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 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






Aug 072014
9 September will probably see the release of Apple's new iPhone 6 models.  I'm eagerly awaiting what will hopefully at last bring Apple back into the mainstream of high quality smartphones.

9 September will probably see the release of Apple’s new iPhone 6 models. I’m eagerly awaiting what will hopefully at last bring Apple back into the mainstream of high quality smartphones.

Good morning

I omitted mention last week of a very historic birthday.  July 15 saw the first flight of the 707 prototype, the ‘Dash 80′.

The development of the 707 (and subsequently the development of the 747) has sometimes been described as Boeing betting its corporate future on the success of the plane.  Sure, we know that both the 707 and 747 ended up as wonderfully successful programs, but the success of the 707 came at a particularly critical time for Boeing, and after a string of airplane failures.

Most of all, the success of the 707 was never pre-ordained, and Boeing very nearly suffered another commercial disaster with the 707.

The story of Boeing’s challenges and near-disaster with the 707 is very well told with this article.  I certainly learned some things I’d not earlier appreciated about the 707 program.  A great read.

Without giving away the story in the linked article, at the time of the Dash 80 first flight, Boeing was doing very well with its military contracts but very poorly with its commercial airplane division.  There’s a curious irony therefore to read this story about how, today, the situation at Boeing is exactly reversed.  An alarming future for its military division, and a sunny outlook for its commercial airplanes.

Talking about challenges and near-disasters, I’ve been asked by several people to give an assessment of the current Ebola outbreak in west Africa.  What does it mean for us – as travelers in particular, and for our lives in general.  Is the world about to succumb to a global Ebola pandemic?

Or is this current outbreak nothing to worry about at all?  I’m not a doctor, so take my comments with a grain of salt, but I have tried to distill the maximum meaning out of the various official commentaries by various health organizations around the world, while also rolling my eyes at some of the current scare stories (and also a bizarre ‘don’t be scared’ story that seems way out in left field) in the media.  The analysis – all 5000 words of it – is attached at the end of today’s newsletter.

Also, below, please keep reading for :

  • Etihad Offers to Save Alitalia, so Baggage Handlers Go On Strike
  • Continued Escalation of Pin-pricks between Russia and the West Now Reaches the Airlines
  • 36% of Americans Now Afraid to Fly Internationally
  • Finally – A Coach Class Airline Meal I’d Love
  • But, Elsewhere, Meals Withdrawn
  • Pre-Check About to Become More Exclusive
  • Other TSA/DHS Programs Similar to Pre-Check
  • High Speed Rail in the US :  Five Years and $11 billion Later
  • Self-driving Cars on Sale Within Five Years
  • Interesting Safety Statistics
  • And Lastly This Week….

Etihad Offers to Save Alitalia, so Baggage Handlers Go On Strike

It is either an unusually brave airline, or an unusually foolish one, that chooses to buy into Alitalia – the airline that refuses to die, but which also equally stubbornly refuses to stop losing money.  Back in 2009, Air France/KLM invested €322 million (US$430 million) in getting a 25% share of the freshly recapitalized airline, but their share of the airline these days has reduced down to 7.1%.

Much as before, Alitalia has continued to lose money every year since its 2009 relaunch, including €50 million ($66 million) last year – a year when just about every major international airline enjoyed massive profits.  Alitalia has about €800 million in debt currently.

Etihad has expressed interest in investing about €560 million into the airline (around $750 million), in return for a 49% share.  In a curious case of a very odd couple, they would be joining the Italian Post Office, who is also investing into the airline.

But if Etihad were to do so, they realize that Alitalia’s business model needs to be massively changed, something the airline and the Italian government have been resisting.  There’s obviously no sense in just pouring more money into a chronically loss making airline.

One of the changes would be laying off staff – about 2,000 of the 14,000 employees.  Glass-half-full people would see this as protecting the jobs of the other 12,000 in a company that is surely otherwise staring dissolution in the face, but Alitalia’s baggage handlers see it the other way, and so are risking the company’s entire future by striking.

We can see some strategic advantages accruing to Etihad from teaming up with a new improved lower-cost more efficient Alitalia, and this is in line with Etihad taking minority positions in other airlines, ranging from Virgin Australia to Aer Lingus, from Air Berlin to Air Serbia.  On the other hand, with strategic partnerships with airlines such as Air Berlin, maybe there is less need for Etihad to buy into Alitalia as well.

So Alitalia has to transform itself, or else Etihad would be crazy to drop €560 million into a chronic loser of an airline.  Their CEO, currently in Italy to possibly consummate the deal today, may well be having second thoughts as he surveys the growing mountains of baggage at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.

Continued Escalation of Pin-pricks between Russia and the West Now Reaches the Airlines

It is now three weeks and one day since the crash of MH17 over eastern Ukraine.  We’re none the wiser as to how it came to crash, although the likelihood is that it was shot down by a BUK surface to air missile.  We’re also very much none the wiser as to who it might have been who launched the missile, but it almost seems now that this central point has become irrelevant.  The west is officially asserting, albeit without any certain proof at all to back up their assertions, that it was Russia or the Russian aligned and assisted rebels who launched the missile, and Russia is asserting it was Ukraine who launched the missile, again with no proof.

Our side is using that unsubstantiated assertion to support increasing various sanctions against Russia and Russian people, and Russia is willingly playing a game of ‘tit for tat’, responding to each action of ours with an action of their own.

Before looking at the latest round of mutual sanctions, two quick comments.

The first is to observe the eerie similarities between the current escalations in tension and rhetoric between the west and Russia with what was happening almost exactly 100 years ago.  Let’s hope that our current situation gets defused before we find ourselves recreating the ‘War to end all wars’ that resulted from the arguments of 100 years ago.

The second is to draw your attention to this interesting open letter to President Obama by a group of retired former highly placed intelligence officers.  Not only does it tell some interesting things about the Soviet shootdown of KAL 007 back in 1983 – things that I didn’t know before, but it makes a very interesting oblique statement at the beginning :

Twelve days after the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, your administration still has issued no coordinated intelligence assessment summarizing what evidence exists to determine who was responsible – much less to convincingly support repeated claims that the plane was downed by a Russian-supplied missile in the hands of Ukrainian separatists.

Your administration has not provided any satellite imagery showing that the separatists had such weaponry, and there are several other “dogs that have not barked.” [our emphasis]  Washington’s credibility, and your own, will continue to erode, should you be unwilling – or unable – to present more tangible evidence behind administration claims.

One wonders what their allusion to other dogs that did not bark means.  Clearly these people – on our side – are suggesting there just isn’t the evidence to confirm the west’s assertion that Russia was culpable.

Now for the details of a recent round of the nonsense flowing between the Kremlin and the western powers.  In response to the west banning a Russian airline (Aeroflot subsidiary Dobrolyot) from flying to Europe, Russia is threatening to ban all western flights from traveling over Siberia.  This would appreciably lengthen the distance needed to be flown between Europe and Asia, and therefore increase the cost to western airlines such as BA and LH.

On the face of it, that would seem to be a logical step by the Russians.  But, if Russia were to forbid western airlines from overlying its territory, it would also lose the fees it receives currently from granting such permissions.  It is thought that about $300 million a year in fees is received by Aeroflot – it being Aeroflot, rather than the Russian government, who is the beneficiary of the fees charged.

The point of salient confusion is how much it would cost the western airlines if this ban was instituted.  In particular, would the cost be more or less than the fees that Russia would be forsaking?

It would seem enormously obvious that the fees charged are less than the operational savings for flying over Russia – if the fee was greater than the cost, airlines would not pay them currently.  One Russian source went as far as to say that the cost would be in the order of $5 billion a year.  Another source confusingly said that the fees were less than the operating costs otherwise would be, but said the costs would only come to about $100-200 million a year, clearly a nonsense figure.

What is most of all nonsense however is this escalation of rhetoric and trade sanctions.  No-one is winning, and they are of course not causing any sudden confessions or apologies.

Details here.

Whatever the numbers, this latest move by Russia would be a classic lose-lose-lose.  Russia would lose, the airlines would lose, and we as passengers would also lose.  Which, alas, makes its enactment seem almost inevitable and assured.

Is it time to plaintively ask ‘Can’t we all just get along’?

36% of Americans Now Afraid to Fly Internationally

There’s a tragic logical link between the last item and this item.  A new poll for website suggests that 36% of Americans agree that due to recent political turmoil, they have become afraid to fly internationally.

That’s an enormous number that defies belief, and one wonders exactly what the survey question and offered responses might have been, and how many of the respondents might have rated themselves as scared to fly internationally in any event.

But, whether the real number is 3.6% or 36%, what airline out there would happily turn their back on that much of their potential business?  The airlines, as well as the rest of us, need to be pressing our government to take a more cool-headed and rational approach to its relations with Russia.

Details here.

Finally – A Coach Class Airline Meal I’d Love

One of the things I miss most about New Zealand, and enjoy at least daily when in NZ or the UK, is ‘proper’ fish and chips.  Not the terrible ‘filet o fish and fries’ abomination, and not the peculiarly off-target imitations of proper fish and chips served up in restaurants in the US, but the real thing.

British Airways has announced plans to serve British style battered cod filets and chunky fries, complete with tomato sauce (aka ketchup), malt vinegar and tartare sauce (no word about mushy peas).  This feast is to be offered in coach class, and will be the airline’s first ever attempt at serving fish and chips (both crispy battered fish and good quality chips are different to reheat up in airplane warming ovens).

Alas, the meal will only be served on selected short-haul flights within Europe.  But if it proves successful, it might be distributed more broadly, but apparently still only on short-haul flights.  Details here.

But, Elsewhere, Meals Withdrawn

While BA is looking at upgrading the coach class meals on its shorthaul services, American Airlines is eliminating their meals.  And from first class, on most flights lasting less than three hours.

But, dear first class passengers, fear not.  AA still loves you, albeit slightly less than before.  The airline will now be providing snack baskets.  Yummm!  And just in case you think this is just AA trying to save more money, that is not the case.  It is for ‘consistency’ and is AA aping the actions of its new owner, US Airways, who recently cut back on first class food too.

Details here.

Pre-Check About to Become More Exclusive

The TSA Pre-Check program requires participating flyers to enroll in the program, to be scrutinized and evaluated as a high or low risk passenger, to attend a personal interview, and – of course – to pay a fee ($85 for five years).  In return, the vague promise is shorter lines through security at many (but not all) airports and less screening ‘hassle’ (ie no need to remove shoes, or to take laptops out of bags, and only going through metal detectors rather than whole body scanners).

But the TSA has been semi-randomly directly other passengers into the Pre-Check lanes so as to ‘balance’ the length of lines of people waiting to go through security.  This has meant that on regular occasion, passengers in the ‘fast’ Pre-Check lane have ended up waiting as long or longer than people going through the regular lane, a delay made all the more frustrating as it is often in part caused by ‘regular’ travelers dithering and taking unnecessary extra time removing shoes, etc, rather than efficiently going through the Pre-Check process.

Apparently the TSA have now heard the complaints of people who paid the fee and went through the process to get Pre-check status, and say they will stop allowing regular passengers into the Pre-Check lines, as explained in this article.

One thing which does make one’s eyes roll uncontrollably.

The TSA call their current process of shifting regular passengers into the Pre-check lanes a ‘managed-inclusion’ process, and say that such passengers are individually selected and have been pre-screened and deemed to be low risk.  But, as I understand it, much of the shift of passengers into the Pre-Check lanes happens realtime at the screening location, where a TSA agent simply opens up one of the rope barriers and shifts the next ten passengers out of the regular lane and into the Pre-Check lane.

