a few years now.

But what does it say about our age when the pilots start to look young, too?  Actually, it may not be dooming us to an even more advantaged category of aging, because some pilots truly are young.  Such as, for example, this 21 year old now flying for BA!

Sir Richard Branson’s Amazing Media Pass

The media loves Sir Richard Branson and his various Virgin branded companies, and develops gracious amnesia when his sometimes extravagant promises fail to materialize.

For example, look at this extraordinarily forgiving article, which suggests that his Virgin Galactic ‘space’ flights have been slightly delayed from ‘by the end of 2014′ to now being set for ‘early next year’.  We certainly agree, that if it was indeed merely a trivial tweak of perhaps a couple of months, then the story deserves nothing more than this article in which one can almost sense the writer struggling to stay awake at the keyboard.

But when the article refers to the previous launch timetable being ‘by the end of 2014′ it neglects to mention that there have been almost literally dozens of previous broken promises of projected first flight times.  Indeed, way back in May 1999, Branson was predicting that in five years (ie, 2004) a reusable rocket would be taking up to ten people at a time to an orbiting Virgin Hotel for two week stays.

Here’s a more complete account of this always-delayed-a-little-bit-more Virgin vaporware.  As for the orbiting Virgin Hotel, it is still occasionally hinted at by Sir Richard, as is even missions to Mars and beyond.  Is there no limit to what the man can promise, and what the media will graciously accept without question?

It isn’t only his Virgin Galactic product that has been over-promised and under-delivered.  Here’s an interesting report of Branson’s promise in 2006 to spend $3 billion combating ‘climate change’ over the following decade.  Here we are now, with eight of the ten years gone, and so that would suggest Branson might have spent 80% of the $3 billion, ie, $2.4 billion.

The amount actually spent?  Less than one tenth.  $234 million.  And Branson is frantically backpedalling, now calling his very public pledge a mere ‘gesture’.

US to Re-Acquire Manned Spaceflight Capability

Talking about Virgin Galactic, the US has been without a manned spaceflight capability since retiring the space shuttles just over three years ago.  We’ve been awkwardly relying on our inconstant alliance with Russia to get our people to the International Space Station.

This week brings an announcement that NASA will be awarding contracts to both Boeing and SpaceX (another Elon Musk company – he being the founder of Tesla) to develop capabilities to transport astronauts to/from the ISS.

It is hoped we’ll be able to take our own people up to the ISS in about three years.  I wonder if Virgin Galactic will be operational by then?  (Note – the ISS orbits at about 255 miles, the Virgin Galactic flights are expected to only go to about 110 miles.)

Another Hotel Fee

Imagine you’re visiting your accountant, and after having just paid him top dollar to prepare your basically simple tax return, you look more closely at his fee note and see included on it ‘Surcharge to supplement my filing clerk’s only-slightly-above-minimal-wage earnings’.  What would you think?  But, when you complain, your accountant points out the filing clerk did an excellent job of photocopying your return, putting it in the mail to you, including a copy for your records, and putting one of those little ‘sign here’ stickers on the return at the appropriate place.  The clerk deserves your appreciation, you are told.

Do you feel good supplementing the accountant’s fat fee with another few dollars to help him pay his staff?  Of course not.

Now imagine you’re staying at a four or five star hotel, and find, in among all the other fees and costs being thrown at you, a request to help their only-slightly-above-minimum-wage employees’ income.  What do you do?

If the request is labeled ‘Customary tip for housekeeping staff’, the chances are you gladly pay up.  Indeed, in a reader survey in 2011, 52% of Travel Insiders said they either usually or always tip housekeeping staff at hotels.

This is what is now being done at Marriott hotels.

My question is ‘Why?’.  Why does/how can anyone ‘feel sorry’ for low wage earning employees in a hotel, but not in an office or shop or most other settings (other than restaurants and bars).  And why are we allowing ourselves to be suckered into gladly covering more of the luxury hotels’ wages bill?

More Rapid Robot and Car Development

I wrote last week predicting that robots will be very rapidly becoming a central part of every part of our working and home lives.  Here’s just one more ‘straw in the wind’ – a robot being developed in England that is becoming better at manipulating delicate and irregular shaped objects that it self-learns how to hold.  This is a surprisingly complex task, and while the article projects that the tasking this robot will become well suited for – by as soon as April next year – would be loading dishes into a dishwasher, that is of course just the start of what it could be suitable for.

However, as trivial as ‘doing the dishes’ might seem, my daughter would consider that sufficient ability to transform her life and to free her of that never pleasant bit of household drudgery!  And this robot would seem likely to also be good at picking up clothes and doing the laundry too.

And another straw in the wind – the increasing prominence of robots in advertisements, being used to convey concepts of progressive modernity.

I also read an astonishing explanation of an anticipated sudden huge explosion in robot intelligence and capabilities.  If you click no other link in today’s newsletter, please do read this article.  It points out that when robots start becoming able to ‘improve’ themselves, then all of a sudden there will be an enormous positive feedback loop that will see robot capabilities and intelligence skyrocket.

Until now, I’ve been viewing the concept of advances in robotics as a positive thing (other than for the impact on jobs).  But after reading this article, my new big worry – and surely it has to become a worry for us all, is suddenly apparent :  When robots become self-aware, and when they acquire life and death capabilities over people, what will they do?  Other than artificial values created by us and which they could presumably overwrite with ease, what possible reason do they have to value human life the same way we do?  Wouldn’t it be more logical for them to look at all the negative impacts we have had on our planet – impacts which we can justify to ourselves as improving our living standards, albeit at some cost to other creates – and seek to reduce those?  Why would a robot put us before itself and its fellow robots, if it had to choose?  Why would it put a person ahead of an animal or even insect?

The greatest part of this concern is that, if the article is correct, this sudden leap in robotic intelligence and capabilities will occur very quickly and with little or no input by humans.  Before we even know there might be some developing problems, it might be too late.

My goodness me.  Something that has been a staple of science fiction for decades is now within a few years of possibly becoming a terrifying reality.

On the somewhat more benign topic of self-driving cars, this article talks about one key part of the evolution of car intelligence and capabilities – the ability for cars to communicate with each other so as to coordinate their driving.

Alternative ‘Taxi’ Companies Having Massive Impact in San Francisco

Uber, Lyft, and other similar services that provide an alternative to traditional taxi companies are in the news a great deal at present, with the ‘old guard’ of traditional taxi services and the licensing authorities that support them, engaged in battles on every front to try and interfere with the success of these new business models, ignoring the bottom line consumer-friendly fact that the new services are clearly providing an appreciated and better service to the public than the traditional taxi model has been doing.

Clearly these new services are having a tangible effect on traditional taxis.  According to this article, and by one measure, traditional taxi use has dropped by 65% in San Francisco over the last two years.  Whereas a typical taxi operated 1424 hires per month in 2012, it is now down to only 504 hires a month.

San Francisco and its early-adopting high-tech community is probably an extreme example, but it does make one wonder whether traditional taxis will be able to continue to survive alongside these more user-friendly and lower-cost new internet/smartphone based alternative services.  No wonder the taxi industry is so fiercely opposing the continued expansion of these new services.

Ebola Update – and How to Stay Healthy on a Plane

The CDC has pretty much brought its website up to date, and is now reporting 2630 deaths through 18 September.  This compares with 2331 listed on Wikipedia last week, and Wikipedia is showing 2575 on its site as of Thursday night this week.  To be consistent, using Wikipedia data, that shows an increase in deaths of only 244 people in the last week, compared to 483 the previous week.  I guess that can be considered good news.

Here’s an interesting article on how to minimize your risks of getting an infection when flying.  The suggestion to ‘ground’ oneself is a new one (to put it, ahem, politely) but many of the other suggestions are sensible, in particular the observation that you’re much more likely to get infected by touching something that has some bacteria or virus on it and transferring it to your mouth than you are to breathe something in from the air around you.

The good news aspect of that is this means you can control your infection risk simply by being aware of what you’re touching and how you’re potentially transferring infections from airplane surfaces to yourself.

And Lastly This Week….

What do Ayers Rock, Paris, and Las Vegas have in common with each other (and with Stonehenge)?  They’re all on an ‘anti-bucket list’ – a list of places to avoid, rather than places to visit.  Here’s the list in its full glory.

A related list – some might think it also a list of places to avoid, is this list of ten weirdest restaurants in the world.  Alas, missing from this list is the restaurant in New Zealand set in a former public convenience.

Finally, one of the things we take for granted are traffic lights.  Here’s a fascinating 1937 educational film that explains traffic lights back when they were new, and before they were standardized.

I’m still struggling to get images into these newsletters again.  I’ve made some progress, but haven’t yet attained perfection.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels


Sep 122014

Good morning

(apologies, can’t get images into today’s newsletter.  A new version of the WordPress publishing software seems to come complete with some glitches….)

Have you pre-ordered a new iPhone 6 or 6 Plus yet?  The new model iPhones were announced on Tuesday and went on sale this morning.  I’m hoping to put my name down for a 6 Plus with 64 GB of memory, and hope I’ll be able to get it next Friday when they start becoming available, but this is proving difficult because currently (just after midnight) the Apple website is consistently overloaded and refusing additional connections, and/or when I connect, is showing its store as unavailable.

I’m predicting supply shortages, so it might pay to quickly put your name down if you want one (or, of course, camp outside your local Apple store for several days prior to next Friday).

As promised, I published an article about the new phones very shortly after Apple’s announcement on Tuesday, and you’ll find hopefully most/all your questions answered therein about the two new phones, and the new ‘Watch’ product too.  It follows the newsletter, below.

