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







May 092014
Happy birthday, Nessie.  Assuming you're (still) out there, of course.

Happy birthday, Nessie. Assuming you’re (still) out there, of course.

Good morning

Happy birthday to Loch Ness monster.

Although there are tales of monsters in Loch Ness dating back to the sixth century, the ‘modern’ monster was first ‘discovered’ in early May, 1933.  Some people think that, if there was indeed a monster, it may now be dead, because the sightings have dwindled over the last decade or so, although with the great increase in tourists at the lake in general, and the prevalence of camera/phones in particular, you’d think that if there were a monster, it would be appearing more regularly than ever before.  (On the other hand, it has been suggested that a Google Earth satellite image shows the monster.)

One might argue that its more recent disappearance is sort of backward proof that it did formerly exist.  Perhaps we’ll never know, although if, once they finally find MH370, maybe they could then bring one of those fancy deep-sea exploring things to the loch, and see if there are any monster bones quietly rotting away on the bottom of the loch.

But – maybe I spoke too soon.  Just last week, a new possible ‘sighting’ (on sonar) was reported.  This article talks about the sonar sighting and has some great backstory about Nessie (as the monster is affectionately called).  While I was unsurprised to learn that last year’s alleged sighting turned out to be a fake, I also know the skipper of the boat who had the sonar sighting, and I’d consider him a much more credible source.

Talking about MH370, there’s not a lot of new news this week, but a concept I first raised three weeks ago got an excellent airing in The Atlantic on Thursday.  I write about it in an article, attached, below.

Of equal interest, but not given its own separate article, is this stunning denunciation of the entire ‘black box ping’ search.  If the points its author raises are correct – and on the face of it, they seem incontrovertible, it is incomprehensible how the authorities ever allowed themselves to believe the sounds they heard came from the black boxes in the first place.

The pings were at the wrong frequency, and were too far away (well out of the range that official black box pings can be detected – which of course raises again the question of why black box pingers aren’t easier to detect), and they seemed to be on moving things rather than on a submerged still black box.  As the author reports, a senior scientist at Woods Hole who was also co-director of the successful search for the underwater wreckage of AF447 wrote

I don’t know any underwater acoustic people that think the pings have anything to do with the plane

But for several weeks, the entire search focus was on tracking down the black boxes based on these farcically interpreted pings.  Please do read the linked article, and wonder at what it implies, and wonder also at the passive reporting of only ‘official’ news by the major news media.

With each passing week of the authorities consistently getting it wrong, one has to wonder when the current assumption of simple incompetence needs to be revised and replaced with a suspicion of darker motives afoot.

Also attached is an article offered to assist and encourage new airlines to get started here in the US.  China expects 15 new airline startups in the next 12 months – can’t we have at least one?  All we’ve had for the last several years has been quite the opposite – airline mergers rather than airline startups, and the result is that these days the airlines have concentrated on the major destinations, with many smaller airports now seeing as much as a 24% reduction in flights and an 18% reduction in seats available on the remaining flights (translation – the remaining flights are on larger planes than before) between 2007 and now.

This was reported in a GAO investigation, which also showed that even major airports are less well served – a 9% reduction in flights and a 7% reduction in seats applies, on average, to the larger airports.  The flipside – flights that on many routes are now averaging 88% full loads – a number that was, a couple of decades ago, nothing more than an impossible dream that the airlines didn’t even dare think about.

We desperately need another airline (or two).

Also this week, please see, below :

  • Conflicting Views on First Class From the Gulf ‘Super Carriers’
  • Some People Are Already Benefitting from AS/DL Competition
  • An Astonishing Reason for United’s Bad Financial (and Operational) Performance
  • Pre-Check Line Congestion
  • A New Seat/Armrest Design Proposal
  • Is the US Catching Up to the Rest of the World (Chips on Credit Cards)?
  • Don’t Hold Your Breath for This High Speed Train Line
  • And Lastly This Week….

Conflicting Views on First Class From the Gulf ‘Super Carriers’

Earlier this week, news broke of a very ambitious new first class product to be launched by Etihad.  It is a 150 sq ft private suite (we estimate a typical first class seat arrangement has about 20 sq ft of space), with separate bedroom and private bathroom, plus a butler on call.

Emirates quickly responded and said that it was considering a similar concept too.  No surprise there.

But the big surprise was an announcement from fellow regional rival airline, Qatar.  While silent on its plans for its A380s, the airline said it will eliminate first class from all other planes.

Some People Are Already Benefitting from AS/DL Competition

I wrote last week, hoping that we’d start to see some crazy airfare specials out of Seattle due to the increasing competition between former allies, Alaska and Delta.

Scott McMurren from Alaska Travelgram wrote to tell me that the crazy low fares have already started – or, perhaps a better way of putting it would be that the crazy high fares are going away.  Delta has announced new service between Seattle and Juneau, and between Seattle and Fairbanks, and Scott says the prices have already dropped by half for Juneau/Seattle travel and by more than half for travel between Fairbanks and Seattle.

Ah – competition.  You’ve got to love it, right.  If only there were more of it….

An Astonishing Reason for United’s Bad Financial (and Operational) Performance

Talking about competition, you already know two things that lead up to the next story.  You know that every time two airlines in the US seek approval to merge, they claim that it is essential that they merge because they need to be bigger in order to compete better and enjoy economies of scale.  You also know that United has been under-performing the rest of the airline industry, and in the first quarter this year, was the only major carrier to lose money (which it did very convincingly, booking a $609 million loss).

Although United has its own reasons and excuses for its poor performance, industry analysts are starting to offer their thoughts, too.  Here’s an article which puts forward four theories about factors that are hurting United.

Analyst Hunter Keay of Wolfe Research is quoted as saying ‘UAL is just too big’.  He said the airline has too many routes – 58% more than DL and 65% more than AA.

But – hang on a moment.  Wasn’t that the very reason United put forward and which the DoT and DoJ both accepted when approving the UA/CO merger back in 2010?  The airline needed to be bigger in order to compete, or so we were told.

So – which is it?  Does/did UA need to be bigger, and/or is it now too big?  No wonder they pay their CEO so much ($8.1 million in 2013 compensation plus a $4.5 million performance related bonus).  With such complicated issues to puzzle out, clearly he is worth every penny.  Right?

Oh – and as for the synergies that are also invariably claimed as a reason why two airlines must merge?  Pre-merger, in 2010, UA enjoyed a 4.2% operating profit margin.  In 2013, post-merger, and in a year where most airlines were enjoying great profits, UA’s operating profit margin had dropped to 3.3%.  It is hard to see much synergy in that.

Pre-Check Line Congestion

The TSA operates 2200 screening lanes at 118 airports where its Pre-Check less rigorous passenger screening program operates.  Of those 2200 lanes, 300 are dedicated to Pre-Check, and another 300 can be designated as either Pre-Check or regular, depending on waiting line lengths.

Sounds good, right?  14% of the lanes are dedicated to the elite people who have qualified for Pre-Check, and if line lengths are getting too long, that can double to 28%.

But, you may have noticed, as many people have, that on occasion, the Pre-Check line seems longer than the regular line (and more slowly moving, too).  Why is that?

Well, there’s actually a very simple answer.  The TSA says that 40% of travelers are now on the Pre-Check program.  So 40% of passengers get between 14% and 28% of the screening lanes.  All of a sudden, Pre-Check doesn’t sound quite so wonderful, does it?

Disclosure :  I have Pre-Check status, and yes, I am indeed trying to discourage you from getting it.  The lines are long enough already without you moving over, too!  :)

A New Seat/Armrest Design Proposal

It seems these days that some of the most inventive design minds on the planet are focused on achieving the impossible – how to fit more people into planes.

There is also a slowly gathering appreciation that these days the constraints on seat design, and the most severe impacts on passenger comfort, are no longer limited to only leg room.  Seat width is increasingly an issue, and unfortunately, whereas airlines can reasonably freely add or subtract rows of seats, adjusting the amount of legroom we get in fairly small increments as they feel appropriate; the seat width dimension is harder to fine-tune.  Instead of having 20+ rows, so that a change of one row can give a 5% adjustment to pitch (eg from 30″ to 31.5″), in a narrow-body plane, you have six seats across, and while five would be nicer, that would see a 17% reduction in seats and potentially in revenue too for the airlines, which is way too much for them to accept.

So, designers are trying to do the nearly impossible.  To make seats seem and feel wider, while actually not getting any wider at all (and quite likely, becoming narrower – wide body planes are consistently now being redesigned to squeeze in another seat per row).

Here’s an interesting design – a two level arm-rest so each person gets an armrest, rather than the current ‘fight’ that silently is waged between us and the strangers next to us, all flight long.

The funniest part of the article is the stated concern that, for the concept to work, passengers may need to ‘sit quite close to each other’.  If we sat any closer than we already do, we’d be in each other’s laps.  Hey – there’s an idea….

Is the US Catching Up to the Rest of the World (Chips on Credit Cards)?

As international travelers know, the US is probably the only remaining country in the world that issues unintelligent credit cards with no security features other than a signature panel and the hope that a realtime credit check will advise if the card has been stolen.

The vulnerability of US cards is even greater than this.  International gangs can clone US credit cards, needing nothing more than credit card blanks (and sometimes they’ll simply redo existing credit cards and change their numbers) and so your (duplicated) card can be used, even while it is still in your wallet.

The rest of the world, many years ago, converted to what are called ‘Chip and PIN’ cards.  These cards have an electronic chip that stores the credit card data, and similar to an ATM card, instead of signing a credit card authorization, you instead enter a secret PIN to validate/approve each card charge.  Even if thieves could duplicate your card, they won’t know your PIN, and the encryption formulas used to protect the data in the chips seem to have remained unbroken to date.

Although in theory, all merchants who accept any type of credit card, anywhere in the world, are required to also accept old-fashioned US cards too, some merchants don’t know how to process non chip/PIN cards and will refuse to do so out of laziness.  In addition, some machines (particularly at gas stations and ticket dispensing machines at train stations) will only work with chip/PIN cards.  If you’re unlucky, as I was recently, you’ll find yourself and your car, with its empty tank, at an automated gas station with no attendant, no way to pay cash, and your credit cards not being accepted (in that case, I ended up paying cash to another motorist who filled my car up with his credit card).  Or perhaps you’ll have a similar misfortune at an unattended train station.

So it is wonderful to read in this article of plans for all banks to start issuing modern chip type cards within the next 18 months.

Or is it?  Note the ambiguity at the end of the article.  Will the new cards be chip and PIN or chip and signature?  There’s a huge difference.

A chip and signature card is basically the same as your normal credit card, but it has a chip in it which can be read by a chip reading credit card processing machine.  But to approve the transaction and confirm your identity, you sign a charge form, the same as always.  There’s no PIN protection.  And the chip/signature type card will not work in automatic machines that require both the chip and a PIN to work.

I’m told that a chip and PIN type card only allows the US card issuer to charge a small flat fee to merchants, because it is, by some US banking law, treated as if it were a debit card charge, and so for this reason, the credit card companies are resisting any attempt to move forward to chip and PIN type cards.

So don’t hold your breath.  We may continue to be the backward cousin to the rest of the world in yet another area of high-tech endeavour.

Don’t Hold Your Breath for This High Speed Train Line

Talking about holding your breath, here’s a high-speed train that you shouldn’t hold your breath while waiting for it to arrive.

China – already operating more high-speed rail service than any other country – announced this week that it is considering a new line, that would run from China, up through Siberia, then through a 125 mile tunnel under the Bering Strait to Alaska, down through Alaska and Canada, and ending somewhere in the US (please let it be Seattle!).

The press release introducing the concept politely notes that ‘the details of this project are yet to be finalized’.  That’s probably an understatement, even after allowing for China’s prodigious ability to construct high-speed train lines.