There’s nothing managed about that process at all.

Other TSA/DHS Programs Similar to Pre-Check

If you’re thinking about signing up for the Pre-Check program, there are a couple of other programs you might want to consider instead.  One will save you money, the other costs only a little more but gives you more benefits.

For only $15 more than Pre-Check (ie $100 instead of $85 for five years) you can get Global Entry.  This gives you all the benefits of Pre-Check plus also fast tracks you through both the Immigration and Customs lines when returning from overseas.  The extra $15 can quickly be money well spent if you travel internationally from time to time.

If you live not far from Canada, you might want to consider getting a Nexus card instead of either Pre-Check or Global Entry.  These cost only $50 for five years, and give you all the benefits of Pre-Check and also all the benefits of Global Entry, plus also give you fast track lanes when crossing the Canadian border in both directions.

Nexus is the best deal of all – the most benefits, and the lowest cost.  But it requires an in-person interview at one of a limited number of locations, and it is likely the hassle of this, if you don’t live close to such locations, would outweigh the saving in fee.

There is a fourth similar program – Sentri – which could be helpful if you go down to Mexico from time to time.  It is also the most expensive.  Summary details of all four programs can be seen here.

High Speed Rail in the US :  Five Years and $11 billion Later

President Obama’s administration has spent over $11 billion since 2009, ostensibly on high-speed rail, but according to a NY Times analysis, ‘the projects have gone mostly nowhere and the US still lags far behind Europe and China’.

Neither observation should come as startling news, particularly our relative standing compared to Europe and China.  Europe already has a spider’s web of high-speed rail and more coming on stream every year, and China, despite being a late entrant into the high-speed rail arena (first fast trains in 2007) has now amassed the largest amount of high-speed track in the world – over 6,850 miles so far, and is expected to almost double this by the end of next year.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, the President promised us

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.  This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car.  For some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down.

So we’re now just over three years into that promise, and five years into the overall investment in high-speed rail.  Last month, the administration asked for a further $10 billion to continue our path towards giving ‘access’ to high-speed rail (a curious term that permits multiple definitions) to 80% of our citizens.

This begs the question ‘So what did we get for our first $11 billion?’.  According to the NY Times article, the answer seems to be ‘Almost nothing’.

I love trains and I love fast trains even more.  I also understand that high-speed rail requires massive investment and lengthy construction times.  I even think that high-speed rail is viable in some parts of the US, and accept that the social and other benefits of trains allows us still to countenance high-speed rail where its financial justification is less obvious.

But I don’t understand how, five years and $11 billion later, we have almost nothing to show for half a decade and that much money, and I’m far from clear on what another $10 billion would now achieve.

Perhaps the problem isn’t so much wasting tens of billions of dollars as it is needing to spend not tens but hundreds of billions of dollars to create anything worthy of the high-speed rail label.

As example of that, the 520 mile Californian high-speed rail project (between San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento) was estimated to cost $100 billion at one point before it was re-costed down to a more politically acceptable (but not necessarily more realistic) $68 billion.  In simple terms, that’s no more than 7.5 miles per billion dollars (at the low-ball $68 billion figure, only 5.2 miles at the higher figure).

So the $11 billion was never likely to get us much more than 50-75 miles of high-speed rail, which is useless.  You need 100+ miles of track to make any significant difference to travel time, and ideally 200-500 miles to come up with enough distance and benefit to make it worthwhile to take a train rather than drive, while still being better/faster than flying.

If we’re serious about any type of national commitment to high-speed rail, we need to be spending hundreds of billions, not tens of billions.  And if we want the support of the nation, we need to be showing tangible returns for each of those billions of dollars.

Currently, we’re getting it all wrong, in every respect.

Self-driving Cars on Sale Within Five Years

While high-speed rail remains elusive and far in the future, the same can not be said of self driving cars.

Audi has been testing its self-drive technologies in an A7 on a designated test road in Florida.  Apparently it is designed more for lower speed driving in dense traffic – up to 40 mph, and indeed the phrase ‘traffic jam’ was mentioned in Audi’s press release.

Audi says it plans to be selling the first version of its product within five years.

Yes, I know I’ve confidently asserted that self-driving cars will become a reality sooner than we think, but ‘within five years’ is remarkably fast.  That’s less time than it takes to develop many new car models, and certainly less time than it takes for a new airplane model.  And compared to a high-speed rail development schedule, well……

The transformative effects of self driving cars – particularly when combined with anywhere fast internet through phones and tablets (and even through built-in screens in our cars) can not be understated.  A huge unproductive part of our lives – commuting – promises to soon become either more productive or at the very least, massively more pleasant.  And safer.  Maybe self driving cars will nullify many of the benefits of rail?

Plus, with self-driving cars, roads will be able to handle greater traffic densities, unjamming some of the freeways and making our driving faster (and safer) than it currently is, too.

In other words, the sooner the better for this new technology.  But I do hope they get it thoroughly debugged first!

And, perhaps equally relevant, there’s an alarming darker side to self-driving cars.  What happens if they are hacked?  You might think this impossible, but it is already possible to remotely hack into some cars – even into essential systems such as braking and steering.  Details here.

As a bonus for those of you still reading, it isn’t only cars that are becoming vulnerable to hacker attacks.  Yes, you guessed it, airplanes too…..

Interesting Safety Statistics

There seem to have been – indeed, there truly have been – an unusual number of airplane accidents recently.  And just when we’re starting to calm down from those concerns, the threats of Ebola are adding a new frisson of uncertainty to our traveling.

So it is interesting to read the results of a recent Stanford report on comparative safety.  To get one chance in a million of dying, you need to travel

  • 6000 miles by train
  • 1000 miles by plane
  • 230 miles by car
  • 17 miles by foot
  • 10 miles by bicycle
  • 6 miles by motorbike

Adjusting the plane figure to reflect the recent crashes makes almost no change.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting bit of hotel trivia that explains some of the science and thought that goes into selecting in-room amenities such as soap and shampoo.

In Britain, there’s a semi-urban legend (alas, it is totally true and did happen, but the details change a bit from telling to retelling) about how a pediatrician was victimized by a group of locals who were confused as to the difference between a pediatrician and a pedophile.

You might wonder how anyone could be so utterly ignorant.  At least such a thing would never happen here in the US, would it?  Well, maybe not, but something eerily similar happened to a teacher in Salt Lake City who was fired for creating the impression that his school had a gay agenda.

His crime?  Posting a blog tutorial explaining what homophones are.  Details here.

An announcement possibly heard on a flight recently :

It’s customary after a long-haul flight to ask for volunteers to clean the toilets. If you wish to volunteer, please stand up before the fasten seat-belt sign has been switched off.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






Aug 072014
Healthcare workers in Africa carry out the dead body of an Ebola victim.

Healthcare workers in Africa carry out the dead body of an Ebola victim.

Just today the CDC issued a highest level alert over the current Ebola outbreak – this being only the third time it has issued a Level One warning in the last ten years (the other two being Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Bird Flu in 2009).  The World Health Organization (WHO) declared it an international public health emergency on Friday.

The newspapers are full of articles about the latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  Apocalyptical stories in normally staid publications like The New Yorker tell of the current outbreak starting to assume ‘a medieval character’ (presumably as in the ‘Black Death‘ that killed off between 30% – 60% of everyone in Europe in a short seven-year period from 1346-1453) and describe West African hospitals full of Ebola patients and with

The floor was splashed with blood, vomitus, feces, and urine

The more sensational UK newspaper, The Daily Mail, talks of Ebola victims being dragged into the middle of streets in Liberia and left there to rot, and the locals perceiving the Ebola wards of the hospitals as being death traps.

CBS Atlanta quotes an unnamed ‘senior doctor for a leading medical organization in Liberia’ as saying that Ebola is spinning out of control in West Africa.

It is true that this outbreak is notable for being massively larger than any of the previous Ebola events, and furthermore, the current outbreak seems to be at an early stage of its cycle, with growing numbers of infected people every day (and growing numbers of deaths).  It is hard to know when this cycle will peak, and how severe its impacts will be.

A particular factor this time seems to be that Ebola is in some of the larger cities rather than just the smaller villages in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and now Nigeria too.  The greater the population concentrations, the easier the spread of the disease.

Furthermore, and unlike earlier Ebola events, this time it is not only confined to nasty parts of the world that we’d never willingly travel to, and neither is it only confined to the people who live there.  Some of the infected people – and some of the dead people – have been/are Americans.  Even more alarming, not only are ‘ordinary people’ dying in West Africa, so too are some of the physicians and nurses in those countries – the people who you’d expect to be taking the greatest care to avoid infection.

Also very alarming for those of us who travel are stories coming out of Ebola infected passengers on planes (not all of which have been confirmed as true!).

On the other hand, comparing not yet 1000 deaths over a six month period, with the plague in the middle ages, is neither helpful nor accurate, and we need to keep in perspective that this Ebola outbreak, as awful as it is, is also significant for being slow developing and very limited in every respect.

One more point.  While many people die a nasty death, and there are no current cures, not everyone dies.  The mortality rate at present for this infection (and there are four different types of Ebola) is currently estimated at about 75%.

Nonsense in the Press

So, on the one hand, we have nonsense comparisons that do nothing except create inappropriate visceral fear.  On the other hand, we are also being reassured that ‘the authorities’ (you know, those warm fuzzy figures who are from the government and here to help us) are taking steps to protect us from an Ebola invasion, by carefully screening incoming passengers to ensure they are not infected (well, at least temporarily, at IAD and JFK, while delegates arrive for the African summit this week).

But that reassurance becomes actually quite the opposite when you consider that the screening involves nothing more than IR heat scans to possibly detect people running a temperature, and visually identifying people who are unwell as they pass through an arrival airport into the US.

Not only is that an imperfect screening process to start with, it totally fails to detect people who have been infected with the virus, but are still going through the up to three-week period of incubation between becoming infected and displaying any symptoms of the disease.  By the time those people fall ill, they’ll be who knows where in our heartland, or in the dense population crush of a big city, and by the time their illness has transitioned from seeming like nothing much more than a cough/cold/touch of the flu, might possibly more people have become infected?

There’s another issue as well.  If a person survives Ebola and returns to health, they could travel unimpeded, but they continue to carry the active virus for some time subsequently and could infect other people.  For example, live Ebola has been found in semen 61 days after the man experienced the onset of the illness.  It has also been detected in breast milk.

Back to reassurance, again.  This article, from the noted refereed medical journal populist newspaper, the NY Post, and written by a medical professional attorney claims

Ebola is a lazy spreader. A cough, sneeze or sweat from an “active” case is harmless. Spreading the virus requires contact with large doses of bodily secretions such as blood or vomit.

and also reassures us

There’s no specific treatment for Ebola any more than there is for the common cold, but simple hydration with electrolytes and bed rest put the odds in your favor.

One of the above claims is true.  The other four we dispute (and, in case you don’t know this already, we are also neither medical professionals nor attorneys!).

The correct claim, as confirmed by the CDC in a conference call to medical professionals earlier this week, is that there is currently no recommended treatment for Ebola.

As for the odds being in your favor if you simply take it easy in bed and drink Gatorade, well, that’s a bet we’d rather not take.  It is hard to get accurate statistics on fatality rates because in the West African nations where the Ebola outbreaks have occurred, data capture and recording is at best incomplete and far from definitive.  We are aware of one outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a 90% fatality rate in 2003, and most outbreaks have reported fatality rates in excess of 50%.

