Weekly Roundup Friday 1 April 2011 (Beware – April Fool’s Day)

Good morning

Homestationb I sometimes get 'hate mail' from readers who object to something I say, and that is unavoidable.  As you know, I don't mask my view of reality with any veneer of political correctness or spin, and some people have become so accustomed to being fed what they want to hear, whether it be true or not, that a sudden raw feed of conflicting data sends a shock to their world view.  So be it.

I've occasionally lamented at how 'the silent majority' is as silent among my readers as it is in the rest of society.  On the other hand, I understand that people who have been loyal readers for many years obviously appreciate the material they receive, and I don't deliberately seek out affirmation per se.  But it is always appreciated when received, and I wanted to share a very short note that came in on Thursday from reader Ken.  It is one of the nicest comments I've had in a long time.


Something’s too good to be true here.  My dilemma is deciding which it is :

 1.  The free 110,000 mile credit card offer, or

 2.  The modest amount of my “subscription” to The Travel Insider in relation to the value I receive.

As readers who receive the realtime or daily updates will already know, Ken is referring to an amazing value credit card offer currently out there (see below in today's newsletter compilation) and hopefully Ken will decide that, against all odds, both the 110,000 mile credit card offer and the ongoing value of The Travel Insider newsletter are both good and both true.

Thanks also to reader Allen who apologized (!) for allowing his quarterly contribution to lapse (Paypal is very dysfunctional at extending these things when credit cards expire and renew) and who backed up his comments with a massive three figure lump sum contribution.  Thank you Allen for becoming one of our 2011 super supporters.

So it has been a good week, at least for me, even though there's precious little indication of spring and 'a major winter snowstorm' predicted for the northeast.  But let's hope for better things tomorrow, next week, and so on.  Things could be worse – at least we're still not at war with Libya, and our new found allies there seem to be, in significant amount, people who just a week or two before were fighting against us in Afghanistan and elsewhere under the al Qaeda banner.

I wonder what they'll do with all the weapons it seems we're about to start giving them, once the Libyan non-war has finished?  Surely they wouldn't be as ungrateful as to take them back to Afghanistan and start using them against us there (ummm, just like they did before with weapons we'd earlier given them to fight against the Russians)?

Talking about the future, I'm going out of town on Saturday to attend our Travel Insider Group Shoot in Nevada; there'll be very little if any newsletter next week.  And with the reappearance of my brother from New Zealand on Saturday the following week, complete with his girlfriend in tow, I'm not sure if I'll have a full 40 hours the next week to devote to Travel Insider writing (actually, I'm fairly certain that the need to be a semi-perfect host will massively impact on that, too!).

Talking about Travel Insider groups, and about being the perfect host (something I'm seldom accused of) I'm almost at the point of needing to close off this year's Scotland tour, so let me know if you'd like to come.

And talking about wonderful travel experiences, I got an email about a type of travel experience that most of us aspire to enjoying, but few of us actually indulge ourselves with.  When I had my travel wholesale company in the 1990s, one of the very special elite tours we'd sometimes offer to a few of our top drawer clients was an air safari type tour of Australia.  Small groups of eight or so people would travel around the vastness of Australia in a private plane, getting to see parts of the country that even most Australians never go visit.

We reconnected just this last week.  Sadly, the founder/owner, a 'true blue' Australian of a type seldom seen these days, has passed on since my last contact with his fine company, but his son promises to be protecting and carrying on the family tradition.

So if you're interested in a very special type of Australian touring, go visit the Air Adventure Australia website and see if it is something you'd like to do.  Definitely recommended.  A picture from one of their tours is the featured image at the top of this blog entry.

Of special note to the photographers in our midst is a photography tour with noted Australian photographer Ewen Bell.  I know we've some avid photographers, because I've seen you taking photos by the hundred (and even thousand) on some of our Travel Insider tours!

And now, he says, pushing away dreams of photo safaris in Australia, on with the rest of the show.