The journey would span some 8100 miles and although the trains would move at a very fast average speed of 220 mph, that still ends up being a day and a half from go to whoa.  Actually, it would be much longer than that.  The rail line would have one end somewhere in the Pacific Northwest and seriously, Seattle would be a geographically sensible choice, and at the China end, all we know is that it would start somewhere in north-east China.  So you’d have to add additional traveling time to get to, eg, Seattle at one end and perhaps Harbin or somewhere in China.  This also would make for the slightly ridiculous concept of flying from somewhere in the US to Seattle, changing to a train, then in China, getting off the train and possibly flying on to your final destination.

If the first and possibly last parts of your journey are by plane, would you really spend 36 – 40 hours changing to take a train instead of another 10 hour flight?

We love high-speed rail, and trains in general, and at this point, getting China to build a high-speed rail system for us seems our best shot at ever seeing any.  But there are so many things wrong with this proposal that, well, perhaps the kindest thing to say is that maybe some of the other ultra-long distance projects China is also reportedly considering might be better projects to focus on (see the bottom of the linked article).

More details here.

And Lastly This Week….

I’ve commented above (and more in the next article) about the continuing mysteries surrounding MH370.  So perhaps it should come as no wonder to learn that 9% of Americans believe the plane was abducted by aliens.  The really strange thing?  At this rate, it increasingly seems like they may be correct!

I’m a fan of my Queen and her Royal Family, and unlike some, don’t believe for an instant they are unduly extravagant or a drain on the public purse.  But I was astonished to see just exactly how frugal the second in line to the throne is when he flies for ‘personal’ travel rather than on official state visits.

Truly lastly this week, the Chinese might be great at building fast trains, but they still have a little to learn when it comes to guest relations in their hotels.  But at least this note didn’t also exhort the guests to ‘save the planet’ by re-using towels.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







May 022014 does a reasonable job of trying to guess if your airfare cost might rise or fall.  See item, below. does a reasonable job of trying to guess if your airfare cost might rise or fall. See item, below.

Good morning

Happy birthday to BASIC.

BASIC – the acronym for ‘Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code’ – was far from the world’s first programming language (you could have a lengthy argument about that because the concept of ‘programming’ is far from a black and white concept, although for modern high level compiled and widely used languages, perhaps Fortran, dating to the mid-1950s, might win the prize) but BASIC is nonetheless extraordinary for being a language that was created way back when computers took up large rooms and used paper tape and punched cards (and 4kB was a lot of memory), and still being in use today in recognizably similar form to what it was back on 1 May, 1964.

BASIC was developed at Dartmouth, with the concept of making computers and programming more approachable to everyone.  Depending on your perspective, it has been either a massive success or failure in that endeavour (how are your basic BASIC skills?).  Here’s Dartmouth’s retrospective, and another one from Engadget.

As an aside, I’ve recently started doing a bit of programming for fun and as a hobby.  Have I gone completely crazy?  Those who know me also know I hate programming, and have nothing like the temperament for it.  But I’ve bought a new toy – an Arduino computer/controller, and a bunch of accessories and sensors for it, and am delighting in how easy and fun it is to wire it up and then program it to do simple tasks.  My nine-year old daughter likes it too, making it a fun father/daughter shared activity.  Possibly you might, also.  (I bought this starter kit and this book, and subsequently have been adding additional sensors, books, and so on).

Talking about 50 year anniversaries, it astonishes and delights me to find that many of the electronic components I used to buy very nearly 50 years ago cost the same – or less – today than they did back then.  I vaguely remember paying 5c or 10c each for resistors back then, and now on Amazon, I bought a box of 860 assorted resistors for $18 – 2c each (and instead of being 10% tolerance resistors, they are 1% resistors).  I didn’t really need them, but at that price I bought them just because it was something I’d always wanted to have lots of as a child, but they were prohibitively expensive back then, and now, well, cost little more than a couple of cups of coffee.  The same for capacitors – 645 pieces for $20, including tiny electrolytics scarcely a tenth the size they used to be (and, if I remember rightly, probably less than 1/10th the price, too).  Amazing.

We all know that transistors, etc, have got ‘better’ over the years (don’t get me started on the box of 320 transistors and diodes for $30….), but who would have thought something as low tech as a resistor would also plunge in price.  (Note – you don’t really need all these resistors and capacitors, etc, for most Arduino projects.)

Now to switch from amazing technology and amazing technology to apparently something involving neither.  Another week, and it seems we’re still no closer to finding any MH 370 wreckage.  If anything, quite the opposite.  The ocean-bottom search in the most likely zone where the black boxes were thought to be located, based on bearings from four sets of pings that were believed to have come from the black boxes, has now been completed, with nothing found.  This was a 123 sq mile area.

More on what is (and is not) happening with the MH 370 search below.

I excitedly sent out an item earlier this week about Amazon discounting its Kindle eBook readers.  Its regular monochrome Kindles have $20 taken off them, its Kindle Fire color tablets have $30 off them, and as of Thursday evening, the short-term sale is still open.

$20 might not sound like a lot, but when it sees a $69 item drop down to just under $50, then the affordability of a Kindle is surely starting to register about as compelling as it ever can go; and if you don’t yet have a Kindle, maybe now is a good time to think about getting one.  There’s a short item about this after the newsletter roundup.  (Oh yes, and I’m continuing to luxuriate in more free eBooks coming to me, every day, seemingly with no end ever in sight – see my article last week about this.)

There’d be more this week, but after an increasingly troubled last week or two, I literally had my computer down, inoperable, for 24 hours – I say ‘literally’ because most of those 24 hours had me beside it, nursing it through intensive care in a desperate attempt to return it to life.  It wasn’t only me, I made good use of Dell’s 24/7 technical support, with the longest of the many calls lasting 110 minutes.  Tragically, although the computer is operational at present, the underlying problem remains unresolved.  Oh well, that’s what Friday is for, right?  Oh yes, and I spent way too much time on Thursday afternoon and evening (at least, that’s probably what my daughter thinks) coaching her for a spelling bee on Friday.  With spell check built into just about every program these days, do we even still nede too no howe to spel?

Or, maybe there wouldn’t be more.  When I add it all up, there’s 3670 words – not a bad morning’s read!  Please see below for items on :

  • MH 370 Update
  • MH 370 Preliminary Accident Report ‘Shockingly Deficient’
  • Comparing Our MH 370 Commentary with the Associated Press
  • Frontier’s Unsurprising Fare/Fee Policy Changes
  • This Week’s Alaska vs Delta Story
  • How Far in Advance Should You Buy Your Airline Ticket?
  • Latest Smartphone and Tablet Market Shares
  • Attention :  iPhone 5 Owners
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH 370 Update

The Australians have now said their searching is entering a ‘new phase’ and while that sounds good, the reality is that the new phase means cancelling the airborne search for any floating debris from the plane, and a much more speculative search for anything on the ocean floor over a much wider area than before.

Am I the only one to be astonished at how hard it has proved to be to detect and locate the black box ‘pingers’?  Weren’t these specifically designed to be as strident as possible, and to be detectable at great distances?  But, after perhaps 35 – 40 days of pinging, all that happened was that four brief periods of pinging were detected, and when those were triangulated and the area searched, it proved to be a false alarm.

Now, you might be wondering, ‘so how far can sound carry underwater?’ and that’s a very sensible question to ask.  The answer of course is not clear-cut – it depends on the frequency of the sounds, the depth (and even the temperature) of the water, and of course, how sensitive a listening device is being used and where it is, too.

But, here’s a 1995 report that indicates that, way back then (ie almost 20 years ago) there was technology that could detect Russian nuclear submarines, running quietly, more than 1,000 km away (625 miles).  If we could detect enemy subs at distances greater than 625 miles 20 years ago, how far away, today, can we detect either the sound of black box pings or the enormous noise and shock waves associated with an almost 300 tonne plane crashing into the ocean and sinking to the bottom?

American submariners like to boast that they can hear a whale, ahem, pass wind, an ocean away.  One has to wonder, with such sensitivity, how is it that neither the sounds of the plane crashing into the water, nor the sounds of the pingers, were picked up.  For weeks.  And weeks.

Meanwhile a private company has been trying to show off its prowess at locating minerals and stuff, and claims to have used its techniques to find the plane, in the Bay of Bengal.  But neither the Australians nor the Malaysians are paying them any attention – indeed, it appears that the company quietly told the authorities of their ‘discovery’ over a month ago, and were completely ignored, so this week they went public, only to be dismissed by both governments as not being credible.

All the ‘credible’ reports have come to nothing.  Isn’t it about time someone started investigating incredible reports?

MH 370 Preliminary Accident Report ‘Shockingly Deficient’

After first deeming it to be confidential, then deciding to release the report, but only after ‘review’ (and, one suspects, possible censorship) we can now see exactly what the Malaysian government believes it currently does know about the events surrounding the plane’s mysterious disappearance eight weeks ago.

I’ll let Australian commentator Ben Sandilands do the talking for me, when he writes, in the start of an article on this topic :

Considering all the things that Malaysia officials have said on the record in the first 30 days of the search for missing flight MH370 the interim report released last night is shockingly deficient in detail.

It doesn’t, for example, cast any light on the altitude changes that occurred after the flight suddenly turned away from its course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early on the morning of 8 March while over the Gulf of Thailand.

Yet at the then regular KL briefings after the embarrassing spectacle of Malaysia officials denying they knew anything about a turnback, and then confirming one a day later, it was revealed that the last military radar trace of the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board was at precisely 29,500 feet off shore from Phuket, compared to being at 35,000 feet when its transponder went off-line rendering it invisible to the secondary radar systems used by air traffic control systems.

This interim report can only fuel the anger in China at the chaotic, inconsistent and evasive conduct of the Malaysia authorities in relation to telling the truth about MH370 in the 30 day period in which it had to file a report into its disappearance with ICAO, which it apparently did, but refused to make public until last night KL time.

There’s more – very much more – in Ben’s analysis and critique; and it is fair to say that not only has the Malaysian mishandling of the matter exceeded belief, but so too now is its report on the matter a similarly beyond-disappointing document.

Comparing Our MH 370 Commentary with the Associated Press

It is perhaps an interesting reminder of why you choose to read The Travel Insider to compare our various articles and commentaries on the MH 370 mystery, and in particular – well, of course, they are largely Ben Sandilands’ words – the comments about the Malaysian interim accident report above, with this totally bland and vanilla article from the Associated Press.

To read the AP article, you’d think all was being well-managed and everything is in order.  I hope you’ll continue to choose to get information and commentary from The Travel Insider!

Frontier’s Unsurprising Fare/Fee Policy Changes

As you may know, Frontier Airlines was bought in December last year by Indigo Partners, a private equity firm that specializes in turning around struggling airlines by ‘changing their business model’.  One of their most recent ‘successes’ has been with Spirit Airlines, the airline that became (in)famous for charging for carry-on bags.

It has been widely expected that Indigo would attempt to transform Frontier into a similar sort of low lead price, but charge extra for everything, airline.  Well, it took a few months, but this week they have now announced new policies that will do exactly that, including copying the Spirit concept of charging for carry-on bags (can bring one small item on for free, another larger item costs $25 online or $35 at the airport).

The airline predictably enough says that most people will benefit more from the new lower fares, and only a few will pay extra due to the new higher fees.  Of course, if that is true, it makes one wonder why the airline would make these changes.  Details here.

One wonders how long before the charging for carry-on bags will transition from ‘out of the ordinary’ and become mainstream.  It has been a while since the dinosaur airlines have come up with any new fees – they’re probably watching what happens with Frontier’s new fare/fee strategy very carefully.

This Week’s Alaska vs Delta Story

It really is very enjoyable watching the two airlines duking it out for market share in Seattle, even though they’re both still trying to be gentlemanly about it.

I noticed this week advertising from Delta boasting about having the most nonstop flights from Seattle of any airline – oh yes, with the modifying word ‘international’ tossed into the sentence.  A bit later in the week, I saw an ad from Alaska Airlines boasting the most flights out of Seattle, without any modifier included.