You could say these rates are skewed high because some people who were infected never entered the formal medical/care system and recovered on their own.  On the other hand, you could say these rates are skewed low because many families have chosen to obscure the deaths of relatives with Ebola due to shame and fear of being quarantined.  There are plenty of other adjustments you could selectively make to the statistics as well ( such as allowing for how not all cases first thought to be Ebola actually prove to be Ebola), but let’s just say that we urge the article writer not to infect himself and his family to prove his claim.

We also suggest he not expose himself to coughs, sneezes, and sweat to prove his claim that Ebola is a ‘lazy spreader’.  His lack of concern on that point is not matched by any health care authorities – in the field they are taking full ‘space suit’ type precautions any time there’s a hint of Ebola presence; in western hospitals they are not normally going to head coverings, unless they are carrying out aerosolizing procedures in the patient’s room which might cause contaminated liquids to be released into the air in droplet form.

Canada is more cautious.  Their guidelines would see Ebola cases and anything to do with Ebola – for example, blood testing – confined to the highest security Containment Level 4 facilities in Canada.  Health care workers are being told to wear double layers of protective clothing, plus eye protection and respirators.  The CDC in the US is slightly more relaxed, but only slightly so, and if you read between the lines of their treatment guidelines, and also receive their oral advice, they are clearly also treating this as very serious.

In their conference call earlier this week, the CDC said Ebola can be passed on through coughs, sneezes and sweat – through any and every form of bodily fluid.

The Canadian Public Health Agency says that as few as 1 – 10 aerosolized organisms are needed to create a viable infection in a new person.  Who do you believe – the attorney writing in the NY Post, who says you need to come in contact with large doses of blood or vomit?  Or the Canadian Public Health Agency, claiming that fewer than ten of these microscopic virus organisms are all that you need to ingest in order to have a high probability of contracting the disease?

Okay, enough of the rhetorical questions and the confusions.  Let’s try to establish some real world measures of what Ebola is and what we might expect in the future.

Well, perhaps let’s look at one more article, this one from Britain’s The Guardian, so as to put Ebola in perspective.  This article quite sensibly points out that every day, tens/hundreds/thousands more people die from many other causes, both natural and unnatural.  The ordinary common ‘flu kills thousands – maybe even hundreds of thousands – times more people each year than Ebola does.

Even the NY Post article gets one thing right – we’re probably all much more gravely and directly at risk of death through infection due to the failure of almost every remaining antibiotic and the massive growth of new super-bacteria that are resistant to all known antibiotics.  Where is the public alarm and clamor for massive investments in developing new antibiotics?

So why the alarm about Ebola, and why now rather than any of the previous outbreaks?

It is true that Ebola is a truly nasty virus.  It causes a very nasty sort of death, with patients sometimes bleeding out of every orifice in an undignified and painful death.  There are no cures, and as of their Tuesday morning conference call, the CDC said there are no recommended treatment procedures for patients with Ebola.  The visceral and visual impact of an Ebola death is much greater than many other types of disease/death.

Let’s now look at some of the facts and some of the possible implications of Ebola and this current infection.

How Do You Get an Ebola Infection

The answer to this question is being offered up by some people as good news.  We see it, rather, as closer to bad news.

Ebola is passed from person to person via the bodily fluids of the infected person.  Anything liquid, from tears to urine, from spit to blood, from sweat to semen, and anything/everything else you can think of, will contain the Ebola virus.

Apparently, during the period of incubation between when a person is infected and starts to exhibit symptoms, they are most likely not passing on Ebola in their fluids.  That’s a major blessing.  On the other hand, if a person beats Ebola and survives their infection, they continue passing on active deadly Ebola in their fluids for some weeks subsequently.  As mentioned above, Ebola has been tested as present in semen 61 days after the onset of the illness, and the CDC is recommending caution for up to three months.

So, on the face of it, as long as you don’t get wet from some type of liquid from an infected person, you’re safe.  Right?


First, there is a possible risk of what is termed aerosolized liquid infections.  When a person coughs, that is a disease’s attempt at perpetuating its life by spreading itself in tiny droplets of bodily fluid that are shot out as part of the coughing process.  These tiny droplets are termed an aerosol, and they can hang in the air for an extended time, and can travel appreciable distances.  It is thought that Ebola may possibly be transmitted this way, but you’d need to be close to the person for some time to have your chance of infection become material.

For example, if you’re on one side of the road, and an Ebola-infected person on the other side of the road coughed, your chance of contracting the disease is close to nil.  But on the other hand, if you’re in a closed space – a room of uncertain size – and a person on one side of the room coughed, then depending on the room volume, the airflow patterns, and how long you were in the room yourself, your chance of contracting Ebola from that cough starts to climb up the scale and may reach a point of significance.

The Canadian Public Health Agency is circumspect in their commentary, saying

airborne spread among humans is strongly suspected, although it has not yet been conclusively demonstrated

On the other hand, the World Health Organisation says (in an April note)

Airborne transmission has not been documented during previous EVD outbreaks

So airborne transmission of infection is very much an unknown at this stage, although you need to also realize that saying ‘has not been documented’ is not the same as saying ‘is impossible’.

Now, what about airplanes?  They are of course a very relevant type of closed space for many of us.  The good news is that modern planes have fairly well planned airflow paths designed to move air in and out of the cabin fairly quickly, rather than having a worst case scenario of air traveling all the way from one end of the cabin to the other before being removed.  But studies have shown there is a danger radius of several seats around a coughing person (don’t ask how many ‘several’ is – it also depends on how much coughing the person is doing, how long the flight is, how the air flow is being regulated, etc, but it is probably more than two and less than ten).  If you’re in an aisle seat, there’s also the chance of copping a ‘full load’ if the person goes up/down the aisle, coughing as they go.

So there may possibly be some risk if you’re traveling on a flight with an infected person who is also demonstrating Ebola symptoms.

But, wait.  There’s more.  It isn’t just the passengers you are flying with who you have to worry about.

What is the dirtiest thing you’ll touch when flying somewhere?  It isn’t what you might think – nothing to do with the bathroom.  According to this article, the biggest disease spreader are the bins into which you place objects when going through security.  If an infected person, some time before you, touched or coughed on the bin you’re now loading/unloading your stuff into, you might get an infection before you even leave your departing airport!

Now, when you get into your seat and obediently buckle your seat belt – ooops.  Another of the dirtiest places on the plane – the seat belt buckle.

Then, the real kicker.  You pull down the tray table, and place some food items on it prior to eating them.  Oh no!  That’s another of the dirtiest things on the plane.  And you just put some food on it – and even if you didn’t, you touched it with the hands that you are now touching your food with.

A very important issue to understand is therefore to know how long the Ebola virus remains active and a threat, when on an exposed surface, even after the liquid it was in has dried out?  The Canadian site says that it can survive, even without water, for ‘a number of days’, and adds that infectivity at room temperature is found to be stable.  We don’t know, because their source reference material is not linked and easily found on the internet, as to how many days ‘a number of days’ is.  One is a number, so too is a million!  But even if the ‘number’ is a relatively small number, that enormously magnifies the potential for transferred infection.

So, if you’re on a flight (or anywhere else), you not only need to be aware/concerned about the people around you, but you also need to wonder about who was also in your seat on the previous flight, using your bin at security, opening the overhead locker above your seat, and so on.  And the person on the flight before the previous flight, and possibly for several other flights, too.

The Wall St Journal published an excellent article about issues to do with catching infections of most sorts on planes back in 2011.  If you can’t access it, search for ‘Where Germs Lurk on Planes’ on Google and click the link from there and it will open.

The article points out that there are significantly elevated risks of catching some sort of infection on a plane (as many as one in five get a cold), and this risk is not so much as a result of the (re)circulated air (more people get an infection with the air off than with the air on) as it is from other transmission vectors such as dirty tray tables, etc – and also from all the other infection points in the airports you travel through too.

Our point is that practicing good hygiene on a plane is something to do as a matter of course, on all your flights, and the demonstrable risk of getting some sort of infection on a flight makes the potential risk of Ebola credible (assuming an Ebola-infected and afflicted individual recently flew in your same seat, etc).

How Serious is this Ebola Outbreak?

No-one really knows how serious this outbreak may grow to become.  It is already much larger than any previous outbreak, and it seems that it is still in a growth phase, with more newly reported cases and deaths every day.

It is true that Ebola has not spread like wildfire in past outbreaks, and one could even say that its present rate of growth in West Africa is slow rather than fast.  The present epidemic was first declared in March, and at the time of writing on 7 August, there are only 1070 confirmed cases of Ebola reported, plus another 641 unconfirmed suspected cases.  Of the total confirmed and suspected cases, 932 people have died (note that many of the people currently in the count of cases are still going through their period of sickness and some of these will die, making the mortality rate appreciably higher than 932/1711).

The good news is that currently there are no confirmed cases of Ebola ‘in the wild’ outside of West Africa.  As long as that continues, we can all semi-relax.

On the other hand, why did the CDC issue a Level One alert today for such a limited outbreak of a disease, so far away?  In the US, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year for ‘ordinary’ seasonal flu; in a good year 3,000 people die and in a bad year, as many as 50,000.  Currently no Americans have contracted Ebola in the US, so why is it being given so much prominence?

We’re not sure how much of the CDC decision is a response to media-induced anxiety, and how much is a reflection of the distant but real potential for Ebola to spiral out of control and deciding that it is better to prepare for a disaster than to be taken by surprise by it.

One of the problems with Ebola is that treating people with the disease is a resource-intensive process, and it would only take a very small percentage of our population coming down with Ebola to overload our hospitals.  There are, in total, 930,000 beds in US hospitals, and of course, many of these are occupied on an ongoing basis with non-deferrable emergency care of all kinds.  So even if something like one-quarter of one percent of the population were all infected at the same time, our hospital system would be overloaded.  Plus, even if the hospital beds were available, how soon before all the necessary supplies were exhausted?  (This is more likely to be a problem than you might think.  As an aside, my own recent ankle injury used up 2000 ft of four-inch gauze, along with all manner of other supplies, during the course of its care.)

Understanding what might happen is extremely speculative at this time, and the last few credible semi-panics about things such as SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu all proved to be much less impactful than was feared.  However, you might find it interesting to read about the impacts of the 1918 Spanish Flu on our country, and what that might mean to us if it reoccurred now – we discussed that, some years ago, here.

The bottom line is that the worst case scenario is beyond imagination.  The best case scenario is that Ebola never leaves West Africa.  The most likely outcome?  We can’t even guess.

There’s one interesting measure of how serious the present situation is.  The CDC’s Tuesday conference call discussion of Ebola, with physicians and other health care professionals invited to participate, saw some people unable to log into the call, requiring up to 15 minutes of dialing to get past the busy signals.  It is thought the CDC initially set up the conference call with a greater than usual number of incoming lines, and then needed to add more lines, realtime, as the call was progressing so as to allow the greatly larger than normal number of people to listen in.  When it closed there were still 95 pending questions from participants unanswered (due to running out of time).

Clearly the medical community in the US is treating this very seriously.

Is There a Cure for Ebola?  A Vaccine?

The short answer is ‘no’ and ‘no’.  All that healthcare providers can do is provide palliative care – helping to make sufferers comfortable, keeping them hydrated, and hope for the best.

There are some experimental drugs under development, but they are a long way being ready for full release, and even if/when that happens, the time it would take to make vast quantities of these drugs to combat a major global epidemic would cause it to be a case of ‘too little, too late’.