One point of note.  Until now, AT&T has been my main wireless service provider, although increasingly I use T-Mobile, especially when traveling.  I would use T-Mobile more, but their coverage has always been bad in my house, and until recently, they used unusual frequencies for their fast data services in North America that tended to make T-Mobile phones much less useful in the rest of the world.

One of the great things about the new iPhone is that it apparently has even more frequency bands built into it than previous models (unfortunately, Apple has now gone a bit vague about this on their website) which I think reduces the impact of T-Mobile’s nonstandard North American frequencies.  And on Wednesday, T-Mobile announced a great new initiative that resolves problems anyone might have formerly had with poor home or work coverage.

Now it is possible to place and receive phone calls that will automatically route over Wi-Fi if there is a Wi-Fi signal available.  So if you have a poor phone signal, but also have a good Wi-Fi signal, your phone will start using your Wi-Fi service for voice calls as well as data.

Even better, T-Mobile is giving away free state of the art dual-band routers (Asus routers that sell on Amazon for $200), so even if you already have Wi-Fi, you can upgrade/replace it with one of these to ensure both that your phone has the best quality of service available to it and also that the rest of your house/office is optimally provisioned with Wi-Fi too.

I particularly like that these routers offer 5 GHz service as well as the standard 2.4 GHZ service.  In places with lots of people, offices, stores, and/or residences, the common/standard 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi can get congested and start to suffer from interference, but – at least at present – the 5 GHz remains relatively uncongested.  If I’m in a hotel, I always preferentially search out the 5 Ghz service (if it is available) and often get better bandwidth as a result.

So, these two developments have removed the ‘problems’ I formerly had with T-Mobile, and I’ve been very impressed at their ‘Un-Carrier’ promotions over the last year or so.  If your wireless bill has dropped or added new features over the last year or so, no matter which carrier you are signed up with, you probably have T-Mobile to thank for this improvement.  T-Mobile has been shaking up the complacent wireless carrier marketplace, and eliminating many of the extra fees that used to creep into our monthly bills, plus doing other things such as offering free data plans for tablets.  I found it impossible to believe that you could get a free data plan from T-Mobile, but signed up for one and yes, it truly is free and costs me not a penny a month for my daughter and I to both have our iPads wirelessly connected to the internet, everywhere we are in the US.

Way to go, T-Mobile.  I wish they’d start an airline, too!

At least for now, they seem to be the best of the wireless services in terms of value and inclusions, and they keep ‘pushing the envelope’ every few months, offering more goodies at even better rates.  I’m looking forward to giving them all my business.

Thank you to everyone who answered my survey last week about matters to do with managing all the stuff to do with death.  I was surprised to see that over 50% more people answered this survey than those who answered the survey, a couple of weeks earlier, asking if you’d like to see The Travel Insider in a weekly podcast format.  But perhaps this tells us that while podcasts are a small part of our lives, death and funerals are an unavoidable and inescapable part of everyone’s lives.

It was also interesting to get an update on the type of people who read the newsletter – or, more to the point, the type of people who answer the surveys.  You are astonishingly well-educated, with 86% being college graduates, with more than half the graduates having post-graduate degrees.  You’re also, ummm, older than average (as am I, myself).  Only 4% of replies came from people under 50, whereas 5% came from people over 80 (and the other 91% from people between 50 – 79).  Clearly this ‘proves’ that reading The Travel Insider is good for your health!

As for the survey itself, it confirms my perception that there is a need for a new type of service to make the whole ugly funeral arranging and death procedural management processes easier to do appropriately, and for all involved.  When you think about it, there are really three semi-represented groups in such cases – the deceased and his wishes, in absentia; the immediate family, definitely in person; and then, the least well represented group – other friends and family, spread around the world, and, according to your survey answers, having less than one chance in five of ever finding out of the passing of their friend/colleague.  Ugh.

That’s a terrible shame, as is a related ambiguity we all occasionally encounter.  Most recently for me, on Wednesday, a friend and I were comparing notes about a mutual acquaintance who had become unresponsive to emails and phone calls.  The unstated subtext that hang silently in the air was ‘Do you think he is still alive?’ and neither of us were quite sure how to ascertain that important point.

Would you be surprised to learn I’m developing a solution that addresses all these issues?  I’ve already had one of the most respected ‘elder statesmen’ of the industry ask for a shareholding and agree to serve on the Advisory Panel.  If you’d like to know more about this, I’d be pleased to give you a sneak preview.  Let me know.

What else this week?  Please read on for :

  • MH 17 Preliminary Crash Report Released
  • Old Wine in New Bottles
  • 787 Controversy Anew
  • When Is a Flight Late?
  • Self Driving Cars – and Robots in General
  • TSA Demands Full Body Patdown – On Arriving Passenger
  • Ebola Update
  • SS US Again Under Threat
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH 17 Preliminary Crash Report Released

As expected, this week the Dutch authorities released their peculiar preliminary report into the MH17 crash over Ukraine.

The most peculiar part of this report has gone largely uncommented on.  This is an accident report, but it seems universally accepted that what happened to the plane and flight was not an accident, but rather a criminal act.  Accident reports are not normally created for criminal acts that cause airplane losses.

The report steered well clear of any controversy, and its revelations were oblique rather than obvious.  It contented itself to observing that the pattern of damage observed in certain fuselage panels was ‘consistent with the damage that would be expected from a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from the outside’ and further deduced that the plane broke up in mid-air.

For those of you interested in the last words of fatal flights, on this occasion it was ‘Romeo November Delta, Malaysian One Seven’.  Romeo November Delta was the name of a navigational way point that the flight was being directed to, and this transmission was simply a ‘readback’ of the instructions to show that the pilot had understood and would comply with the instruction correctly.

I was very interested to learn of the information contained on the two ‘black box’ data recorders.  Unfortunately, the plane was not in compliance with the most recently updated specification for its cockpit voice recorder (CVR).  Planes are now required to have a self-powered CVR that will continue recording for ten more minutes after the end of any external power.  This plane did not have that, and it seems that the very first thing that happened from the presumed missile strike was that power was lost to both the CVR and the flight data recorder (FDR), meaning there were no recorded anomalies on either recorder.

I’d first wondered if, during the time the two data recorders were not under secure custody, they might have been ‘wiped clean’ of any damning evidence, but ‘people who know’ assured me that the total absence of any information at all was not surprising, and indeed, was what they would have expected (assuming no extended recording on the CVR).

However, even the absence of data presents as a significant factor.  One of the theories that had been promulgated was that the plane was shot up by fighter planes, and if that were the case, it is massively more likely that the pilots would have observed and been heard to comment on the act.  But not only is there no trace of unexplained aircraft on the radar tracks, there is also nothing on either data recorder to show sudden movements or expostulations by the pilots.

This adds credibility, should it be needed, to the more generally accepted theory that it was a SAM that burst through the clouds and exploded close to the plane, showering it with missile pieces and causing the plane’s destruction.  But as to where the SAM came from and who fired it, that remains an opaque and unresolved mystery that now seems to have ceased to be of interest.

Old Wine in New Bottles

A couple of airlines announced new liveries this week.  Southwest’s new look was apparently leaked ahead of their official schedule, and is more predominantly blue than before, whereas Frontier is going green.

We do wonder, however – when was the last time you chose your flights based on the color scheme on the plane?

Southwest has sometimes taken a very perfunctory approach to liveries in the past.  Here’s an interesting article that illustrates this.  And it has had some interesting one-off planes, too.

In unrelated Southwest news, there is speculation the airline might be considering spreading its wings north of the border, and adding service to Canada.  Cross-border traffic is substantial and would seem ripe for a Southwest incursion.

787 Controversy Anew

Not a news source one typically associates with investigative aviation reporting, but Al Gore’s former tv network, now rebranded as Al Jazeera, dropped a floater in Boeing’s pool earlier this week with a documentary alleging a number of concerning issues about the quality standards on the 787 assembly line and the safety of the planes.

Boeing of course disputes and denies the allegations, and for an even-handed discussion that puts the Al Jazeera show into perspective, this is a good analysis.

In other Boeing news, it scored a lovely big order for 100 of its new 737 MAX 200 planes, to Ryanair.  Boeing agreed to stuff 11 more seats into the plane, and that made it a deal that Ryanair couldn’t refuse to accept.

Here’s a slightly oblique but interesting report on the sale (and when is anything about Ryanair ever dull?).

When Is a Flight Late?

There you are, looking at your flight timetable, and you see your flight shows departure at 4pm and arrival at 6pm.  And there you are, having been at the airport since 3pm, and now racing to get to the gate at 3.30pm because the airline ‘closes the gate’ at 3.40pm and so you’re wondering exactly what the 4pm departure means, when associated with the ‘must be on the plane by 3.40pm requirement.

Now flash forward a couple of hours, and there you are at your destination, with the plane touching down onto the runway at 5.55pm.  The pilot goes on the PA to smugly welcome you to the destination and notes the flight’s arrival ‘five minutes ahead of schedule’.

The plane then proceeds to taxi for ten minutes on the ground, then waits five minutes for another plane to move away from its assigned gate, then by the time it gets to the gate, the jetway comes alongside, and the plane starts emptying, and finally you get off the plane – only to spend 15 minutes getting to the baggage carousel, 10 more minutes waiting for your bag, and 10 further minutes to get out the terminal’s main door, and your watch now shows the time to be 7.05pm.

Question – was this flight actually early or late?  What is the unambiguous event that is deemed to be the point at which the plane has arrived?