As for me, I’m eagerly awaiting a breakdown of the gentlemanliness.  When will we start seeing $99 roundtrips anywhere either airline flies!?  Or triple mileage bonuses.  Bring it on….

How Far in Advance Should You Buy Your Airline Ticket?

Talking about $99 roundtrips, something everyone wished they knew the answer to is when should they buy their airline tickets.  Way in advance?  Or at the last-minute?  Or is there a sweet spot, somewhere in the middle?

Kayak tries to provide some sort of semi-scientific statement of what might happen, anytime you ask it for fare and flight details, but that information is puzzling at best, and ‘too late’ as often as it is timely.

Another air booking service,, has now released an interesting study that suggests the best time to book most domestic tickets is 54 days in advance.  But this varies depending on destination and time of year, with a broader ‘window’ of time being between 29 and 104 days prior to your travel starting.  The big surprise of this might be that it is not correct to automatically assume that the longer in advance, the cheaper, and those of you who rush to buy their tickets as soon as you’ve planned a trip may not be doing yourself a service.

A couple of related interesting tips and tricks.  The first is to consider splitting your travel, going one way with one airline and the other way with another airline, perhaps.  Many online services will check that automatically these days, but be sure it is being done for you.  The second is to remember you have 24 hours to cancel most bookings with no penalty these days, so when you do take the plunge, be sure to check back the next day to see if the truth has changed overnight.

Here’s a good article with a few other reasonably sensible suggestions too.

Latest Smartphone and Tablet Market Shares

Interesting results have been announced for how the major phone operating systems have done in the first quarter this year, with an event of note being the last report by Nokia on its sales, now that its phone handset business has become a part of Microsoft.  One has to wonder how happy the new team at Microsoft feel about the $7.2 billion purchase of Nokia’s ‘Devices and Services’ division by their predecessors, announced in September last year, particularly when one of the reasons advanced in support of why it was such a good deal was due to Nokia outselling Blackberry in more than 34 markets around the world.  That’s hardly the most impressive of statistics, not now, and not then, either.

Anyway, Nokia admitted to a 30% drop in sales between the first quarter this year and the same quarter last year.  Nokia did poorly in both high-end and low-end phones, leaving no apparent morsels of good news to be seized upon at all.

Samsung also had a slightly difficult quarter, but when Samsung talks about ‘difficult’ it doesn’t mean the same sort of difficulty as applies to Nokia.  Samsung saw its market share drop from 32% in the first quarter last year to 31% this year.

But while Samsung had difficulties maintaining its market leading position, Android phones as a whole had no such problem.  In the US, where Android is ‘weaker’ than most other major markets, its market share increased from 49.3% in 2013 to 57.6% in 2014 – which is a great result, but pales compared to China, where Android has an 80% market share.

Most of Android’s growth has come from a loss of market share by Apple, which dropped from 43.7% down to 35.9% in the US.  Windows-based phones slightly eased back from 5.6% to 5.3%, and Blackberry – remember them – the benchmark by which Nokia was judged last year – went from 0.9% to 0.7%.

More details here.

As for tablets, here’s an interesting article that laments the possibility that the tablet market is starting to get saturated.  Has everyone who is going to buy a tablet now bought one?  The article also hints at another issue – perhaps people are keeping their tablets for longer than they keep their phones.  Intuitively, that seems very likely.

Although Apple still retains marketplace supremacy in terms of being the single largest seller of tablets, it no longer has the market sewn up, and the last year has seen its market share drop down from 40.2% to 32.5%.  With just about every other tablet of note being Android (did/does anyone have any of the ridiculous Windows Surface devices?) it seems that Apple is seeing ‘the same old same old’ happen to it in tablets, the same as has already happened to them in phones, and which happened long ago to them in computers.  (That’s not to say the company isn’t also wildly profitable, of course, and maybe it is a smart strategy, but one wonders how Steve Jobs would have felt about the lackluster iPhone 5S and 5C, and the loss of tablet market share and Apple being out-maneuvered by other companies that are proving more innovative and coming out with better phones and tablets, at better prices.)

Attention :  iPhone 5 Owners

Talking about iPhone 5S and 5Cs, If you have an iPhone 5 (not the 5C or the 5S), and if you – like me – have been having problems with its Sleep/Power button, good news.  Although people have been complaining about problems with the button (it can be very hard to press it so that it actually switches the phone on/off) since perhaps the middle of last year, Apple has only now grudgingly admitted there is a problem, which it says may affect a small percentage of iPhone 5 owners (ie if your phone was made prior to April 2013).

But – and well done to Apple for this – it has announced a type of recall program.  If your phone is one of the affected phones, they’ll repair your phone for free, and – best of all – will give you a loaner phone while fixing your actual phone.

Full details of how it works are here.

I took my phone into a local Apple store last Sunday to get it repaired.  Although Apple predictably says this is a problem affecting only a small percentage of phones, there must have been one person arriving every five or six minutes wanting to get their phone swapped over – I know that, because it took an hour from arriving at the store to leaving again, after a chaotic and very slow process to get my phone checked into their system and to be issued a loaner phone.

Now I don’t need to feel quite so desperate for the release of the new larger screened iPhone 6 this fall!  But I am still looking forward to it impatiently.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps I’ll get a new Amazon phone instead when it is announced (probably in the next month or so).

Actually, almost certainly, no I won’t.  I already have an Android phone (a Nexus 5) which I’m disappointed in (in terms of ease/convenience/sophistication of interface compared to Apple), and if Amazon’s approach to phones is similar to their approach to tablets (ie crippling the device so it will only allow a limited number of apps to be installed rather than all Android apps to work on it) then you too should ignore it also, no matter if it truly does end up with six cameras included.  See the item above about tablet market shares to see how well that policy is working for Amazon – it seems people are now appreciating that while the Kindle Fire series of products are great eBook readers, they are lousy tablets.

And Lastly This Week….

A pilot explained/apologized to passengers when they finally got on board their three-day (!) delayed flight that the delay was essential to allow for repairs that, if not completed, could have caused them all to crash into a ‘watery grave’.

So, what did the passengers – or at least some of them – do?  They wrote and complained to the airline, upset that the pilot used scary words to describe the plane’s problem.  No-one is denying the accuracy of the pilot’s description.  But the airline is now apologizing to passengers for the pilot’s ‘inappropriate choice of words’.

A question :  How exactly else would you describe a problem that could potentially cause the plane to flip over and plunge out of the sky into the sea, the same way as happened to an earlier flight, with all 213 people on board being killed?  ‘If not solved, the fault could have potentially caused us to experience a flight inversion followed by a negative rate of climb to flight level minus ten’.

Or – more likely, would the airline have preferred the pilot to go all vague and technical and simply lie :’Some paperwork needed to be corrected, an indicator light that is probably faulty, nothing to worry about folks’.

Details here.

Some people are starting to anticipate the World Cup match in Sao Paolo (scheduled to be held in two months time), and if you’re going there, don’t be surprised if you see a surprisingly familiar seeming figure working behind a bar.

Truly lastly this week, here in the Seattle area we are very proud of our coffee, and some people have very fancy and expensive coffee makers.  But I’m not sure how extensive the market will be – in Seattle, or many other places – for a $13,000 device designed to make a perfect cup of tea.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Apr 292014
Amazon's Kindle, now on sale for as little as $49.

Amazon’s Kindle, now on sale for as little as $49.

Last week I was writing about a wonderful new source of free eBooks (and I continue to get another free book, myself, most days), and as a prefatory part of that article, did a quick review/roundup of eBook readers.

Just this afternoon news has broken of a short-term sale Amazon is holding, with $20 price reductions on its entry level Kindle (reduced from $69 to $49) and its Paperwhite Kindle (from $119 down to $99).

I suggested, in my review last week, that if you don’t already own a Kindle, now would be a great time to get one.

Well, if last week was a great time to get one, what does the $20 reduction today make the price now?  The $20 is almost 30% off the standard Kindle, and at a new low price of $49, that’s about what you’d pay for two or three hardback books.  Buy the Kindle, then start treating yourself to the free books.

The Paperwhite, now for a dollar less than $100, is also very compelling if you’d like to choose the slightly upgraded model (see comparative details in my article last week).

We think Amazon may have dropped its prices temporarily so as to win some Mothers Day gift buying business.  Whether you are buying for yourself, your mother, or anyone else, it is definitely worth considering.  We don’t know how long the deal will last, so if this ‘rings your bell’ be sure to respond now, rather than later.

Apr 242014
What is it?  Art - or artrocity?  See article below.

What is it? Art – or artrocity? See article below.

Good morning

Happy birthday this week to the 777.  It is twenty years ago that the plane was first ceremonially rolled out by Boeing, although the first commercial flight didn’t occur until June 1995 (with United Airlines).

It remains the world’s largest twin-jet plane, and now has received more orders than any other widebody (ie twin aisle) plane.  The 747 still holds the record for the most widebodies delivered, but in a couple of years, it is expected the 777 will pass that record, too.

Although now 20 years old, the plane shows no signs of faltering in the marketplace, and indeed with the new 777X model plane, due out in 2020, it is realistic to expect the better part of twenty more years of life in the plane.

Some 1200 have been delivered to date.  There have only been four ‘hull loss’ type accidents – a BA plane that landed just short of Heathrow in 2008, due to an engine/fuel problem rather than a plane problem per se; an Egyptair 777 that caught fire at the gate in Cairo in 2011; then the Asiana flight that landed short of the runway in SFO, with the reason as yet not officially stated; and lastly, the current mystery, the 777 operated as MH 370, and at this stage, it seems unlikely the plane was to blame for whatever it is that may have happened to that plane.

The first three hull losses saw fatalities only in the Asiana landing (three people).  So the plane has an excellent operational and safety record.

More details here.

Another anniversary this week goes to the video phone.  It was introduced at the New York World Fair in 1964, and at the time seemed to be one of those amazingly futuristic things that promised to bring us all closer to each other.

The failure of the video phone in the fifty years subsequent to its introduction was initially put down to it performing poorly on normal phone lines, and then to conflicting standards and no compatibility between different devices.  But – in my opinion – the true failure of the video phone is that it is too intrusive.

Now that our phones are with us everywhere (if you know what I mean by everywhere, and the chances are you do), there are many occasions when we don’t want to be sending video.  And, much of the time, we’re only half concentrating on the phone calls we are participating in, and while we can obscure the fact that we’re multi-tasking via an audio only line, it is much harder to do so on a video call.

So, although many of us now have the technology for video calling, whether on our phone, computer, or tablet, few of us use it.  Indeed, I always feel a frisson of irritation when someone asks me to turn my video on.

A device which has, however, exceeded most people’s hopes is the eBook.  But the big disappointment has been their cost – the savings that are created by skipping the need to print and distribute books are enormous, but are not reflected in the price of eBooks.

However, there are patches of bargains appearing in the eBook world, and for the last short while, I’ve been downloading one or more completely free eBooks every day, adding greatly to the library on my Kindle.  There’s nothing new about free eBooks, but generally the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ has often been proved true.

But please do read the article attached to the roundup now for information on a great new free service that identifies good books, either at enormous discount or totally for free.  And if you haven’t yet become a convert to the whole eBook world, please do read the first part of the article; it might finally push you forward.

One final anniversary, today.  It is 99 years today since the events in Gallipoli in 1915 that caused New Zealand and Australia to create what is perhaps their most solemn holiday and event of the year – Anzac Day.  I doubt there’s a family in either country that doesn’t have some reasonably close relative who fought there, and we all view those events as a turning point in our young countries’ lives, when we ‘came of age’ and started to throw off the colonial ties to/with Britain.

If you’ve not seen it, there’s a passably good Mel Gibson movie, called Gallipoli.  It can be watched for free on Amazon video if you’re a Prime member, and they sell the DVD for only $5.  A splendid book (but not in eBook format, alas) is Robert Rhodes James’ account, also simply called Gallipoli.  Although long out of print, used copies are available on Amazon for not very much .