Airline analyst (and former airline pilot) Bob Herbst has done the sums for fiscal year 2010 and sent over some lovely charts recording how the airline industry fared.

As you can see, the eight major airlines all showed a good recovery in 2010, with gross incomes up on 2009.  Total revenue for all eight was $126 billion in 2008, $107 billion in 2009, and $122 billion in 2010.


Interestingly, although 2009 showed a 15% drop in gross operating revenue compared to 2008, in terms of operating (not net) profit, it was a much better year than 2008, and 2010 was even better still.


This is clearly seen in terms of market capitalization.  Overall, total market capitalization stayed more or less the same for 2008 and 2009, but jumped up 50% in 2010.


So maybe, at least last year, one should have invested in airline stocks?  Who'd have anticipated such a strong showing by UA/CO in particular?

With the steady pace of air fare increases this year, it seems that the airlines will more than hold their own against rising fuel costs (jet fuel costs have been rising even faster than underlying crude oil costs).

Of course, the airlines are doing so well due to a triumvirate of things in their favor – rising air fares, full flights, and ever increasing additional fees for things that were once free (most recently Spirit Airlines upping their checked baggage fees yet again).

When it comes to airline fees, there's one airline in particular that sets the standard all the others struggle to beat.  Ryanair.  Their latest twist is to add a 'compensation surcharge' – a fee of £2 for British passengers and €2 for European passengers.  This is designed to cover the airline's costs of having to pay compensation, under EU regulations, whenever its passengers suffer delays or cancellations.

This might sound ridiculous, but it is simply exposing the costing process that all other airlines do internally.  All airlines build in an allowance for the costs of paying mandatory compensation to passengers, but most other airlines hide this in the gross fare, rather than showing it separately.  This is merely Ryanair's unsubtle way of claiming the costs of paying compensation are unfair.

Details here.

Talking about fairness, governments and airlines, it is now seventeen days since I asked the Department of Transportation for their opinion on the legitimacy of BA advertising fares on their web pages that weren't actually available – on their same web pages.  The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly.

That is, unless you hit a hot button.  It seems that after last week's high profile incident of an air traffic controller falling asleep, anything to do with air traffic controllers engenders a rushed and unfortunate response.

This week a controller was concerned that a private plane was not responding to calls over the radio, while still continuing its flight.  So he asked a nearby Southwest jet to move closer to the plane to see what was up.  In asking the Southwest flight to do this, he was violating the default standards for separation that exist between flights in the normal course of events.

Now you might think that the controller exhibited commendable alertness, concern, and initiative.  But not according to the 'Rules are rules' FAA; in their new spirit of zero tolerance/zero sense, they immediately suspended the controller for violating the default separation rule.

Details here.

Am I stating the obvious when I observe that if you strip away from air traffic controllers all ability to think independently, creatively, pro-actively, and do not allow them to act with commendable initiative, rather than improving safety, we'll have controllers anxiously looking over their shoulders all the time, going 'by the book' in a wooden robotic manner, and our air traffic control system will become more dysfunctional and less safe.

Score an own goal for the FAA.

Meanwhile, the FAA have come up with an 'interim plan' to ensure that inbound flights don't find themselves with their approach controller asleep and not answering their radio calls, as happened last week.  The plan requires controllers at radar facilities to contact towers where a single controller covers the overnight shift to confirm they are ready when an incoming flight is approaching.

Translation :  A wakeup call.  Let's hope the controllers set their phone ringers on 'Loud'.

Here's an article about an interesting new technology, being tested in the X-51 – a new type of hypersonic jet that could potentially fly at speeds of 4,000 mph and which is touted as being a new way to deliver bombs long distances and very quickly.

The article contrasts the speeds theoretically possible by this new type of vehicle, with the 550 mph or so speeds of cruise missiles, and for sure it is true that 4,000 mph is very much faster.  On the other hand, the article is silent about plans to repurpose ballistic missiles, giving them conventional warheads, and ballistic missiles can speed to their targets at speeds more like 20,000 mph, reaching points anywhere in the world in less than 15 minutes.