Would you be unsurprised to learn that the answer to this question has been a very grey area, and of course, one exploited by the airlines to maximum advantage.  Indeed, it is very difficult to work out what reference point is used, here in the US, to ascertain if a flight is ontime or late.  The DoT has a lot of information on delays, and additional travel consumer information about on-time performance, but you have to really dig to see that it uses ‘gate arrival time’ to determine a flight’s on time performance.

But even ‘gate arrival time’ is ambiguous, isn’t it.  How about if the plane gets to the gate, but has to hold, waiting for another aircraft to push back and vacate the gate.  At what point has the plane ‘arrived’?

And what if, upon getting to the gate, there is a delay with the jetway?  I’ve sometimes suffered what seems like extraordinary delays due to waits for ground staff to man the jetway, strange inabilities to mate the jetway to the plane, and so on.

The good news is that – at least for European flights – we now have a clear ruling on how to deem a flight’s official arrival time.  The European Court of Justice has ruled on the matter, and says that a flight has officially arrived when it opens at least one of its doors, with the assumption being, at that moment, the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft.

This ruling does not bind the US, but could be considered influential, particularly if there was an unusual delay between what was being construed as ‘gate arrival’ and the actual point at which passengers could get up and leave, which has to be the most direct and relevant measure – the point at which passengers can start leaving the plane.

One less game the airlines can play with us, at least in Europe.

Of course, this is more meaningful in Europe, because airlines are subject to more regulatory oversight and penalties when they delay us in our travel.  It would be nice to see some similar compelled performance here, too.

Self Driving Cars – and Robots in General

As you may know from comments in recent newsletters, I am astonished at what I am seeing as an extraordinarily rapid rate of adoption of self-driving technology in cars.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted by this, and see a myriad of benefits flowing from automating the driving process.  It will make car travel safer, quicker and cheaper, and most of us will be doing most of our vehicle travel on an automated basis before this decade is over.

Here’s an interesting transitional step by GM between what we have at present and what we’ll get, and here’s a self driving car from Honda that is being well reviewed.

I attended a public lecture last weekend on robots.  It was presented as a ‘curiosity’ – a robot that looked extraordinarily human, constructed by a movie modelmaker/special effects expert, and made to look like himself.  His favorite party trick is to sit beside his robot and have people do a double take when they see what looks like identical twins.

I’d considered this little more than an amusing novelty, but by the end of the presentation, and noting the extraordinary interest and enthusiasm in the crowd gathered for the presentation, I realized that we’re at the very start of an enormous social transition in our society.  It won’t be long before robots displace people in ways we haven’t yet started to imagine, and particularly in many (dare I say, ‘most’) customer service roles.  We already have to suffer that in simple form when we struggle through an automated phone system with its imperfect speech recognition system – but we also have hints at what better systems can do when we speak to Siri on our iPhone.  In other fields, we are seeing what seem currently like fun and amusing examples of robot technology such as automating bartending and fast food cooking and serving.

These are not isolated standalone cases to look at and laugh about, even though they look like little more than other familiar machinery such as vending machines.  They are (in my opinion) forerunners of an extraordinary change in our society.  We’ve already seen our manufacturing base eviscerated, either in the form of moving jobs offshore, or – and attracting less criticism – in the form of automating the remaining production processes here in the US (and now, increasingly so in the offshore manufacturing locations too).  Keep in mind that ‘automation’ and robotics are two sides of the same coin, and robotics threatens one of the few remaining types of employment that has until now seemed safe from off-shoring – the ‘high touch’ personal service industry.

One of the points that came out of this meeting was how robots will speedily move into ‘high touch’ aspects of the service industry as well – a move that was welcomed by the attendees and which would likely be received positively by the beneficiaries of such robotified services in general.  It is a glib throwaway comment, but the server at McDonalds is many times imbued with a personality no more sparkling than a robot would have anyway, and clearly is a prime contender to be replaced.  But that’s merely the start of where robots can replace people, and in particular, most customer service roles which involve a person more or less slavishly following a script with very little flexibility as to how they respond to the situation, are clearly contenders for automation.

Don’t stop there.  How about things like healthcare?  I’d never thought of robot nurses, but after my recent near-total incapacitation for a number of weeks, I can see many elements of caring for patients that are ideally suited for robots.  Making sure I take my medicine, fetching and carrying things for me, preparing and serving food, and so on.  For the growing percentage of people who live alone, a robot ‘companion’ starts to become almost literally a lifesaver.

Moving forward to the slightly ‘creepy’ type of applications, there are robots that are designed to meet people’s emotional needs, and a similar product developed by a company now taken over by Google.  But why should this be creepy?  Why is it acceptable to have a cat or dog, or for that matter, a bird or even a fish or hamster or rat, and value that as a companion, but not acceptable to seek the same sort of personal bonding and interaction with a high level functioning robot?  And why is it semi-acceptable to seek ‘relief’ through, ahem, inexpensive battery-powered devices, but not acceptable to seek similar relief via some type of robot?

Maybe I’ve been slow to see all this as coming towards us at a million miles an hour, but I had an epiphany on Sunday in the Bellevue Public Library.  If you’ve had selective blindness about robots too, it is time to remove the blinkers.  Imagine the most fanciful science-fiction type robot filled future, and then realize that half of what you are imagining is possible now, and the other half is probably no more than ten years out, and as soon as these capabilities move to mainstream, they will explode into our society with all sorts of extreme changes to our employment base, our life, our interactions with each other, and everything else you can think of.

I’m not necessarily welcoming all of this.  But I now realize that it is inevitably going to occur, much sooner than any of us ever expected.  And I have to say that, at a narrow personal level, thinking back to my time incapacitated a couple of months ago, I’d truly have valued a robotic caregiver at my beck and call, 24/7, always helpful and never complaining, someone (something!) I’d never have to feel awkward about ‘imposing’ on and could be as selfish and demanding with as I wished.

Robots.  Look for them in your future.  Soon.  You’ve been advised.

TSA Demands Full Body Patdown – On Arriving Passenger

The TSA, as gloriously incompetent as ever, overlooked giving extra screening to a passenger who got one of the dreaded ‘SSSS’ markers on his boarding pass.  Okay, that probably happens from time to time.

Surprisingly, somehow the TSA realized their oversight, but by that time, the passenger was on his plane and the flight was halfway to the destination.

Never having heard of the expression ‘locking the stable door after the horse has bolted’, rubber gloved TSA agents met the flight when it safely arrived in Denver, had the passenger specially taken off the flight before all the other passengers, and then demanded he submit to an invasive personal screening in a private screening room.

What happened next has to be seen to be believed, and fortunately, we can indeed see it, because the passenger filmed his interaction with the TSA.  The passenger refused to comply, and while the TSA threatened to get the Denver airport police to arrest him, the passenger called their bluff and confidently walked away.  Nothing happened.

Apparently the concept of searching passengers after they have traveled peaceably, lawfully and safely has yet to secure the full support of the law.

Ebola Update

The CDC continues to languish behind current events with its Ebola updates.  It has now updated its website to show data as of 31 August, and reports 1848 suspected deaths (suspected as in the cause of death is thought to be Ebola).

Wikipedia is reporting that Ebola is now in five countries (Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone) plus an unrelated (?) outbreak now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Their latest total count of fatalities is 2331, which contrasts with their count of 1848 a week ago.  The increase of 483 deaths is substantially more than in previous weeks.

But let’s put that figure in context.  We’re guessing that about 400 people died in the last week, in the US alone, from MRSA infections (using this report as a source).

Bill Gates announced he’s donating $50 million from his foundation to help fight Ebola in Africa.  We wonder why Ebola in Africa attracts more attention than MRSA in your local hospital.  The people who made all the money for Bill Gates are much more likely to confront MRSA than Ebola.

Oh yes – you could substitute MRSA for any one of dozens of other diseases and ailments.  But it is Ebola that has our focus at present.  Why?

SS US Again Under Threat

We love classic old cruise liners.  So we really feel for the ignominious and undignified struggles of the SS United States and the people attempting to preserve her.

The aluminum speedster of a ship (she may have reached 44 mph on her trials and crossed the Atlantic at an average speed of 41 mph in 3 days 10 hours 40 minutes) has been putting off a date with a scrap yard for most of the time since her withdrawal from regular service in 1969, and with a series of tantalizing last-minute reprieves alternating with the successive failures of each grand vision to secure the ship’s future.

Unfortunately, it seems that each ‘reprieve’ is underfunded and unable to implement their plans for the ship, and now we are, yet again, reaching the possible end of the line.

The ship is currently moored on the Delaware River, but the public can’t get close to it, due to Homeland Security restrictions (who knew that the Homeland Security Department can restrict access to inactive inoperable hulks).  However, as this article points out, good views can be had from a nearby Ikea’s cafeteria.  One can ponder on the luxurious meals formerly enjoyed on the ship while wolfing down a quick dozen Swedish Meatballs.

And Lastly This Week….

Can you guess where the biggest and busiest airport in the world is likely to be in ten years time?  It sure won’t be Atlanta, nor will it be Heathrow.  Chances are it won’t even be in China.  Here’s the answer.

We all enjoy being indulged and pampered, and if we’re very fortunate, we occasionally find ourselves in a situation where we can ask for and expect some such luxury.  But there’s indulgence and then there’s Indulgence, and we all have a very long way to go before we can expect to emulate these travelers.

Here also is an article offering an interesting glimpse behind the scenes of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, even if not quite so luxurious


Aug 292014
There's a mysterious 52 minutes unexplained in MH 370's flight path.  What was it doing, where, and why?