Also below, please read on for :

  • MH 370 :  Running Out of Places
  • Alaska Airlines’ Latest Attempts to Stay on Top in Seattle
  • A Puzzling Profit – and Loss – From Delta
  • Red Ink from United
  • The Most Uncomfortable Plane Ride, Ever
  • No More Metal Cutlery on Thai Airways
  • Is it Art?  Or an Artrocity?
  • No Comment – The Picture Says it All
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH 370 :  Running Out of Places

By the time you read this, it seems probable that the underwater search of the broad area suggested by the tracked sonar pings will have been completed, and with nothing found (at the time of writing, 95% of the search area has been checked).

What next?  It is unclear if the next move will be to repeat the survey of the area that the pings had suggested was where the black boxes are, or what else might be done instead.  The underwater surveying is a slow process, and without any clues about where to look, the thought of having to slowly search tens of thousands of square miles is uninviting and very time-consuming.

Why did the bearings from the pings, and the area so indicated, not reveal the black boxes or anything else resembling plane wreckage?  We don’t know.

Where should anyone look next?  We again don’t know.  We’re now hitting the 50th day since the plane’s disappearance, with not one iota of wreckage, oil slick, or anything else having been found, even some of the more sober and sensible sources of information are starting to openly wonder if the plane may have not crashed into the Southern Ocean at all, and perhaps some of the more fanciful theories suggesting the plane safely landed somewhere else might be valid.

But if that is indeed the case, trying to find a plane that has now almost certainly been artfully concealed (or even just simply placed in a hangar), with over 500 potential landing sites within the plane’s range, is also a close to impossible task.

This is indeed becoming a most confounding mystery.  But did you know it is not the first time a (relatively) modern jet has totally disappeared?  Just over ten years ago, a 727 disappeared from Luanda in Angola, and has never been seen since.  The plane probably had a range of about 2,000 miles, which could get it to Liberia, almost to Khartoum or Addis Ababa, easily to Nairobi, and to anywhere in Africa south of that arc.

Details here.

Alaska Airlines’ Latest Attempts to Stay on Top in Seattle

Call me cynical if you will, but one wonders if it is just a coincidence that the struggle between Alaska and Delta has anything to do with this week’s announcement that Alaska Airlines is funding a new $2.5 million Aerospace Education Center at Seattle’s excellent Museum of Flight.

Construction starts in September and should be complete early next year.  We look forward to seeing Delta attempt to one-up Alaska as being a similarly good community citizen.

In other responses, this week Alaska Airlines announced that its frequent flyers could get double miles when booking on Emirates flights anywhere across the Emirates network, and special fares too.

This is presumably another attempt to drain international traffic out of Seattle away from Delta’s flights, although notable in this case is the promotion applies to flights from Emirates’ other US gateways, too.

Is this a new level of escalation – Alaska signaling Delta ‘If you don’t ease off us in Seattle, we can make your life a misery in other markets too’?

A Puzzling Profit – and Loss – From Delta

Talking about Delta, it has recently announced its first quarter profit, and like all other major airlines (except United) it had a great quarter, with an estimate-beating profit of $281 million before special items and $213 million after special items.  The same quarter last year saw a mere $7 million profit.

The first quarter is typically Delta’s worst quarter of each year, something that promises great things for the airline over the balance of 2014.

The surprising part of their announcement was that they allowed their own in-house oil-refinery to show a $41 million loss.  Last year, they booked a mere $100,000 loss for the full year from the refinery.

I’m entirely unsurprised the refinery made a loss.  I’ve said as much, all along (see here, here and here for three feature articles written back in 2012 when the refinery purchase was evolving), and stand by my statements that there’s no way an airline could make as good a profit as could an oil company.

On the other hand, they have made good progress sourcing local oil rather than continuing to buy overpriced imported oil, and they are converting the refinery to yield a better mix of products of more direct benefit to the airline.

But, it is surprising that they continue to allow the refinery to record losses.  Maybe they decided that with so much other profit in the corporation overall, it was better to keep soaking up as many charges as possible for the refinery.

One imagines there’s a fair amount of flexibility as to how Delta costs out their refinery and the value they put on the jet fuel they buy from the refinery, so they can probably shift the profit (or, more to the point, the loss) between the refinery and other parts of their overall operations more or less as it suits them.

One last comment about their refinery.  In 2012, Delta was predicting the refinery would make $300 million in 2013.  But in reality, the $300 million profit ended up as a $100,000 loss.  Who has stepped forward to fall on their sword after the discrepancy between the laughably ridiculous $300 million profit projection and the apparent reality of the $100,000 loss?

Red Ink from United

Record, best-ever, first quarter profits have been announced by American Airlines and Southwest Airlines.  Delta also reported an excellent profit.  But United – the other of the big four airlines?  Ooops.  It managed to lose a staggering $609 million, a loss that it blamed partially on bad weather and cancelled flights.

It is true that it cancelled twice as many flights as, for example, Delta, but DL managed to raise its profit from $7 million to $213 million.  American also cancelled lots of flights, but its best-ever $480 million profit compares to a $297 million from the combined AA/US Airways operations last year.

United said its cancellations cost it $200 million.  That still leaves the other $409 million of loss to account for, as well as all the profit that it could have and should have made.  Last year it also made a loss in its first quarter, but ‘only’ $358 million last year.

Don’t get the completely wrong idea.  United still managed to book a $1.1 billion profit for the full 2013 year, before special items that reduced it down to $571 million.  So the airline isn’t exactly on death’s doorstep just yet, but it surely does need some first aid.

The Most Uncomfortable Plane Ride, Ever

Did you hear about the 15-year-old who stowed away in a 767′s wheel well and flew the five-hour flight from San Jose to Maui this week?  Temperatures outside the plane were thought to be about -80° and the plane went as high as 38,000 ft, where there’s almost no air to breath in the unpressurized wheel well.

Surprisingly, but not uniquely, he survived.  This article includes an interesting discussion on how that could be (and clearly was) possible.  But we think we’d prefer a middle seat for our next flight, thank you very much.

The big question is how did the youth manage to get into the secure part of the airport and into the plane’s wheel well.  His path has now been traced back via video recordings, but simply recording video for later analysis isn’t what most of us would perceive security to be.

Should we be checking security footage from Kuala Lumpur airport to see if anyone managed to sneak onto/into MH 370 prior to its departure?  We’ve been focused on the 239 people we know of on the plane – but maybe there were some others, too?

No More Metal Cutlery on Thai Airways

Remember the disappearance of metal cutlery after 9/11?  For a while, we had no knives at all, then plastic knives, and more recently, most airlines have now trusted us with metal knives once more, at least in the premium cabins, although I sometimes come across cutlery sets that have metal forks (great to stab a person with) but plastic knives.

Thai Airways has decided to ‘trial’ the use of plastic cutlery on its planes, after an inflight brawl earlier this month saw three Chinese passengers fighting among themselves, and one passenger getting harmed by a steel knife and fork.

The flight was from Bangkok to Beijing.  So the airline’s response is to swap to plastic cutlery, but only on flights between Bangkok and Los Angeles.  Interesting ‘logic’, for sure.

Is it Art?  Or an Artrocity?

Heathrow’s new Terminal 2, to be known as ‘The Queen’s Terminal’, is costing £2.5 billion, a staggering sum of money for an airport terminal.

It is hard to know where all the money went, but we do know that £2.5 million of it has been spent on a gargantuan 77 ton 260 ft sculpture, known as ‘Slipstream’, and now claiming to be the longest piece of public art in Britain.

What exactly is it?  Well, it is described as

….a simulation of a stunt plane’s flight path and you can almost hear it soaring, twisting and diving through its home in the new £2.5bn Heathrow Terminal 2 building

If that doesn’t give you a vivid mental picture, the statue is shown at the top of this newsletter.

The cost is justified, we are told, not just because it is the longest piece of public art in the country, but also because it will be the most viewed piece of art (due to 20 million passengers unavoidably passing it in the terminal each year).

We’ll concede that it may be the longest, as if that matters.  But the most viewed?  How many people see the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus each year?  How many people see Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square?  With London’s population of 8.3 million, Britain’s population of 63 million, plus 31 million visitors a year, and 4 million people riding the city’s underground train system every day, the 20 million people (including some people multiple times) who will pass through T2 a year are not nearly as many as those who pass Piccadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square each month.

Is it the conceit or the ignorance of the people sponsoring ‘Slipstream’ that is the more notable?

No Comment – The Picture Says it All


And Lastly This Week….

As we age, we sometimes find ourselves lamenting the passing of the ‘good old days’.  Here’s some ammunition for you the next time you bemoan the good old days when people would dress up for flights – a photo pictorial of 40 years of BA first class.

BA is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its creation (out of the merger between BOAC and BEA in 1974), and provided these interesting pictures as part of its retrospective.

I have a dog and while there are practical limits to how much money I would or could spend on her, I am utterly certain I’d never find myself acting the way a woman did at LAX this week – abandoning her two dogs at the airport upon deciding she couldn’t afford the cost of flying them with her.

She was retiring to live overseas herself, but apparently it was only at the airport she discovered the cost of transporting her two small dogs, and decided to just abandon them instead.  Details here.

I am unsurprisingly, professionally and personally, fascinated by language, its evolution, and its use/misuse/abuse. Here’s a fascinating article, complete with a sometimes hard to answer questionnaire, about the origins of office/business buzz words.

Should I be proud or embarrassed to have never heard of terms such as ‘ideation’?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and I hope you don’t unexpectedly smell roast chicken on your next flight







Apr 172014
A new approach to business class seat design and space saving with one person's legs above/below the other's.  See article below.

A new approach to business class seat design and space saving with one person’s legs above/below the other’s. See article below.

Good morning

And a very happy Easter to you, wherever in the world you may be celebrating it.  One of the few disadvantages of living in the US is that Easter is not celebrated here – in New Zealand, it is marked by both the Friday and Monday being holidays.

Talking about New Zealand, I am approaching the ‘last call’ point for people who might be considering joining our Travel Insider NZ tour this October.  We’ve a great group of 20 people already coming, and room for another few people if you’d like to join us.

Anyway, treating this as a normal work week, you’ll find two additional articles as well as today’s roundup.

I was cringing in a hotel room earlier this week while reading the prominent bathroom placard none-too-gently suggesting that I not even leave the tap running while brushing my teeth, so as to ‘save the planet’ by using less water – a strange request for a resort located in the middle of the rain forest and surrounded by abundant water everywhere.  And then later in the week, I found a story about Portland, OR capriciously/ridiculously throwing away 38 million gallons of water, while boasting they have plenty more.

One wonders if the hotels in Portland also demand their guests save water.  For more, see the article below.

The second article is my addition to the 33 million articles already listed by Google when you search for ‘MH 370 conspiracy’.  It is an attempt to look at some of what we don’t know (because there’s still almost nothing we do know).  Indeed, not only do we still know nothing, but it seems that the latest greatest most scientifically calculated search area, bolstered by bearings from four different black box pings, might be wrong and be about to changed yet again.

Please also read on for :

  • The 737 Passes Another Milestone
  • New Airplane Seats on Display
  • A Bumper Year for Business Travel
  • Sydney to Get a Second Airport
  • Different Industry, Same Merger Nonsense
  • Foreign Exchange Fees Disappearing from Credit Cards
  • 4K TV Now Being Sold at Costco
  • The Ten Most Disappointing Destinations in the World?
  • And Lastly This Week….

The 737 Passes Another Milestone

This week saw the delivery of the 8,000th 737 made by Boeing, further cementing the plane’s place in the record books as the most popular passenger plane ever built.

It is only 2.5 years since the 7,000th was delivered, and with a current production rate of 42 planes/month, it will be just under two years before the 9,000th is delivered (there are more than 3,700 737s on back order currently).

It is however also more than 46 years since the first 737 was delivered, although there’s not a lot in common between the first 737 and the current 737s, other than – groan – the diameter of the cabin cylinder and the related necessary narrowness of the seats.