Of course, there's a downside to using a ballistic missile.  The other semi-super-powers would get a bit nervous seeing the launch of 100 ballistic missiles, whereas sending off 100 cruise missiles is no big deal for a number of valid reasons.

But that's not the main point I wish to make.  Instead I wish to quote a comment from Boeing's cheerleader program manager.  He talks up the possibility of cargo and even passenger planes being fitted with these types of engines, and helpfully points out that this would reduce a flight between, eg, Los Angeles and New York down to little more than 30 minutes.

Every part of this statement is ridiculous nonsense.

First, can you conceive of any freight shipper who'd need to collapse the time it takes to ship freight down from six hours to half an hour – and, more to the point, who'd be prepared to pay the extraordinary cost premium associated with this form of shipping?

Second, I wonder if the Boeing manager is familiar with a map of the United States?  If he looks at the map, he'll notice that to the left of Los Angeles, and to the right of New York, is lots of blue stuff, whereas between the two cities is lots of green stuff.  Now, guess what :  Green is not like a green light.  It means there is land underneath, and, ahem, can you say 'sonic boom'?  The chances of a hypersonic plane being authorized to go hypersonic over the US?  Very low.

Now, third, let's come back to the cost.  Boeing gave up on its 'Sonic Cruiser' (and before that, gave up on its Super Sonic Transport too) because it reasoned that neither airlines nor passengers were willing to pay for faster travel if it cost more money.  Has that equation changed?

Lastly, let's think about the 'little more than 30 minutes'.  It is approximately 2400 miles between Los Angeles and New York.  Whenever a plane is below 10,000 ft, it is restricted to a speed of 250 mph maximum.  Let's say the last 50 miles in to the destination airport are below 10,000 ft, so there is 12 minutes for that 50 miles.  Let's say 12 miles at the departure end are also under 10,000 ft, and let's call that another 4 minutes (flying slower while taking off and climbing).  So we're 16 minutes into our 'little more than 30 minutes' already and have only flown 62 of the 2400 miles.

Now let's say that the plane then accelerates to 600 mph and climbs at 3,000 ft a minute up to 46,000 ft – this will take it another 12 minutes, by which time in total the plane has flown 182 miles and taken 28 minutes.

Okay, we'll now allow the plane to accelerate at a rate of 10 mph per second from 600 mph up to 4,000 mph – this will take, say, 6 minutes, during the course of which the plane will cover 230 miles.  Oh yes, at the other end, the plane will have to do the same deceleration – another 6 minutes and 230 miles.

So we're now at 40 minutes and 642 miles flown.  That leaves a balance of 1758 miles which the plane will cover in 27 minutes.  So, in an absolutely perfect scenario – shortest route, no air traffic delays, no sonic booms, etc, the shortest time from wheels up on one coast to wheels down on the other coast is about 67 minutes.

So the 'little more than 30 minutes' is actually something well in excess of 67 minutes.  That might be 'close enough for government work' but I don't think Boeing will find any commercial airlines willing to accept this claim at face value.

Oh – the taxi time on the ground?  The push back time?  The waiting in line to take off?  The security checkin line?  The wait for baggage?  All those other things will of course be the same as always.  If you think about total door to door travel time from your home to your hotel, all the other time costs are much greater than the 67 minutes or 6 hours of actual flying time in the air.

Details here.

Alas, the test scheduled for Thursday – yesterday – was cancelled, due to 'required test conditions could not be met' – an excuse uncritically printed in several newspapers, but without any explanation at all as to what it means.

Don't get me wrong.  It is an exciting new technology and I'd love to travel at 4,000 mph, three times faster than I've ever gone before; but don't expect to see any airline or freight company embracing it.

On the other hand, an aerospace development that you can expect to see – because it is happening now – is a surprising tie-up between Canada's Bombardier and China's Comac airplane manufacturers.

Both companies had been independently developing new single aisle planes with capacities from 100 – 190 passengers, putting the larger sized versions of their planes in direct competition with smaller 737 and A320 planes from Boeing and Airbus.