There’s a mysterious 52 minutes unexplained in MH 370’s flight path. What was it doing, where, and why?

Good morning

I realized that this was close to exactly the 25th anniversary of an event that was auspicious for me, although probably less so to you.  May I abuse my ‘bully pulpit’ by observing it is 25 years since I first placed an advertisement in the local Seattle Times for ‘Empire Travel Services’ and arranged my first bit of travel, as a travel agent, for a true third-party ‘stranger’.

At the time, ‘Empire Travel Services’ was just me, working out of a regular travel agency, and specializing in travel to Britain.  By the end of that year (1989) I’d set up my own travel agency, and for the next almost twelve years, enjoyed a great time selling travel to individuals and travel agencies across the US, with a focus primarily on New Zealand and Australia.

I never thought, when first eagerly driving in to the ‘host agency’ to meet my first ever client, and then spending many awkward and expensive hours phoning over to B&Bs in England to make pesky non-commissionable bookings for the couple who first responded to the ad, that the next decade would see me found and grow what became one of the country’s largest South Pacific focused travel wholesalers, with offices at times in Russia, Sydney and Auckland as well as Seattle.  Even more so, back then the internet effectively didn’t even exist so the thought I’d be writing this today was an impossible event not ever considered.

Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, isn’t it.  It seems the secret to ‘happiness’ is to put a positive face on how our lives unfold, and to see our glass as half-full.

As a weak segue from that, one of the four (!) items appended to this week’s newsletter is a review of a new eBook by an author who followed a not completely dissimilar arc through the travel industry.  His book gives some insider insights into the airlines, and some suggestions for how to best book and buy travel.  It is short, easily read, and inexpensive – perhaps something to read over the long weekend about to start.

And now, the next segue has to be from the thought of things to read, and moving to two more of the articles, below – another couple of articles in our high-end audio series.

As you may be sensing, I’m simultaneously a lover and hater of ‘high end’ audio.  I love enjoying the best quality listening experience with the music I’m passionate about, but I hate to see the industry so full of snake oil sellers and enthusiastic hapless snake oil imbibers.  It is hard to know which is worse – the venal people pushing ‘high end’ products, where the only ‘high’ part of the product is the price, or their enablers – the magazines, their reviewers, and the people who eagerly buy the products and pretend they hear the difference.

So to strike another blow for honesty this week, I show you how you can do your own accurate ‘double-blind’ testing to make up your own mind, free of these venal influences, as to whether there is any discernible difference between CD quality audio and so-called ‘HD’ audio.  This double blind testing is easy, and doesn’t require you to spend a single penny on extra hardware or software.  Everything you need can be downloaded for free.

If you’ve been curious about ‘HD’ audio, I urge you to test it through the simple and free process I explain.  This truly is the only way to know for sure if there is any truth or benefit in better-than-CD-quality music.

On the other hand, and although I urge you to take everything all industry commentators say with a huge grain of salt, if you’re willing to just believe me, then I can promise you that you’ll not hear the slightest scrap of difference between CD and ‘HD’ quality music.  And I’ve an open challenge to anyone who claims the contrary to prove it through this double-blind testing.

Now for an important distinction.  While I say there’s no improvement as between CD quality music and any other format, there can be small and subtle differences in the quality of the music you get to hear, as a result of your choices of playing equipment and in particular, speakers or headphones.  Last week I published some articles about high quality and high value headphones, this week I complete the process by introducing you to high quality music players (regrettably not iPods, iPads, or iPhones).

One more comment about this, if I may.  Part of last week’s article series was providing a way of accurately comparing different headphones.  This probably required you to buy a $25 item – a small electronic box that allowed up to four sets of headphones to be plugged into it, each with their own volume control.  The article explains why this is essential.

I was using the box to listen to some audio tracks with my daughter, this week.  We could each set the volume level on our respective pairs of headphones to exactly the level we liked.  Whether you listen with a son/daughter, a parent, or a partner, this box is a great solution to the problem of the impossibility of getting a compromise volume level that suits everyone and their respective headphones.  Somehow it seems that volume levels are a bigger deal with headphones than they are with regular loudspeakers.

But wait.  There’s still more, below.  The fourth piece is a review of a nifty little gadget.  After writing positively about a two port USB car charger a year ago, the market has moved forward, and there’s now a four port charger, at the same price, and with better charge rate abilities on all four ports.  Best of all, the device is still only $20, and it came on the market just in time to satisfy my ever greater ‘need’ for multiple chargers in my car.  Details below.

One more personal note.  Continued thanks to people who write wishing me well as I recover from the multiple fractures in my ankle that happened now over three months ago.

I’m happy to advise that I’ve now progressed to the point of being able to hobble, unaided, and more commonly, with a cane.  I walk slowly, painfully, and not for long distances, but that is a huge improvement and I’m hoping that things will continue to improve in the future.  As I said above, the secret to happiness is to see one’s glass as half-full.

Also this week :

  • Stop Press :  Iceland Volcano Misbehaving?
  • Bookend Airlines – Air NZ and Qantas
  • Ryanair Goes Upmarket, Sort Of
  • MH 17/370 Update
  • Ebola Update
  • Supersonic Travel – But By Submarine?
  • Hotel Fees Becoming More Prevalent
  • Running Out of Power on Your Mobile Devices When Traveling
  • And Lastly This Week….

Stop Press :  Iceland Volcano Misbehaving?

The last week (actually, almost two from when the first reports started filtering into the world news) has been full of predictions about a possible/probable/imminent eruption by one of Iceland’s misbehaving volcanoes – this one with the slightly easier to pronounce and spell name of Bárðarbunga, as compared to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that disrupted flights for a couple of weeks in 2010 (with words like this, I’m glad I don’t yet have the podcast feature working!).

Just coming in on Thursday evening were reports that the volcano has now started to spew out ash.  If the worst case projections are proved correct, this could be an enormous eruption, with potential for flight disruptions between the US and Europe, so if you’re planning on traveling that route any time in the next week or two, you should keep a careful eye on what is happening and be prepared for possible delays to flights in both directions.

Bookend Airlines – Air NZ and Qantas

In the past, there have been several years during which we have pointed out the curious inconsistency in financial results between Qantas (Australia’s flag carrier) and Air New Zealand (you can guess which country it flies the flag for).  The two airlines have reasonably similar route networks and issues/challenges, and alternate between at times being competitors and at times working together.

Interestingly, they seldom track each other with their financial performance, and in past years, we’ve observed Qantas posting record profits as one of the world’s most profitable airlines, while Air NZ went to the very brink of bankruptcy and had to be bailed out by the NZ government.

Last week saw both airlines releasing financial data.  Air New Zealand is continuing a series of excellent profits, and announced a 45% lift in its profit to NZ$262 million (US$220 million), although on the basis of ‘no deed goes unpunished’ the airline is now facing calls by the NZ government to reduce its fares (particularly so with a general election just a few weeks away!).  Air NZ – the launch customer for Boeing’s 787-10, says it expects its present year to be another good year, too.

And then there’s Qantas.  They’ve managed to transition disastrously from record profits to now record losses, and decided to ‘go big’ this year.  With an underlying before tax loss of A$646 million (US$605 million) for their last year, they decided to go big on writing off anything/everything else they possibly could, and ended up with a truly astonishing A$2.843 billion (US$2.67 billion) loss.

Even US airlines (which pretty much all enjoyed a great year last year) struggle to lose that sort of money.

One wonders how Qantas managed to keep a straight face when it wrote that its loss included an A$440 million benefit from its ‘transformational program’.  And one just wonders, in general, about why its stock price rose after this worse-than-predicted loss was announced.

Most of all, though, one wonders how an airline I’ve formerly lauded for being excellently managed and excellently operated now shows little signs of any of its previous excellence.  What went wrong?

In another contrast, whereas Air NZ is the 787-10 launch customer, Qantas announced further deferments of its 787 orders, meaning that its aircraft fleet – once one of the newest in the skies, now comprises a core of increasingly aged and less economic to operate 747s, together with – even more costly – some 767s, although they have some lovely nearly new A380s in their international fleet as well.

The one thing that the two airlines do continue to have in common though, is an apparent inability to share the same marketplace problems.  Whenever one airline is losing money, the reasons it advances for its losses (this time, Qantas is blaming weak demand growth, fuel costs and excess market capacity) never seem to be a problem for the airline making record profits.

As we point out whenever this occurs, maybe the excuses are just that, excuses.  Maybe the real reason for such disparities in results is the reason none dare whisper – simple management incompetence.

Ryanair Goes Upmarket, Sort Of

At least until recently, Ryanair has delighted in being the poster-child of the airline industry for all that is bad about ridiculous and excessive fees.  They’d regularly and happily give air tickets away for free, because they could very profitably operate their flights on the basis of the fee income alone.

Currently, it is thought that as many as 25% of the people who subject themselves to a Ryanair flight and fee experience are actually traveling for business purposes, and it is thought many more would do so too if they didn’t have to risk the consequences of Ryanair’s no change/no refund policies.  Ryanair, for its part, is also keen to get higher yielding fares, and so has created a new ‘Business Plus’ product.  The main differences are a higher fare (of course), liberal change policy, some free baggage, plus ‘premium seating’ – the seats are the typical Ryanair uncomfortable seats, but they are the very front and very back rows (the planes typically load and unload through front and back doors simultaneously) allowing these passengers to be first off the plane.

Details here.

No word yet whether the, ahem, innovative product offerings that CEO O’Leary had earlier indicated would be included with his trans-Atlantic business class service (still not launched, six years after this press conference) will also be featured.