New Airplane Seats on Display

Talking about narrow seats, last week saw the annual Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.  A wide range of current, future, and futuristic seating choices were on display, including new attempts by seat designers to squeeze even more seats into less airplane space.

A first class seat can cost the airline up to $500,000 each, and even such inexpensive seeming things as the seatback video display units cost, on average, about $10,000 per inch of diagonal screen size, plus another $1000 or more for the separate control unit for each display (in other words, a modest 10″ display could cost perhaps $12,000 each).

When you add in also the associated weight costs of all that electronics, is it any wonder that airlines are keen to encourage us into bringing our own devices onto planes?

This article has some interesting pictures of seats on display at the Expo.

A Bumper Year for Business Travel

The Global Business Travel Association has just revised upwards its projection for 2014 business travel expenditures by US businesses.  They are now projecting a 7.1% increase in total spend compared to 2013.

After two years of business travel declines, the GBTA is predicting a 2% increase in business travel; the balance of the 7.1% dollar increase being due to increased costs of travel this year.  It looks like 2014 is sure to be another great year for the airlines.

Apparently video-conferencing has still not yet rewritten the rules of business travel.  Maybe next year.  Or – more likely, probably not.

Details here.

Sydney to Get a Second Airport

Even fairly modest sized cities often seem to have more than one commercial airport.  For decades now, Sydney has been crippled by only having one airport, and – even worse – it is an airport with curfew restrictions limiting when flights can arrive and depart.

This is not only a problem in terms of the total number of flights a day that can be managed, but it becomes an operational problem when flights are delayed, meaning that sometimes flights can’t depart or arrive due to their delayed takeoff/landing now falling within the curfew hours.

It is a further problem for airlines seeking to get the best utilization of their planes, and trying to synchronize departure and arrival times at both ends of perhaps a very long flight.  If a flight arrives into Sydney shortly before its 11pm curfew, it is stuck on the ground for the seven hours of the curfew until 6am the next morning, and there’s nothing a well run airline likes less than seeing a several hundred million dollar plane sitting unproductively on the ground for seven hours.

The current airport (Kingsford Smith Airport, code SYD, in the suburb of Mascot) also suffers from a split design where the international and domestic terminals are on opposite sides of the airport, making for inconvenient and time-consuming transfers between domestic and international flights (a bit like Heathrow with T4 and T5 in distant parts of the airport compared to where the original T1/2/3 complex is located).

There have been plans and proposals and studies for a second Sydney airport for almost exactly 50 years, and discussions dating back to the 1940s, but it is only in the last week that finally the government has decided upon a clear way forward, with a second airport to open in Badgerys Creek, about 30 miles to the west of Sydney (compared to SYD which is a mere 5 miles to the south).

Sure, the location is less convenient for people wanting to travel all the way in to Sydney and across town to its eastern suburbs, but that doesn’t matter if you’re changing planes and continuing your journey, and it would be acceptable if there was an adjustment in ticket price for most people in any event.  Another important factor will be how well it will be served by rapid train service to/from downtown Sydney, with actual distance from the city center less important than the travel time to get to and from.

But don’t expect to be flying there any time soon.  Construction is unlikely to start before 2016, and as for its first flight arriving, the current estimate ranges from ‘it would take about two years to build a single short runway’ to about 5 – 7 years to get to the point of some domestic flights operating, to a full opening perhaps some time in the mid 2020s.  There is a current budget of $2.4 billion for the new airport.

Can someone explain how it takes almost ten years to build and open an airport?  This is not time for approvals and appeals.  This is simply the construction time, after the final approval has been received, to lay a runway or two, build a terminal or two, and the associated infrastructure needed to make it all work and to connect it to road and hopefully rail links.

China is constructing an enormous new airport in Beijing in half this time (and for half the money).

Different Industry, Same Merger Nonsense

We’ve all been way over-exposed to the nonsense about the need for airlines to merge, but it is important to appreciate that this merger advocacy nonsense is not confined to the airlines, alone.

For example, in my home country of New Zealand, there are just over 4 million people and three mobile phone service providers.  The UK, with 63 million people, has at least seven major mobile phone service providers.

The United States has almost 80 times as many people as NZ and five times as many as the UK, but according to this nonsense report, is unable to support a mere four major mobile phone service providers.  The report says that Sprint and T-Mobile need to merge together in order to compete against AT&T and Verizon.

T-Mobile, although deemed ‘unable to compete’ by the report, has right around 50 million customers and is showing massive subscriber growth over the last year or so due to the introduction of its ‘uncarrier’ type strategies.  Sprint has a few more subscribers – about 55 million – but is not showing such growth.

Why do selected parts of the US economic community believe that size alone is the only/overriding consideration when it comes to being able to successfully compete in a marketplace/industry?  As still somewhat of an outsider looking in at the US business model, this seems to be an overriding issue, and quite without parallel in many other countries, where it is not so much about the size of your company as it is the adroitness with which you operate it (hmmm – that’s a bit like another thing, too, isn’t it).

Alternatively, if size truly is the most important factor, since when did 50 million customers become a ‘too small’ size for viable success?

Talking about size, it is also relevant to note that New Zealand has half the population density of the US, making it harder for the wireless companies to provide cost-effective coverage.  But NZ can support one wireless company per 1.5 million of population, whereas it is claimed that 50 million people are insufficient for a US wireless company, and that in total, the 314 million people in the country can only support three wireless companies.

This makes no more sense than when American Airlines – an airline outlooking a profitable future as a standalone carrier – said that it needed to merge with US Airways in order to survive.

Foreign Exchange Fees Disappearing from Credit Cards

For a while it was common to see most credit cards tacking on as much as a 3% fee when you charged amounts in a foreign currency.  They would convert the foreign currency to US dollars, and presumably make a small profit from the exchange rate they used, and then they would charge an additional fee on top of that, for no reason other than they could.

These fees have always been moderately negotiable.  There have also been a few cards that notably never added such charges, including some with Chase, Citi and Capital One.

Last year saw the Chase/United card waive fees, and it now seems that Amex is removing fees from its consumer and business Delta SkyMiles cards from 1 May, and the new Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard will also waive fees.

Suggestion – call your preferred card issuer and ask them to waive fees on your card, too.  Tell them you’ve been approached by and are considering one of these competing cards, and ask them to match the no foreign transaction fees.

I’ve had Bank of America, in the past, gratuitously offer to remove the fees from my Alaska Airlines Visa card, so if you travel internationally from time to time, this could be a worthwhile request to make.

4K TV Now Being Sold at Costco

If proof was needed about the transition from esoteric to mainstream by the latest and greatest ’4K’ resolution video monitors, I noticed three different models of 4K capable monitors on sale at Costco yesterday.

It was also great to be able to compare the 4K and ‘regular’ 1080P monitors side by side.  Yes, there was a visible difference, and there’s a great slide-over image in this article that attempts to show you the impact of the higher resolution.

The biggest benefit of 4K however is not so much a better or clearer picture as it is being able to sit closer to the screen and enjoy a larger picture without any visible scan lines or pixelation on the screen.  I checked, after going to the movies over the weekend, and already my 1080P screen subtends nearly as large a viewing angle as did the ‘big screen’ in the movie theater, and when you keep in mind that a 4K screen can be twice as wide and twice as high as a comparable 1080P screen when viewed at the same distance, it is clear that we can now enjoy appreciably bigger than movie theater screen type experiences in our own homes.

This hearkens back to my article in January, pointing out that home video finally now is capable of providing a better viewing experience than the latest state of the art movie theaters.

Bottom line – be sure to make your next big screen purchase a 4K screen.

The Ten Most Disappointing Destinations in the World?

Almost as inane as ‘infographics’ are the ever more omnipresent ‘top ten’ type lists, invariably produced through an opaque process of dubious probity.

Take, for example, this list appearing in USA Today that claims itself to be the ten most disappointing destinations in the world.  The list includes Las Vegas and Disneyworld in Orlando, so there’s every chance you might think the list to be nonsense.

Is USA Today really that desperate for travel related content these days?

And Lastly This Week….

Did you read about the hijacking earlier this week?  It happened on the way to SFO, but only four passengers were inconvenienced.  Perhaps this was because it was a shuttle bus from the city to the airport that was hijacked, rather than an airplane.

A spokesman for SuperShuttle said this was ‘not a common occurrence’ but one wonders how soon it will be before one’s ride to the airport starts off by being frisked by a TSA agent riding shotgun on each shuttle van.

More details here.

Perhaps one of the lessons of the MH370 mystery is that we’re not quite as much in control of our world as we think we are and wish we were.

Here’s an amazing video showing the power of the sea as it impacts on a modern mega-sized container ship.  Yes, the cruise ship you next treat yourself to a voyage on would do the same thing – or at least, you hope so.  Just like airplane wings are designed to flex, so too are ships.  Flexing makes them more resilient to stress.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Apr 172014
Details of Australia's current search areas for MH 370.

Details of Australia’s current search areas for MH 370.

There’s nothing worse than an unexplained or inexplicable misfortune, and particularly with the modern-day demand for instant news and certain facts, even when there’s nothing to say and little understood, low quality ‘information’ rushes in to fill the knowledge gap which exists.

When you add to this a layer of government bumbling and incompetence, and then leaven it all with truly unusual situations far removed from normalcy, you have an impossibly tempting situation for conspiracies to flourish.

This is definitely the case with the MH 370 mysterious disappearance.  If you can remember back the six weeks to when it first disappeared, the information that has been trickling out has consistently been slow and contradictory and the many claims of wreckage sightings, oil slicks, and other indications of the plane have all been proven false.  Never mind that incomplete and inaccurate information seems to invariably accompany the initial release of information on any major event; in the case of MH 370 it has consistently seemed particularly egregious, right from the very first six-hour delay between the plane losing contact and being announced as officially missing (ie an hour after it had already failed to land in Beijing).

We weren’t even sure exactly when the plane went out of contact, or what its last contact was, getting a series of conflicting stories about what the last contact was, and whether the last voice contact was with the pilot or co-pilot.  Indeed, not only were these simple seeming issues unclear for several days, but the official statement of what the last words received were was revised a month after the plane’s disappearance.

The initial search area – in the vicinity of where the plane was at its last contact, a location that on the face of it was initially sensible – gradually was shown to be more and more ridiculous, although it took almost exactly a week for us to learn that the plane had been sort of occasionally tracked by radar heading in the opposite direction long after communication stopped.  Subsequent search areas were located many thousands of miles to the west, and then many more thousands of miles to the south, and speculation covered even wider areas.

It is still unclear today exactly how much fuel the plane had loaded prior to taking off from Kuala Lumpur, although there’s not a huge range of possible values as between the minimum amount it should have had on board for its flight to Beijing and the maximum amount it could carry.  It took an astonishing amount of time for the authorities to concede the obvious possibility that the plane really truly could be anywhere within 3,000 or so miles of its last known position.  In other words, to put that in context, a plane last sighted over Los Angeles might be somewhere west of Hawaii, in northern Alaska, Halifax, Bermuda or Panama, or anywhere else within the circle bounded by those points.

Plane wreckage and oil slicks have been claimed to be sighted repeatedly by various governments (but never turned out to be actual wreckage/oil from the plane), and while no-one has actually said so, the lack of any wreckage is now starting to transition from merely frustrating to significant and unusual.  Even the US government at one stage was dropping strong hints that the plane was in the water somewhere off the Indian coast and went as far as to send one of its ships in that direction (the clear interpretation being that one of our confidential intelligence gathering resources had spotted/detected the plane crashing there).  There has been no explanation as to how the US was wrong with this claim.

In addition to what had seemed to be a series of credible locations for the plane’s remains, other more bizarre stories have briefly appeared and then disappeared about the plane being sighted on the ground, in locations ranging from Diego Garcia to China to northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other ‘-stan’ type countries.