Work is also underway on developing Ebola vaccines, but in the cruel calculus that the drug companies work to, there’s not a lot of profit to be made in developing a vaccine that would primarily be sold (ie almost given away) to people in some of the poorest countries in Africa.  It is better – for them – to work on a new improved anti-anxiety drug or ‘social medicine’.

Where Does Ebola Come From?  Will it Keep Re-occurring?

Ebola was first identified in the Democratic Congo Republic in 1976.

It is believed to be present in some West African animal species – possibly monkeys and probably bats, and so while human outbreaks come and go, the potential for new outbreaks remains and will likely continue to remain for the foreseeable future, due to the presence of the virus in these wild animal populations.

There are four different types of Ebola virus, and one closely related (Marburg).

What Should You Do

Until such time as Ebola appears ‘in the wild’ in the US, there’s nothing specific you need to do.

But, having said that, we’d suggest you use this as a ‘wake up call’ and as a gentle encouragement to become more vigilant about hygiene matters in general.  No, we’re not talking about hygiene in the sense of changing your socks and showering more often, but in the sense of washing your hands and avoiding ‘dirty’ things.

Carry hand sanitizer gel with you, and make a habit of washing your hands or using the gel any time you’re about to handle food.  Be more aware of what are termed ‘fomites‘ – surfaces on which infections can be passed from one person to another.

The next time you press an elevator button, wonder who else has been pressing it (or coughing on it) earlier in the day.  The next time you hold onto a support railing on a bus or subway, think who else has been doing the same.  You hold on to the moving handrail on an escalator, the same as thousands of other people each day.  The next door handle you reach for.  The keys on a credit card charging PIN pad.  And so on and so on.

After appreciating the potential for all manner of germs to be passed on via such fomites, make a point of washing your hands more often.

It might also be interesting to do a thought experiment, discussed in the next paragraph.

A Useful Thought Experiment

Ask yourself what if Ebola (or any other infectious disease) was to break out.  How could you adjust your work and personal lifestyle to reduce your contacts with other people?

If you work in a role directly serving customers, then you probably have little chance of adjusting your work duties.  But if you work in an office, shuffling papers (or, more likely these days, their electronic equivalent), how much of that work could you do remotely, from home?

What other requirements do you have – what other unavoidable needs are there to be in public and therefore at risk?

For many of us, the main unavoidable need is to buy food.  Even that can sometimes be minimized if your city offers an internet grocery delivery service.  If you choose to buy food in person, we’d suggest you go very early in the morning to do so.  Yes, very late at night is also an option, but we prefer early in the morning just to put some more hours between us and when the main swell of people visiting the supermarket, during the daytime, has occurred.

You might also want to alter your food buying habits – we’d go easy on fruit or anything else that is not likely to be thoroughly heated prior to eating, and we’d also consider everything we bought as a possible fomite, with infection on its hard surfaces.

We’d buy large quantities of food infrequently so as to keep our contacts with the outside world to a minimum.  And also – a really scary thought – but if infection levels did start to rise, this would start to cause gaps in the supply chains for many things.  You know that any time there is a threatened snow storm, or even just an ordinary long weekend, the supermarkets fill with crowds of people and quickly empty of food.  An epidemic could create disruptions of unknown severity to what is a fragile supply system with lots of dependencies and very little ‘fault tolerance’ or redundancy built into it.  So we’d ramp up our at-home supply of food, just in case.

Our article on minimizing your risks of infection has other ideas and strategies.

One more thing we’d do.  We’d cut back on any non-essential air travel, so as to keep away from all the crowds of other people in airports and on planes.

Working through this thought experiment, it might be a good idea to make some preliminary preparations, particularly in terms of adjusting your work duties to allow for much of your work to be done from home.  This would be good not only for you, but also for the continued operation of the business if it became difficult or imprudent to have everyone rubbing shoulders with everyone else at the same time.

Ebola, the Airlines, and the Travel Industry

Many airlines (most recently, British Airways and Emirates) have curtailed or cancelled their flights into the affected regions of West Africa.  That probably has very little impact on their operations or profitability currently, but what if – like with the SARS scare – people start to reduce their flying, due to concerns about Ebola exposure?

We can only guess about this, but it would seem to be part of the unbreakable cycle of bad luck for the airline industry – almost without exception, every time the airlines claw their way back to healthy profit, as is the case at present, something disruptive occurs and they dip back into terrible losses once again.

Of course, if people aren’t flying as much, they’re not renting as many cars, staying in as many hotels, and neither are they eating as many meals out.  If people are avoiding crowds, they’re also avoiding Disneyland and other amusement parks and tourist attractions.  The entire travel industry would suffer.

It remains to be seen what impact the current Ebola scare might have on the global travel industry.  But there is definitely a palpable possibility that it could mess things up.


Ebola is a deadly virus-based disease that kills more than half of all people infected.  There is currently neither any cure nor a vaccine to prevent infection, although both are under development.

At present, it is impossible to predict how this (and future) Ebola outbreaks will unfold.  Just because it is currently growing (and at only a slow/moderate rate) does not lead to an inevitable continued and massively more rapid growth.  On the other hand, just because it has never traveled out of West Africa before does not guarantee it won’t get loose in North America or Europe this time.

In a sense, each extra Ebola patient is a bit like having another chance at winning a macabre lottery.  The more patients, the more tickets in the lottery, and the more chances of ‘winning’ – but in this case, the prize is a major international outbreak.

Just like, with real-life lotteries, we buy many tickets but seldom/never win the jackpot, the thousands of ‘tickets’ in the form of Ebola infected people over the last almost 40 years have yet to ‘win the jackpot’ (of the disease spreading outside of Africa).  But, with each passing year and each extra infected person, the chance grows, because of the continued spread of easy fast international travel.  The up to three-week gap between when a person gets infected with Ebola and starts to then show the symptoms would allow such an international disease carrier a lot of time to get to just about anywhere in the world.  Not to be melodramatic, but in the worst case scenario, nowhere would be safe.

For now, there is nothing any of us need to do other than to do a prudent re-appraisal of our personal hygiene practices.  But if Ebola does end up in the general population of the US, things could drastically change.

Meantime, please remember that there are many more diseases and more pressing challenges in our immediate lives than Ebola.  For example, apparently even rabbit fever!

The CDC have ongoing updates on the Ebola situation, with pages of material prominently linked from their homepage.

Jul 312014
Toyota's new hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicle, the Mirai.

Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicle, the Mirai.

Good morning

Hopefully the summer, redolent with setting new records for coldest days ever recorded, is proceeding positively for you.

It has been a disappointing week for travelers, with the passing of seven days seeing us no closer to any conclusive understanding about what caused the crash of the MH 17 flight over Ukraine; indeed, is it only me, or are the earlier semi-strident condemnations and accusations from the west to Russia now becoming more muted and tentative?

On the ground, investigators still haven’t managed to (literally) fight their way to the site, and one has to wonder exactly what help the contingent of unarmed Australian policeman are while the Ukrainian forces are in heated battle with the rebels.  Of course, another week has given the ‘other side’ all the opportunity they need to modify whatever they choose in the way of evidence, and if nothing else, their clear desire to keep possibly impartial third-party investigators away from the crash scene would seem to be prima facie evidence of guilt on their part.

Let’s not also forget MH 370, either.  The weeks continue to roll there, too, and we’re no closer to knowing anything much at all about that mysterious disappearance, which occurred back on 8 March – almost five months ago.

On a happier airline note, please find after tonight’s roundup a review/write-up of an airline with a perfect unbroken safety record – the Taiwanese based EVA Air – now a Star Alliance partner, and having just upped their flight schedule to 55 weekly departures (previously 45) from the six airports it services in US and Canada.  Read why I recommend this as an airline to consider the next time you’re flying to pretty much anywhere in Asia.

There’s another article for you too, this week.  Titled ‘You Can’t Trust Your Ears – or Anyone Else’s’ it is an introduction to my series about high-end audio and the nonsense foisted on us by audio snake oil salesmen.  It has some interesting audio tests and tricks in it that should clearly show you that not only is seeing not believing, but hearing should not be believing, either.  Don’t worry – after tearing down your preconceived notions about audio excellence and your ability to hear it, I will be providing you with the tools to dispassionately test and prove to yourself what is appropriate for you to invest in and what is not.

One last introductory comment.  I wrote about a new Scottevest vest last week – it has 26 pockets including an RFID blocking pocket, and I liked it.  It is far from uncommon when I write about something that I get a note from the item’s manufacturer, and on those rare occasions when I say nice things, they usually say nice things to me in return.  But this is the first time ever that I received a video thank you note from Scottevest’s CEO.  I thought it a classy touch, and a suitable indicator of the classy approach they have to designing and making their jackets.

What else this week?  Please read on for :

  • New Startup Airlines in the US
  • JetBlue to Start Charging for Our First Checked Bag?
  • The Story Behind the Headline
  • Strangest Excuse for a Flight Delay
  • Was This an Outrageous Ripoff?
  • The Automobile Revolution Continues Apace
  • Ebola Travel Warning
  • And Lastly This Week….

New Startup Airlines in the US

The established airlines are enjoying their most profitable trading ever, and as a result, some brave entrepreneurs are seeking to join in at the trough.

And about time.  Not only do we have a unique concentration of market share in only four super-carriers (AA DL UA WN), but it has been a long time since the last startup – Virgin America, which after way too many years in the making, finally took off in 2007 (and which is believed to have lost more than $600 million since that time as it struggles to become profitable and viable).

Talking about Virgin America, this week the airline filed its intention to switch from a private corporate to a public company, via an IPO which it is thought might raise $300 million in fresh capital, valuing the airline at around $1 billion.  That’s a very high value for a company that has lost so much money, leavened only by a tiny $10 million profit last year, and which then lost twice that much in this year’s first quarter.  Joe Brancatelli tells us why he thinks it to be a bad investment here.

A sobering statistic reveals that of the 400 airlines authorized to start service since deregulation in 1978, 264 have gone out of business, 62 never actually started operations, and only 68 remain flying.  Sounds about as risky to start an airline as to start a restaurant.

But we now have a new People Express in business, we are thought to shortly see a new Eastern Air Lines, and nearly saw what would have been the sixth attempt at restarting an airline flying with the Pan Am name.  A number of other airline startups are moving through the process, and this story has more details about what to expect.

JetBlue to Start Charging for Our First Checked Bag?

Talking about airline startups, JetBlue is one of the newest airlines (founded in 1998) and they’ve tried to do things differently from the major airlines.  This they’ve done with a good measure of success – they are now the fifth largest US carrier (albeit more than four times smaller than the fourth largest carrier and more than six times smaller than the very largest carrier).

One of their points of differentiation has been to allow your first checked bag to travel for free, unlike all the major carriers, except for Southwest.  Did you even know that?

Probably you didn’t, and whether you did or didn’t, it probably has never influenced you to the point where you’ve preferentially chosen to fly on Jetblue rather than one of their competitors.  So it is unsurprising to read that the airline is considering adding a charge for the first bag.

This is sadly sensible.  If turning their back on tens of millions of dollars of net profit brings them no advantage, why should they continue to do so?

Rumor also continues to hint that Southwest occasionally thinks about charging for bags, too.

The Story Behind the Headline

On the face of it, this seemed like a wonderful act of airline kindness, decency, and possibly even generosity.  Air NZ voluntarily gave NZ$1000 (US$850) each to the several hundred passengers stranded in Honolulu due to problems with their 767 that was supposed to fly them to Auckland, NZ.  The airline had also put up all the passengers in hotels during the multi-day delay.