MH 17/370 Update

A near empty MH flight, last week.

A near empty MH flight, last week.

There’s been some new speculation published about MH 370 (the one that disappeared) this week, as well as another small piece of factual data (a satellite phone apparently responded to a call during the early stage of the plane’s disappearance, and an analysis of the ‘handshake’ data between the phone and its satellite is suggesting maybe the plane turned south sooner than expected).

To date, there’s been a lot of focus on the last part of the plane’s flight – ie, trying to find it somewhere in the ocean.  But other than noting the strange events that occurred at the start of the flight, there’s been little attention given to a curious anomaly in the time/position data.  There is a mysterious 73 minute period where the plane apparently only traveled about 195 miles.  At its estimated flight speed of 550 mph it takes only 21 minutes to cover that distance, which begs the question – what happened for the other 52 minutes.

Yes, possibly, the plane just flew in circles for 52 minutes, but equally possibly, it did something else.  The speculative question is ‘what else might it have done?  This seems an enormously important question.

This article discusses and links to two possible scenarios – one being an explanation of the 52 minute puzzle, the other being yet another explanation of how easy it would be for the captain to have done it.

As for MH 17 (the Ukrainian crash) there’s sadly again nothing more to report, other than the semi-related news that Russian regular forces have now invaded Ukraine.

Ukraine is mounting a robust defense – on Twitter.  Let’s hope that the pen proves mightier than the sword.

The effect of the two crashes on Malaysian passenger numbers is hinted at in the picture immediately above, which shows a flight last week from Australia to Kuala Lumpur.  On the other hand, although it is a great scapegoat to blame the airline’s misfortunes on the two plane crashes, the truth is that it is now declaring its sixth consecutive quarterly loss.  The airline’s problems predate its crashes.

Ebola Update

The good news is that Ebola remains confined to the four African countries (Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone) that have been affected thus far.

The bad  – but unsurprising – news is that the total count of deaths continues to increase, with 202 additional casualties in the week through 28 August, bringing the outbreak total now to 1552.

But the good news is that this week’s count of 202 is less than the 281 deaths reported the previous week.

Does this mean that the latest Ebola outbreak is on the wane?  Have we safely dodged the bullet that much of the media, and the CDC and WHO too, virtually assured us was heading our way (or, in the less restrained reports, had already arrived), in the form of an uncontained outbreak spreading to Europe and North America?  It is way too soon to say, and any day could see a sudden significant shift with new cases in a new region appearing.

But it is great to see a decline in the rate of deaths over the last week.

Supersonic Travel – But By Submarine?

We regularly come across articles about attempts to revive supersonic air travel.  While they often misunderstand the demise of the Concorde (BA’s Concordes were strongly profitable, and there’s no unbreakable law of physics that says supersonic flight has to be unaffordably expensive) they also point only to insubstantial ideas that have yet to progress any further towards a return to supersonic travel.

Even if they should ever pan out, we’re probably looking at planes traveling around the 1200 – 1800 mph speed range.  Okay, that’s three times more than today’s subsonic planes that tend to cruise around 550 mph, but it is still a long way short of an instantaneous travel process when you’re on a long international flight.

Here’s an article which speculates on the possibility of a high-speed submarine.  This might sound an astonishingly unlikely concept, because we all know that ships and submarines travel at speeds less than one tenth that of planes – the most efficient speed of a normal displacement hulled ship in knots is about 1.4 times the square root of its length in feet.  But this new super-speedy submarine is built on the concept of a supercavitating process that has the submarine enveloped in a type of air-bubble, and in that form, able to travel through water at extraordinarily high speeds, up to about 3,600 mph.

We don’t expect to see these types of craft any time soon, however.  They are almost impossible to steer, and also have no forward visibility while running at speed.  As people who have spent a reasonable amount of time on the water know, the oceans are far from empty.  What happens if one of these craft were to collide with a whale, another submarine, or even ‘just’ a large shark or perhaps a school of ordinary fish?  At 3,600 mph (to put this in context, a pistol bullet travels at about 750 mph) even the slightest of impacts with the smallest of obstacles could be spectacularly destructive.

This page explains some of the current problems with the technology.  But we’d love to see these issues resolved.  While it won’t get us from Seattle to New York any faster, it sure would take us around the Pacific Rim in a flash.

Hotel Fees Becoming More Prevalent

I just bought a dozen cans of Coke at Walmart.  $3 for all twelve – 25c a can.

But if I were to buy just one can of Coke from an in-room mini-bar at the Liberty Hotel in Boston, I’d be paying $5 for a single can of Coke.  And wait – that’s not the point of the story.  The point is that the hotel not only sells the can of Coke for more than 20 times what it paid for it, but it also adds an 18% ‘ convenience fee’ (another 90c, probably another four multiples of the underlying cost of the can of drink) on top of the already way over-priced $5 charge.

If you decide to save yourself these outrageous costs and put any of your own bottles/cans of drink in a fridge at the Aria in Las Vegas, they’ll charge you a $25/day ‘personal use’ fee.

Here’s an amusing thought.  If you’ll be in Vegas for more than three days, simply order a mini fridge on Amazon and have it shipped to you at the hotel.  It will cost you no more, and probably less, than the personal use fees (or a $35/day charge to rent your own fridge from the hotel).  Well, this assumes you’re not also charged an outrageous ‘receiving fee’ by the hotel.  Simply leave the fridge behind when you check-out.

Here’s an article that highlights some of the more outrageous hotel ripoffs being foisted on us these days.

What should you do when confronting such fees?  Complain, loud and long.  You might get them taken off your bill, and you might help the hotels to perceive sufficient unhappiness from their customers as to ease off this new trend.  Post negative reviews on Trip Advisor.

At least the hotel industry remains considerably more competitive than the airline industry, meaning they are slightly more responsive to what we feel about their services and policies, and we have more choices when traveling somewhere.

Running Out of Power on Your Mobile Devices When Traveling

Here’s an interesting article from Bloomberg about the availability – or, more commonly, the lack of availability – of power plugs and charging stations for mobile devices in airports and on planes.

On average, the 40 busiest airports in the US offer a mere 5.5 twin-socket power outlets per gate, even though there could be sometimes the better part of 200 people waiting in a gate area for their upcoming flight.  The good news is that airports are adding more power outlets and charging stations, the bad news is they are not being added fast enough.

Things are not really any better once you get on a plane.  Only 25% of the country’s short-haul jet fleet have coach-cabin power outlets.

An interesting statistic – in 2000, only half the adults in the country owned a mobile phone.  Today, it is more like 90%, and many passengers have multiple devices – phones, tablets, laptops, and maybe other devices too, which is why airport power plugs have become so essential.

You probably either know or sense much of this already.  But do you know the solution?

Instead of desperately conserving power and foregoing much of the convenience of having mobile electronics with you, why not simply carry an external battery power pack to recharge your electronics as and when needed.  Our recent article about recharging electronics suggests several low-cost and high-capacity solutions.

And Lastly This Week….

The ‘device from hell’ is the little gadget that travelers can use to wedge the seat in front of them upright, making it unable to recline back the meager distance it otherwise might.

I marvel at the stunning selfishness of these ‘seat nazis’ – people who invariably recline their own seat, while believing they have the right to unilaterally force the passenger in front to sacrifice a modicum of comfort – an even more precious morsel when the passenger in front of the hapless passenger with the seat-nazi behind reclines their seat.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the incredibly self-centered nature of such people than this story, particularly the detail that the seat-nazi was already in Economy Plus with four inches more legroom/seatroom than normal for coach class to start with.

The seat-nazi refused to remove the seat-jamming device, even when ordered to do so by a flight attendant.  I hope they now ‘throw the book’ at him – he already has had a glass of water tossed in his direction.

Apropos nothing, I thought this a fascinating article in The Economist, on Technohyperbole.

If you’re going somewhere for the long weekend, may you enjoy light traffic and a lovely time at your destination.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Aug 212014
Uh oh.  It is a safe bet that this 787 picture appearing here doesn't herald good news....

Uh oh. It is a safe bet that this 787 picture appearing here doesn’t herald good news….

Good morning

Many thanks to everyone who helped with last week’s survey about podcasts.

20% of Travel Insiders regularly listen to podcasts, and another 15% do so occasionally.  On the other side, 14% of readers don’t even know what a podcast is – it is a recorded presentation a bit like a ‘radio show’, usually audio only, and distributed over the internet.  It is presumably called ‘podcast’ because, originally, people listened to them primarily on iPods, and it is a type of ‘broadcast’ technology to distribute them, over the internet, to listeners.

55% of people who regularly listen to podcasts said they would like or love to be able to listen to Travel Insider podcasts, although 21% said they would have no interest in listening to Travel Insider podcasts.  Occasional podcast listeners were even less enthusiastic – 54% said they would have no interest in listening to Travel Insider podcasts.

The key number to me was the total number of people who chose to respond to the survey and label themselves as keen potential Travel Insider podcast listeners.  Only slightly more than 30 people (including one person who would love to hear Travel Insider podcasts but who also said they didn’t even know what a podcast is – I appreciate the vote of confidence!) were this actively keen on podcasting.

Of course, with barely 3% of readers responding to this survey, one has to wonder if these results should be multiplied 33-fold, suggesting over 1,000 readers who would love to also be able to listen to Travel Insider podcasts, but I doubt that to be so, because presumably the most podcast-keen readers would have rushed to respond positively.

