Disappointing Nonsense from the Wall St Journal

Wsjb The Wall St Journal is a curious hybrid of a newspaper these days, and while much of its contents remains first rate, it sometimes massively disappoints.

Case in point – this ridiculous piece from Peter Sanders about how airline travel will get better in the future.

(The Wall St Journal often archives its articles behind a pay wall.  If you can no longer access the article from the link above, here is a screen shot of the article for your study.)

In case you are wondering, in the interest of full fairness, I sent this commentary to Sanders nine hours prior to publishing it, inviting him to comment or respond.  He ignored my email, and has continued to ignore it subsequently.

Let's look carefully through the 'improvements' he talks about in his article, and then contrast that with the past, present, and likely future reality that ordinary travelers will actually encounter.  Please completely ignore the first paragraphs full of laudatory comments in the article; let's simply focus on the exact specifics of the details that are subsequently described.

Qantas RFID chip based checkin pilot program in Australia :  Not exactly new (announced back in November 2009) and already available at six airports in Australia (rather than the four claimed in the WSJ article), but limited to domestic flights only.

The Q-tags (as they are called) are free to elite fliers but cost regular fliers $50 each, and when 'fair wear and tear' (we all know what that means with airlines handling baggage) means they break, you have to buy new ones.

However, this is a great idea – particularly for the airline, because they are able to transfer the costs of the system to their passengers rather than absorb them directly.

I'm unsure of a time-frame for when you and I might see such products appearing on flights in the US, and the WSJ article is totally silent on this too.  Is this wishful thinking or a real new product we can plan on seeing in the future?

Delta baggage tracking :  This also is far from new.

I've been able to track my missing bags for years on a web tracking site – and usually the site has very little meaningful information on it.  I think the missing luggage tracking service is offered to most/all airlines through SITA; my point is simply that this is not a new development, other than perhaps the ability to track bags real-time as they travel with you.

But what is the point of that?  The first time most of us start to even think about if our bags are with us or not is when we are waiting for them at the other end.  It isn't as though we'd be doing mid-flight checks on our bag, is it – although see the comment about Wi-Fi, below.

My guess also is that missing bags may not show an accurate location scan – that has been my experience in the past with missing bags.  Problems tend to happen after the auto-scanning and auto-sorting; problems are more likely to occur when the human element intrudes into the picture.  A bag gets overlooked, or switched to the wrong container, etc.

Further down the line :  Here's a wasted paragraph of blue-sky dreaming talking about 'in a decade or two'; although some of the technologies are already available in some form or another now.  Hard facts = zero.

Greater cabin pressurization :  Boeing has somewhat backed off its earlier promises about greater cabin pressurization in the 787.  Increasing the cabin pressure would cost the airline more money, and would also increase the stress on the airframe.

A plane at 35,000 ft has an outside air pressure of 3.5 lbs/sq inch.  If the cabin is pressured to 8,000 ft (a pressure level of 10.9 psi) there is a pressure differential of 7.4 psi; if it were to be pressured to 2,000 ft (13.7 psi) this differential increases 40% to 10.2 psi.  Those extra 2.8 pounds per square inch may not sound like much, but on every square foot of fuselage, that is an extra 400 pounds of pressure that the fuselage has to be able to withstand.

Might that require thicker walls (ie heavier walls, increasing the fuel consumption and reducing the plane's payload)?  Might it reduce the number of flight cycles before problems occur?  It would be helpful to understand the answers to these questions, but you'll not find them considered at all in the WSJ article.

I've heard suggestions that the cabin pressurization might be increased from the current 8,000 ft or so level that is commonly used to perhaps a 6,000 ft level, but I'll place a small wager that it will not be increased all the way to 2,000 ft.

Would the WSJ writer please tell us which airline is promising a 2,000 ft pressurization in their planes?

Interestingly, the article doesn't talk about humidity.  This was another promise of the 787 which has rather fallen by the wayside.

Of at least equal impact on our physical wellbeing is the very dry cabin air; Boeing had earlier promised that the humidity would be appreciably higher in the 787, but that is a promise not talked up quite so much now, not only due to the extra cost to the airline in increasing the humidity but also problems that were observed with condensation inside the 787 electrical cabinets at higher humidity levels.

It is unfortunate the writer doesn't comment on this issue.

Bigger windows :  Oh, please!  Like a bigger window will make any difference at all to our flight experience for anyone in the middle of the plane (the 787 is a dual aisle plane, most passengers will be far from any window at all); and of course, much of the time, the window shades are lowered for one reason or another anyway.

This is a totally trivial non-item in terms of meaningful impact on our future flight experiences.

Private suites in first class :  Yawn.  Old news – they've been around for years – I thought this was an article about new things appearing in the future or perhaps just starting to be rolled out now?

And how many of us fly first class, anyway?

Wider seats throughout the plane :  Now this would be a truly good thing.  But let's see some specifics about how much wider the seats will be, please.  Are we talking 1/10th of an inch?  Or two or three inches?  Or, exactly, what?

In the past, any time the airlines had a choice between wider seats or more seats per row, guess which they've chosen.  Similar promises have been made all the way back to the 747, and have always resulted not in wider seats but more seats.  This also happened, more recently, with the 777, and now airlines are looking at adding an extra seat per row to the new 787 too.  The 787 was originally planned to have eight seats across, and now it looks like it will have nine in most airline configurations.

The A380 shows no certain sign of having wider seats either (despite the article's claim made subsequently).  Lufthansa has 17" wide coach seats on its A380s, narrower than on its A320s (17.3 – 18.3")!  On the other hand, Qantas has 18.1" seats in its A380s, which shows that the width of the seat is as much the choice of the airline, rather than the capability of the plane.