Even often surly Foxnews headlined this as the ‘best delay ever’.

We’re not sure that it is possible to describe any delay as a good delay, and one which sees you stuck for two additional days is definitely never good.  Furthermore, the time waiting for the plane to be repaired was not in the form of a bonus couple of days lying on the beach at Waikiki – instead, passengers were being shuttled to and fro their hotels and the airport, rechecking in, and almost getting ready to reboard before being told that, sorry, no, the plane wasn’t fixed, and so on.  Definitely not the best delay ever.

But why did Air NZ become so spontaneously generous with the $1000 compensation checks?

Not only did they have high-profile NZ business celebrities on the flight (including the founder of NZ’s version of eBay), but they also had the Editor-in-chief of the country’s largest newspaper on board, and he was filing realtime reports about the comedic series of messups and mistakes he and his fellow passengers were suffering, and making sure that his newspaper gave more prominence to the story than perhaps it otherwise deserved.

So, do we really think that Air NZ has a corporate policy to always give away $1000 per passenger when things go really wrong?  Or is it an act influenced by the high-profile negative press coverage that was flooding down on them?  And the fact that it has a keen competitor on the Auckland-Honolulu route (excellent Hawaiian Airlines), just waiting to scoop up disaffected travelers?

Strangest Excuse for a Flight Delay

Air New Zealand’s two-day delay was for a very unoriginal reason – an engine appeared to be overheating at takeoff.

A much better excuse for a 4  3/4 hour delay was offered by Russian airline S7.  One of its 737s got stuck on a taxiway at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.  Stuck – as in literally stuck.

Hot weather (95 degrees) caused the asphalt to melt and some of the plane’s wheels sunk 4″ – 6″ into the tarmac.

Details here.

Was This an Outrageous Ripoff?

The headline reads ‘Hotel charges man $127 for three bottles of water’.  Charging $127 for three 500 ml (quart) bottles of San Pellegrino water seems to set a new record for base greed, and quite a few media outlets delighted in decrying the greed of the Wellesley hotel in London for doing this.

The reason for the high price (in British terms, £75) was because the three people were at the bar during its busy time of day, when the hotel imposes a £25 per person minimum spend requirement.  Most people have no difficulty spending £25 each on a few drinks, and those who don’t feel comfortable with that policy are allegedly warned by a note on the menus.

The businessman claims not to have seen the warning (or menus at all) and only to have discovered the policy when receiving a bill.  Furthermore, it seems the practice of minimum spends is rare rather than commonplace, even in expensive London hotels (for example, the almost immediately adjoining and slightly further upmarket Lanesborough has no such thing).

So – an outrageous ripoff?  Probably, yes.  Shame on the Wellesley.

The Automobile Revolution Continues Apace

I mentioned at the end of an article about Amtrak last week that we are probably the last generation of drivers who will use gasoline powered cars and do the driving ourselves.

This is something to really consider, especially if you’re looking at investing heavily in new cars in the next few years.  Just this week saw some more ‘straws in the wind’ pointing to what I predict will be an astonishingly rapid evolution in consumer transport technologies.

Something that has been promised for many years has been hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles, and now it seems that Toyota will be releasing a ‘real’ hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicle next year, the Mirai.  I’m far from confident that this technology will prove to be a winner, because there are major costs and hassles involved in creating hydrogen fuel and transporting it to ‘gas’ stations – I guess they will literally become gas stations in such a case!  But it is good to see this semi-experimental technology getting closer to a reality, and kudos for Toyota for doing so – indeed, the car manufacturer is reportedly more keen on this technology than on the hybrid technology so successfully demonstrated in its Prius.

The car may cost about $70,000, making it comparable to an entry-level Tesla (which almost never sells, every Tesla I’ve ever seen on the road has been the upgraded big battery 85 kWh version).  The Mirai is thought to have about a 430 mile range, and refilling it with hydrogen takes about as long as refilling a regular car with petrol.

Talking about Tesla, their critical ingredient is batteries, and news this week came of the next step toward the opening of their ‘Gigafactory’ – a large facility that will manufacture batteries (and breaking news just in suggests it will be located in Reno).  It is thought that creating a ‘soup to nuts’ complete battery factory, doing it in-house, and doing it on an enormous scale will all combine to create a massive reduction in the cost of battery packs.

Add in a mix of some of the new battery technologies currently under development, and battery-powered cars promise to drop massively in price (as is already being offered with the upcoming Tesla model III) while increasing greatly in range, and becoming capable of being charged in shorter and shorter times. (I also like the concept of battery swaps, where you simply drive your vehicle into a swap station and a robotic arm quickly pulls out your battery pack and plugs in a new one, allowing you to drive off again in under five minutes with a fully charged battery.)

With battery-powered cars getting about 3 miles per kilowatt-hour, that translates to a cost of perhaps 3 cents a mile for ‘fuel’, together with much lower costs for general vehicle maintenance.  That’s a compelling value proposition (if you’re paying $4/gallon for petrol and getting 20 mpg, you’re currently paying 20c a mile – seven times as much).

The other part of the massive rewrite of the auto industry and personal transportation is self-driving cars, and my prediction here is that the switch to self-driving cars will also happen much faster than any of us currently expect.  As this 2013 article comments, before long, the cost of adding self-driving capabilities to any car will be less than $200.  A cruise control option sells for more than that currently.

Britain announced this week that it would be starting a test of self-driving cars next January in three cities.  The testing will run 18 – 36 months, and who knows what will happen at the end of that period, but you can be sure that the self-drive technologies at the end of the test program will put the current ‘state of the art’ systems to shame.

So, by 2020, will we see widespread adoption of self-driving cars powered by lithium-ion battery packs?  As futuristic as it seems, my sense is yes, we will.

Ebola Travel Warning

I had a concerned physician friend call me on Thursday, drawing my attention to a new CDC Level 3 Travel Warning, advising against all non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, due to the worsening Ebola outbreak in the region.

He also pointed out that the Peace Corps has withdrawn all its 340 volunteers from these countries.

Chances are you weren’t planning on going to those countries anyway.  The good news about this terrible virus is that it can only be acquired from direct contact with an afflicted person’s bodily fluids (or to an object – a ‘fomite’ – on which bodily fluids exist).  The bad news is that there is no cure for it other than palliative care, and survival rates are low.  So far, the present outbreak (which also has one probable case in Nigeria) has comprised 1323 suspected and confirmed cases of Ebola and 729 deaths (and the current survivors implied by the lower death than infection number are people who may still die).

The broader implications for those of us not going to west Africa are not yet at scare levels.  But, as is always the case these days, and noting a three-week period between a person becoming infected and displaying signs of the infection, it is important to realize that west Africa is only a couple of plane rides away from us – and talking about plane rides, there is now worldwide concern tracing passengers on two flights alongside an infected person.

And Lastly This Week….

One of the most peculiar trends in some ‘artsy’ hotels is to have clear glass between the bathroom and bedroom in their rooms.  Some even have little or nothing dividing the bathroom area from the bedroom area at all.

I’ve no wish to share in such activities with anyone else who is traveling with me – either to share my experiences or theirs.  And I don’t know anyone else who feels positively about this new ‘feature’ either.

But now a hotel in Berlin has come up with an even worse design feature.  Bathrooms with floor to ceiling glass windows that outlook onto the busy streets outside.  This story includes a graphic illustration of what passers-by can see.

Clearly the hotel’s bathroom designers had not read this list of the top ten dislikes guests have about hotels.

Truly lastly this week, the relationship between the French and British has not always been an easy or settled one.  That fact – and perhaps a familiarity with the movie ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ perhaps might go a little way to helping one understand this.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Jul 172014
A Bee-line to a disaster.  The last part of the flight of MH17 yesterday.

A Bee-line to a disaster. The last part of the flight of MH17 yesterday.

Good morning

As I write this late on Thursday, the news is full of the Malaysia Airlines crashed 777 – not the mysterious MH370 of almost five months ago, but instead, MH17, a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which crashed over eastern Ukraine, with all 298 passengers and crew believed dead.  Here’s an interesting photo gallery of the wreckage.  Professional air accident investigators will be horrified at how people seem able to roam freely through the debris, possibly compromising vital evidence that could help explain what happened, how and why.

At this early point, it seems probable that it was shot down by a missile, but it is not yet clear who launched the missile.  Certainly the Ukrainian forces, battling against Russian backed separatists in that region, have missiles capable of shooting down planes at 33,000 ft, which is the altitude the plane was on.

The separatists say they only have ‘MANPADS’ – small portable surface to air missiles that can’t reach much more than half that height, but it is credibly believed they too have longer range surface to air missiles that could reach up that far – either ones they’ve taken control of when over-running Ukrainian military bases or possibly ones gifted to them by Russian supporters.

It also seems the separatists have been shooting at other planes for the last few days, whereas the Ukrainian forces have not.  This is unsurprising, because the separatists probably have no air assets, whereas the Ukrainian national forces do.  Furthermore, the Ukrainian national forces are connected to all their command and control resources, enabling them to identify ordinary non-threat civilian airplane movements that are traveling on filed and controlled flight plans, whereas the separatists probably do not have this capability.

While anything could have happened at any actual missile launcher location, on balance of probabilities we slightly lean, currently, to assigning the responsibility for this incident more to the separatist forces.

Update – there is a very damning ‘smoking gun’ that points more clearly to the separatists being responsible.  This article points to an internet post by the separatist leader Igor Strelkov, boasting of having just shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane.  It was accompanied by video of the crash scene – what is thought to be the same crash scene as the MH crash.  Then, when news of the MH 777 being shot down started to promulgate, Strelkov’s boast was deleted off the website.

Muddying the waters a bit is a counter-claim that perhaps someone was trying to shoot down President Putin’s plane, which was close by at the time and looks very similar.  In such a case, it would be unthinkable that it would be the Russian/Putin backed rebels who launched the missile.  The proximity of the two planes was subsequently denied by Russia.

We continue to believe it more likely this was a separatist launched attack, probably on what it believed to be a Ukrainian military transport plane.

Both Russia and Ukraine have shot down passenger planes in the past.  Russia shot down a 747 – KE 007 in 1983, and prior to that, in 1978, another Korean Airlines flight, KE 902, a 707 that managed to crash-land with only two fatalities.  Ukraine shot down a Siberian Airlines flight that was operating a Tu-154 charter from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk in 2001.

In the interests of completeness, the US of course also shot down a passenger plane – Iran Air flight 655, in 1988.  This might be the most egregious of all uncalled for civilian airplane shootdowns.  It happened while the plane was flying in Iran’s own national air space.  The flight was a normal scheduled flight and on its normal flight path, and sending out a proper IFF ‘squawk’ identifying itself as the civilian lawful flight it was.  The US has never admitted responsibility nor apologized.  Details here.

flightradar24bPerhaps the most regrettable aspect is what the plane was doing flying through airspace where two other planes have been shot down just this week.  The FAA has forbidden US flights to travel through the broader conflict for some time (but not because of concerns of them being shot down, but due to ambiguities about which aviation authority was controlling the airspace).  Other airlines, not operated under FAA oversight, have been free to make their own decisions.  Some chose to spend extra fuel and travel time to detour, others did not.