On the other hand, podcasting might – and lots of emphasis on the word ‘might’ – open up new channels to reach new potential groups of readers.  So I’m not dismissing the concept entirely.  One comment I would make though – it is my sense that there was some anxiety that podcasting might detract from the present material being offered.  That would not be the case.  Adding the blog did not detract from the newsletter (I hope you agree!) and neither did adding our curated news site either.

Enough ‘navel gazing’.  Suffice it to say I’m experimenting with pod cast production techniques.  If I can create a reasonably high quality product without too much associated time cost, I’ll give it a try.

What else this week?  An enormous amount of new material has been added, growing the present collection of articles about high-end audio.  Good audio – whether music or even podcasting – truly is a traveler’s friend, helping to while away the hours on planes, and fill the cold lonely gaps in hotel rooms.  At the end of the newsletter are seven articles.  Six of them are on headphones, which present as pretty much the only way for travelers to listen to music.  There’s an introductory article and then five articles suggesting specific models of headphones to give you truly high quality and, yes, high value approaches to your audio listening (one of our headphone recommendations gives outstanding quality sound for only $85).

The seventh article tells you how you can compare different sets of headphones to accurately understand the differences between them.  You might wonder why I even need to explain this – don’t you just simply swap one set for another set on your head as quickly as possible and compare backwards and forwards?  Yes – and no – is the answer to that.  For a longer more detailed answer, please read the article, below.

The last piece of the puzzle will be the type of portable music player and type of music files to listen to.  That’s coming out in the week ahead, but if you can’t wait, you want music files in FLAC format, and while most modern Android devices support FLAC music files (alas, Apple and its closed/proprietary approach to everything insists on you using Apple’s own formats instead) we suggest you use a separate music player – probably the Fiio X3 or perhaps the Fiio X5.  I have an X3 myself, which is astonishing value at only $200, and wish I had the X5 ($350) with its two Micro SD card slots instead of one with the X3.

Lastly for the introductory comments, and continuing the musical theme, it is 50 years since The Beatles took the US by storm.  My goodness me.  Fifty years.

Their music remains fresh, extraordinarily varied and diverse in style, with at least one or two tunes that surely can appeal to anyone and everyone.  It is as captivating and approachable now as it was then.

I know there have been many other ‘super groups’ but surely none with such a broad range of styles and appeal.  There is something about The Beatles seems to put them way above anyone and everyone else.

And, below, here are pieces on :

  • 787 Engine Problem
  • A Morsel of Real Airline Competition?
  • Beating the Weather Excuse
  • Sleepy Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers Too
  • DoT Again Showing its Distaste for Traveler Friendly Airlines
  • Nonsense Predictions About the Future of Air Travel
  • Malaysia’s Missing Planes Update
  • Ebola Update
  • The US Dept of State Travel Warning Most Americans Ignore
  • An Unexpected Outcome of Uber’s Popularity
  • Travel Insider to TSA :  We Told You So
  • And Lastly This Week….

787 Engine Problem

Nothing to do with the batteries, this time, indeed, not really much to do with Boeing either.  But that was cold comfort to the passengers and crew of a Thomson Airways 787 that had an engine failure an hour and a half out over the Atlantic, and which flew on only one engine for another four hours before landing in the Azores.

After some prevarication, all 787s with the same GE GEnx-1B engines have been grounded pending engine checks.

It is just a couple of weeks since we were saying that maybe our earlier worries about the reliability of the 787 could now be lifted, and then this comes along and happens.

The good news is the Thomson 787 did continue to fly safely for four hours after the first engine failed.  But you can be sure that it was a very anxious four hour period, particularly because the engines were involved in an earlier reliability issue back in 2012.  Should this airplane and engine combination have been fast tracked to the extended 330 minute ETOPS rating that it was granted?

A Morsel of Real Airline Competition?

We wrote a couple of weeks ago about American Airlines eliminating meals in the first class cabins of many of their shorter flights.  We’d have been unsurprised to now be writing about how other airlines were eliminating first class meals on their short flights, too.

But instead, color us astonished, because we now can tell you that United is adding meals to short flights that previously did not offer food in the first class cabin at all.

Okay, so it is a very small thing, but it is simultaneously a very big thing.  It may be a sign that United is not going to always march lockstep together with the other two major ‘full service’ carriers (yes, there’s only three these days) and might try to earn some business by offering a better product.

Egads.  How innovative is that?  Could there be hope for United after all?  We hope so; we’re down to only three airlines now, and can ill afford to lose any of them.

Beating the Weather Excuse

I’ve consistently claimed that airlines should not be allowed to use so-called ‘bad weather’ as an excuse for schedule and service disruptions.  My point is that almost every weather related problem is something that could be solved, if the airlines, the airports, and the air traffic control system were all better resourced and more willing to, collectively, invest in creating weather-resilient systems.  The phrase ‘bad weather’ more commonly means ‘bad preparations for weather’.

There is an example of how a few dollars and some new technology can indeed solve weather related disruptions in the Wall St Journal.  If the link doesn’t take you there, you can search for ‘Technology Helps Pilots Land in Fog’ on Google, and the Google link to the WSJ article will open the story for you.

The bottom line – a new system creates an artificial image of the airport and runways ahead of a landing plane, removing the need for pilots to be able to actually see the real thing outside their windows.  Think of this capability, awaiting official approval and deployment, next time you’re unable to get into SFO due to fog….

Note also in the article, the delicate references to planes automatically landing themselves.  The need for pilots is increasingly being marginalized.

One wonders which will happen first – pilotless planes or driverless cars.

Sleepy Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers Too

A week ago there was a story about an Air India flight where the captain of the 777 was taking some ‘controlled rest’ – a fancy way of saying he was asleep at the wheel.  The copilot claims she was ‘busy on her tablet’ (not asleep too, oh not, definitely not asleep…..) and, ahem, ‘failed to notice’ the plane had dropped 5,000 ft (from 34,000 ft down to 29,000 ft).

This is a puzzling circumstance.  Why was the auto-pilot not engaged?  Fortunately, Ankara Air Traffic Control noticed the plane’s descent (the flight was going through Turkish air space at the time) and managed to get the co-pilot’s attention on the radio.

Still, at least the pilots were just quietly sleeping (or, ahem, distracted by their tablet).  It could have been worse – they could have been fighting with the cabin attendants, as was the case on this recent Saudi Arabian Airlines flight.

It was a good job the flight was over Turkish air space.  If the flight had been flying over Wuhan in China, who knows how low the plane might have got before the co-pilot stopped being so ‘pre-occupied with her tablet’.  Also in the last week was a situation when apparently the air traffic control staff at Wuhan’s airport were asleep, with an inbound flight unable to raise the control tower and arrange to land, for a while.

DoT Again Showing its Distaste for Traveler Friendly Airlines

If the Department of Transportation really cared about the flying public, you think they might turn around and refuse an application for two airlines to merge, or, if that’s a bit too much for them, maybe they could at the very least ensure that the promises of ‘better service’ and ‘no increases in air fares’ made by the airlines seeking merger approval were in fact subsequently honored.

Astonishing, the DoT has admitted it never monitors the promises and projections offered by airlines to support their requests for merger approval.

Or, here’s another idea.  Maybe the next time an airline asks for permission to operate a new type of low-cost service to/from the US, the DoT could approve the request with no more care or concern than the minimal amount it gives to merger requests.

But, instead, the DoT suddenly adopts a fully alert posture and makes such requests into a lengthy and drawn out process with an unclear outcome.  This is certainly the case with Norwegian’s attempt to operate flights between Europe and the US via Ireland.  As this article obliquely points out, it seems the DoT is casting around for any excuse to refuse the application.

Note also the reference to 160 Congressmen having written to express their concern about new low-cost airline service to the US.  These would presumably be some of the Congressmen who a couple of weeks ago passed legislation allowing the airlines to hide the cost of taxes and fees and advertise fares that did not represent the full ticket cost, ignoring the almost completely united and unanimous objections from every consumer and air traveler group in the nation, and not even allowing for normal hearings on the bill before passing it.

If your congressman/woman was one of this ‘gang of 160′, you might want to explain to them that you actually quite like the thought of lower airfares.  Apparently they don’t understand this (or much else).

Nonsense Predictions About the Future of Air Travel

We know how difficult it can be for columnists to write quality columns to a fixed regular schedule.  Sometimes there just isn’t anything to write about.  Unfortunately, in those cases, you still have to deliver something to your editor, and with this time of year being the traditional ‘slow season’ – also known as the ‘silly season’ due to the undue prominence given to poor quality articles being used to fill up gaps – we sometimes see examples of this type of writing.

One of the good old standby type articles is to survey a few ‘industry experts’ and do a piece on ‘future predictions’.  Here’s an article possibly illustrating the point.  I particularly stumbled over the claim about how a small private jet hire company can offer lower prices because it operates a small (rather than large) fleet; but found it impossible to disagree with their CEO’s statement – one that is so simplistic as to not really need printing

The only way to increase the market is to lower the costs

Unfortunately, this insight was contrasted with the CEO’s admission that he didn’t know how to do this.

Other unlikely predictions include a suggestion that affordable long-range supersonic travel will come to the skies (in theory this is possible, in practice, there’s no evidence of any credible push by any airplane manufacturer to develop a new SST), plus an underwhelming prediction that it might take until about 2039 before internet connectivity in the air will be easy and reliable.

As for a suggestion that you will be able to order your choice of first/business/coach class food at any seat on the plane, we doubt that very much.  Imagine the catering complexities.

Malaysia’s Missing Planes Update

Not much new this week on either of the two MH missing planes.  However, there has been a new book published about MH370’s disappearance, written by two New Zealanders (this is now perhaps the fourth book on the subject).  One of them previously established a startup airline that for a while tweaked the tail of Air New Zealand before being ignominiously squashed, so he’s an interesting person to read.