Then – two weeks after the plane disappeared – there was news of a previously undisclosed series of automatic contacts between the plane’s engines and an overhead satellite being discovered, first leading to a series of location bands, anywhere on which the plane might have been at the time of each contact, and then further analysis based on these signals a few days later claimed the plane had flown to a fairly specific location in the Southern Ocean off the west coast of Australia – first thought to be to the southwest and then successively further north from there, by 1000 + miles.

But not everyone accepts this analysis, which clearly is imprecise to the tune of at least 1,000 miles in any event.  If the satellite data is to be accepted at a superficial level (ie the several rings), the plane could have flown on one of several different paths, depending on the plane’s speed, so as to position it on each of the rings at the times the engines ‘phoned home’.  Further analysis of the signals received is claimed to have enabled analysts to get additional information as to the plane’s heading at the time of each signal exchange.  The math involved is complex, and has strangely not been fully disclosed by the people asserting the plane flew a southerly route – a route which is a bit counter-intuitive considering the plane was flying in a west-north-westerly directly prior to apparently disappearing entirely from all radars.  It certainly would seem to embody some assumptions about the correlation between the plane’s speed through the air and directional heading, and as such, would be challengeable rather than demonstrably and unambiguously correct.

Here’s an interesting and credible website which suggests the plane may have been more likely to have continued in a general north/west direction – which certainly creates a bunch more ‘interesting’ scenarios as to the plane’s eventual disposition than does a suggestion that after all its earlier twists and turns, it straightened out and simply flew in more or less a direct path into the Southern Ocean, eventually running out of fuel and crashing.

There are few scenarios that can explain the southern route.  The most likely explanation seems to be that at some point prior to the final routing down to its final fuel exhaustion point, everyone on the plane died or in some other way, the plane became uncontrollable.  Another one is that perhaps the pilot, formerly under duress to that point, managed to briefly break free and reprogram the plane’s heading before being recaptured/killed.  On the other hand, there are many scenarios that could account for the plane continuing to fly a circuitous path to a specific destination and runway, somewhere on land, in an area of the world rich in terrorist type activity.

Not so easily explained is how the plane could have made its way through some contentious and heavily defended airspace on its way to some northwestern inland final location.  On the other hand, many people have found it astonishing that the plane managed to fly so far without any radar contact, and/or that the times it apparently did briefly appear on radar there was no response by the governments and air traffic control or air defense authorities involved.

Is this proof of a conspiracy or cover-up?  More likely, it is simply a case of the plane showing no alarming/aggressive tendencies, and countries not being sufficiently trigger-happy/paranoid as to want to spend money scrambling fighters to investigate a plane that was apparently flying in a normal manner and as likely as not, would soon start flying out of, rather than into the monitoring authority’s airspace.

In such a case, is it possible that a combination of infrequent radar returns and lack of any clear ‘threat profile’ meant a continued passive non-response as the plane flew on to its final destination?  It is unlikely, but far from beyond the realm of possibility, and in the scenario where there are no remaining likely explanations, we have to fully consider all unlikely ones.

In the early days, there were stories of cell phones belonging to passengers that were claimed to be still switched on, ‘on line’ and ringing, a day or two after the plane disappeared.  This was subsequently explained as being normal when you are calling a phone in a foreign country – the ringing the caller hears in their phone does not mean the called phone is also ringing at the same time – it is an auto-generated tone to reassure the caller that the call is being processed.  More recently, we have learned that the co-pilot’s phone is thought to have locked on to a cell tower signal briefly while the plane was flying back over the Malaysian peninsula after going silent, but we haven’t been told any more than this.  We don’t know if the co-pilot made (or attempted) a phone call, or who to, or anything else.

One thing that seems increasingly likely is that most – probably all – the passengers and crew are now dead, although the cause of their passing may or may not be as a result of the plane crashing into the ocean.  If the plane landed safely somewhere, it is hard to think of a likely situation where the 239 people on board would be kept secretly alive for five weeks.  That’s a lot of food, a lot of water, a lot of plumbing, and so on that would be required, and the type of people who would commandeer the plane probably would have little motivation to care for the passengers on board.  On the other hand – and for every theory, there’s a counter-theory – Russian sources are suggesting the plane flew to Afghanistan and the passengers/crew are alive and well.

The flight’s profile – shortly after losing contact, it executed a climb up to its maximum height before descending down again – could be explained by whoever was controlling the plane doing this to more quickly asphyxiate everyone on board before continuing to fly the plane, uninterrupted by the now cargo of dead bodies.

Credible black box pings have been detected on four occasions, as have some false contacts that proved not to be black box pings, but now it seems the black box batteries have finally gone silent, and most recently, two attempts to send the remote-controlled Bluefin-21 submersible down to hunt for any wreckage have each been prematurely aborted after only a few hours rather than full 20 hour missions.

That’s not to say that things won’t improve with the submersible, but it is frustrating at present – as is the knowledge that the Bluefin-21 can’t go as deep as the ocean floor in the areas it is searching and is operating right at the limit of its depth capabilities (and sometimes beyond that limit, causing the submersible to go into ‘panic’ mode and urgently surface).

Update :  It has now been decided to operate the Bluefin-21 at greater than its rated maximum depth, and after its two earlier deployments both being cut short, it has now completed a full mission, with the authorities expressing optimism that the entire search area will be covered in less time than earlier expected, due to more progress in narrowing down the likely search area in which the black boxes may be located.

Official statements from the Malaysian authorities change and contradict each other, and additional statements from the Chinese, Australia, and other authorities vary in terms of their subsequently demonstrated accuracy too.  Some of the time, optimistic hopes of finding the plane’s wreckage and/or black boxes are expressed, other times, officials express doubts as to how quickly anything may be learned.  There have already been some very delicate hints that maybe nothing will ever be found – mention of the silty ocean bottom potentially covering up the plane wreckage has already been lightly raised, but thus far only in the context of it being difficult rather than impossible to locate the plane.

What would it mean if the plane is never found?  Would this be significant?  Interestingly, it would be reasonably hard to fabricate a convincing crash scene, even miles below the surface of the ocean.  The location and disposition of every 777 ever manufactured is known, and it would be difficult to mock-up a crashed 777 without using real 777 parts, assuming that an independent investigative body subsequently recovered some of the remains and started to trace them back through the audit trail that is associated with every piece and part of a modern passenger jet.

It would be more possible to create dummy data to load into a black box and allow it to be miraculously found without any matching airplane pieces.  The voice recorder (which will only store the last couple of hours of data anyway, not the most ‘interesting’ parts when the plane first lost contact and was flying up and down and round and about) could completely credibly contain nothing except the sounds of the plane flying through the air, with some instrument warnings at the end – low fuel, low altitude, etc – followed by whatever some sound engineer imagines the sound of the plane crashing into the ocean would be (well, actually, we already know what that sounds like – that could be adapted from the AF447 recording).  A data recorder could take data from an actual 777 flight and then be edited to recreate the necessary profile for the supposed MH370 flight, and if there were any tricky bits, those could be deemed ‘missing’ or damaged.

Indeed, if someone with sufficient resources really wanted to cover up the fate of the plane, it would make sense to take the actual black boxes from the actual MH 370 plane, edit the actual recordings, then take the black boxes and drop them into the deepest part of the Southern Ocean they could find (which, coincidentally, seems to be where they ended up).  If the actual black boxes were found, with credible data on them, who would question things any further?  As it is, there was almost exactly a month from the plane’s disappearance until the first black box ping was detected – plenty of time for anyone to do anything.

Note that the delay in detecting the black box pinging does not mean the black boxes only recently were deposited wherever they may be, instead it probably just means that it took us that long to start looking in the appropriate place, because the pings seem to have a fairly short-range within which they can be detected.

Is it any wonder then that there have been many theories as to what might have happened to the plane, implicating all manner of governments (including our own) and a broad sprinkling of terrorist organizations (not just the usual middle Eastern Muslim groups).  Indeed, not content with implicating any/all groups, anywhere in the world, there have been suggestions involving extra-terrestrial beings as well.  Other unworldly forces include seeking advice from psychics (even on CNN).

It made sense to seek any evidence that might exist to shine a light of suspicion on the pilot or copilot, and similarly, the presence of people on board who were traveling on bogus passports was also a valid concern to be resolved.  But some of these issues were definitely a bit over-wrought.  For example, learning that a professional pilot also enjoys playing a high-end version of Microsoft Flight Simulator is far from astonishing, and to learn that some of the scenarios he had been running involved the plane getting into difficulties is totally normal.  There’s little fun in running a sim that involves nothing more than hours of ordinary flying.  Any sim player chooses interesting, challenging, and extending scenarios, the same way that professional training in ‘real’ simulators also involves problems rather than normal easy flight.

The pilot suicide theory also seems unlikely.  If a pilot wished to kill himself by crashing his plane, one would expect him to do so quickly, with no fuss and no opportunity for the other pilot(s) or people on board to overpower him.

The pressure on getting news out fast, and the unfortunate fact that the internet and ‘social media’ gives everyone a voice, meant that some normal things were quickly being cited as ‘proof’ of various conspiracies to do with the plane, and the fact that the Malaysian authorities seemed chronically unable to get their own facts straight, combined with astonishing delays in disclosures, definitely added fuel to the fire.  And with a total lack of knowledge about what did happen, anyone and everyone is therefore free to speculate any way they wish.  While there is nothing to confirm any theory, there is also nothing to negate much of the speculation, either.

Furthermore, whatever it is that did happen is clearly going to be a very unusual thing, so we’ve opened the floodgates to speculation about unusual things in general.

The result?  If you search for ‘MH 370 conspiracy’ on Google, there are 33 million pages it returns in its results.  Happily, there is now a Wikipedia page devoted to the topic, sparing you the need to sift through all 33 million pages.


All we really know is that the plane has disappeared and hasn’t yet been found.  We’re not sure what happened, who or what was responsible, or where the plane now is.

Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.  And, unfortunately, so too is the guess of anyone else.  Whatever it is that did happen, it is already obvious that it was not a common or normal or usual thing.  The only remaining issue is just exactly how uncommon, abnormal, and unusual it was.

We might never know the truth.  Perhaps even worse, even if the plane is subsequently discovered, it may not answer all the many questions circling over the situation.

Apr 172014
Some of the 'holier than thou' placards we encounter in hotel rooms these days.

Some of the ‘holier than thou’ placards we encounter in hotel rooms these days.

The in-room placards are getting more and more offensively aggressive at demanding we ‘save water’ while staying at a hotel.

Earlier this week, I was at a property that not only had the well-worn homilies about re-using towels, but also was suggesting a long list of other water-saving strategies, ranging from taking showers instead of baths to turning off the tap between rinses while brushing one’s teeth.

The fact that the resort in question was in the middle of a lush wet rain forest and alongside a pure flowing river made it all even more ridiculous than normal, and also begged the response ‘if you really want me to save water, perhaps I should just go back home, use water any way I like, and not visit at all’.

On the other hand, we do know that some parts of the world, and some parts of the country, are short of water.  But to save water in a place where it is freely abundant doesn’t help the arid parts of the world any more than, when we were children and told to ‘think of all the starving people in India’, it helped them when we ate all the food on our plate.

And now, news comes this week of the Portland (OR) city water bureau administrator claiming they have plenty of water.  After deciding to gratuitously throw away 38 million gallons of the stuff, he said

It’s easy to replace those 38 million gallons of water.  We’re not in the arid Southwest.  We’re not in drought-stricken parts of Texas or Oklahoma.

The water was stored in a large open reservoir in a popular park in the center of the city, Mt Tabor, and travels from the reservoir direct to consumers’ taps without further treatment.  Birds fly overhead and, ahem, regularly defecate in it, plant life grows in it, and we don’t know but will wager that fish probably live in it too.  Also likely are various wild and even domesticated animals that come along and also, ahem, ‘muddy the waters’.

Animals don’t only do these things – they also die in the reservoirs (see picture of a water bureau employee removing a dead duck from the reservoir here).  City pollution also settles in the water – either being washed down and into the water, or just normally settling, along with other dust and dirt and debris.  Leaves and seeds and pollen fall into the water, too.