Overhead rest areas for crew :  This is news?  They have been around for decades; most 747s have what is colloquially called the 'Sin Bin' in the tail of the plane; other planes (eg A330s) have rest areas on the lower deck.  And the impact on us, in terms of where the crew luxuriously sleep?  Zero.  I've no idea why this is in the article at all.

Improved Air Filtration System :  This is an interesting claim, because the airlines maintain their present air filtration systems are perfect.

I'd like to see the specifics of in what ways any new air filtration system will be better, and therefore – by obvious implication – in what way the present systems are imperfect.

LED Lighting to Fight Jet Lag :  I'm very skeptical about the benefits of LED lighting in terms of reducing the jet lag effects we all suffer; furthermore, in a typical flight to eg Europe, when going east, most of the time the cabin is dark for people to sleep, and when traveling west, most of the time the cabin is light because it is daylight outside.

Are the airlines now going to have colored lights on in the cabin while we're trying to sleep?  Excuse me if I'm unexcited by that as a way of helping us recover from jet lag!

Larger overhead storage bins :  Definitely a plus, although most of us get our carry-ons successfully in the overheads already.  I'd also like to know how much larger – 5% or 50%?  Is it a significant difference we will notice?  And will there be a matching relaxation in airline carry on policies?

Note this is only on new A350s, not something that can be backdated to existing planes.

A380's wider seats :  Actually, they are not always wider, as discussed above.  It is an airline decision, not an airplane issue.  So this point is totally wrong.

Quieter ride on the A380 :  Yes, the ride is somewhat quieter than other planes.  A shame that the A380 isn't being sold or used more widely – when did you last fly anywhere on an A380?  When will you next fly on one?

In other words, how generally relevant is this point?

A380 premium offerings :  Excuse me if I'm underwhelmed by these fanciful visions of a future that airlines regularly trot out (like the on-again off-again promise for years if not decades from Virgin Atlantic about double beds on their planes).

We've had piano and lounge bars in planes decades ago, only to have them taken out again when the airlines make the startling discovery they can fit more seats into the space that is being 'wasted' for bars and lounges.

Furthermore, these fancy features are only being offered by some of the A380 operators (most notably Emirates).  Most of the A380 operators simply fill their planes with regular seats, nothing special at all, and even in the case of Emirates, their showers are only available for the 14 first class passengers, not for any of the other passengers, and their first class passengers get one very brief shower only during the flight.

Adjustable winglets on economy class seats :  These have been around for at least 15 years, maybe more.  This is a new development to look forward to?  Hardly!

Air NZ fully flat business class seats :  Fully flat business class seats have also been around for I can't guess how long, but I'll say ten or more years.  Not quite an innovation for the future.

Air NZ Sky Couch :  This is a 'smoke and mirrors' product.  The pretend bed (or couch as Air NZ somewhat more appropriately calls it) is too short to lie down on and too narrow for two people to lie side by side on.  That's why the publicity photos show people half propped up, and cuddled in to each other.

The WSJ author should do better than uncritically recycle press releases, and tell us the truth of this product.

Virgin America seatback entertainment :  Ummm, isn't this essentially the same as has been offered on JetBlue for a decade?  And rather than being a new trend, which of the major airlines has rushed to copy the JetBlue product?

Ordering food and drink at any time :  And, ummm, paying for it too!  How many of us choose to buy airline food, especially on a short Virgin America flight, anyway?

In-flight Wi-Fi :  This too has been around for sometime, and the airlines are finding it a disappointment because vastly fewer people are using it than they had projected.

If it was free, maybe we'd all use it some more, but when confronted with paying $10 or whatever, and then trying to use our laptop in coach class, surrounded by people all around us, and then to work on matters of varying sensitivity and privacy, well, who wants to do that?

Oh – and the suggestion that we could stream video through inflight Wi-Fi?  It will be a very long time before there's enough bandwidth on a flight to allow movies to be streamed to passengers.  Indeed, not only will there be bandwidth problems getting the data to the plane, but there will be bandwidth problems within the plane as well, with the Wi-Fi itself threatening to be overloaded by high quality video streaming.

So, let's look through the article and try and see exactly what will improve our flying experience and when it will occur?  What do you see that is promised to change your regular flights any time soon?

As for me, I see nothing at all.

3 thoughts on “Disappointing Nonsense from the Wall St Journal”

  1. Great review of a useless article. One small error in presenting the pressure increase if cabin pressure is set at a 2000 ft altitude level. If the increased internal pressure is 2.8 lbs per square inch that is approximately 403 lbs per square foot. Your sentence implied 400 lbs for the entire plane.

  2. I was interviewed a few years ago by the WSJ on an article about airline frequent flyer programs and their short comings. I told them of several incidents on UAL where I could not get an upgrade on international flights, despite offering miles, points, cash whatever and told “No”. The reason why?
    They had put dead heading crew there, who were on the clock and getting paid to deadhead. But those of us, paying the freight, couldn’t get anything…
    Happened more then once on several Trans-Pacific flights. Once the Article came out, it was a puff piece and all such “incidents” were sanitized out of the article because the excuse I was given was the UAL computer system could not verify the claim…… Hmmmmmm,
    So, it seems they are a pawn most of the time for the airlines in my estimation.

  3. I subscribed to the WSJ for 22 years before it was purchased by the Murdocj clan. The difficulty in reading the paper today is the same problem one faces with Fox News. There appears to be no separation between their ownership interests and purported “facts” which ay appear through a story such as this one. The boundaries between fact and fiction are now so blurred that one cannot accept anything in the paper without a thorough going examination of where the interests of Rupert Murdoch may lie. You can be sure that if it appears in the WSJ it is of some sort of benefit to Murdoch.

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