The point here is also to appreciate it was not just MH that decided to save some fuel and take direct routes, even if over the contested territory.  Other airlines were doing so, too, although they (in particular, Air France and Lufthansa) are now hastily announcing rerouting plans to avoid that area in the future, and sites such as Flightradar24 now show a very conspicuous ‘hole’ around eastern Ukraine with airlines now giving the region a wide detour.  The only airlines now seen in Ukrainian airspace appear to be those flying to/from or within Ukraine.

There had been various warnings promulgated in April that advised airlines to avoid that area and told airlines they faced ‘serious risks’.  But it seems that many airlines believed that by flying at high altitude – above the level at which portable IR controlled heat seeking SAMs could reach – they were avoiding the risks/dangers.  Only ‘heavy duty’ semi-fixed (either on trucks or ground installations) missile systems and their associated radar control systems could reach up 30,000+ feet, and those had been thought to be more responsibly controlled.

The last short while has seen the separatist forces seize military bases where such high-altitude missile systems were located, and other unconfirmed reports suggest sighting similar missile systems elsewhere under separatist control, so perhaps the risk factor escalated further without the airlines realizing.

The European version of the FAA has now declared Ukrainian airspace closed to all flights to and from the EU.

One last point.  Currently it is not yet a certainty that the plane did crash as a result of a missile attack.  Okay, so it is 99% probable that a missile caused the plane to fall out of the sky, but there is still a small amount of possible ambiguity.  Unfortunately, all the layerings of various special interest groups, and a very diffuse debris field in the middle of a war zone, may make it difficult to get an accurate and complete understanding of what happened.

Here’s a lot more commentary and breaking news in a rather unfiltered format.

I’m moving forward with my article series/exposé on high-end audio, and have three parts of the series written.  But I want to wait until I’ve completed it before releasing it, so you can see the complete story laid out bare.  So that will hopefully appear next week.

Meanwhile, please keep reading below for :

  • NZ Tour Mistake Now Corrected
  • Farnborough Air Show Outcomes
  • Boeing Announces New ‘Super Squash’ Seating Option for 737 Max 8
  • Airbus Patents Bicycle Seat Airplane Seating
  • The World’s Biggest Spending Tourists – Not Welcome in the US
  • Security Fee Increases, but TSA Doesn’t Benefit
  • Most Outrageous Air Travel Fee Ever?
  • Concordia Successfully Dislodged
  • And Lastly This Week….

NZ Tour Mistake Now Corrected

The concept of a 'traffic jam' has a different meaning in New Zealand.

The concept of a ‘traffic jam’ has a different meaning in New Zealand.

Ooops.  My bad.  If you’d been wanting to join our lovely October Epicurean Extravaganza to New Zealand, but got an error message after completing the signup form, then massive apologies to you.

The programming glitch has been corrected, and so I’m holding open registration for one more week in case you got caught out.

So please do choose to share New Zealand with me and your fellow Travel Insiders, and choose to enjoy this lovely tour in October.  We’ve a great itinerary that gives you a blend of arranged experiences and free time to customize exactly as you wish.

And – oh yes, you can now fill out the form with confidence!

Farnborough Air Show Outcomes

The biennial Farnborough Air Show (it alternates years, with the Paris Air Show being held in the off-years) was this week.

It started off unexpectedly when the UK government decided to score an ‘own-goal’ and banned many Russians from visiting, in retaliation for Russian support of the Ukrainian separatists.

Okay, you might be wondering what the link is between banning Russian businessmen from visiting an international trade show and the civil war in Ukraine, but that’s a question we can’t answer.  But we do note it isn’t only the UK that is imposing constraints on Russia and Russians – the US is happily doing so too, including such farcical things as banning friends of President Putin from visiting the US, not because they are suspected of any wrongdoing, but merely because they are friends of Russia’s President.

(We’re not actually saying the Russians should not face consequences for their actions.  We’re saying that the limited nature and extent of the consequences being imposed on Russia are laughably trivial and of little consequence.)

The Russians could probably care less – if they wanted to buy some aerospace technology, they could do so simply by picking up the phone and arranging for a rep to come visit them.  But the British companies trying to compete against other companies, elsewhere in the world, and to sell their equipment to Russian customers – well, they are surely now at a disadvantage.

It is also relevant to understand that this action threatens the prominence of the Farnborough Air Show entirely.  If the exhibitors, who come from all over the world, and many of whom have links to Russian businesses and customers, now perceive the Farnborough show as one where they’ll no longer be able to efficiently reach buyers from all around the globe, they might decide to stop attending and to switch their attendance to one of the several other air shows each year – perhaps the Dubai air show, or even MAKS – Russia’s air show in Moscow.

At the show, Airbus announced a new version of its popular A330 widebody plane, and also said it would not upgrade its A380, even though Emirates allowed itself to be quoted ‘thinking out loud’ that if Airbus were to do so, it would probably order another 40 – 60 of the enormous super-jumbos.

The new A330neo plane will compete with Boeing’s 787 family, but is a traditional aluminum framed plane (and almost certainly with no lithium-ion batteries either!).

There had been some weak speculation that Boeing might have announced or hinted at a successor to its 757 airplane model, which ceased production ten years ago, but nothing was announced, with Boeing apparently relying on its new longer range and higher passenger capacity 737 airplanes to address that segment of its product mix.

Both Airbus and Boeing like to save up some new order announcements for shows such as this.  This year saw Airbus win this semi-rigged competition, by announcing 496 new plane orders, while Boeing announced 201.  However, Boeing points out that in terms of total year-to-date orders, it is still ahead with 783 orders compared to Airbus’ 648.

Bombardier picked up another 50 orders and promises of future orders for its new C series jet, bringing total sales now above 500.  While a modest number by Airbus and Boeing standards, having secured 500+ sales prior to the first plane’s delivery has to be considered a successful achievement for Bombardier’s airplane building business.  Well done to our friends north of the border in Canada.

Boeing Announces New ‘Super Squash’ Seating Option for 737 Max 8

Although Boeing did not announce any new planes at Farnborough, it did announce it will be adding an optional extra emergency exit to its new 737 Max 8 airplane, which would allow airlines to add extra seats and still remain compliant with the requirement to be able to evacuate the plane quickly.

This would increase the plane’s rated capacity from 189 to 200 seats – a rather terrifying thought because the airplane body is not being stretched at all.  So how will airlines squash in 11 more seats?

Boeing washed its hands of the issue, saying it was up to the airlines, and helpfully suggested that changing the dimensions or positioning of toilets or galleys might create more space.  Oh yes, another possibility would be reducing the seat pitch by an enormous two inches.  With toilets and galleys already as small as imaginable, guess what airlines are likely to do?

You might think ‘two inches isn’t much when we have 30″ of space already’ but you’d be wrong if you thought that.  The issue isn’t a simple proportional reduction, but rather, those two inches come out of whatever remaining free space there is between your knees and the seat in front of you.

Have a look, next time you’re on a 737, and decide how happy you would be to see the seat in front get two inches closer to your knees.

Oh yes – not wanting to be outdone, Airbus is coming up with a way to shoehorn nine more seats into its A320neo, increasing its capacity from 180 to 189.

Many airlines are currently trading at their most profitable levels ever in their entire corporate histories.  Might it not now be reasonable to hope they’d stop obsessing over how to exchange passenger comfort for corporate profit?

Airbus Patents Bicycle Seat Airplane Seating

airbuspatentbAirbus has now filed a patent for a bicycle style seat to allow for even higher passenger densities.  You’d have a bit of an armrest as well as the seat, but nowhere to stow anything like personal electronics or reading material, because there are no seat backs or anything else.

Airbus says, in its patent application, that this type of seating would be tolerable for flights that last ‘only one or a few hours’.  That’s a curious concept.  Anyone can understand what ‘one or two’ means, but what does ‘one or a few’ mean?

Let’s be optimistic and assume that ‘few’ means three.  How would you like to sit upright on a bicycle seat, with no backrest, and possibly in turbulent skies, for three hours (plus time on the ground during boarding and taxiing, etc – maybe four hours in total)?

The World’s Biggest Spending Tourists – Not Welcome in the US

Can you guess as to who the world’s biggest spending tourists are?  Indeed, can you guess as to the world’s three biggest spending nationalities for people when they go on vacation?

The people who spend the most on vacation are the Chinese, followed by the Russians, and with the third most prolific spenders being the Indonesians.

Americans come in at number four, and then Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Saudi Arabian, UAE and Hong Kong citizens to complete the full top ten list.

It is also interesting to see where the big spenders like to spend most of their money.  France gets the most expenditure, followed by UK, Italy, Germany, Singapore, Finland, Austria, Spain and South Korea.

Here are details of the list and how it was created.

Now, please guess how many of these top ten spending nations are on the US visa waiver list, and how many are countries where their citizens need to go through a lengthy, expensive, and demeaning visa application process, including personal interview at the US embassy/consulate?

Good news for the Japanese (#5).  They are welcome to visit.  But none of the other big spenders are allowed to travel to the US without first going through this appalling visa process.

It is no wonder that the US therefore does not appear in the list of the top destinations where these people go to spend their money.

Would it be too politically incorrect of me to notice the strange contradiction between our apparent new de facto ‘open border’ policy on our southern border, and the billions of dollars that this is costing us; but our refusal to make it as easy as possible for wealthy visitors to come spend their money in our country and create new jobs and wealth for us.

Why is an illegal alien greeted more warmly and with less bureaucracy than a wealthy Chinese or Russian who simply wishes to come and spend thousands of dollars in our hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, stores, and so on, before returning back to their homeland?

Security Fee Increases, but TSA Doesn’t Benefit

Currently there is a $2.50 per domestic segment security fee added to our tickets, to cover the cost of TSA security services.  That fee is now changing, and instead of $2.50 per segment, it is becoming $5.60 per oneway trip (possibly comprising two or more connecting segments).

It is a bit hard to compare apples with apples to explain exactly how much extra we’ll all now be paying, but clearly, if your itinerary has you flying a single nonstop flight each way for your roundtrip, your former $5 fee will now be $11.20, and if your itinerary had you flying through a hub, two flights each way, your former $10 fee will now be $11.20.  So it isn’t a question of if the cost to us will increase, but rather a question of how much it will rise.

But before you look even more hatefully at the TSA officers next time you go through airport screening, there’s one thing you should know.  That money isn’t going to the TSA.  Our new increased security fee is now going into the general government budget, for vague ‘deficit reduction’ (or ‘overspending enablement’) purposes rather than directly to the TSA.

It is expected that the US Treasury will net about $1.2 billion extra each year for the next ten years from this fee increase.  More details here.

Most Outrageous Air Travel Fee Ever?

No, we’re not still talking about the increased ‘security’ fee.

People like to joke that the only two things that remain free when flying somewhere is the air in the cabin and the toilet.

Caracas Airport officials have obviously taken that joke as a challenge, because they are now adding a ‘Breathing Tax’ levied on all people flying out of the airport.  This purportedly covers the cost of a new ozone air filtration system.

The Breathing Tax is not insubstantial.  It is US$20 per person.  If you don’t pay it, you can’t fly (but presumably can still continue breathing until ejected out of the airport.

More details here.

Costa Concordia Successfully Dislodged

Remember the Costs Concordia ‘sinking’ off the Italian coast on 13 January 2012 (the quotes around ‘sinking’ are because the ship settled in shallow water with much of its superstructure remaining above the waterline)?  32 of the 4252 people on board lost their lives – but definitely not the captain because he was, ahem, one of the first to abandon the ship.

The cost of salvaging the ship was originally estimated, in May 2012, to be about $300 million, making it the most expensive ship salvage operation ever.

By the time the ship had been righted, in September 2013, the cost had increased to $800 million.