One of the Mt Tabor reservoirs in Portland, with the downtown area nearby in the background.

One of the Mt Tabor reservoirs in Portland, with the downtown area nearby in the background.

But all of this is both normal and negligible, and the water quality/purity exceeds all federal, state and city requirements.  None of these events cause any alarm at all.

But earlier this week a 19 year old youth was seen urinating through the protective stand-off fence surrounding the reservoir.  It is unclear if any of his urine actually reached the reservoir.  Urine is normally a germ/infection free liquid, and some people even routinely drink it as a tonic (Gandhi being a well-known example).  We’re not advocating you should start doing this, too, but we’re simply pointing out that while we are conditioned to avoid urine, it is not normally harmful.

So, here we are, with a 38 million gallon reservoir, full not only of water but also of assorted other products, including plenty of excrement from birds, and possibly also fish and animals, as well as all manner of precipitated pollutants.  There is a possibility that it may now have some small amount, probably less than a pint, of urine added to it, making for an undetectable one part (or less) of human urine per 300 million parts of water, and dwarfed by all the other urine and feces already present.

To put that level of contamination into perspective, if it was cyanide that was for sure emptied into the water instead of urine that may or may not have reached the reservoir, the fatal dose level would have to be 5,000 times greater (about one part in 600,000).

So, what does the city of Portland do?

Clearly its managers have never read the placards in hotels exhorting them to save water.  It decides to dump the entire 38 million gallons of water.  Details here.

Oh yes, this is the second time they’ve done this, although the previous time, three years ago, it was ‘only’ a 7.5 million gallon reservoir.

Could we ask Portland area hotels to now remove their ‘save water’ placards.

Apr 102014
A low-res sample of the picture quality from my new camera - see below for a link to a higher res version of the same.

A low-res sample of the picture quality from my new camera – see below for a link to a higher res version of the same.

Good morning

Happy birthday to the internal combustion engine.  This is one of those inventions that are hard to pin down to a specific point in time, due to being a series of evolving and improving things, but the patent filed on 3 April 1885 by Otto Gottlieb is perhaps one of the pivotal points of what is now the amazing thing under the hoods of our vehicles.

Interestingly though, not everything to do with automobiles can be considered a consistent forward march of progress.  Also an anniversary this week is the 9 April 1971 issuance of the first ever NHTSA bumper standard, requiring bumpers to be able to withstand a 5 mph forward impact and a 2 mph rear impact.

But, today, the bumper standards are less demanding than they were then.  If you manage to read through this page of obfuscated details, you’ll see that the new underlying requirement isn’t for bumpers to protect cars, but rather for the cost of improved bumpers to be less than the savings created from them.

You might think that sensible – why spend $1000 in bumper strengthening if, on average, a stronger bumper only saves a typical driver $500 in crash damage?  The answer is that if we were to require stronger bumpers, don’t you think there’d be a focus of R&D into making better bumpers on a more cost-effective basis?  There have been amazing improvements and enhancements to materials technologies over the intervening 40+ years, but precious little of this has flowed through to making cars more resilient to minor dents and dings.

We definitely agree that cars are much safer today, especially for substantially higher speed impacts, than they were back in 1971, so overall we’re improving our game.  But we’d sure like to see them more robustly resistant to ‘fender benders’, and we’d definitely love to see the cost of repairing fender benders to be less than it is at present.  It seems you can’t ever visit a body shop without spending at least $1000 to replace bumper components – a cost that is all the more aggravating when you consider the enormous profit that the overpriced components bring to their manufacturers.

For most of us, we happily go our entire lives without a major car accident and insurance claim, but we do suffer a number of fender benders.

Currently there’s no substantial financial incentive for car manufacturers to reduce the cost of their vehicle repairs.  We think there should be.  If we can impose massive requirements on manufacturers when it comes to meeting fuel economy levels, why not also require them to make their vehicles more repairable?  One could credibly argue the same ‘enviro-conscious’ issues apply in both cases – the ‘carbon releases’ or whatever else you want to measure associated with each new car’s production are enormous; if we can extend the life of present automobiles, we are ‘saving the planet’.  Sort of.

There are two additional articles appended to today’s newsletter.  The first calls your attention to an invidious attempt by the airlines to sneak very bad new legislation through the system without allowing for fair review and debate.  I’m not sure which is the more egregious aspect of this – the refusal of the Congressional committee to allow submissions and debate, or the underlying lie which the legislation is based on.  Read it and decide for yourself, then please let your congresscritter know of your disapproval.

The second article responds to several comments I received about my camera article a couple of weeks back.  Readers asked for recommendations for lower priced and/or smaller cameras than the one I recommended, and it is true my preferred camera is at the higher end of the ‘affordable’ scale.  So here now is a table listing more than 20 highly rated cameras at lower prices, including a couple of good cameras in the under $300 category – less than half the price of the Sony camera I recommended two weeks ago.

I was also asked for some samples of pictures from my new Sony camera, and that is something I’d avoided doing, because pictures often reflect more on the skill of the photographer than on the camera itself, and a full appreciation of the camera requires seeing many pictures and appreciating the differences between how they appear with one camera and a different camera used similarly.

But I was visiting the tulip fields just north of Seattle earlier this week, and decided to offer you one picture now – you can see it in small preview size above, and if you click this link here, you’ll see a cropped part of the complete image, at full size.  Note the glorious colors, the very clear definition, and lots of detail in both the highlights and shadows (rather than just dark blobs and burned out bright parts).

It is the best of the dozen or so tulip pictures I took, but it was taken with all settings on automatic and without any special adjustments.  Anyone can take pictures this good, without any special knowledge or skill, when using this camera.  If I’d messed around with some settings, I could have made it even better, but I want you to appreciate how good the camera is, not how good I may (or, more likely, may not) be.

Truly, my new Sony camera is marvelous.

Below, please read on for articles about :

  • MH 370 Update
  • This Week’s Round in the AS vs DL Fight
  • Airline ‘Competition’ – Good or Bad?
  • My Suggestion to Alaska Airlines
  • More on Hawaiian Airlines
  • Pity the Poor Airlines and Their Desperate Cost-Saving Measures
  • Airbus A350 Testing
  • Windows XP Transitions to a Well Earned Retirement
  • Another Amazing Photo/Video Technology
  • TSA Bans Stroke Victim From Flight
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH 370 Update

It seems the plane’s black boxes may be found.  Pings from the black boxes have almost certainly now been detected on several bearings on several different days this last week (in total, there have been, as of late Thursday, five probable detections), and with each new detection, the approximate location of the black boxes becomes more readily determined.

Currently the likely location of the black boxes is somewhere in a 500 sq mile patch of ocean floor – an area about the same size as the city of Los Angeles.  Imagine trying to find two boxes lying around, somewhere in Los Angeles.  When you’re dealing with extreme depths and an uneven ocean floor, trying to find the black boxes is much the same sort of almost impossible task.

The likely depth at which the black boxes are located is appreciably below the depth at which the AF 447 black boxes were retrieved, and slightly below the maximum operating depth of the Bluefin 21 submersible that is on location to be used to hunt and find them.  There are submersibles capable of deeper operations, but they are not currently on-site and would have to be shipped in, delaying things while they were dismantled, shipped, and then rebuilt.

Here’s a fascinating chart that puts the depth of water into great perspective.

I was asked ‘Why are the black boxes still pinging if the batteries were only rated for 30 days?’.  The answer to that question is because the battery rating is for a minimum of 30 days, not for a maximum of 30 days.  It is normal for the manufacturer to use a battery with a much greater than 30 days life when first installed for two reasons.  The first is so that, as time passes and the battery life slowly diminishes, the black box doesn’t need to be maintained as frequently or the batteries replaced as often.  The second reason is recognizing the variable life of each individual battery – if the batteries have a generic average life of, eg, 40 days, then that means some will last longer than 40 days but others might struggle to make even 30 days.  So, to guarantee 30 days of life, the manufacturers start off with batteries that will probably have much more than 30 days of life.

It is our good fortune that the batteries inside at least one of these two black boxes have been performing beyond their minimum specification, although a lowering in ping frequency suggests a diminished vitality in the battery.

One more thing about the black boxes.  Malaysia Airlines doesn’t have a perfect record when it comes to black boxes and the preservation of the data on them, as this article points out.

It is surprising there has still been no floating debris sighted.

This Week’s Round in the AS vs DL Fight

Anyone who ever argued against the benefits of competition in the airline industry should look at the fevered pitch of things in the Seattle market at present – although it is a mixed blessing, as I observe below.

This week Alaska Airlines has introduced new baggage tags that you can print yourself at home – they print onto plain paper which you then insert into a robust ‘tag carrier’ on your bags.  Apparently this is supposed to be more convenient than printing baggage tags at the airport – a claim which begs the question ‘More convenient for who – the airline or its passengers?’.  But it will doubtless appeal to a few ‘do-it-yourself’ enthusiasts, as well as, in time, opening up a new potential revenue stream for some of the more rapacious airlines – a fee levied on people who don’t pre-print their own bag tags prior to arriving at the airport.

Alaska also announced a plan to allow passengers to stream movies, television shows, and audio tracks directly to their own portable devices such as laptops, tablets, and phones.  Again, this new feature begs the question as to who benefits more from this – the customers, for being able to watch content on their own device, or the airline, for saving the cost and weight of outfitting their planes with individual seatback screens and controllers.

Personally, there’s no way I’d ever want to watch anything on my phone screen instead of on an airplane seatback screen, and while the screen quality is much better on my tablets, I would have to also dig out some type of charger to power the device for a long flight, and need some way of holding the screen at a convenient viewing angle and position too, so this is another subtle rather than obvious benefit.

There’s no apparent cost saving to the passengers, either.  Alaska says it will charge ‘under $6 for movies and under $3 for television content’.  Typical airline – it saves a huge amount of money itself, while passing little or none of the saving on to its passengers.

In addition to these two new service ‘enhancements’, Alaska Airlines also deployed a very very traditional weapon in such market-share battles – its frequent flier program.  For flights between now and the end of the year, to eight destinations (all of which just so happen to also have competing Delta flights either to the same airport or a very nearby one), Alaska will give its frequent flier members double mileage.  The cities are ANC, LAS, LAX, OAK, SAN, SFO, SJC and YVR.

Delta meanwhile continues to talk up its future plans and to justify its clash with Alaska Airlines, while also sending out promotional mailings exclusively to ‘its friends in Seattle’ encouraging people to sign up for its branded Amex card, offering bonus miles and Amex statement credits for those who do so and then use their cards to buy DL flights.

Delta’s justification – ‘we need to operate more domestic flights to/from Seattle, so as to provide passengers onto our new international flights from SEA to other countries’ is of course paper-thin in credibility.

There’s no clear reason why it couldn’t have worked with Alaska Airlines to bolster the AS code share flights to/from Seattle, and if some of its new international routes were not viable on their own, maybe they shouldn’t have been activated in the first place.

Make no mistake.  This is a cold calculated grab for market share from Alaska Airlines.  One imagines that Delta’s executives carefully looked at a map of the US and identified the Pacific Northwest as an area where neither of its two major competitors had a strong presence, but rather an anomalous area with a small and possibly vulnerable regional carrier dominating.  This would of course encourage Delta to move in and replace the regional carrier with itself, while avoiding a ‘fight to the finish’ with either of the only two other major US international carriers in the process, and its former close working relationship with Alaska actually gives it an advantage by gleaning some insight into the markets from Seattle and what works, how and why.

Airline ‘Competition’ – Good or Bad?

You might wonder why someone like myself – such a keen supporter of airline competition – is now unhappy when being presented with a clear example of such activity.  To answer that question requires a distinction to be drawn between good and bad competition.

Good competition are sustainable and sustained activities by one company to either grow the market or win more market share.  An example of good competition would be a car manufacturer announcing that next year’s models will have improved fuel economy and included back-up video systems.  Good competition sees other companies matching or even beating the moves of their competitors, while all companies remain profitable.