His theory is based on no new knowledge, but rather is a ‘on the balance of probabilities’ type thing.  He says the pilot was the culprit, and suggests the pilot depressurized the cabin, killing everyone on board, then simply flew the plane himself until reaching fuel exhaustion, at which point he did a ‘controlled landing’ into the ocean so the plane settled on the ocean surface then gradually sank, thereby avoiding a mess of floating debris on the surface of the ocean.

Maybe he is right, and maybe he is wrong.  His guess is as good as anyone else’s for now, and a lot better than some.

As for the more recent MH 17 crash over Ukraine, there have unfortunately been no new developments of any kind in the last week (other than some of the bodies finally making it all the way to Malaysia on Thursday).  Interestingly, Malaysia observed a national day of mourning to commemorate the arrival of the first bodies, but no such day of mourning has been held for the victims of MH 370.

Ebola Update

As of 21 August, there are now 1350 Ebola deaths, with the disease remaining confined to the four West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.  This is an increase of 281 over last week’s count, and shows a marked increase in the rate of deaths (108 people died the previous week).

But 281 deaths from Ebola, in these four countries with a total population of 198.5 million, is a tiny number and dwarfed by many other disease deaths.  On the other hand, this is the first outbreak to be present in four countries simultaneously, and no previous outbreak ever exceeded 300 deaths in total.

The US Dept of State Travel Warning Most Americans Ignore

One of the ‘tools’ in the US diplomatic bag is to threaten uncooperative countries with issuing a travel warning, in the belief that the warning will reduce the number of people choosing to travel to the target country.  So we see a strangely inconsistent approach to travel warnings, with some countries seldom/never appearing even though they have high levels of crime against tourists, but others more or less permanently on the list, even though their levels of crime – either against tourists or in general – are extremely low.

For example, you’re more likely to be a victim of a tourist crime in many of the major European cities, some of which are inundated with pickpockets and other scammers, but no European countries appear on the State Dept’s list.  On the other hand, perhaps the safest place we’ve ever visited – North Korea – has an undeserved place on the list, pretty much permanently.  Dubai doesn’t appear on the list (notwithstanding occasional horror stories that emerge about their treatment of tourists, always assuming they allow the tourists in to start with), but Iran and Iraq both do.

There is one semi-friendly country that has been on the warning list for some time, however, with the warning being updated just this week.  Mexico.  But while Americans are cowed by some of the warnings, who gives a second thought to a travel warning applying to ‘friendly’ Mexico before jetting off for a week on the coast somewhere?

An Unexpected Outcome of Uber’s Popularity

As you surely must already know, Uber and the similar other ride sharing services out there allow ‘ordinary people’ in their ordinary cars to provide taxi type services to anyone else, with a smart phone app connecting the drivers to the intending passengers.

Although the apps usually tell the passenger what make/model/color car to look out for, it seems some over-eager passengers are assuming the first car that sort of meets the description ahd stops in their general vicinity (perhaps just because all the traffic has stopped for a red light ahead) must therefore be the ride they are waiting for, and so are clambering into the back of cars, much to the surprise and alarm of the drivers (who are not Uber drivers).  Ooops.

The other side of that coin is that some freelance drivers are circling through busy city areas and if they see someone waiting expectantly by the side of the road, they’ll pull over and say ‘Uber?’.  If the person nods eagerly, they’ll take the person where they’re going, and directly charge for the ride, without any Uber affiliation.

Travel Insider to TSA :  We Told You So

Back when the potentially harmful X-ray whole body scanners were being deployed throughout the US by the TSA, we not only stridently pointed out the potential danger of the units, but also pointed out the fact that they simply did not work well, and a skilled terrorist could readily smuggle guns and explosives through one of these scanners and onto a plane.

It wasn’t just us that pointed this out.  Other sources, ranging from scholarly articles to even Youtube videos of people actually going through airport security with hidden metal objects, all demonstrated the weaknesses of these scanners.  The TSA eventually ‘sort of’ withdrew them – and offered up two face-saving excuses for removing them from service.  The first was that the scanners were proving too slow to use, requiring too many staff to operate and processing too few passengers an hour – which was another of the negative points we’d been quick to point out when they were first being deployed.  The second was that the manufacturer had been too slow to develop ‘privacy’ displays to replace the fairly graphic pictures of people’s naked bodies that were otherwise being displayed, much to the amusement and enjoyment of the TSA staff.

Now, albeit a bit late, but offered up just in case Rapiscan finally release software that replaces the graphic images of the people with cartoon type stick figures, is this amazing study.  A group of academic researchers bought a second-hand Rapiscan unit and experimented with it, working out how best to conceal guns, knives and explosives.

If academic researchers can do this, what’s the bet that terrorists wouldn’t also be able to do the same thing?  So much for the billion dollar program by the TSA to make us ‘saferer’.

And Lastly This Week….

I’ve seen some bad pictures of hotels in my time, and also some deceptively good ones too.  The right lens and perspective can make a small room seem large, and a distant beach on the other side of the road look like the waves come almost to the side of the hotel.

But clearly, not every promotional photo in every field is a winner, as this selection of photos from real estate listings vividly shows.

You may have heard of the planking craze, where people have pictures taken of themselves assuming a ‘plank’ type position on various unusual objects.  Harmless enough, although some people have harmed themselves in the process.

Planking is very much different to a new craze which seems to be evolving in resort swimming pools.  Logging.

Talking about photography, how great to see that London’s National (art) Gallery has now relaxed their previous ban on visitors taking pictures of their artwork.  While I can understand a ban on flash units, an across the board ban on all photography in museums and art galleries has always struck me as gratuitously narrow-minded and elitist in the extreme.

Let’s hope this is widely copied everywhere else.  What possible harm is there in taking pictures of things that are hundreds or thousands of years old.  Copyright has truly long since expired.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






Aug 142014
Norwegian's 787s have been spending too much time on the ground and too little time flying, recently.

Norwegian’s 787s have been spending too much time on the ground and too little time flying, recently.

Good morning

Happy birthday this week, sort of, to the podcast (a seminal event occurring on 14 August 2004).

I’ve never much appreciated podcasts and webcasts, feeling that their ‘linear’ nature and forcing you to watch/listen to a presentation in realtime with no easy ability to speed-read and skip through, such as you have with written web content, is a bit at odds with the non-linear nature of the internet.

But I’ll concede podcasts may have some benefit for people driving with nothing else to do while in the car, or while exercising, or at other down times when other forms of activity/entertainment are not so convenient.

(Note that I’m using ‘podcast’ to refer to audio only presentations – sort of an internet radio broadcast.  The term ‘webcast’ more actively implies possibly video too, in more of a representation of internet television.)

It surprised me to learn that as many as 15% of people in the US listen to podcasts weekly, but quite possibly I’m missing something here.  Maybe this is a new way to make The Travel Insider more accessible and engaging to a broader audience?

It seems I speak at a rate of 145 words/minute, so a weekly newsletter with 3000 words would represent just over 20 minutes of podcast (the newsletters seem to range from slightly under 2000 words to over 4000 words).  Of course, you couldn’t click on links while listening to a podcast, such as you can when reading the newsletter on your computer screen, but if there were links you wanted to subsequently visit, you could come back to the written newsletter and scan for them.

Here’s an MP3 audio sample (call it a podcast if you wish) of the first few items in this week’s newsletter, so you can get a feeling for what a Travel Insider podcast would be.  If the concept proves popular, I’d polish the presentation by improving the sound, maybe adding a few tones to signify things like the presence of links and the start of new items, and that sort of thing, and also reduce the file size.  You can at least get a general idea, though, of what it could be like to listen to, rather than read, a Travel Insider newsletter, with the sample file here.

Can I ask you :  Do you listen to podcasts?  Do you even know what they are?  More to the point, would you like your weekly Travel Insider offered to you in a Podcast format?  And – at the risk of sounding venal – would you pay for a Travel Insider Podcast?

Now for a hopefully fun thing.  I’m using a free survey service to create a reader survey on this point.

Please click this link to provide your responses.

I’ll report back to you next week on your opinions.

If you’re looking to create your own surveys, I can recommend this Quicksurvey service to you.  It seems to offer enormous flexibility and is all for free, unlike some of the better known products which cripple/limit the service they provide for free.

With that as slightly oblique introduction, what else is there this week?  I started off something that was to be just a brief piece below, but which grew to become a freestanding article on its own; an interesting look at the marketplace ‘failure’ of the A380, while wondering whether it is really Airbus’ fault.

In addition, please keep reading for :

  • MH 17 Update
  • 787 Problem?  Or Budget Airline Problem?
  • US Airline Rankings
  • A Most Extraordinary Loss of Control by a Pilot
  • Naughty Pilots
  • Ebola Exaggerations and Nonsense
  • More Uber Pushback
  • Should Tourists Pay to Access Public Markets?
  • Email Terrorism/Revenge
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH 17 Update

Apologies for the misleading headline.  There’s precious little ‘update’ to report, with both sides still not releasing any definitive proof of their respective contentions that the other side was responsible for shooting the plane down, leaving us stuck in an infantile ‘he said/she said’ slanging match.

A preliminary report into the plane’s crash is expected to be released in the first week of September.  The official investigation is being conducted by the Netherlands (international protocol gives this responsibility to the country the crashed flight departed from), with the black boxes being analyzed by the UK.