This week saw the ship refloated and it is now being prepared to be towed away and then broken up for scrap in Genoa.  The revised final cost for the operation is now standing proudly at $2 billion.

The ship originally cost $570 million when it was constructed in 2005/6.

And Lastly This Week….

What is the dirtiest thing you’re likely to come in contact with on your next air journey?  And does it really matter if it is clean or dirty?

We’ll allow you to find out the answer to the first question by clicking this link, but for the second question, with the growing abundance of ‘super-bug’ infections that are appearing not just in hospitals but elsewhere, yes it definitely does matter.

Talking about infections and other medical issues, what to make of a sign exhorting you to ‘burn the hand carefully’?  Why is it that some of the most hilarious bad English signs come from Asia?  Well, that’s an imponderable, but here is a series of ten delightfully weird English translations.

And, talking about ‘dirty’ things, here’s a fascinating article drawing your attention to yet another thing to worry about when traveling.  Hotel door peepholes.  Whatever will be next?

Truly lastly this week, perhaps you should ask for ID before following the TSA man into a secondary screening room….

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







May 162014
The incredible shrinking US airlines.  See article, below.

The incredible shrinking US airlines. See article, below.

Good morning

A couple of happy birthday notes this week, the older first.

It is 60 years ago since the Boeing 707 prototype first rolled out of its hangar.  The 707 can be said to mark the transformation of aviation from the elitist era of smaller slower planes with comparatively limited range and much higher costs per tickets, and the new jet age – safe, comfortable, fast and convenient air travel for everyone.  Today, sixty years later, we still have safe air travel, but planes are slower than the 707, much less comfortable, and the overall travel experience decidedly less convenient.  Progress is such a fickle thing.

The 707 prototype was named the Model 367-80.  The 367 was an invented nomenclature that perhaps, on the basis of 3+6 = 9, hinted at the plane’s origins, the C-97 Stratofreighter, and the -80 means it was the 80th design in the development series.  When it appeared, it was an enormously bold move by Boeing – they developed the plane without a single up-front order, and still had none when the ‘Dash 80′ (as it was popularly termed) was rolled out 60 years ago.  The boldness of this move is all the more apparent when you realize that this was the second attempt at a passenger jet – an earlier model, the 473-60, was a total failure and didn’t win any airline orders at all.

But Boeing’s confidence in the plane was validated.  It went on to sell 1009 units, plus another 732 to the US Air Force as tankers – some of which are expected to remain operational all the way to 2040.

It is interesting to appreciate that when this plane was rolled out by Boeing, it was at a point where Boeing essentially had absolutely no commercial passenger planes at all.  Instead, the brand to beat was Douglas, which at the time not only still had thousands of DC-3’s in the air, but also many hundreds of DC-6s (still in production then) and DC-7s (also in production), to say nothing of the lovely Lockheed Super Constellation too.  Boeing’s most recent attempt at a passenger plane, the 377 Stratocruiser, was a failure, and only 55 were built, of which only about 41 went into commercial airline service.

In addition, Douglas was also at work on its own jet, the quite similar DC-8, and although it got to market three years later, until 1958 both Boeing and Douglas were more or less equal in orders for their two planes.  However, the 707 soon took over the market, and ended up outselling the DC-8 two to one.

Did this mark the pivotal moment when Boeing leapfrogged over Douglas, Lockheed, and other less well-known airplane manufacturers to become the world’s most successful airplane manufacturer?  Quite possibly, although of course its initial momentum from the 707 was boosted by the enormous success of its 727, 737 and 747 programs as they unfolded in the 1960s.

Think of that.  In little more than ten years, Boeing went from zero passenger jets and zero market share, to four totally different models – all extraordinary successes – and owning the majority of the market.  Talk about ‘the good old days’, indeed!

Or, perhaps, not so old.  Two of those planes from the golden days of the 1960s are still in production today (the 737 and – although only just hanging in there – the 747).

Here’s an interesting retrospective on this watershed moment, and here’s a fascinating article from May 1954.

Now, for the second birthday, flash forward a mere 20 years, and in 1974, another epochal event occurred.  New company Airbus delivered its first ever jet, and it wasn’t just any old jet, it was also the world’s first ever twin-engine wide-body jet, the A300B.

Today, twin-engine wide-bodies have almost vanquished all four-engine jets (only the A380 struggles to stay as a viable option, with the 747-8 all but moribund), but 40 years ago, it was another brave and bold move.

It is easy to forget, at the time of Airbus’ founding, in the late 1960s, that starting another airline company at that time required very large sized cojones.  Boeing was sweeping the board with its planes, and had vanquished all European competitors, and was in the process of doing the same to its American competitors, too.  Concorde had pretty much destroyed its British and French parents.

To start a new company in competition with Boeing – a company that had knocked four home-run hits out of the field in a row with its 707, 727, 737 and 747 planes – each and every one revolutionary in its time and an extraordinary success – and to do so with another brave new design, too, actually took considerable bravery (or should one say ‘substantial government backing’?).

No-one can deny that the rise of Airbus has not been a plus to the industry as a whole, and has helped keep at least some slow development of new airplane types proceeding, albeit at a snail’s pace.

Here’s a quick background on Airbus and its first 40 years.

Talking about watershed events that happened long ago in the past, it is now ten years beyond the date that Sir Richard Branson said would see a reusable rocket taking up to ten people at a time to his orbiting ‘Virgin Hotel’.

Now of course, the orbiting hotel has been quietly forgotten (and the entire world can barely manage the ISS, with only one nation able to fly to it, and that nation – Russia – now deciding it may discontinue its involvement in 2020), and the notion of any sort of orbiting hotel seems sadly even more fanciful today than it was when the movie ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ came out in 1968.

As for the reusable rocket, that has now scaled down to six passengers, and rather than taking its passengers to an orbiting hotel, it will instead merely do a brief sub-orbital flight.

When will this now happen?  Your guess is as good as mine, and whatever you do, don’t look to Sir Richard Branson for any meaningful advice as to when to expect it.  In January he was predicting flights this summer, and as you know, next weekend marks the traditional start of our summer season.  He is now saying that he would be ‘very very disappointed’ if the flights don’t start this year, whatever that means.  As too probably will be the 700 people who have already paid deposits on their tickets.

Here’s a fascinating timeline of broken promises and fanciful projections by Branson.  Please don’t get us wrong.  We admire the audacity of hope inherent in Branson’s concept, but we do wish it were layered with a more reliable and realistic set of promises and accomplishments.  A bit like a different audacity of hope….

Are we eager to ride his spaceship ourselves?  We’re more sympathetic to William Shatner’s perspective.

Meanwhile, Branson is boldly telling people ‘After we’ve done the space program, we will be producing supersonic planes, which will go far, far, faster than Concorde’.  He is promising 19,000 mph, and less than an hour for New York to Tokyo.  Will any of us be alive to see that, I wonder?

Actually, quite possibly yes.  But few of us would afford to fly it.  It seems that this super fast plane is simply his sub-orbital ‘spaceship’, repackaged and repurposed.

People sometimes ask me why I started The Travel Insider, and what its prime purpose is.  My reply is first to suggest there are multiple purposes – with the internet, why limit yourself to only one.  To answer the question head-on, it has always been my intention to provide a more fully informed commentary than so often is found in the main stream media.  Whether it is in the form of replacing inappropriately gushy reviews with more realistic reviews that point out product weaknesses as well as strengths, or responding to articles that are little more than one-sided press releases; these are the things that give me greatest pleasure.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to write a piece this week that looks at an article boldly headed ‘Why You Should Pay Frontier’s Carry-On Bag Fee’ in the NY Times.  Although the article actually is not really about the Frontier carry-on fee at all, it makes a very brave claim – that we shouldn’t complain too much because we are still getting close to the best deal we’ve ever had when it comes to air travel.

Well, talk about a red rag to a bull!  You can read my response in the article below.

There’s another article as well, this time exposing some more of the ugly under-belly of TripAdvisor and its review/rating system.

New Zealand has been in the news a bit this week.  Their government has just announced their latest budget, with a surplus instead of a deficit (remember those?), and New Zealand scored as the most desirable ‘dream’ destination in the world to visit if money were no object in this survey.

Talking about money being no object, here’s a 40 day tour being offered to people who wish to have a high-end drinking experience.  How high-end?  Ummm – $1.27 million worth of high-end!  Details here.

Now to tie these two seemingly unrelated threads together, did you know you don’t need to spend $1.27 million to enjoy some of the world’s best wines, and you don’t need to have a requirement that money be no object before going to New Zealand.

Our October 2014 New Zealand Epicurean Extravaganza offers you the best of New Zealand – the country and its wine and food – for a mere $3000.  We have, I believe, a wonderful balance between common tourist experiences and uncommon ‘Travel Insider enhancements’, between free time and organized experiences, and plenty of chances for plenty of gourmet food and great wine.

So why not consider joining 18 of your fellow Travel Insiders on what promises to be a wonderful experience in a lovely country.

Although all Travel Insider tours are always good, I like to think that on the very rare occasions I take you to my home country of NZ, that is an extra special experience, for both you and me.  I hope you’ll decide to join me and a great small group of fellow Travel Insiders, this October.

What else this week?  Please read on for :

  • MH370 Underwater Search Was Less Thorough than Expected
  • What Does an Airline Do When a Country Refuses to Pay It?
  • Southwest – ‘We Have More Opportunities than We Have Planes’
  • A Reason for the Opportunities Southwest Sees
  • More Proof that Fewer Airlines Means Higher Fares
  • Premium Economy Comes to Singapore Airlines
  • A Terribly Bad Idea
  • A Really Bad Idea
  • A Dubious Idea
  • Amazing Hotel Designs
  • Does the US Have a ‘Hands Off’ Terrorist List?
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH370 Underwater Search Was Less Thorough than Expected

Here’s an article from the WSJ that is interesting two different ways.  First, it confirms part of my comments last week that the apparent black box pings were perhaps not from the black boxes at all, although this admission is filtering out slowly rather than positively.

The other interesting point in the article is buried towards the bottom of it.  Remember when we were getting daily progress report after each Bluefin-21 search dive, and then we were told the search was ‘complete’ with nothing found?  Well, it seems that ‘complete’ is a relative rather than an absolute term, and in the region deemed to be the most likely zone where the plane – or at least its black boxes – might be found, only about two-thirds of the area could be searched, due to the uneven nature of the ocean floor making it difficult/impossible for the Bluefin to survey the balance of the area.

So – the search has been completed?

(If you can’t open the WSJ link, try searching for its headline in Google – that usually brings up an unblocked WSJ link).

What Does an Airline Do When a Country Refuses to Pay It?

Alitalia announced this week it was discontinuing service to Venezuela.

The problem is that the country requires international airlines to sell their tickets in local Venezuelan currency (the bolivar) but is not allowing airlines to then convert the money to any currency of international value and move the money out of Venezuela.

Apparently the country owes some $4 billion in total to airlines, and so Alitalia has declared ‘enough’ and is ending service due to not being able to get its money out of Venezuela.

The Venezuelan president has asked airlines to trust his country’s promise to allow them to get their money out of the country at some point in the future, but to be patient in the meantime.  And he has also threatened to deny any airline that stops flying to Venezuela the right to subsequently return there when the country’s troubles are at an end.

AA and DL continue to fly there, as do other international airlines such as Lufthansa.  Air Canada stopped flying in March, but claims this was due to ‘security concerns’.  Their ‘security concern’ claim didn’t work, and Venezuela has now severed its relationship with AC.