Comac and Bombardier have both landed some, but not many, orders for their planes.  This announcement is light on specifics, but heavy on portentous future impact on Boeing and Airbus.  Oh – and have I recently mentioned that Boeing still has yet to announce what it will do to respond to Airbus' A320neo announcement back on 1 December (ie four months ago)?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  I've had two readers contact me in the last couple of weeks.  Both are from out of the US and applied for visitor visas to come here.  One was traveling en route from China to the UK, where she was going to meet up with her daughter to celebrate her 20th birthday together and wanted to stop over in the US on the way to her daughter for a quick sight-see.  This wealthy woman was refused a visa due to not having demonstrated the likelihood that she would leave the US at the end of her brief stopover on the way to be re-united with her daughter (who she is paying to study at Oxford).

The other is a foreign national in Canada, who had formerly lived for some years in the US, both on a student visa and subsequently on a work visa, before leaving the US and settling in Canada, where he is now working for a startup company in the eco-energy field.  His boss – in ill health and speaking very little English – asked this person to go with him to attend a trade show in the US, meeting and negotiating with potential suppliers of eco energy products.  Notwithstanding a bona fide reason to travel to the US, a good job, and notwithstanding having complied with every visa previously issued for travel to the US, this person was also refused a visa to travel with his boss to a trade show.

At the same time it is refusing to allow people like this to come visit, the US government is now partially funding a new international promotional program designed to encourage people to travel to the US and spend money here while visiting.

The US doesn't need to spend money to encourage people to visit.  It just needs to allow the people who already want to come here to actually be able to do so – people who have abundantly valid reasons for visiting (and reasons for leaving again at the end of their visit).

What is the point in promoting inbound travel to our country if we don't then allow people to come here?

Meantime, in a war of words, Janet Napolitano tries to reassure us that our southern border is safer and securer than it has ever been, while the Border Patrol union says it is in a parlous state and she is totally mistaken in her claims.

Terrorists won't choose to subject themselves to the indignity of applying for a US visa (although it is notable that all the terrorists who have attempted or succeeding in acting against us in the last decade have actually been in possession of valid US visas).  Why should they when they can simply walk across our open southern border?

Talking about walking, a reader advises that he saw an advertisement for this product in his gmail account a couple of days ago, while reading an email about the crisis in Libya.  I'm going to nominate it for tour product least likely to depart with a full load of participants this year (and even less likely to return with all participants they started off with).

Talking about advertising, advertisers and marketers are for ever looking for a new medium, a new format, which they can employ to get their message in front of us.  Google's omnipresent content based advertisements are only one example of this.  For us as fliers, first it was tray table tops in some planes.  Then it was tray table backs.  Whatever will be next?

The trick is to find something that people look at – either because they want to or because they're somewhat forced to, and to come up with something that will capture the viewer's attention and imagination.

Judged by these measures, I think you'll have to agree that some of my fellow ingenious Kiwis have actually come up with a great new place to imprint advertising messages.

Lastly this week, I mentioned earlier about some upmarket luxury air tours of Australia.  Yes, they are pricey, and of course, the big problem confronting those of us fortunate enough to be able to indulge ourselves sufficiently to take part in one of these tours is 'what about my tired old luggage – what will the other passengers think?'.

So if this worry – of being shown up as being somewhat declassé by your old shabby luggage – is what is holding you back, help is at hand.  How about one of these bags (and, believe me, one is all you're likely to be able to afford)?

I wonder if I asked them to send me a review sample, would they oblige?

This is the sort of bag that when the nefarious luggage thieves come across it, instead of emptying the bag, taking its contents, and discarding the bag; they'd instead dump the bags contents on the street, jewelry and all, and simply get away with the bag.

Truly lastly, here's a must watch video of one of our natural world's wonders – the Northern Lights.  I've never seen them in person, and was absolutely stunned at the brilliant imagery captured in this video.

Davidsig265 Until next week, please enjoy safe travels


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