We don’t expect this investigation to tell us who launched the missile, although if they can at least definitively confirm that it was a missile that was responsible for the plane crashing, that would advance the state of the current argument somewhat.  We’re not sure the preliminary report will tell us that.

So, we’re now four weeks (and one day) past the plane crashing, and essentially none the wiser.  The really frustrating thing is that, almost certainly, our political and military leadership know exactly what happened, and the same is probably true of the Russian leadership too.  So who is benefitting from keeping the truth from the greater public?

787 Problem?  Or Budget Airline Problem?

We’re getting closer to the point where I might grudgingly concede that the worst of the nasty surprises lurking within the 787 may have been exorcised.  By Boeing’s own admission, the plane’s dispatch reliability remains slightly below their target, but in general, the plane has been operating well and brave souls who have flown on it tell me they really enjoyed the experience.

New discount international carrier Norwegian has had a particularly bad run of misfortune with its 787s, however, and last week saw one of their flights, from LAX to London, delayed two days, and a second flight, from Stockholm to LAX, had a one day delay.  This has caused frustration, particularly in Scandinavia, where 1200 passengers have brought legal action against the airline, and staff at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport called for police protection against upset passengers.

A Norwegian spokesman said

We absolutely do not want to blame Boeing and we have faith in Boeing. But we do think that one should be able to expect significantly better stability on brand new planes.

US Airline Rankings

Lots of companies rank airlines from allegedly best to allegedly worst.  Some have very opaque methodologies and, to be polite, surprising results.  Others are more open about how they derive their rankings.

One of the latter type rankings is that published by Airfarewatchdog.  This is their third year of ranking, using factual statistics measuring five aspects of airline performance, although we’re not quite sure what weightings they give to the five factors.  Actually, it doesn’t matter, because they show each airline’s score in all five categories as well as a calculated overall placing, so you can form your own conclusions as you wish.

This year sees Delta named as the best US airline, followed by Virgin America and Alaska.  At the other end, United is the country’s worst, and American is second worst.  Some people might be surprised to see Southwest rated as third worst.  The rankings are limited to the eight major and second level airlines (the other two airlines being Jetblue at #4 and Frontier at #5).

A Most Extraordinary Loss of Control by a Pilot

Landings are a ‘busy’ and somewhat intense time for airplane pilots, even if they have the auto-pilot doing all the work for them.  They are busy communicating with Air Traffic Control, running through checklists, maintaining a visual lookout for other planes getting in the way, keeping an eye on what the auto-pilot is doing, completing paperwork for the flight, and so on.

If something goes wrong during the landing stage of a flight, there is less time to correct it before the plane possibly crashes.  So you expect the pilots to have their finger on the pulse of the plane.

Something did indeed go wrong on a recent Flybe flight as it came in to land in Belfast, and indeed, the pilot was so caught up in managing the flight after the problem occurred, he didn’t feel able to ask the copilot to lend a hand.  Or, as more accurately might describe the situation, an arm.

Naughty Pilots

Who can forget the outcome when the Costa Concordia captain chose to impress his passengers and took his ship too close to the rocks.

An analogous example of what an airline pilot could and  – alas – did do was provided by US Airways Captain Edmund C Draper, who decided to gratuitously fly over his house – oh yes, and a nearby shopping mall too.  When we say ‘fly over’ we mean ‘only just barely above’ – he was at about 525 ft while flying the plane full of passengers.

The pilot subsequently had his flying license revoked by the FAA.  All we can say is, flying at that low altitude, it is a good job his arm didn’t fall off.

Ebola Exaggerations and Nonsense

We wrote about Ebola last week, with our essential conclusion being that while it is a very nasty disease, the present scare greatly exaggerates the risk to us in the west, and probably also exaggerates the risk to people in Africa and elsewhere too.

As if to contradict us, the same day we published our article, WHO announced it was declaring the Ebola outbreak an international health emergency, notwithstanding that it was confined to four African countries.

Okay, we’d normally concede that WHO knows a great deal more than us about Ebola and most medical matters, so we were saddened to see the unfortunate exaggerated rhetoric in its announcement.  In partial justification for classifying it as an international health emergency, WHO said that Ebola “has a case fatality rate of up to 90%”.

Did you spot it?  Yes, that terrible term, ‘of up to’.  They could as well have said ‘of up to 100%’, because any time you say ‘of up to’ you are including all numbers lower than that, while of course implying that the actual number cited is close to the most applicable number.

So what is the real case fatality rate (CFR) for Ebola?  Considering all known Ebola cases since its discovery, the average CFR is in the 60% – 65% range, and for this specific outbreak, it is currently around 54%.

So, instead of having only one chance in ten of surviving, people actually have four or five chances in ten.  That’s a huge difference, and shame on WHO for fanning the flames of the Ebola panic.  Why did they do that?

Two examples of the harm caused by this unnecessary panic.  In the UK, border staff have threatened to strike over fears they may be exposed to Ebola infected people entering the country.  And a company is offering do-it-yourself steps for concocting a home-made homeopathic Ebola remedy (step one being to obtain a live sample of Ebola).  We urge you not to try that at home!

During the last week, total Ebola fatalities have risen by only 108 (now at 1069).  How many people have died in the same four countries, during the same period, from Aids, malnutrition, malaria, dysentery, or even from cancer, or road deaths or other preventable accidents and negligence?

We remain puzzled at the extraordinary prominence being given to Ebola, even by medical leaders.

More Uber Pushback

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and I wouldn’t mind betting that the seemingly never-ending flood of stories about cities and cabbies waging battles (both legally and literally) with Uber has given the fledgling taxi-type service more new business than any paid advertising they’ve bought.  So, for Uber, it is an ill wind that blows no good.

This week saw another example of how city governments totally fail to understand who they are supposed to be serving.  This time it is Berlin that is the guilty government, and they have banned Uber outright.  Did they do this to protect their local taxis?

Oh no.  The Berlin city government chooses instead to insult our intelligence by saying they decided to ban Uber to protect its citizens.  This is appalling nonsense that we can all see through.

But Uber did also receive a bit of truly bad publicity this week.  It seems that in the sometimes ultra-competitive struggle between Uber and its similar-service-providing competitors, with the struggle extending not only to getting passengers but also to persuading drivers to work for one company in preference to the other, some people at Uber have been calling and placing bogus bookings for rides with Lyft.

Lyft claims to have proof that at least 177 Uber employees booked at least 5,560 fake rides in just under a year, including one Uber recruiter who booked 1500 rides himself.

Uber has responded, claiming that Lyft has, in turn, booked 12,900 fake rides on Uber.

Shame on both of them.  That’s way beyond acceptable, and we all lose as a result.

Should Tourists Pay to Access Public Markets?

This is an interesting question.  If you’re like many tourists, when visiting a foreign country you probably enjoy visiting the local markets, and seeing the hustle and bustle of the stalls, the smells and sights of their produce and wares, and the general vigor and life of the local town all around you.  I even enjoy visiting supermarkets too – I feel I get much more of a feeling for the lifestyle of an area by visiting a modern supermarket than I do by visiting a 500-year-old castle or church.

But in some small towns, when cruises ships with thousand of passengers all descend on their small market simultaneously, the market gets jammed packed full of tourists – and the tourists of course are there to look rather than to buy.  You’re not going to take some raw meat back on board the cruise ship with you, are you!

The net result is that the locals can’t squeeze into the market while the tourists are in town, and the market stall owners actually experience a drop in business (although, for sure, a massive rise in samples given away or taken!).

Tourism and tourists can have its downside.  So Valencia’s Central Market is considering charging an entry fee for tourists to enter the market.  We think that’s fair enough.  If Disney can charge $100 to recreate such sorts of places at Epcot, surely it is fair to see the real thing for massively less money.

Email Terrorism/Revenge

I know I’m not the only person who has problems with other people ‘sharing’ their email address.  Having been an early adopter of most of the free email services, I have simple email addresses without lots of numbers and other things in them, for example, drowell@whatever.

Inexplicably, there are three or four other people in the US who sometimes enter my email address into forms, rather than entering their own correct variant (such as perhaps drowell123@whatever), and so I get their email coming to me.  There’s a trucker in the south, a vapid woman in the Bay area, an about-to-go-to-college student in Oregon, and various other people who are unable to type in their correct email address in forms.  This is entirely different to people sending emails to me by mistake.  This is people entering their own email addresses incorrectly (and repeatedly).

Once or twice it was amusing, but now it is a nuisance – particularly the person who signed up for Match.com using my address; I can’t discontinue the emails I get without logging in to their account, and I of course don’t know their password.  Occasionally, with services that will allow access based on clicking a link in an email they send, I’ve been slightly ‘playful’.

Once I managed to contact a person at their correct email address, and they blamed everyone and everything except themselves for putting in my email address instead of their own!  Another time, a friend told someone they were using his address incorrectly and the person disputed that!

Anyway, if you’ve had a similar challenge, you might appreciate this story.

And Lastly This Week….

We see that Delta has a dispute with the company that managed its in-flight duty-free sales and so cancelled all duty-free sales.  That’s a great lose-lose-lose for Delta, its passengers, and the company managing the duty-free program.  Typical airline response, in other words.

But maybe there is another reason for Delta’s decision?  Perhaps it is choosing to instead concentrate on, ummm, unusual things?

We like to castigate Amtrak, and point out some of the wonderful trains available elsewhere in the world.  But sometimes we realize there are worse things out there than being a passenger on Amtrak.  You could instead be, well, a passenger on the ‘train of drunks‘ in Russia.

Talking about Russia, overhead in a tour group about to visit the ballet, with a group member anxiously asking the guide ‘What language will this ballet be in?’.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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