Details here.

Southwest – ‘We Have More Opportunities than We Have Planes’

Southwest is feeling very bullish about its future, in part due to the expiry of the Wright Amendment limitations on where flights can go from Dallas/Love Field, scheduled for 13 December this year.

Southwest plans to add flights from Love Field (airport code DAL – perhaps it is one we’ll increasingly need to recognize) to 15 new cities once the restrictions are lifted.  We expect that these flights will generally be to cities it already has a presence in.

But Southwest also says it plans to add service to ‘up to’ 50 new destinations over the next ‘few years’.  It sure sounds good, but as we well know, ‘up to’ includes all numbers less than 50, and ‘few years’ is a very vague sort of time frame.  The airline has already hotted up an excuse if it fails to meet these vague targets, when CEO Gary Kelly said

We have more opportunities over the next five years than we have planes.

If that is indeed so, perhaps he might choose to buy a few more planes – or at the very least, cancel the delivery deferrals that Southwest announced last year.  That would definitely delight Boeing, particularly because there are some nasty whispers in the background that the order books for both Boeing and Airbus have some soft orders that are likely to be cancelled sometime between now and whenever the planes would otherwise be delivered.

While Boeing sort of has a six-year backlog for 737 orders – more than 3000 are on order, and it is producing them at a rate of 42 a month – it can probably also supply some planes at short notice.  This is because its backlog isn’t like, eg, a Tesla backlog, where you have thousand of impatient buyers all wanting their cars asap.  Instead, with Boeing (and Airbus), an airline will order planes with a preplanned and staged set of deliveries.  The last thing any airline would ever want is to suddenly have half a dozen new planes dumped in its lap, without all the many complex additional things needed to instantly start making money from the planes all in place.  So the backlog is patchy rather than solid.

So, go ahead, Southwest.  Put your money where your mouth is, and don’t let your claimed shortage of planes limit your ability to take advantage of the opportunities you say you have.

Details here.

A Reason for the Opportunities Southwest Sees

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even an airline executive, to see the opportunities that Southwest is hinting at.

As you can see in the image at the top of the newsletter, in 2005, the airlines operated a total of 11.56 million flights (an average of 31,700 every day).  In 2013, the airlines operated 9.73 million flights (ie 26,650 flights a day).  That’s almost a 15% reduction in flights, even though passenger numbers are very slightly up in 2013 compared to 2005 (743 million in 2013, 739 million in 2005).

Surely it is time for Southwest to try out its famous ‘Southwest effect’ once again.  This is the name given to the phenomenon that has been demonstrated countless times in the past, by Southwest and other airlines, that when a new airline appears and starts offering more flights and lower fares, the number of passengers flying the route massively increases.

Who among us, today, hasn’t cut back their flying over the past some years?  And who wouldn’t consider more flying again in the future if we had more flights to choose from, and lower fares to purchase, and perhaps even the tantalizing hope of not getting crushed into a middle seat once we boarded the plane?

More Proof that Fewer Airlines Means Higher Fares

airfaresbThey say a picture is worth a thousand words.  So here’s the thousand word picture, which also perhaps encapsulates another reason why Southwest sees so many opportunities out there.

Here’s a link to the article, and a larger/clearer image.

We wonder what the DoT and DoJ think of this chart?  How can they reconcile it with their steadfast enthusiasm for airline mergers being ‘consumer friendly’?

Oh – you might be wondering – why do international airfare prices not drop as low as domestic?  That is because, even with very many airlines apparently operating a route, we’ll wager that in truth, all the 14+ different airlines apparently operating flights are actually only three or four carriers (one each for the major three alliances, possibly with a wild card or two such as Emirates) and a bunch of codeshares.

International air travel, with its additional overlay of much higher costs of entry and government restrictions on access to markets, are less competitive in all respects than domestic markets.

Premium Economy Comes to Singapore Airlines

It puzzles me how airlines are very selective at adopting the Premium Economy cabin concept.

To my way of thinking, it marks a logical ‘next step’ in the evolving cabin strategies of most airlines.  Business class has become so good that it is displacing first class at many airlines, and coach class has become so bad, leaving a huge gap in the middle that cries out to be bridged.

It is amusingly close to correct to say that today’s business class is similar to (or better than!) first class of a couple of decades ago, and today’s premium economy compares favorably to business class back then.

As for present day coach class, it compares to nothing at all.

But, with all that as introduction, it is great to see Singapore Airlines now embracing the premium economy concept.  Indeed, it is doing much more than that – it will be spending US$325 million to upgrade all cabins on its 19 777 planes (yes, that’s an amazing $17 million per plane).

A Terribly Bad Idea

This week saw the launch of a new service that allows people to text messages to 911 rather than requiring them to call in emergency calls the ‘old fashioned’ way, by voice over a phone line.

Now we’re as much devotees of technology as anyone else, but this is a terribly bad idea.  If you’ve ever been in a 911 call center, or if you’ve even simply listened to a 911 recording, you’ll know that a 911 call is interactive, and that the caller, often in a state of distress and in a very time-pressing situation, needs to be carefully ‘talked down’.  If there is a medical emergency, the dispatcher needs to get information about the victim’s condition, and might be able to give some emergency care advice.  If it is a police matter, the dispatcher needs information on the suspects.  And so on.  If it is a fire, then they need to know where the fire is, how developed, if there are people in the building, dangerous goods, and so on.

When this is done by phone, it proceeds at the normal speed of conversation, 150 words per minute being a normal sort of speed, and 200 wpm if you’re agitated, and it is easy for one person to interrupt the other if needed.  If it is done by text message, well, how fast do you type text messages on your phone?  And the other person can’t interrupt you, because they don’t know what you’re typing until after you’ve sent it.

If it is by phone, the dispatcher can hear the sounds in the background, and the degree of anxiety in the caller’s voice.  They can probably tell the difference between a prank call and a real call.  By text message, none of that is possible.  If by phone, you can put it on speaker phone, and you can be doing other things at the same time, like caring for a victim or whatever.  By text, you’re focused on the screen and typing.

No-one in their right mind should ever text to 911 when they could call instead.  The new texting ‘service’ is actually a grave disservice and should be ended.

A Really Bad Idea

Do you stream Netflix or other online video to your home television these days?  More and more of us do, and we are streaming at ever-increasing data rates too so as to enjoy the rather optimistically branded ‘HD’ streaming experiences being rolled out by Netflix and its growing number of competitors.

It used to be that low quality video streamed at 0.3 GB per hour.  That was superseded by ‘standard’ quality video, at 0.7 GB an hour, and the last year or so has seen ‘HD’ video at 3 GB an hour.  The new 4k video runs at 7 GB/hour (15.5 Mb/sec).  A two hour movie – formerly requiring anywhere from 0.6 – 1.4 GB, will now require up to 14 GB to watch.

One of my concerns has always been that sooner or later, our ISPs will start capping the amount of data we can transfer each month, and charge us if we go over that limit.  We’ve seen how ‘unlimited’ internet on our phones has been redefined under a ‘reasonable use’ policy – a suitably Orwellian term which actually means ‘unreasonable restrictions on what we sold you as unlimited, but now we will blame you if you try to use it as we promised and sold it to you’.  We’ve seen Canadian ISPs experimenting with monthly data caps, and some other countries have such things as normal.

The US already has some of the slowest broadband speeds in the world, and some of the more expensive monthly connection fees, and now it seems, data caps are just around the corner for us, too.

Comcast – about to become even bigger after merging with Time Warner Cable – is opening talking about how, within five years, all its customers may find themselves with caps on their internet data usage.

This is particularly rich because only a couple of months ago Comcast managed to bludgeon Netflix into paying it money to stop Comcast from deliberately and gratuitously slowing down the speed of Netflix video streams.

So, in a manner that even an airline executive must truly envy, Comcast hopes to charge both sides from its vantage point in the middle.  It is already charging Netflix for the movie you’re watching to reach you at a reasonable speed and quality, and now it wants to charge you for watching it, too.

Apparently the lack of competition in the ISP/last mile field is just as damaging as is the lack of competition in our airlines.  And again, we find ourselves wondering how is it that two things the US used to beat the world at – the internet and business competition – are now things we are performing so dismally at.

A Dubious Idea

General Motors.  General Mills.  General Electric.  General Tours.  There was a time when being ‘General’ something was a good idea, and denoted substance.  We’re not sure if that remains a current scenario or not, but the current owners of General Tours apparently feel their name is past its use-by date.

The company was founded in 1954, initially offering tours to the then Soviet Union.  Nowadays it offers reasonably high-end touring around much of the world.  It announced this week it would now be known as Alexander+Roberts, saying that the new name is ‘intended to align the customer closer to the product’.  Say what?

I’ll agree that ‘General Tours’ is a fairly stolid name, but Alexander+Roberts?  Sounds like the name of a brand of hairspray or something like that, not like a touring company at all.  Also sounds like a company that envies the brand success of Abercrombie & Kent…..

One wonders how much General Tours spent on the research firm they engaged to come up with the rebranding.

Amazing Hotel Designs

I’d thought I’d add a picture from one of the hotels featured in this pictorial, but I couldn’t decide which one to offer, because so many of them are so extraordinary.

Most extraordinary of all, though, is that they are all in China.  I can’t say this enough – we need to enormously recalibrate our appreciation of China.  It is no longer a backward country, but rather a world leader and a world beater in more and more of the fields that we used to complacently consider ourselves pre-eminent in.

Does the US Have a ‘Hands Off’ Terrorist List?

There are few things worse than getting your name on one of the several different terrorist watch lists that the US government maintains.

We don’t know much about these, other than occasional hints that suggest the number of people on the lists is enormous – one list, by December 2012, had grown to 875,000 names alone.

We do know that many unfortunate and innocent people of exemplary background and character, including even professional pilots, get savaged by getting incorrectly added to one of these lists.

But did you know there may be another list – a ‘hands-off’ list of terrorists who are ‘well connected’ politically?  While being a senior politician of a friendly country (or even of the US itself) does nothing to stop the TSA doing their very ‘best’ to harass you; according to this article, if you are a well-connected terrorist from an unfriendly country, you might end up with carte-blanche to come and go as you like.

And Lastly This Week….

The ‘Apple of toilet tech’?  Apparently that’s the boast of Toto, a Japanese company that takes things to what we in the west might consider an illogical extreme.  And which also illustrates another of the pleasures and sometimes surprises of travel – never quite knowing what to expect when going to the ‘small room’.

I’m always fascinated with ways to make coach class travel more comfortable, and over the years, have bravely experimented with very many different things that have had the potential to make travel more comfortable.  Some have worked well, and others are best quickly forgotten about.

Here’s something that you’d never see me use, however.  What a terrible concept.

Here’s a fascinating video – there is a slice of it in this article, and at the end of the article, a link to the entire video.  A person traveled around London, finding the exact same vantage points from which to shoot video as had been used to shoot movie footage 90 years before.  He then overlaid part of the old video on top of the new video.  It is interesting to see how little has changed, yet simultaneously, how much has changed.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

Truly lastly this week, another video.  I surprised myself by watching it all the way through, and it gave me a chance to pause and think about how we take so much for granted in our frequent flying lives.  But I also found myself massively bemused by the two elderly ladies featured in the video – they have never flown before, but are deploying iPads with a casualness presumably based on familiarity.  You’ll find the video unexpectedly heartwarming.

Note that I’m not quite sure where I’ll be next Thursday/Friday, so not too sure about what type of newsletter will emerge next week.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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