Bad competition occurs when a company engages in unsustainable and unsupportable (ie unprofitable) activities – activities which might short-term boost market size or market share, but which are designed primarily (and secretly) to destroy competitors, so that, in the fairly near-term future, the market becomes less competitive, allowing the bad competitor to then discontinue their promotions and raise their prices, unchallenged by its former competitors.

My concern is that – the same as almost every other occasion when airlines butt heads – the competition we are seeing in the Seattle market will quickly degenerate into ‘bad’ rather than ‘good’ competition, and the net result will be the loss of a great high quality airline, and Seattle becoming a fortress-hub dominated by Delta and subsequently suffering high fares on all Delta’s key protected routes as a result.

My Suggestion to Alaska Airlines

What should Alaska do, if (when) the competition becomes ‘bad’ and unsustainable?

The never-far-from-the-surface ‘predictions’ that Alaska should/will merge with a dinosaur airline are of course being trotted out again, but rather than merge with a dinosaur, there’s another option that might ‘kill two birds with one stone’ – or, in this case, save two airlines by merging them into one.  There is another nonaligned and fairly small airline that might nicely complement Alaska’s route network and high quality ethos – JetBlue.

Merging these two carriers would take an airline with a strong west coast base and fingers of traffic into the east and match it with an airline with a strong east coast base and fingers of traffic into the west.  With a bit of imagination, they could even do a wonderful ‘sweetheart’ type deal with an almost abandoned midwest airport with lots of spare gates and capacity that had formerly been a hub for a now disappeared airline – there are plenty of such places to choose from – and quickly come up with a complete national network almost the equal to any of the majors.  Rather than losing two of the minor airlines, we’d gain another major national player.

Sure, there are all sorts of integrative issues that would be involved – not the least of which would be the Airbus/Embraer fleet operated by JetBlue and the Boeing/Bombardier fleet operated by Alaska (and its subsidiary, Horizon), but these are details to be resolved rather than impossible hurdles to shy away from.

Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways.  That’s my pick for an airline merger that actually would benefit us all.

Or – at the risk of over-reaching, why not make it a three-way merger and bring in that other excellent and non-aligned airline and its growing international routes – Hawaiian Airlines too.  That would give us an airline with an international as well as domestic footprint, and positioning it well to then consider adding international operations from the east coast to Europe as well as its current Pacific rim focus.

More on Hawaiian Airlines

Talking about my new favorite airline, on the face of it, this week’s announcement from Hawaiian Airlines about a drop in passenger numbers in March might seem like bad news.  Passenger numbers were down 3.1%, year-on-year, and total miles flown by fare-paying passengers were down even more, a 5.3% drop.

But it isn’t as bad as it seems, because March 2013 included the boost to traffic provided by Easter vacationers.  This year, Easter isn’t for another week, which should see 2014′s April catch-up and the year to date numbers look much more positive when the results come out after April ends.

Also this week was a release of the latest on-time statistics, showing HA to yet again be appreciably the best of all airlines for their on-time arrival results.

Pity the Poor Airlines and Their Desperate Cost-Saving Measures

From time to time, we learn of a stunning cost saving measure implemented by the airlines in their desperate attempts to consistently make money.  There have been, in the past, such sterling measures as the removal of olives from salads, and the reduction of lettuce leaves too.

Apparently the airlines have yet to get all the blood from their cost cutting stone.  We now learn that the latest cost saving measure, by some airlines, is to remove lime slices from drinks where you’d otherwise expect to find them.  The cost of limes has increased of late – we’re told in this perhaps too sympathetic article that the retail cost of a lime has increased from 31 cents each a year ago to 56 cents last week, although somehow I don’t think that the airlines go to their local Safeway stores and buy limes, one by one, from the fruit aisle ( in other words, the cost to the airline is probably no more than half the retail price and perhaps even less).

The article tells us Alaska Airlines formerly used 900 limes every day.  If we say that one half of the limes are now being substituted for by lemons (and I’ve no idea how much lemons cost compared to limes, but let’s agree the price is not wildly different) then the 450 limes remaining represented an increase of about $56 a day compared to the cost of limes last year.  In annual terms, that $56/day comes to $20,500.  Alaska Airlines received $4.96 billion of gross revenue in 2013, making the $20,500 saving a 0.0004% share of total revenues.

We expect similar numbers would proportionally apply to the other airlines.

Oh – and one more thing.  Did we forget to mention that most airlines are enjoying record-breaking profits, often the best profits they have ever made in their entire history.  But they can no longer afford to include a slice of lime in the cocktail they sell us for $6+.

Airbus A350 Testing

There are some fascinating pictures with this article about Airbus testing its new A350 plane, due to enter service late this year.  The water pipes you see help the airline understand the heating and cooling needs of the plane.  Maybe that means that this new plane might become the first plane in history with a truly functional heating/cooling system – I’ve never understood how it is that planes costing hundreds of millions of dollars and jam-packed full of high-tech computerized systems have not been able to maintain a consistent comfortable cabin temperature.  I can do it at home with a single furnace and thermostat, surely it isn’t rocket science.

(Answer to the above pondering – the systems are probably working as designed, but the crew on the planes set the climate controls incorrectly in the air, and the airlines save money by not operating the units sufficiently while on the ground.)

Like Boeing and its 787, Airbus is making some interesting claims about how comfortable the new A350 will be, including how the near vertical sides give a more spacious feeling to the plane.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that – even before the first plane has carried its first passenger – there is way too much talk about the extra ‘savings’ available to the airlines if they replace the recommended nine-across seating with ten-across seating instead.  Ooops – all of a sudden, an almost acceptable seat width would be replaced with another too-narrow seat width.

Windows XP Transitions to a Well Earned Retirement

A happy retirement wish to Windows XP.  First released more than twelve years ago (Oct 25, 2001), Microsoft this week finally ended its support for the operating system.

There was a time when we all were caught up in a whirlwind of computer innovation, with regular refreshes of both hardware and software.  Twelve years was an unthinkable span in any part of the computer industry.  Windows was coming out with major updates, typically once every two years, and most application software had annual releases.  Our hardware too required regular changing.

But as one of the starkest indications of the slowdown of everything in the computer industry,  28% of all Windows-based computers today are still running Windows XP, notwithstanding the releases of newer operating systems in 2006 (the generally poorly reviewed Vista), 2009 (the very positively reviewed Windows 7) and the disgrace that is and remains Windows 8 in 2012 and its update, 8.1 in 2013.

It is interesting to note that whereas XP retains a 28% share of all desktop operating systems, Vista has only a 3% share.  Windows 7 has a huge 49% share, Windows 8 has 6% and Windows 8.1 has 5%.

While some people have claimed that Apple’s Mac computers have enjoyed a resurgence in market share, the Mac OX X 10.9 operating system has a mere 4% share.  (You can find lots of interesting market share rankings on this site.)

As an interesting aside, many doomsayers have been predicting the end of the PC, due to diminished sales of new PCs.  But they are totally wrong in this claim.  There are two reasons for a reduction in the rate of PC shipments/sales.  The first reason is that the market is now mature and close to saturated.  Most people who are likely to buy/own a PC already have one.

So most PC sales now are to replace existing PCs, rather than to add to a person or business’s total collection of PCs.  And even those sales are declining because (second reason) we are keeping our PCs for longer.

There is no longer any technological need to replace our PC every couple of years.  In the past, new operating system or application software requirements (and particularly computer games) tended to push us into new, faster, ‘bigger’ PCs, but these days, the slowing in software development and the massively powerful PCs that we already have mean there’s less need to upgrade.

Self-evidently, most of the XP computers out there today are at least five or more years old and some may be as much as ten years old.

Interestingly though, the flipside of that is a blip and sudden upspurt in PC sales – apparently caused by people recognizing the need to finally replace their XP operating system, and realizing that to do this, they also need to upgrade their computer hardware.

One last comment.  If you have a modern PC, you should definitely consider Windows 8.  Yes, it is burdened by a beyond-stupid interface redesign, but the operating system – in my experience – is extraordinarily stable and well-rounded, and the interface idiocy can be quickly removed by spending a mere $5 to download the Stardock program that restores the interface back to ‘normal’ Windows style.

A bit of tweaking with the Stardock product and you can avoid almost all of the new interface problems, and in return, you get a very powerful and very reliable operating system.  It is well worth suffering the hassles of working around and eliminating Microsoft’s new interface design to get to the core functionality.

Another Amazing Photo/Video Technology

I wrote a couple of articles a month ago about how new technologies are making high-end movie making possible for us all, even if we only have tiny budgets.  A new product announcement this week provides a further case in point.

I had been evaluating the need for some aerial imagery for a project I was involved with recently, and the traditional approach – a helicopter, its pilot, and a camera operator – would have quickly progressed from a four figure cost to probably five figures.

But as an alternative, it is now possible to buy a four rotor ‘quadcopter’ with a built-in stabilized 1080p video/still camera that can be remotely operated by anyone (no helicopter skills required), and with the ability to fly up to 2300 ft away from the remote controller.  If you want to do an extended tracking shot, that means you can film almost a one mile long sequence before needing to cut to a second scene and shot.

The cost of this?  A mere $1300.  That might sound like a lot, but to put it into perspective, the last camcorder I bought cost more than that – and that was for a regular handheld camcorder alone, without any fancy quadcopter mount, without even a regular Steadicam mount either.  Now you can get a high-end camcorder on a quadcopter mount for the same money.

Many of us think nothing of spending this sort of money on a camera or video recorder.  Now we can get the camera/video recorder and the helicopter mount, too, giving us an enormous new dimension to our filming abilities.

Here’s an article explaining this amazing new device, and with sample video at the bottom.  Home movies will never be the same again.

Lastly on this point, we all know that if this year, such devices are costing $1300, next year they will be less, and before too long, you’ll probably see them for less than $500.

TSA Bans Stroke Victim From Flight

A stroke left Heidi Wright unable to speak.  She tried to take a flight with her sister, and it turned out her driver’s license that she was wanting to use as ID had expired.

Normally, this would not be a problem – not many people realize this, but the TSA will allow people to travel with expired IDs and even with no ID at all.

But, unfortunately, it was not to be a normal day for Ms Wright.  The TSA agent at LAX demanded that Ms Wright speak, and upon learning that she could not speak, refused to allow her on the flight to Phoenix, turning Ms Wright’s journey – what would have/should have been a 1 hr 20 minute flight, into an 8 hr bus ride instead.

The TSA, while conceding ‘it could have been handled differently’ blames Ms Wright and her sister for the incident, saying

….. it probably could have been handled differently by the family, and hopefully moving forward the family won’t have this problem again, because they know about the programs that we have in place.

Yes, let’s blame the incorrect refusal by the TSA agent to follow official TSA policies and procedures on the stroke victim and her sister.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a lengthy video, but you only need to watch the first minute or less to get the sense of it.  A Westjet 737 is blown away from its jetway while parked (on ice) in Halifax last week.  And, as a bonus, if you scroll down past that video, there’s another video, this time of a parked 747 lifting up its nose in the face of an oncoming wind.

How’s your ear for regional accents?  It used to be claimed by some people that they could place a person from Britain, almost to the exact town or village or suburb, after hearing the person speak only a very few words.  My sense is this is less the case these days – national (and international) language influences (such as movies, radio and television) are moderating all accents, in Britain and elsewhere, and the more frequent moves by people from one place to another further blur things.

But here’s an interesting example of the still present differences between a number of the more obvious (?) regional accents from the British Isles.

Something we all wish we could be or become, these days, is an infrequent flyer.  And now, never mind all the increasingly worthless inducements airlines offer their long-suffering frequent flyers.  Low cost carrier Tiger Air has a special program for such privileged infrequent flyers too.

And truly lastly this week, there are lots of events that can cause a pilot to make an emergency landing.  But ‘overheating’ cows?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels